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5 Things Breaking Bad Can Teach Us About Branding

With the much anticipated Breaking Bad returning this week (a terminally ill chemistry teacher teams up with a high school burnout to create a distinctive version of methamphetamine, Blue Sky, and hilarity ensues), it strikes me that the show has a lot it can teach us about business and branding.

The primary duo’s adventures are not unlike that of a startup company: They begin with an untested partnership, create a distinctive product, meet with investors, make some questionable business deals, dodge (very) hostile takeovers, face strict government regulation, struggle with competition and multiple staff changes and eventually—well, I don’t want to give anything away… but, through all of this chaos a brand is built. Some of it intentionally, some of it accidentally, but it is built as any brand is; through the minds and perceptions of the consumers and public who interact with their product. If you want to intentionally create your brand (NOT with meth, of course. We’re talking about a TV show people.) here are some insights you may consider as you watch the show:

1. Own a color

UPS is brown. Coca-Cola is Red. Pepto is pink. Blue Sky is…blue.

When Walter and Jesse face supply problems they solve them with an ingredient which gives their product a distinctive blue color. This sets them apart from the drug’s normally indistinctive cloudy white. Narcotic properties aside, imagine walking down an aisle full of little bags of crystals. All are white, yellow and translucent but then you come across a single bag of blue crystals. It would pique your interest, wouldn’t it? It may look a bit weird and, from a distributor’s standpoint, take some convincing to get on the shelves, but it definitely stands out. And it gives people something specific to talk about. Someone who has consistently had the other kind may be tempted to try this new version just to change things up a little.

Even if there was a rainbow of colors in the, um, “crystal” market, blue is owned by Blue Sky. In this case, it was accidental. In real world branding and marketing, surveying the competitive landscape is crucial to seeing who owns what and finding a distinctive look which will make you stand out.

However, while being distinctive helps, you can’t rely on it entirely.

2. Be obsessive about quality

It helps if most of your competition is too high to care but, in most cases, your commitment to the quality of your product or service can be what sets you apart. Walter is a high school chemistry teacher and, arguably, a genius. Even though their initial “kitchen” is out of an old RV, he is absolutely obsessive about the quality of the ingredients and recipe. There are no shortcuts and this earns him a lot of attention.

First, from naysayers.

You’ll hear them saying you don’t have to be that detailed and attentive. “It’s just a font” or “nobody will even see that part.” It happened with Steve Jobs when building the first Apple Computer. He ignored them, just as Walter did, and created an empire which had more money than the U.S. Government at one point.

Second, from the public.

They’ll notice. Even if they don’t notice they’re noticing, they’ll notice. And they’ll eat it up. Or smoke it in Walter’s case. Apple consumers continue to eat up everything they push out (pun intended), all because the founder had a clear, uncompromising vision.

3. Naming is important

When forced to directly confront a troublesome backer, Walter adopts the pseudonym of Heisenberg. Werner Heisenberg, where the name comes from, was a physicist who is most known for his uncertainty principle—definitely a concept at play within the show. The name has a scientific connotation which effectively positions him on a higher level than the Captain Cooks and Krazy 8’s distributing competing products. For the more informed, such as his high level competition, it also has a mysterious angle so it works on a couple of levels.

While Heisenberg is not the name of his product (that’s Blue Sky, which is equally strong, referencing the color and calling to mind a feeling), you could say it’s his “corporate” name. Imagine the packaging for that little blue bag now saying “Blue Sky from Heisenberg.” Sounds like quality goods, doesn’t it? Much more than “Blue Crystals from Albuquerque Methamphetamine Manufacturing” (which of course would be shortened to AMM for the sake of brevity but completely confusing the public as to what they do).

4. Competition will be fierce

Oh, will it ever. Maybe not the gun-to-your-head kind but any new product will quickly face “me too” products and even other companies looking to just put you out of business. The current battle between Apple and Samsung is a great, real world example. Apple revolutionizes the smart phone market with the iPhone and just about every manufacturer then comes out with a similar product. Lawsuits eventually pop up. Products are banned. Bans are vetoed. Other products are banned. More lawsuits… it seems never ending. Are you prepared to defend your position in the market? As long as you’re in business, you’ll have to. It doesn’t mean just pushing what you already have. Increasing distribution, innovating and cooking up more buzz can all help create that “addiction” to your product even when similar ones come to market.

5. Word of mouth is key

You can’t really advertise meth. It would probably tip a few people off. Heisenberg has to rely on word of mouth. At least a couple of times through the series, he offers a “free taste” to an important individual in order to get that word of mouth. Most importantly, those individuals weren’t typically users. They work on the business side of it and can make connections for him. Who do you know like that? Not just someone you can give free stuff. Someone who has connections. Someone with the reputation and network to help get you out there and spread that word. Don’t just go to a networking event or look for more consumers for your service. Look for those who have the same target market. Be aware of their brand though. Partnerships rub off on each other. Sometimes with messy consequences.

