By Mark G. Auerbach
Everyone’s talking “brand” these days. It has replaced the concept of corporate identity, positioning, and logo.
According to Business Dictionary, branding is a unique design, sign, symbol, words, or a combination of these, employed in creating an image that identifies a product and differentiates it from its competitors.
This image becomes associated with a level of credibility, quality, and satisfaction in the consumer’s mind. Brands help easily distracted consumers in a complex marketplace, by showcasing certain benefits and value.
Branding happens over time, with a lot of market research, focus groups, and design planning; when all that is done, the new brand is tested, evaluated, and improved. A brand is the essence or promise of what will be delivered by a company, product, or service, big or small. There are agencies that specialize in branding from concept development to execution. You often get what you pay for, so don’t initiate a branding exercise on a low budget.
Fast forward. You’ve come up with a new message and a new look. What if the marketplace doesn’t buy into it? What if the media doesn’t “get it” and can’t deliver the message? And, what if someone on the team puts the wrong message out there? It happens. I saw it spiral out of control for two well-intentioned agencies earlier this year.
Brand launch gone awry
There are three counties along the Connecticut River in Western Massachusetts, an area branded as “The Pioneer Valley” since the 1930s. Two regional agencies, the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, wanted to rebrand the region, so they could attract more economic development and more tourists. They felt people outside the region couldn’t identify The Pioneer Valley. They couldn’t use the term “Connecticut River Valley” because the public would assume they were referencing the state south of the border.
They put out a RFP to local and national branding agencies and creatives. They reached out to agencies they knew, and ultimately, according to Ann Burke, vice president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, got 21 proposals from national and local companies. They interviewed seven, and ended up hiring Cubic Creative, an agency in Tulsa, OK, that has experience working with economic development and tourism branding. The project cost was approximately $80,000.
Cubic did its market research on-site, and came back with a comprehensive plan that offered various messaging components, graphics, and other materials to rebrand the area as “West Mass.” Cubic did a series of presentations for the stakeholders of both agencies, which decided to celebrate the project with a launch party for its participants, all of whom had participated in the project.
The agencies hired a local company, known nationally for their mash-up videos, to create something fun for a launch party. Steve Porter of Porterhouse Media in Holyoke, MA, explained the outcome to Boston Magazine in this article. Problems arose when a low-cost video that was quickly made and meant only to be shown at the launch party made its way online, a medium it was never designed for.
Somehow, that video, the $80,000 project price tag paid to an out-of-area company, and the general disdain for the new moniker West Mass started appearing on social media, and took on an explosive life of its own. Major regional media from Boston Magazine to New England Public Radio to MassLive and The Valley Advocate picked up the story. An online petition started making the rounds. The new brand didn’t cut it with the public or the creative industries, many of whom hadn’t known about the RFP or the opportunities to be a part of the creative process.
One area branding consultant who spoke in confidence, whose company did not know about the RFP, saw the materials and the responses, and said “Just like comedy, if you have to explain your branding, you’ve missed the point.”
Had the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau done a presentation to the media and answered questions before the launch party, maybe some of the outrage could have been deflected. Neither agency has a public relations person on staff. Had the agencies been clear about the usage and cost of the launch video, maybe people would have understood its intent.
So, both agencies are on the defensive trying to “sell” the brand to the region. Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council, spoke at length on public television station WGBY’s news magazine “Connecting Point.”
There are some lessons to be learned here.
- Carefully plan a new brand launch, and introduce the media to it in a special press conference or in carefully worded press release with the right support materials.
- Have an official spokesperson who can address questions about the new brand, and make that spokesperson the sole person you put out there before the media.
- Respond to the negatives on social media before they get out of control. A fact sheet goes a long way.
Will area companies adapt to the new West Mass brand? The two agencies developed a landing website for their effort.
Time will tell. It’s sad that they did a launch and spent so much time subsequently defending it, as opposed to moving forward. Good planning and public relations could have helped.
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.