5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and Re-Energize Your Brand and Image, with Denise Blasevick of The S3 Agency

Brandstanding: One way to re-energize a brand is to make it stand for something more — to be part of a bigger, more meaningful picture. To figure out what your brand can authentically stand for in a way that would be relevant to your target market, we recommend answering questions like: What issues keep your customers up at night? What issues keep you up at night? How can your brand impact these issues to improve the customer journey? What can you commit to doing on a long-term basis to make a legitimate, measurable difference? … Not every brand can be a true advocate brand, but every brand can be a thought leader of some sort if they are willing to do what it takes to back it up. Remember, people prefer brands they can buy into vs. just buy.

As part of our series about “Brand Makeovers” I had the pleasure to interview Denise Blasevick, Co-Founder and CEO of The S3 Agency.

For more than two decades, Denise has been developing groundbreaking creative campaigns for b2c and b2b brands such as BMW of North America, Centenary University, Eight O’Clock Coffee, the National Kitchen & Bath Association, and Tetley Tea. Her creativity and business acumen have been recognized with hundreds of awards, such as induction in the Advertising Hall of Fame of New Jersey and inclusion in NJ’s Best 50 Women in Business, but what drives Denise is helping clients find their brand difference. In addition to heading up strategy at The S3 Agency, Denise enjoys scuba diving, crossword puzzling, and traveling as often as possible with her husband and teenage son.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you so much for asking me to be here — and for asking about what brought me to the creative industry. A career in advertising was actually the furthest thing from my mind growing up! Doctor, lawyer — I was pretty sure I was going to be one of those types of professionals. But in hindsight, I should have seen it coming. I’ve always loved solving puzzles (I’m still addicted to the New York Times crossword), and that is really what advertising / marketing is all about. After all, figuring out how to unlock what is special about a brand and then finding effective ways to communicate that to their target audience can be tougher than any escape room, and far more rewarding. After graduating college with my BA in English, I was trying to “find my career” — and as luck would have it, someone I knew who owned an ad agency asked me to fill in for the summer while her receptionist was on maternity leave. I heard the team brainstorming ad concepts for one of their clients, and my puzzle-solving brain met up with my English-studying brain… The next thing I knew, I had a page of ad headlines. I gave them to the owner, she offered me a job as a copywriter, and I accepted on the spot — and I never looked back. My passion was ignited for an industry I had never even seriously considered, and I will be forever grateful.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing or branding mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A few years after starting The S3 Agency, we were hired by a major automotive brand to launch a new car model. They wanted something unusual, and the experiential concept we came up took place on beaches across the country. We hired the Guinness Book sand sculpting record-holders to create enormous 25-foot sandcastles — virtual sandcastle car dealers, if you will — so that we could surround them with cars, games, etc. (They were really cool events — and very effective for driving awareness and sales.) While we were smart enough to hire a security guard to “watch the castle” overnight, we didn’t realize how tempting the giant structure would be — and the first night, a large group of kids attacked the castle! There was no way one guard could fend them all off…and we had to get out there before sunrise to get everything “shored up” in time for the event opening. Against all odds, the team pulled together and made it happen — and obviously we beefed up our security detail for the rest of the tour. I can laugh about it now (and I can hear Billy Crystal saying, “Have fun storming the castle!” in the movie, The Princess Bride), but that day there was nothing funny about it.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Is there a takeaway or lesson that others can learn from that?

Great question. We were one of the first creative agencies to embrace social media — which helped give us, as well as our clients, a competitive advantage. It was a very “wild west” kind of world back then, filled with opportunity. Opportunity still abounds, continuously presenting new ways for brands to succeed. Given the rapid rate of change in our industry, I think the goal should be constantly thinking about the next tipping point: which areas offer the best potential investment for benefitting both client and agency? Figuring out what new technologies, channels, etc. make the most sense to add to the mix — and what should potentially be dropped — is the a strong path to maintaining brand fitness.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are always working on exciting projects, that’s what keeps my creative adrenaline racing! When we work with brands to discover their strategic point of differentiation — and then bring that differentiation to life via creative campaigns — we are helping create alignment within the organization. That sort of clarity is incredibly helpful to every member of the client’s team, to our team, and to the marketplace who now will have a much clearer understanding of who the client is and whether or not the brand might be a match for their needs. Just today, the launch campaign for a client rebrand went live — and it is completely differentiating within their industry. We feel honored every day for the opportunity to be able to help brands break through at this foundational level.

What advice would you give to other marketers to thrive and avoid burnout?

