Join the Club: Build Brands by Engaging Story

Brand-building expert Adrienne Weiss says that the key to a strong in-house brand is to create and engaging story that unfolds before your customers.

Adrienne Weiss has helped create award-winning brands and identities for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Taco Bell, Hyatt Hotels, Wal Mart Stores, the Milwaukee Brewers and dozens of other leading companies. While her think tank—the Adrienne Weiss Corporation—develops logos, packaging identities, signage, environmental graphics and the like, its real specialty is concept development—taking an idea and giving it depth, meaning and the ability to connect with customers. To explore some of these topics, we recently interviewed Weiss at her Chicago offices for this special branding issue of FOOD MANAGEMENT.

Let’s start by asking what might seem to be a pretty obvious question—what exactly is a “brand?”

Weiss: In our group, we look at branding as storytelling. There is an inspiration or a story idea at the base of every business, and that story is both emotional and intellectual. The process of branding is just like writing a book, expressing that story in words and pictures. It is the emotional connection of your customers with an idea. I’ll tell you what it is not—it is not the militant use of a logo!

Think about branding as a filtering process with four components: the emotional idea, the intellectual idea, the words and the pictures. To establish a brand is to establish your core story and to turn it into a filtering tool you can use as you develop your business.

The idea is to force every purchasing and management decision through that filter. This allows you to create a consistent brand for your customer, and helps you establish a consistent culture in your organization to deliver it. That’s especially important in foodservice, because you often have minimum wage workers delivering your brand.

How do you find a story if you run a foodservice operation for an institution, like a hospital or a university?

Weiss: If there is an exchange of money or value, there is a business, and it has a story to tell. Your readers should think about their businesses as if they were countries with their own languages, ceremonies and customs. What is the St. Luke’s Café way of doing things? If it doesn’t yet have a way, then you need to develop one as you develop your brand story.

If you do your branding well, you become a club that people want to belong to— so think about what it means to be a club member. Think of yourself as running a club within the institution or organization.

Most of our readers have a very specific challenge in terms of making their brands appeal to the same potential customer base day after day. How do you keep a brand fresh in a situation like that?

Weiss: I know this must sound redundant, but it gets back to telling the story! You story is not static—it is a changing, living thing. It has chapters.

The most dangerous thing in branding is a business person who thinks he or she has got it right, that the branding job is
done. A brand is a process, a journey—not a single answer. A brand is established in the storytelling, in the unfolding of the story over time and in different ways.

That doesn’t mean everything about the story changes—it is more that the story needs to respond to the customer, to where the customer is coming from at any given time.

If his interest today is in scale, you tell your story with food quantities and presentation. Tomorrow it might be about healthfulness, and your display may talk about fat grams and freshness and ingredients. Next month it may be about fun, and you respond by telling your story in an entertaining way. The key is to keep the core story, the filter, intact. Each new piece must build upon the others.

What’s the most common thing that goes wrong in concept development?

Weiss: One of the biggest problems is what I call “third-hand vision.” Typically the “big cheese” in an organization has a vision. He calls together a room full of world class image implementers—artists, agency people, architects, food specialists, menu designers and so on. He stands in the center of the room and does a lot of hand waving and emotional outpouring, trying to communicate his vision to them. Then all the people in the room go back and try to communicate that same vision to their staffs.

By the time the job is really underway, it is like playing a game of telephone! How can this be right? It is a praying game. The chance of it coming together as a wholistic concept is very small when everyone is interpreting a third-hand vision.

So how do you avoid that?

Weiss: The key to establishing a successful brand is to fully articulate it before you call in the implementers! It needs to be written down, drawn out, expressed in words and pictures, and expressed in a way that shows how your story will drive the decision of everything the business does.

Ideally, you should also define the attitude of your operation and people, the tone it will have, the taste level, as well as the humor and intelligence level of your customers.

Once you have done this, then your concept can be communicated. And then it should be like a bible, with the bible being distributed to all of the people who will be in charge of actually delivering the brand. It is a matter of establishing control of the brand right at the beginning.

If you do this well, then your operation becomes a club people want to belong to, to be a member of. And remember—the dream can be bigger than the thing. A food court can be more than a food court. The most generic idea can be wonderful if you articulate it as an idea or story that resonates with people.

Starbucks is a great example: it is such a success as a story that it doesn’t even have to sell coffee!

When Starbucks promotes itself, it doesn’t talk about the bean. It talks about rap music or jazz or literacy or the sixties—anything but the bean. They are talking about things that establish an emotional connection with people who want to hang out. That is their story.

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I’ve heard you allude to what you call the “touch points” of a brand. What are they?

Weiss: People get so caught up in thinking about their product or concept that they fail to think enough about the consumer. You have to continually put yourself in the customer’s position. Andthe customer is always asking, very loudly, “What’s in it for me?” Your story needs to respond to that question.

