A hap-hap-happy place?
Or is it someone else's place, and you're just an interloper?
As the Fabulous Honey Parker and I continue to span the nation in the Slow Burn Marketing Brand Response Unit, we've been spending some time in the Fun-Size State.
That would be, of course, Rhode Island. It's cool. It's hot. (As the infamously short-lived, multi-million-dollar tourism branding campaign tried to tell us a couple of years ago.)
We've been enjoying off-the-beaten-path Rhode Island, which is cool and hot and truly fun-size and most people do not know about it.
While everyone's over in Newport, whooping it up at the Jazz Festival in the shadow of billion-dollar Russian oligarch mega-yachts, we are flying below the radar in a sleepy little hamlet that tourism almost forgot.
AND WE LIKE IT THAT WAY
So does the town, apparently.
And in that town, there's a small restaurant that we frequent, which has some excellent seafood, some simple and elegant dishes, a good wine list, and an array of small-batch microbrews on tap.
Finding refuge there late in the afternoon, we will sit at that bar and imbibe effervescent, frosty-cold malt beverages while indulging local bivalves on the half-shell at special mid-day prices.
The restaurant is not cheap, but it is reasonable. It is foodie enough for those so inclined. It is an honest effort by a determined entrepreneur with a distinct vision who has put her stamp on it. (She also likes us, and will occasionally buy us a round when we come in and say hi.)
One afternoon while we were there, a man of a particular style came in. He was youngish, tall, dressed in a expensive jeans and a cheap white T-shirt. Except for his face, all of his exposed skin was covered in tattoos of questionable quality (quantity seemed more the point). He wore a heavy tweed driving cap (yes, in August), and his earlobes had been augmented with big, black rubber grommets.
We'd been joking with the bartender when this man approached, asking, "Do you have any good bourbon?"
The bartender said, "We have those," pointing to the top shelf behind the bar, "And we have Maker's Mark."
WE CONTINUED HAVING FUN WITH THE BARTENDER
Meanwhile, the gentleman perused the shelf, regarding it as if it might be a bad smell.
We were joking to the bartender, "Good bourbon, indeed. There is no bad bourbon."
The tattooed gentleman snorted. He said with disdain, "Well, that's debatable."
He returned to his table without ordering bourbon.
Honey and I looked at each other.
Each of us immediately flashed back to an episode in another bar.
THE SNAKE PIT IS A DIVE-BAR LOVER'S SIREN SONG
When we lived in Los Angeles at Fairfax and Melrose, the Snake Pit was our local joint.
We were there at least once a week.
It was a dump with friendly bartenders, excellent beers and liquors, and a solid kitchen that turned out some surprisingly good fare.
Details Magazine once named it one of the city's top-ten dive bars.
It looked rough.
But if you scratched the surface, you realized it was a diamond.
Some years ago, there was a fire there. Stunned regulars from around Los Angeles got out of bed and were standing on the sidewalk in front of their bar at 5am as the fire crews battled the blaze. It had that kind of following.
HONEY AND I BECAME FRIENDS WITH THE STAFF
We performed a wedding for one of the bartenders.
The manager has become a dear friend, whom we periodically see in Utah.
She's originally from the genteel South, and moved to LA seeking fame & fortune on the screen. She found she preferred the relative anonymity of running a good, simple bar owned by a blessed-out, post-hippie, surfer-dude with a home in the Pacific Palisades.
Her T-shirts and boisterous demeanor belie a first-class education and a background in game hunting and equestrian pursuits. Her personal brand is one of interesting contradictions.
One night, we were sitting at the bar, talking to her when a customer walks in.
SHE TURNS TO THE CUSTOMER AND SAYS, "WHAT CAN I GET YOU?"
The young woman replies, "I'd like a frozen margarita!"
Our friend looks her square in the eye and says, "It's not that kind of bar."
The woman looks around a bit more, orders a beer and takes a seat.
We've always enjoyed that simple, direct moment of unapologetic brand honesty.
"This is where you are, and your choices are limited. We are focused, and you are welcome to join us. Otherwise, there are plenty of other bars with sugary, frozen drinks just down the street.