Get out from behind the computer. Look up from your phone. Experience as many different things as you can. Talk to people — lots of them — from all walks of life. Yes, learn as much as you can about your industry, all the time, but to get the bigger picture ideas you need to let more of the world in. When we conceived of an AR-triggered virtual escape room to help a coffee company connect with a new audience, the idea didn’t come from a marketing conference — it came from real world experiences blending with creativity and marketing expertise. In addition to getting out there to gather up the influences, I am a big believer in taking the time to look inside. I meditate each morning, a time investment that benefits me both by reducing stress and, sometimes, by generating some very interesting ideas from deep in the well…

Ok, let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Ideally your product marketing grows out of and supports your brand marketing — and your brand marketing should set the stage for your product marketing. So they shouldn’t feel wildly different. Product marketing often will be more tactical in nature. But other than pushing a discount or sale, it should still be rooted in the brand. For instance, if a special feature is taking center stage, how does that feature reflect the brand? Is it driven by safety, innovation, ease of use or some other brand tenet? Tying that in will make product marketing work harder.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

If you don’t have a strong brand, you compete solely on price and features — and relegating your company to commodity status can be the fastest race to the bottom. It gives people no reason to be loyal, which can negatively impact lifetime customer value. A brand represents much more than advertising and marketing. A brand is more than a logo or a tagline. A brand is everything that makes up the customer experience. For an automotive brand, this includes the ads consumers see; the manufacturer’s heritage; the buying and service interactions at the dealer; the impression it makes on others; the day-to-day driving experience of the car itself; things people hear in the news and on social media; and so much more. People will pay more for — and have higher loyalty to — a strong brand. We will buy more from brand they can really buy into.

Let’s now talk about rebranding. What are a few reasons why a company would consider rebranding?

First let’s address what rebranding means. Rebranding doesn’t have to mean changing your name or your logo — and changing just your logo and tagline alone doesn’t qualify as a true rebrand. Why would a company consider rebranding? When a brand finds itself losing power, if market share is declining (or not growing as quickly as they “should”), or if they are competing solely on price, it’s probably time for a rebrand. It also may be time for a rebrand if a company is looking to aggressively grow beyond the offerings / industries for which it is currently known.

Here are four big reasons to consider a rebrand:

  • Company Pivot: in terms of products or services, lines of business, audiences, or geographies.
  • Relevance (or lack thereof): changes in audience attitudes, society, customer needs
  • Commodity Status: competing without differentiation in a crowded marketplace
  • Technology/Innovations: significant improvement in a product / service, the way customers purchase or interact with it, or its delivery

Are there downsides of rebranding? Are there companies that you would advise against doing a “Brand Makeover”? Why?

There can be a downside to anything, and if a rebrand isn’t done well — and communicated well — it can be a failure. Take consumer packaged goods, for instance. When people are shopping in the grocery store, they want to get in and out. Fast. If there is a major change to the packaging for a product they usually buy, and there is no significant, sustained communication campaign to inform them and remind consumers about the change (and the reasoning behind it), they may not recognize the product on shelf. That may lead consumers to look past their former favorite and consider a competitor. Or it may cause confusion, leaving consumers wondering if the product has changed — and if so, how?

If the rebrand doesn’t have any real purpose other than vanity, if it’s really just a change in name/logo only, what’s the point? Find a good reason and communicate it, otherwise you may be spending money unwisely. People are savvy, and chances are high that people may see through the change and question the motives behind it.

If heritage is your only real meaningful differentiator, then hang on to your current brand. A legacy brand we worked with decided to radically change the look of its packaging — and it was a fairly iconic look that had been around for more than a century. The backlash from consumers was enormous, with people claiming that the brand had taken away their connection to previous generations, recalling their memories of seeing their parents, grandparents, and even great grandparents using the product in the historic packaging. Needless to say, the “new” packaging did not last very long…

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Can you share 5 strategies that a company can do to upgrade and re-energize their brand and image”? Please tell us a story or an example for each.