If you run a grill station, what is in it for the customer who will be sitting there eating a burger for 15 minutes? How do you put money, energy, creativity into the place where the customer will actually hang out?

The answer is that you need to put your effort into the touch points, the specific parts of your business that your customer experiences directly.

What do I as a customer experience when I drive up, when I walk in? What do I see when I go to the rest room? What is it to be in the place where I wait to place an order? What do I see while I am eating lunch?

For 15 minutes or half an hour, that little zone is my piece of real estate. You have to look at the minute of every touch point in it and express the brand story in that minutiae.

To quote a very smart guy—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe —“God is in the details.”

The knee jerk reaction is to spend all your time and energy in the macro, when really you get the most credit in the micro. The experience with the food on the plate. The tablescape. The fun your customer can have at that level.

Your brand should have a depth of detail so that there is always something more for the customer to discover. The day a customerhas to wait five extra minutes for a sandwich, you’ll be glad you have something there to keep him entertained!

How important is a concept’s name? What does it contribute to the brand’s identity?

Weiss: What’s in a name? A name is a promise to the customer. You can either deliver on the promise or fail to deliver on the promise. If your concept is called the Creative Deli Gourmet, then your packaging needs to be creative, the tray liners and even the tray line itself needs to be creative. You need to tell the story and deliver on the name’s promise.

Take uniforms as an example. You can’t let your guy in charge of purchasing come in and say—we are going to buy this uniform for our staff because it is polyester and it cleans well. You have to say, before wemake this decision, we are going to force it through our story filter.

In this case, how will it say deli? What about it suggests gourmet? What is creative about the way it looks? If you have developed your story filter correctly, it can help you make better decisions along the way.

OK. So you tell your brand story, but that’s never the end of it. How do you establish brand loyalty, so the customer wants to come back?

Weiss: For one thing, you make your story entertaining. And you work on the way your story is told in those touch points so that it continues to entertain, so that a customer will continue to discover new things about your story on subsequent visits.

Customers have an insatiable need for entertainment, and branding done well is entertainment. Entertainment is not adding a pinball machine at the back of the restaurant! It is how you entertain in the context of the food and dining experience.

You do it by having all the materials you are going to pay for anyway all help your story unfold with words and pictures that are emotional and that will connect with the consumer. Then you become a club to which your customers want to belong.

Another thing—I believe there is an inverse relationship between the size of a joke and the credit you get from the customer. You put something clever in the corner of a napkin or on the back of a coaster and they can’t believe you stopped to have fun with them on the back of the coaster!

That is emotional connective tissue. And you get brand loyalty by building that connective tissue.

The good news is that you are paying for all this stuff anyway. Why not have it work for you? Why not have it deliver your brand and add depth to your brand? That’s the added value you give the customer, and it’s a way of making your dime go further. Here’s an example: There is a well-known catalog house that I decided to check out. I ordered a $150 sweater from the catalog, and then I ordered $3 pair of stockings from Victoria’s Secret.

The sweater came to me in a poly bag with a bar code. But the $3 stockings came to me in a gift box, with ribbons and a gold seal and colored tissue. Whichcompany said it cared about me, that it wanted to have a relationship with me? Which told me it was a club, a club I wanted to belong to? And which one is more likely to have a repeat customer?

How about some examples from the foodservice industry?

Weiss: Look at the Corner Bakery concept developed by Lettuce Entertain You. It was already started when we were brought in to help develop the story more fully.

The tagline, “You Knead It,” is the first, simplest expression of the story. Now the minimum wage workers who deliver the brand wear T-shirts that say, “I Knead It Daily.” That brings them into the culture, it makes them part of the entertainment.

There is a “Knead to Know” sheet. If you heard these breads described in detail, you’d have to try them. So we did describe them in detail, using words to paint emotional pictures. The handout is freely available and helps the customer to know what we are offering. There is another “Knead to Know” handout—a card with information on storing, freezing, thawing.

The theme is carried out in everything they do: packaging, uniforms, merchandising sheets, store décor. Both the cleverness and the functionality are elaborated on in every way. That’s why I said emotional and intellectual. You have to express both in order to connect with your customers.

The Food Life food court at Water Tower Place— another Melman operation— is also a great example. Food courts themselves are not interesting. But an environmental, healthful eating place—a lunch club for people who appreciate the things I appreciate—that is interesting.

The signage there is not about the pasta and burgers, it’s about the club. It’s about the Food Life philosophy.

You find soulful messages as you walk through the space: Be kind. Eat true. It’s now. Wake up. Smile often. Every day counts. Know right from wrong. Eat green. Nourish the mind. Call your mother.They define the club and provide entertainment for the price of a banner.

Raise the bar high! The natural tendency of everything is to devolve in the course of implementation, so set your standards high at the beginning. Tell your story well, and you’ll have a brand that will build your business.