What can you say you’ve learned from Breaking Bad? Any business or branding ideas I missed? Let me know in the comments or contact me and I can do a follow up post with credit to you.

Well, JCPenney didn’t get it after all.

I wrote a post a bit over a year ago praising JCPenney for its new branding and direction. We’ve seen how well that worked out. Their stock has dropped over 50%. Now, with their apparent firing of, Ron Johnson, the man who implemented the change, I feel the need to, um, clarify my position and what I believe went wrong.

I’ll recap: In January of 2012, JCPenney announced, with the assistance of its new CEO, a major change in direction. It was abandoning their over 500 promotions a year for no more than 12 and a simplified pricing strategy. There would also be nicer single-brand “shops” within the stores for what appeared to be a great restyling of the retail experience. The idea had a lot of promise. They pretty much sold their goods at consistent, discounted prices and, it was reasoned, people knew what the best price was anyway. So, instead of endless discounts, JCPenney would just sell the items at a “fair and square” price all the time with only a few special discounts and end-of-season clearance.

The first problem… the Target

There have been many retailers who have used a similar, no-discount pricing policy before. The difference is they’re typically high end. Apple, Nordstroms,Saks… not really names you’d associate with JCPenney. I give credit for Johnson giving credit to shoppers—In his presentation on the shift he made the statement the bargain hunters know the right price and will pay it when they see it—he just underestimated their target market’s motivation for shopping in the first place: the rush of saving money.

When I did my time at JCPenney, my mom came to the “Friends and Family” night where they would give the employees’ friends and family the same discounts usually reserved for the employees. At one point she came up and exclaimed “I saved $600!” Not, “I only spent however-much-she-spent,” but “I saved.” JCPenney didn’t seem to know its target market well enough to know that their main motivation for shopping is bargain hunting. If they have to buy socks, they’re going to find the most discounted socks in town. Not the “cheapest” but the “most discounted.” Not to mention the additional item(s) they would buy as they were picking up the socks because, “hey, it was 60% off.” The drug was gone and, soon, so were the users.

The second problem… the lack of visible change

About a week or two after the presentation, JCPenney implemented its new pricing policy. All of the bright red SALE signs were taken down and the items were priced, on average, at about 60% of their original amount from what I could tell. Basically making all those perpetual sales permanent. What you had now though, was a store suddenly bereft of its bait. With no signage calling out to the passers by, nothing reeled them in. The stores looked very plain and, honestly, a little sad.

A brand is entirely based on the customer’s experience.

Nothing else visually changed. The layout, graphics and merchandise was all the same. The new “shops” were far from being implemented so, to the typical shopper, it must have been very confusing. They were left wondering, “Where did all of the deals go?” Never forget, a brand is entirely based on the customer’s experience. It’s what they say it is. If your new logo and clever advertising is saying “we’re different” but a stroll through the sales floor says “nothing has changed but the prices have apparently gone up,” you’re going to have a major issue. Your target market has to experience the change, then your advertising and marketing can help reinforce it.

Which leads me to the third problem…

Lack of communication

Or, clear communication at least. One of the first commercials JCPenney used to kick off the new brand position was filled with shoppers screaming at the frustration of too many sales. “Enough. Is. Enough.” it proclaimed. First of all, it wasn’t enough. People LOVE sales. For whatever reason, they love never going to bed on Thanksgiving. They love clipping coupons. They love finding that pair of pants or sport coat on the clearance rack. I know I do. It was a solution for the retailer, not the customer. It may have been eye (or ear) catching, but it didn’t resonate. Second, it was annoying to most and not really memorable.

You’re not communicating unless you’re over communicating.

The follow up ads were unclear as well. They were cute if you were paying attention and could pique your interest, but a game changing shift like ditching all of the sales should have been clear and repetitive. You’re not communicating unless you’re over communicating. The message should have been beat over the heads of the target market from every possible media outlet. It was not a time for subtlety.

Yes, I’m a Monday Morning Quarterback

It’s easy to sit back and say what went wrong. It may even sound a little arrogant pointing fingers at the man who created the Apple Store experience (he made about oh, a bajillion dollars more than me last year. Even with a pay cut.), but it was always going to be hard to pull off such a big shift in direction. I just think a company with over 100 years of business and marketing under its belt should have been up to that task. They should have known not to put the cart before the horse. It’s a cliché for a reason. This last year or so has been a good lesson that the experience needs to come first. No amount of pretty design will change a customers poor brand experience.

DeArmond Creative Wins 7 Marcom Awards

Temecula, CA. November 1, 2012 – After picking up three awards from the American Advertising Federation’s Inland Empire Addy’s in March, five 2012 Communicator Awards in April and four Hermes Awards in May, DeArmond Creative is proud to announce the reception of 7 additional honors from the 2012 Marcom Awards. This brings the total for 2012 graphic design awards to 19.

