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3 Signs Your Re-Brand is Going to Be a Complete Waste of Money

Marketing execs are in a fix.

On the one hand, there is stark evidence that a powerful brand has enormous influence over purchasing behavior and customer satisfaction.

On the other, rebrands are almost always a total waste of money, not to mention highly embarrassing and public when they fail. (You can predict the likely degree of misfire by counting how many people with weird titles the agency flies in for the pitch meeting.)

What to do?

Here are three object lessons in rebrands gone wrong to help you decide if your planned brand update will power your company’s launch into future, or devolve into an expensive exercise in futility.

You’re trying to fix a business problem with a new logo

Radio Shack The Shack logoRemember when Radio Shack sold CB radios in the 1970s? That’s okay, neither do I. But they made a mint doing it, and after CBs faded out of popular use they successfully navigated many business changes peaking through the 1980s and early 1990s with over 7,000 stores in the US alone.

The SHack logo replacement AdUnfortunately, by the mid-2000s the once-dominant company’s many strategic missteps had left it struggling to figure out its identity.(Did they sell radios? computers? technical expertise?) But the one thing Radio Shack still had well past its prime was insanely good name recognition.  So how did they handle it? They took the one thing everyone did remember fondly about the company – its name and logo – and torpedoed it.

That’s not to say that logos shouldn’t be refreshed or updated. But your logo is never your brand. It is simply the visual expression of it. So if your management team is unclear on the company’s strategic business direction, put the checkbook away and tell the agency you’ll call them when you’ve got it figured out.

Your new name is emotionally identical to the old one

Sleep Country Brand LogoLast year Sleep Country rebranded as Sleep Train. This one makes me extra sad, because I have always loved Sleep Country thanks to their incredible support for foster kids. Here’s a company that built its business on price, selection and service. They absolutely own that position in the market. So what’s the difference between a Sleep Country and a Sleep Train? I have no idea. And neither do you. You know why? Because there isn’t any. Emotionally, these two names are identical.

Sleep Train new brand logoSo while you may not like Sleep Train any less than Sleep Country, you probably don’t like it any more, either. Meanwhile, the company is now spending millions of dollars trying to erase that well-established name from your mind and replace it with the new one.

I can see why the company felt that their old tagline ‘Why buy a mattress anywhere else?” was ready for an update. And the new one “Superior Service. Best Selection. Lowest Price. Guaranteed.” is really good.  It tells you exactly why you wouldn’t buy a mattress anywhere else. Kudos. But changing the name conferred no benefits, while costing valuable brand equity.

Sleep Train still has plenty of opportunity though, and I really hope their next campaign will grab it by telling powerful, emotional stories about the many foster children who have benefited from their commitment to such an important cause.

You’re pointlessly making things complicated

Pediatric Associates old brand logoFor decades parents in and around the greater Seattle area have been flocking to the superb medical practice, Pediatric Associates. Great doctors, short wait times, efficient operations, and a main office that’s open even on Saturdays and Sundays. In short – everything a busy parent wants.

So what did they do? They rebranded as Allegro Pediatrics. I know. I had to look it up too.

So, it turns out that Allegro means “cheerful” or “lively” in Italian. Which is nice if you speak Italian, but I suspect most of their customers don’t. Meanwhile in English, Allegro sounds vaguely like an allergy, or a medication for an allergy. It’s also a musical term from those 5th grade violin lessons you took that you’ve now completely forgotten, because you have a new baby and your brain is fried from lack of sleep, and all you really want is a pediatrician with a name you can actually remember.

This is a classic example of “if it ‘aint broke… don’t fix it.” Pediatric Associates already had a perfectly useful name with loads of brand equity in the community. Why couldn’t they keep that same name and use it in the aesthetic of this fun new logo? I’m pretty sure the designer could have figured it out.