"We do not try to be all things to all people."
Everyone was welcome. Nobody was turned away unless they were disagreeable or over-served.
KNOW WHERE YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT
Back in the heady days of her Big New York Ad Agency Career, Honey was once sent to Mississippi to work on an agricultural product related to cotton farming.
She and her team were in the middle-of-nowhere rural south, surrounded by farmland, and had gone into a rustic, redneck roadhouse for drinks.
You know the kind of place. "Oh, honey, we have both kinds of music: country and western."
Richie, one of the New York guys on Honey's team, saunters up to the bar. The bartender asks, "What'll you have?" Richie says, "I'll have a Toasted Almond."
The bartender says, "What's that?"
Richie explains the cocktail.
"We don't do that."
Richie orders a beer.
IT'S NOT THAT KIND OF BAR
Moreover, it doesn't apologize.
It knows its brand.
It know its core customer, and how that core customer should feel about the place.
The place back in Rhode Island is fancier than either the Snake Pit or the Mississippi roadhouse.
But it still knows its brand, too.
It knows it's off the beaten path. It knows who its customers are: sensible New Englanders who like shellfish, catch of the day, and other unfussy food and don't really give a damn about small-batch bourbons.
And the place doesn't apologize.
BUT IT DOESN'T EXCUSE THE BAD ATTITUDE OF THE TATTOOED FUSSBUDGET
Especially when you're walking around inked up with mediocre artwork and have earlobes outfitted with hardware big enough to run a hawser through, and you're in the land of pragmatic people, a sailing town to boot, wearing a heavy wool hat on a sunny, 89-degree day with 97 percent humidity, your brand says, "Fish out of water."
Your brand says, "I make choices you don't."
Your brand says, "I don't care what you think."
Your brand says, "Look at me. What are you going to do about it?"
There are all kinds of aggressive, in-your-face things his brand package is saying to the world.
And interestingly, everyone we've ever known who has such a distinctive personal brand like this is usually pretty low-key and gregarious.
They're usually happy to have a conversation and be friendly.
We certainly knew plenty of them during our time in the Snake Pit.
THAT'S LOS ANGELES FOR YOU
You're going to meet all types and draw no conclusions about them until you have enough information.
But here, in this small, New England seaside town, in a nice little joint with a good feeling, with a brand that obviously cares about its customer, this man violated one of the cardinal rules, to wit: "Don't be a dick."
In seconds, he branded himself as a problem customer.
Because it's not that kind of bar.
Let's face it, if you know anything about bourbon, you know there is very little in the way of bad bourbon.
IN SOME WAYS, BOURBON IS LIKE CHAMPAGNE
To be of the bourbon brand, it must come from a specific region of Kentucky. To be a true Champagne brand, the wine must come from a specific region of France. Producing anything but good Champagne is financially ruinous.
In other ways, bourbon is a very American, egalitarian tipple. Even the people who make it have no pretenses about it.
By all kinds of measures, most bourbon is at least good.
Better bourbons are really good.
The best bourbons are stunning, both in taste and brand power.
If you have disdain for Maker's Mark (the Ford F-150 of bourbons) or small-batch whiskeys that aren't your favorite, and you are willing to express it openly to people you don't know, you have a problem.
You are an overt snob about something that doesn't matter.
And you are going to miss out.
You don't know who you've alienated. You have no idea who might buy you a drink. You have no clue what might be squirreled away somewhere in that bar that a sympathetic bartender might be willing to share with you but not the gen pop.
BUT THIS IS NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A LECTURE ABOUT BEHAVIOR
It's a reminder to be true to your brand.
You're never going to please all of the people all of the time.
We've had clients get complaints about the craziest of things.
One didn't like a radio commercial that championed mom as her family's primary care provider.
Of course, the client didn't do anything about it, other than say, "I'm sorry you feel that way."
If you've approached your brand in a way that's honest and makes sense, and you can live up to, have at it.
Once you've committed to your brand, be that brand.
Be committed and unapologetic.
And let the uninformed customer know it's not that kind of bar.
Even if someone else's personal brand requires that they pee on it, your honest, authentic brand is much easier to make live, and to live with.
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.