This week's visit to fire-ravaged Napa is an anti-climax. That is, if you're looking for evidence of what the fire has ravaged.
We've been here for just about 24 hours. The place does not stink of smoke. What little we've seen is very much a normal, everyday, business-as-usual rural town.
However, we did have a poignant experience last night that serves to remind one what a brand really is all about.
We've long banged the drum for the fact that a brand as not a logo, a color, a font, a tagline, a website, or any other manifestation that one usually associates with a brand.
Nope. A brand is Thing One: Your brand is the one way your core customer should feel about your business.
GET THAT PART RIGHT, AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW
Conversely, you can get the other stuff right--the logo, the color, the font, the tagline, the website--and if you haven't figured out Thing One, it's all for naught.
A great example is last night's foray into town.
We'd asked someone for a recommendation for a good, local's kind of joint. The kind of place where you meet the real people who make the community happen.
We took the recommendation, and followed it up--encouraged by the establishment's website. It delivered all kinds of glowing, simple language about how they're steeped in history, how they do so much so well, and how they're fun, friendly and down-to-earth.
The rightness of Thing One seemed to be in evidence.
MARKETING, MEET REALITY
The place had all the right accoutrements.
It was an old building with an old bar, lots of natural wood and plenty of historical funk.
That's where the authenticity ends.
Off the bartender's New York Giants jersey, The Fabulous Honey Parker says, "Wow, Giants? You a Giants fan?"
"What? Oh. No. We were told we had to wear football jerseys. Someone gave this to me."
As a Philly native and an Eagles fan, Honey faces a lifetime of disappointment. Being able to commiserate with a Giants fan over the latter's tragic record this season would have been a natural opening to conversation, rapport, service and eventually, a tips
It didn't work out.
We tried to have some conversation with the woman. She was borderline helpful and disinterested.
IN FACT, EVERYONE WORKING THERE SEEMED BORDERLINE HELPFUL AND DISINTERESTED
Everyone working there seemed to have other things on their mind.
There was someplace else they'd all rather be.
The house-brewed beer was mediocre. The menu was uninspiring.
This was not the local's joint that we had hoped for.
Nor was it the fun, friendly place the branding elements had promised.
They got the down-to-earth part right, if you take that to mean "ordinary."
But they had ultimately failed at Thing One.
NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELTY DIFFERENT
Understand, this is Sunday night in Napa. Things are not exactly jumping.
We left exited the hall of disappointment and turned left.
Across the street was a block of restaurants.
We stumbled across one that looked different and better than the others. A tapas joint.
It was appointed in dark hardwoods with soft, amber lighting. It looked and felt comfortable. A few people were dining.
We stepped inside, ambled back to the bar and took a seat.
Our bartender was welcoming and gregarious.
He was ready and willing to make conversation--despite being the busiest guy in the place. He had other customers at the bar and was also the service bar for the wait staff.
IN THE KITCHEN, A CREW OF FOUR WAS SHUFFLING AND CLANGING AND MAKING STUFF HAPPEN
It was a well-practiced improvisational ballet of small-portion cuisinieres.
We knew we had found our place.
We asked questions. He made recommendations.
We asked about his story. We got details.
A fifth-generation Napa-ite, he is a career food service guy.
When he started quoting Bukowski, it was evident the party had started.
By the end of the evening, we had moved to the end of the bar. A couple from Chicago had sat down next to us.
THE BARTENDER HAD BECOME OUR MASTER OF CEREMONIES
He was making smart recommendations.
He was letting us taste unusual wines.
He was involved in the conversation just enough.
He was the Thing One incarnate.
And he was a raging profit center for that tapas restaurant.
He knows how to make his customer feel welcome, knows how to engage and entertain, and knows how to figure out what next.
He was tipped well.
SOMETHING ELSE HAPPENED WHILE WE WERE THERE
The place became packed.
It was alive and jumping.
The waiters were always moving through the room.
The kitchen was in constant motion.
People were waiting for tables.
All this on the slow night in Napa.
And you know what this restaurant's website promises?
None of this.
THE WEBSITE MIGHT AS WELL BE A BUSINESS CARD THAT SAYS, "FOOD"
It makes very little in the way of promises.
It says very little about what they serve.
It says nothing about who started it and why.
It doesn't say, "We're a fun, friendly, down-to-earth place where you're going to have a great time with our bartender who's been in the business for 35 years."
The website is just not good. It is in no way a reflection of the Thing One that's going on in there.
But without the branding accoutrements that help make for a solid manifestation of the brand's message to the world, it still has a better and more competent brand than the place that has a good website and makes all kinds of promises that it can't live up to.
A BRAND BENEFITS FROM BETTER MARKETING
A good logo and an engaging website and marketing that gets attention and drives response--all of these things are good for business.
But without Thing One, without the foundation of a good, honest and authentic brand behind it all, those other things are for naught.
As David Ogilvy famously said, nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.
We left a place whose advertising was loaded with brand promise that it failed to live up to.
Going online and reading the reviews for that place, it's clear that our experience is not unusual.
WE THEN WENT TO A PLACE WITH NO BRAND PROMISE
It delivered beyond any reasonable expectation.
Going online and reading the reviews for that second place, it's also clear that our experience at that restaurant is not unusual.
The difference is that the general manager isn't having to routinely apologize to customers who've left lousy reviews--as happens at the first place.
It's possible that the first joint will never be ruined by the lack of brand integrity. This is a bar and restaurant in a tourist town in a location with a lot of foot traffic.
It may well survive.
But it will never be great.
It simply isn't all that interested in how the customer feels about the place.
Be Thing One. Everything else is just stuff.
Your Lean, Mean Creative Director in
Blaine Parker is prone to ranting about any and all things related to brand. In many ways, he is a professional curmudgeon. While there is no known vaccine for this, the condition is also not contagious. Unless you choose it to be so.