Adrienne Weiss Corporation, or AWC, is a branding think tank that has been building successful brands since 1986. This past year, they celebrated their 30th anniversary with the release of their first book, Brand Buzz.
AWC has provided the brains behind some of America’s most iconic brands, from Target to Walt Disney Studios. They explain, to compete in the market you must tell stories, create communities, and craft a culture your target audience wants to join.
Adrienne and Greg Weiss sat down with us to explain their branding strategies, the importance of relevance and resonance with consumers, and the most important branding advice they’ve learned throughout their careers.
Congratulations on publishing your first book: Brand Buzz: 3 Breakthrough Secrets for Building a Winning Brand! Can you talk us through your career a bit — how did you determine these 3 secrets as the most important to share? How do all 3 components need to work together to find success?
Adrienne Weiss: We are thrilled to have our book “Brand Buzz” launch. It is the culmination of thirty years of building and re-energizing world-class brands in entertainment, retail, food and beverage and sports. I started my career on the team that brought Smurfs into the American culture. What I learned from helping those little blue characters generate over a billion dollars at retail, was not only the inner working of manufacturing and distribution, but also more importantly how ideas can be created and leveraged to deliver maximum buzz in the marketplace.
This experience was where our three secrets of building a winning brand started to germinate. The phenomena of Smurfs was a great example of STORY TELLING, we literally created a TV series, CLUB MAKING, collectors joined trading clubs to extend their connection to the brand and COUNTRY BUILDING where we saw retailers merchandise Smufs in innovative, experiential environments. I started to see that there was a 360-degree opportunity to bring ideas to life and started to think that I might be on to something.
Greg Weiss: As we worked through more and more projects over time, we found that the approach we took and the strategy we used to create brands had a pattern and consistency. We discovered that each brand we formed had a story, had language and customs and had a built-in strategy of building affinity. That is how we created the three pillars of storytelling, country building and club making.
Your organization, AWC, has worked across a range of disciplines and found success in a variety of spaces. What are the differences in working in branding in different disciplines? What is true across them all? What helps you cater the most to each individual client?
AW: One of the great things about our book and approach is that after many projects and big home runs, we have realized that our process and strategy of building winning brands works across all industries. Anyone who is trying to sell something to someone else can benefit from the three secrets of branding. Story telling, club making and building a culture that feels like a country is a powerful way to connect with consumers.
GW: Our biggest realization was that creating a brand is totally industry agnostic. Regardless of who the customer is, the customer wants to be engaged in a story, the customer wants to feel immersed in a brand and the customer wants to feel part of a club. There are many aspects of branding building that differ from one industry to another including your target demographic, the tone of the communication, the opportunities to connect with your customer, but the core discipline of creating a brand remains the same, regardless of the industry.
What is the biggest branding lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
AW: The biggest lesson we face in our work is also a joy. We have the continual pressure of being wired into all things that make pop culture. We need to know the music, books, movies, food whims and fashion that captivate consumers. We then need to take these trends and weave them through the brand stories we create.
GW: Personally, the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you can’t assume anything about your target customer. We have done a lot of work in the convenience store industry and they referred to their customer as “Bubba”. While we know that Bubba may be buying cigarettes and may not have a college degree, that doesn’t mean that Bubba won’t understand subtle humor or be drawn to high-quality aesthetics. We drive the same streets, we see the same developments in pop culture and we all have the same desire to relate to the brands we use every day.
What is your secret to success? How do you measure that success?
AW: When I stand outside a Build-A-Bear Workshop, holding a Baskin Robbins ice cream cone watching a Corner Bakery truck drive by, I feel that we have been part of creating our American culture. I also understand that our approach to building brands works across all industries. It is profound to step back and witness the storytelling that we have created over 30 years and for so many companies.
GW: The secret to our success is being consistent in our approach to branding regardless of the client, while still thinking out of the box. Our consistency in method means that we never begin a project lost. When we first begin, we take a look at all of the input available surrounding the product and customers before crafting an idea about the brand voice’s tone and where the brand voice will live (on packaging, in store signage, on the web). That work then gives us a framework to think creatively about how to communicate with the customer.
Why do you identify ‘buzz’ as being so important? Are there multiple ways a brand can create that buzz? Why is it crucial for an organization? What is the most common mistake you see organizations make in reference to creating this ‘buzz’, and how can they avoid the pitfall?