Allegro Pediatrics' brand logoThat logo and website refresh was certainly overdue, but a name change was not. The lesson? No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. That new name (and the pretty penny they surely paid to get it) isn’t going to make any difference whatsoever in their revenue or retention rates.

This is not to deny the power of brand. In fact, I work with companies to improve their brand storytelling all the time. But this is done by uncovering an existing brand story, not by papering some totally made up story over it.

Brands are indeed powerful. The trick is to discover what’s already great about your company and then tell that story over and over again. Marketing dollars should be used to express your brand, not fake one.

This is just as true for a supposedly boring B2B product as it is for consumer brands. Whether you are a brilliant, scrappy upstart, or the oldest, most reliable service provider in your sector, your brand will work hardest for you when you focus on expressing that personality authentically, in every touch point you have with your customers.

If it turns out that your name or logo are totally out of sync with who you fundamentally are then go right ahead and do that rebrand. But if not, maybe it’s your story – and not your name – that needs the reboot.

Whole Foods: How They Can Rewrite Their Story and Win the PR War

Whole Foods Market in brand crisis

Whole Foods brand can win by owning a premium position

People are fascinated by car wrecks. The more awful, the more we feel compelled to look. The same is true in marketing. Somehow, everyone loves to cringe and comment when a company has some kind of public meltdown. And like with most car wrecks, the average observer will get a lot of the facts just plain wrong.

Which brings me to the just plain wrong that was delivered in this misinformed post in of all places about Whole Foods’ recent tough week. The author (a journalist-turned-PR-consultant) rehashes the news we’ve already heard elsewhere – Whole Foods’ stock is down, they can’t shake the whole paycheck moniker, blah, blah, – and then opines on what he thinks Whole Foods ought to do, namely:

If Whole Foods wants to win back trust, it needs to engage in a pro-active “pricing campaign” that educates consumers on why and how they are lowering prices, while remaining true to their high quality products that made Whole Foods the pioneer in organic food.

Uhm, no. This is like telling BMW they better figure out a way to slash prices so they can compete with Toyota, because they both offer leather seats, GPS and sunroofs as an option.

Whole Foods is a premium brand that is NEVER going to win on price. NEVER. People don’t shop at Whole Foods because it has the cheapest food, they shop there because it has the best food. Period.

Best selection. Best quality. Best service. You want cheap? Go to the market next door. You want the best? Come to Whole Foods.

This marketing fundamental is called positioning.

When writing copy for company stories, positioning is job #1. You have to figure out what the company offers that makes it special to the customer and then highlight that above all else. And you don’t do it by trying to paper over a new brand onto an existing one. You do it by uncovering what makes people love the brand, and articulating that message in a powerfully emotional way.

In their classic book on the topic, Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout use the example of Volkswagen to demonstrate this principle. In a world populated by big, gas-guzzling cars, Volkswagen could never compete by pretending they could hold as much cargo as the competition. They had to own who they were and make it a virtue. Here’s how they did it:

People come to Whole Foods because they want a special experience, not because they want something cheap. Whether it’s a fine locally produced goat cheese infused with essence of lavender, or a fat bunch of parsley that smells like the earth it was pulled from just yesterday, Whole Foods is where you go when you want more than just calories, you want emotional connection. To the food. To the farmers. To the planet Earth we all share.

If I were working with Whole Foods, I’d go all in on that story. REI has its brilliant #OptOutside campaign and Whole Foods can do the same. Put a stake in the ground and say, “Nope, we’re not the cheapest, but that’s because we care. You want cheap? Go to the supermarkets that don’t care. You want to be part of a movement? Come here.

Whole Foods doesn’t have to make this position up. They already OWN it. And you only have to step into one of their stores to see the level of commitment they have to this premium position.

There are plenty of examples of great brands that cost more and are thriving: Patagonia. Apple. Nike. These brands are winning by telling great stories that justify their premium position, and Whole Foods can and should win this way too. With their 365 stores in the pipeline, Whole Foods already has the low-cost option covered. Their flagship brand deserves better than a price war, and a powerful storytelling campaign that explains why they are worth more is the sure way to avoid one.

