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2001 BW 50



What Makes a Boffo Brand
Mess up one element--from slogan to rest room--and you're in trouble

By Gerry Khermouch

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8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century

By Scott Bedbury with Stephen Fenichell
Viking -- 211pp -- $24.95

On a coffee-hunting safari to East Java, Scott Bedbury finally posed the question to Starbucks' chief coffee guru, Dave Olsen: So what was it that was most important to Starbucks' (SBUX ) success? asked Bedbury, a Nike (NKE ) veteran who had come aboard as the roaster's chief marketing officer. Was it the coffee? The stores? The baristas working behind the counter?

One can imagine the faraway squint in Olsen's eye as the man Bedbury describes as "part scientist, part philosopher, part Indiana Jones" mulled the issue. Then came his answer: Everything matters.

That response is the central lesson of Bedbury's instructive book, A New Brand World, written with Stephen Fenichell. You've heard it all before, right? But Bedbury's anecdote-heavy volume persuasively demonstrates how obsessive attention to every element of a company's behavior is key to building a blockbuster brand. Ads, in-store posters, the decor of the corporate lobby, the format of the annual report--all of these and more count, an idea Bedbury, now a marketing consultant, labels "brand environmentalism."

Brand environmentalism, as it happens, provides a useful lens through which to view this year's BusinessWeek 50 list, which marks the return to prominence of old-line companies in areas such as retailing and consumer products. Although such efforts weren't much appreciated during the boom years of the late 1990s, BW50 stars ranging from Wal-Mart Stores (WMT ) to Electronic Data Systems (EDS ) to PepsiCo (PEP ) have been devoting lots of time and resources to the unglamorous task of keeping their brand message fresh and simple, then making sure it's articulated consistently in every venue.

In Bedbury's account, we witness marketers, including Saturn, Ralph Lauren, and Martha Stewart, grope toward getting it right. They test this idea, then adjust that one, always with an ear to whether it rings true with business partners and customers. It's not always a neat process. But it can be an effective one, so long as everyone keeps a firm grasp on what the brand stands for and where it can and cannot tread. That's easier when there is a visionary, autocratic leader who embodies the brand's values--someone like Bedbury's two former bosses, Nike Inc.'s Philip H. Knight and Starbucks Corp.'s Howard D. Schultz. But Bedbury suggests ways that other far-thinking companies can imbed those principles in their employees' DNA.

A New Brand World works best if you think of it as a casual, sometimes meandering, conversation--the type you can't resist eavesdropping on at a Starbucks. The book's most disarming vignettes involve such less-than-shining moments as Nike's attempt to win over casual female athletes with an exhortatory "Just Do It" ad that backfired badly. (The ad's comic-relief line, "And it wouldn't hurt to stop eating like a pig, either," was regarded as arrogant and presumptuous.) Nike, of course, eventually got it right. Bedbury's firsthand account of how the marketing colossus diagnoses and then remedies such problems is absorbing reading.

Such episodes aren't just humorous diversions. They further his main point by demonstrating how a clumsy move with any single element can corrupt the broader brand environment. Bedbury explains this with a deft coffee analogy. Remember how Starbucks was one of the first retailers to ban smoking? Turns out the company did that not so much out of health concerns but because coffee beans quickly soak up the odors around them. If you don't want your coffee to taste like stale cigarettes, you can't allow people to smoke nearby.

It's no different with brands: They'll soak up the foulest odor in their environment, whether it's a whiff of product compromises, corporate ethical lapses, or simply rude counter people. Brand wars are won or lost on just such mundane battlefields, and Bedbury has laid in a good stock of amusing war stories: his battles against Starbucks cost-cutters who wanted to use cheaper toilet paper in cafe rest rooms, for instance, or the newly hired fast-food veterans who wanted to eliminate the smallest drink size, the "short," so that they could add a tub-size unit at the high end and charge more, just as they had done with Cokes at burger joints. (Bedbury proposed that the change be heralded with an ad declaring, "We've dropped our shorts to make more money.") Although easy to snicker at, such battles involve the highest stakes, brandwise. As Bedbury's intrepid guide in East Java argued, they all matter.

MARCH 25, 2002

By Gerry Khermouch

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