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Creative Advertising: Feeling Sells

While there are other names for them, you can usually put advertising into two categories: creative, which is used to create a demand; and directional which tells you where to get it. So many small businesses simply focus on the directional, like business directories and yellow pages. It’s easy. All that’s involved is including what you do and where people can find you. Great, but the only thing that makes people want to find you is a desire for your product or service. Sure, you can include a discount or coupon but that’s not going to keep them coming back. We’ll talk more about that later. Creative advertising is the hard part but it’s what can do a lot of the heavy lifting. Read more…

Why Your Worldview is Wrong…but it Doesn’t Matter.

People are different. We all have our own unique worldview made up of our own rules, values, beliefs and biases which we’ve picked up from family, friends, neighbors and other influencers in our lives (these traits are sometimes referred to as psychographics but that is actually a broader term). In general, this worldview is very difficult to change. By the marketer, at least. No matter what kind of stats or information you offer, it’s not likely to change someone’s perception. Just think of politics. Someone who believes in the Affordable Care Act is not likely to be convinced otherwise by those who believe Obamacare is a bad idea.

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“You know why I start from the end, Daddy?”

You can’t tell just by looking at the image but my son often starts these little mazes you find on kids menus from the finish. He proudly tells me so. I never told him to do it that way. If anything, I may have suggested he do it from the beginning just on principle. But he just says “No, daddy. It’s easier this way.” Who am I to argue? I’m sure I could beat this to death with some sort of business analogy but I’ll leave that up to you.

DeArmond Creative Wins 4 Additional Design Awards

Temecula, CA. May 1, 2012 – A day after receiving five Silver Communicator Awards, DeArmond Creative, a Temecula based design and branding firm, is pleased to announce the reception of two Hermes Creative Awards for work with the Rotary Club of Temecula Valley, New Generations (Platinum) and Boys & Girls Club Idol (Gold). DeArmond Creative also received two Honorable Mentions for work with the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Valley Young Professionals organization and D2 Acquisitions, a local collections firm. Having previously won three bronze awards at the American Advertising Federation’s Inland Empire Addys in March, this makes 12 total for the year. Read more…

Temecula Designer Wins 5 Communicator Awards

Temecula, CA. April 30, 2012 – DeArmond Creative, a Temecula based design and branding firm, is pleased to announce the reception of five Communicator Awards for its work with the Boys & Girls Club Idol, Veteran’s Advocacy Associates (VAA) and D2 Acquisitions. Having previously won three awards at the American Advertising Federation’s Inland Empire Addy awards in March, this makes eight total for the year.

“With the thousands of entries this competition receives, realizing we received five awards is very exciting,” said Jason DeArmond, owner of DeArmond Creative. “To be recognized for logo design as well as building the [Boys & Girls Club] Idol brand is really an honor.” DeArmond spends 6 months out of the year serving on the planning committee for the Boys & Girls Club Idol, an annual singing competition for kids ages 6–18 in the Temcula Valley area. He donates his time to design all of the marketing materials for the event as well. “It’s the one big pro-bono project I do each year,” he continued. “To win an award for the work on top of helping to provide a venue for the amazing talent these kids have is a great feeling.”

The Communicator Awards is the leading international awards program honoring creative excellence for communication professionals. Founded by communication professionals over a decade ago, The Communicator Awards is an annual competition honoring the best in advertising, corporate communications, public relations and identity work for print, video, interactive and audio. Please visit www.communicatorawards.com for more information.

DeArmond Creative is an award-winning firm providing identity design, branding and visual communications. So far, in 2012, DeArmond Creative has won 8 design awards. DeArmond Creative’s client list includes The Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest County, Merrill Lynch, PRP Seats, three Temecula Valley CPA firms, and the City of Menifee. Please visit www.DeArmondCreative.com or call Jason DeArmond at 951.254.3846 for more information.

Are you playing to win?

This post was originally published in Business Scene Magazine

With baseball season fast approaching, I’ve recently watched Moneyball and my time on the MLB Network has seen a marked increase. Clichés abound. As I watch Hot Stove (their show about teams and the trades and signings they’ve made) I think “do some of these teams even know why they’re here?” I’m no manager, GM or owner, but some of these moves—or lack of moves—make me think they are simply filling holes in the roster so they can field a team. I’m sure many are doing the best they can with what they have, but are they even playing to win? Or, are they just showing up? Are they just saying to themselves, “We’re not going to win anyway, but we’re going to try our best and play hard?” I’m not sure the most successful teams just “try their best.” They play to win. They push themselves to the next level. They give 110%. They date supermodels… Don’t think that last one has anything to do with their confidence? I’d argue it does, but that’s another post.
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Strategy and Design

I’ve noticed a common trend lately among companies who supply marketing products. It kind of worries me. They’re selling empty promises…. As a business owner you can go to countless websites to build your own logo, website, brochure, business cards or anything else you need to advertise your services or products (you can even do it yourself in 5 minutes on your iPad, apparently). They’re filled with options and are all relatively cheap compared to hiring a professional designer. But, they all seem to leave one thing out: strategy. They try to convince you all you need is to check these tasks off and you can “get it over with” without any real thought.

So where does strategy fit in design?

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