Photo credit: Whole Foods Market

Find Your…New Tagline?

 By Catherine Captain


It seems everyone these days wants us to find something. Corona wants us to find our beach. Nike wants us to find our greatness. Macy’s wants us to find our magic. Expedia wants us to find our story. And now Kohl’s wants us to find our yes (huh?). So what’s behind all this searching and seeking? Why are brands from such varied sectors compelling their audiences to get out there – or look within – and find, find, find? In the case of these brand nudges towards exploration, it all starts with story.

You see, the brands that transcend the cacophony these days are doing so by connecting with their consumers on an emotional level and the communication device that awakens hearts is story. The familiar pattern of a story instantly locks into ancient, well-worn story grooves in our brains. [The neuroscience is well documented and quite fascinating. Check out this Fast Company article summarizing a research study showing that when subjects love brands more than people (!!!), story was playing cupid.]

As humans, when we spot heroes and villains out in the world, our brains whir and our hearts leap. We’ve heard this one before, but we always want to see how it ends. There will be obstacles and mentors along the way. That hero will leave their ho-hum world for a greater, life-altering experience. Clever brands tell us these tales and in the process they win us over, sometimes completely.

Which brings me back to Corona, Nike, Macy’s, Expedia and Kohl’s. Why the “find your…” zeitgeist? Are we really so utterly lost these days? Are each one of us flailing aimlessly, leading a purposeless life without our beach, our greatness, our magic, our story and our yes? Actually, these brands are tapping the oldest plot around, the hero’s journey. (All hail the master, Joseph Campbell, who documented the monomyth from ancient mythology to modern day stories.) The journey is beautifully and succinctly explained in this great TED Ed video.

In this cycle, the hero is called to adventure and eventually crosses the threshold to a special world that will change them forever. In brand journeys, YOU, the consumer, are the hero. (Hint, marketers: the consumer – not your product – is almost ALWAYS the hero, natch.)

The villain is your horribly mundane life. Imagine: No beach! No greatness! No magic! No story! No yes (wait, what?)! And who is the mentor in these tales? Ahhh…the brands. These brands descend from on high to show you the way into the light, right to the special world. “Find your…” is our call to adventure, my friends! It’s an invitation to start our journey, the beginning of our story, our “once upon a time…”

Just one little problem: I have exploration overload. Find fatigue. Discovery discontent. How can so many brands within just a few years be sounding the exact same clarion call? Don’t tagline copywriters at ad agencies triple-check for this stuff? Or maybe even watch TV themselves?? This is, at best, copycat communication and, at worst, lazy marketing. Don’t get me wrong, these brand stories can be enormously powerful. This Nike ad is one of my favorites of all time. I weep openly in this Expedia spotCorona claimed beaches, forgodssake! And I’m shouting the dramatic benefits of storytelling from the marketing mountaintops. But hey all you “find your…” marketers, we cry “uncle”!! Find your new tagline. Please!

UPDATE: And there’s more! Find your Fit from Fitbit and Find Your Park (National Park Foundation), Find New Roads (Chevrolet). Stop the madness!

Catherine Captain is a partner at Rumble Marketing and adjunct professor teaching “Story-Based Marketing: Using the Power of Story to Achieve Business Success” at the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership Master’s program. 

Put Some Tough Mudder #Badass in Your Brand

A week ago the Tough Mudder team brought their unique brand of muddy fun and obstacle course racing to the Seattle area. Founded in 2010, Tough Mudder Inc. has zoomed to $75 million in revenue in just 4 years with over 60 events held per year worldwide.

With growth like that, it’s worth taking a peek at what’s working to spread the Mudder Nation brand so fast.


Tough Mudder saves a fortune in marketing costs by giving participants a reason to spread their brand. By completing an event you earn bragging rights to a story in which YOU are cast as the hero.