  1. Brandstanding: One way to re-energize a brand is to make it stand for something more — to be part of a bigger, more meaningful picture. To figure out what your brand can authentically stand for in a way that would be relevant to your target market, we recommend answering questions like: What issues keep your customers up at night? What issues keep you up at night? How can your brand impact these issues to improve the customer journey? What can you commit to doing on a long-term basis to make a legitimate, measurable difference? When we branded SipChip, the most accurate drink-testing device on the market, our efforts went far beyond simply naming the device. That’s because SipChip is doing much more than testing drinks for roofies — they are combatting the need for their own product to exist by empowering people to take control over their own safety. Not every brand can be a true advocate brand, but every brand can be a thought leader of some sort if they are willing to do what it takes to back it up. Remember, people prefer brands they can buy into vs. just buy.
  2. Go Long on Shortcomings: Every brand has shortcomings that marketers generally strive to bury, whether by ignoring, downplaying or deflecting away from the perceived problem area. The idea of embracing a brand’s flaws, however, can be quite endearing — and it can earn trust from the intended audience, especially in this age of authenticity. One of the best examples of flaw magnification dates back to the 1960s: Avis was second place in the rental car race, behind category leader Hertz. Rather than shy away from this, Avis’s agency (Doyle Dane Bernbach) made their silver medal status the hero of the ad campaign, using it as a way to promote their attention to customer service. “When you’re only №2, you try harder.” The “We Try Harder” approach caught consumers off guard, as well as Hertz, and Avis captured more and more market share.
  3. Be New to Someone. Legacy brands often find themselves feeling like underdogs because, well, the bloom is off the rose. That can be an internal perception, as well as a perception by those who already know about the brand. The reality is that they can be new to someone — a new target demographic, geographic, psychographic — and rather than trying to overcome lingering perceptions that may no longer be accurate, the stronger refresh strategy may targeting those who are not yet familiar with your brand. This is the approach we took with Turtle Back Zoo, a NJ zoo that transformed itself from a “local zoo” to a world class facility that earned the coveted AZA accreditation — meeting the same high standards of care, conservation and education as respected institutions like the San Diego Zoo. When Turtle Back Zoo reopened, there were significant campaigns targeting NJ residents — but the attendance simply wasn’t strong. Why? The lingering perception of what the brand used to be precluded belief in what the brand now claimed to be. When the zoo came to us for help, we chose to focus on building awareness of the refreshed brand to a new audience: we went national instead of local. The national media was very receptive to having a new source of expertise — and when local residents saw this backyard resource featured at that level, feelings of mistrust turned to belief and pride. Attendance has increased more than 10x, and there is even an exhibit dedicated to The S3 Agency. (That was a first for us!)
  4. Own What Your Competitor Can’t. When looking at your brand’s potential assets, it’s important to consider anything you have that your major competitor can’t (and never will be able to) claim. This may yield an asset that your target market is already inclined to believe is a significant differentiator — or can be — and it ensures your brand will be identified with something your competitor cannot emulate. Take Tetley Tea, a brand that has been around longer than any of us have. When we began working with Tetley, we learned that they were actually a British brand — something most Americans did not know (including me, despite the fact that I drink tea all day, every day). What Americans do know, though, is that the Brits love their tea. That meant our Britishness could give us a credibility trump card that the primary competitor, an American brand, could never play. It also gave us an authentic point of expertise from which to speak, which is why the TODAY Show featured Tetley’s tea master on the day before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding.
  5. Go the Other Way. What should you do when your brand or product bucks the trend? Own it. Again, I find myself referencing another decades-old campaign from the legendary Doyle Dayne Bernbach here, and that’s because their work for VW was a game changer. How could they introduce the VW Beetle, a small, cheap, quirky (and, to many, ugly) car to 1950s America, where cars that were large were very much in charge? Go all in on going the other way. If you haven’t heard of the Think Small campaign, do yourself a favor and read about it. The short of it: they went big on being small, owning it in a way that was emotionally convincing, almost a movement starter. This approach really worked for VW, and it’s definitely worth considering for a brand refresh — if the brand had the ability (and the stomach) to be truly revolutionary.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job doing a “Brand Makeover”. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I’ve enjoyed watching Dunkin’ evolve their brand identity over the years. When they got their start, the brand was all about the donuts. As time went on and America’s habits changed, DD saw that coffee (not donuts) was the big draw in the morning, and they created the tagline, “America runs on Dunkin,’” specifically leaving out the “Donuts.” Now, after years of introducing other foods to the menu, including some healthier options, they have officially dropped the “Donuts” from their name. Yes, Dunkin’ still has donuts, but it is clear that what originally built the brand’s reputation is now a sideline to their main focus. What impresses me about this transformation is the clear understanding of how to change to maintain modern relevancy — and the brand bravery to completely remove the attention on their historical focus. While the logo update may not seem like a radical departure — simply keeping the “Dunkin” in orange and adding the “donut pink” color to the apostrophe — it actually shows a tremendous amount of brand power. The further abbreviated “DNKN” usage on cups speaks to a level of brand confidence that is truly impressive. To other brands who are looking to refresh, it may be worth considering the Dunkin’ approach of keeping what was working and modernizing along the way. A logo is not a brand: keep your brand fresh and your logo reflective of your brand.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

After reading a book called A Complaint Free World by Will Bowen, I realized just how much I was allowing myself to get annoyed by little things — and complain about them. I also realized how easily I fell into joining others when they complain. While it can feel good in the moment, engaging in this type of negativity actually makes us feel bad. So my husband, son and I embarked on a strong effort to reduce complaining at home. I then attended a learning event from Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), and learned how complaining impedes problem solving, and I brought that concept to my leadership team to help us find a healthier way to deal with frustrations. While I’m far from complaint-free, I am making strides — and on days where the complaints are down, my positivity and productivity are up. Hopefully reading this will help someone else get started on the journey of breaking the complaint chain!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This is my personal philosophy when it comes to partnerships of any kind: we can point fingers or we can hold hands. Too often I find that the “CYA” culture leads us to point fingers at each other when there is a problem, which moves the focus away from solving and toward defending ourselves. Whether it’s internally with our team at The S3 Agency, or externally with clients or vendors, the best results always, always, always come from when we trust that both sides are working together. There will always be issues that arise — we are all human, the world is constantly changing, and we are trying new things on a daily basis. But if we believe in the best about each other, we will get the best from each other. (The same is true at home!)

How can our readers follow you online?

I’d love to see you all on Twitter (@AdvertGirl) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/deniseblasevick/), and please check out my agency at theS3agency.com!

Thank you so much for these excellent insights! We wish you continued success in your work.

5 Things You Should Do To Upgrade and Re-Energize Your Brand and Image, with Denise Blasevick of… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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