AW: There are buzzwords, building buzz, or hoping your customers are feeling buzzed about your brand. Buzz is short hand for being culturally relevant and in tune with consumers. It is an immediate emotional response to the brands people care about.
Step one of building buzz is having the right consumer-facing story. Without that compelling idea at the center of your efforts, you have no chance to build buzz. After the articulation of the right story, a brand then activates in all directions to send the message out. That includes the guest experience, the environment, advertising and social media. All spokes of the wheel spinning with the same message creates “buzz”.
GW: When we talk about “buzz” we are talking about cutting through the noise in the marketplace and really resonating with the customer. This can be done in multiple ways, such as speaking with a new and unique voice or communicating with your customer in new ways (messaging on the inside of packaging or hidden messages on the floorboards).
It is crucial to create a “buzz” because marketplaces, regardless of industry, are so crowded and ultra-competitive. Often there is no technical difference from one product to the next and thus the brand must make the difference between creating a new customer and losing a customer to your competitor. A common mistake in creating a brand is under-utilizing your assets to communicate with your customer. While not every surface on your packing or in your store/restaurant has to be covered with language or proprietary art, there are lots of opportunities where businesses simply go for a blank wall instead of a meaningful message.
Once you’ve created buzz and crafted a positive image, how do you maintain the brand’s reputation? How can companies grow and stay updated with the marketplace? Are there some key components to maintaining an effective campaign and reputation?
AW: Ahhhh, staying relevant, it is so important. Getting your branding right once is necessary — but not sufficient. Being a winning brand requires the organization to act like a tennis player, ready to respond wherever the ball lands. Our culture is volatile and fickle and businesses must be agile enough to create and recreate messaging that says to the consumer that we “get you”. This applies to the product, to the environment, to the experience — the story must keep evolving. Social media is a powerful tool to help keep telling stories that resonate with the customer without bearing the costs of changing packaging or bricks and mortar.
GW: We describe the process of building a brand as “creating your company’s DNA.” As you move through life and mature, your DNA remains the same, it just gets expressed in different ways. As a brand matures, its DNA – or core values – remain the same. The colors and logo may evolve, but the central messages and the grand themes remain consistent.
If there was only one thing you would recommend all branding professionals do, what would it be?
AW: One thing I have discovered along the way is that everything changes when you make things personal. We start every project asking the question, “If we owned this restaurant, retail store, or product line, what would we actually do?” When you stop working for the client per se, and put yourself in the client’s seat, everything gets more immediate and intimate, and it actually becomes easier. It does not mean you do not consider the client’s point of view, but rather you incorporate the client into your own thinking. This is very powerful.
GW: When creating a successful brand, there must be depth. You don’t want to tell your whole story all at once, you want your customer coming back for more. If you want to create a brand that has a strong relationship with its customers, make sure that they always experience a little more every time they interact with you. That a brand should be understandable and relatable is well known, but it is a brand’s depth that will truly create life-long customers.
Rapid Fire Round:
- If someone were to make a movie of my life, I would want to be played by….
AW: Emma Stone (I can dream, okay?)
GW: Someone funny with a self-deprecating sense of humor, maybe Michael Cera?
- My favorite electronic device is….
AW: my air book, my iPhone, my mac and my toaster.
GW: my iPhone — I can do every necessary office or life task from the palm of my hand.
- If I could have three wishes, they would be….
AW: World peace, abundant health for my loved ones and a second world series win for the Cubs (that’s too greedy, right?).
GW: the power of flight, the power to eat ice cream all day and stay healthy, and the requisite world peace.
- If I could master one skill I do not currently have, it would be…
AW: Like everyone else, I really want to direct.
GW: Backwards crossovers while ice skating — I play defense on my hockey team and my skating needs some serious work.
- How would you survive a zombie apocalypse?
AW: Full disclosure requires me to say that I am a Walking Dead fan and therefore I am fully prepared for the onslaught of the zombies.
GW: I would create a Lady Gaga-like meat suit to blend in with the world around me.
- If I could only eat one meal for the rest of my life, it would be….
AW: I would choose anything prepared by Ferran Adrià.
GW: Cheeseburgers, with the right toppings all five food groups are represented.