I know what you’re thinking, “Sure, but that’s easy for them. Bragging rights are inherent to an endurance sports event.

Not true. How many triathlon brands or marathon brands can claim Tough Mudder levels of loyalty and love? How many can you even name? Maybe Boston or New York, and maybe the Ironnman in Hawaii. But that’s it. There are hundreds of companies running thousands of extremely demanding sports event all year long, and most toil in obscurity. In contrast, the Tough Mudder succeeds in turning participants into brand evangelists in a way these other events don’t.

So how do they do it? First, they reinforce their brand story – and cement loyalty to it – with language. Mudders aren’t “participants”, they are “Mudder Nation”. They don’t just get a T-shirt or that signature orange headband  – they earn citizenship into the toughest nation on earth. Beat THAT for bragging rights.

Note how using the word “nation” conveys all kinds of beneficial nuance to our understanding of the brand: loyalty, integrity, honor, fealty. This is the language of heroism and the language of belonging.

Look further and you’ll see more savvy language choices that drive brand inclusion and reinforce this heroic brand story. If you run a Mudder more than once (read: repeat customer) you become part of a “Legion”. But you can’t buy it, you have to EARN it:

This language actually treats being a repeat customer as a privilege. How’s that for smart marketing?

How can you emulate this bragging rights strategy even if you don’t electroshock your customers? Think about what your product or service does, and find ways to make it feel like a uniquely qualified or special community. A B2B SaaS tool seems pretty boring, but the folks at Hubspot pull this off quite nicely, calling anyone who works with them “Hubspotters”, and the agencies that contract with them “Partners”. Like the Tough Mudders, the Hubspot folks deploy a language of inclusion to make customers feel like they are part of a larger movement.


The Mudder team needs to attract their target audience away from traditional endurance events they already know and have budgeted for. A more conservative marketer might be afraid to alienate people with tough talk, but not the Mudders. They have the guts to position themselves against other endurance events like marathons – even though they know many of their target audience may have completed one.

In their fact sheet (see image below) Fact #2 is “Marathons are boring”.

Sure they could worry about whether this copy decision might cost them some marathon-loving prospects. But taking that risk ultimately reinforces their unique selling proposition (spontaneous fun over predictable tradition) and in the end entices plenty enough marathoners too. In taking a stand they make the purchase decision easier by giving the target audience an obvious reason to choose their event over the competition.

The lesson here is this: Be bold in your use of whatever sets you apart from your competitors to win more business over time.


All too many companies water down their brand when dealing with officialdom, while the Tough Mudders stick to their guns no matter who is on the other side of the table,  For example, the Cartoon Network recently sent out this press release and video of Attorney General Eric Holder to support their anti-bullying campaign.

The message isn’t wrong per se, but coming from the Cartoon Network it could be so much stronger. Just think how much better, more powerful, and brand appropriate it would have been had they used a cartoon to tell this story!

Now contrast the Cartoon Network’s weak message with this press release from the Tough Mudder folks:

The profanity isn’t for everyone, but it is a perfect fit for their brand.

Even sponsors are not spared. Look at this copy from the Tough Mudder website page on sponsorship.

They use the page to differentiate themselves by contrasting their brand punch with the safe image other well known brands like Joann Fabrics and Bed Bath and Beyond. The message: we have balls, and our sponsors do too.

How can you use this lesson for your own company? Stay on brand in all contexts. You will attract far more attention for being recognizably consistent than by trying to be all things to all people.


The Tough Mudder takes storytelling to the next level by infusing everything they do with a higher sense of purpose. The pre-race pep talk is about working together, about people struggling to overcome health crisis or battle injuries. The website encourages Mudders to raise money for Wounded Warriors, and service members are at each event cheering teams on and thanking everyone for their efforts. In stark contrast to marathons and triathlons, this race is not about how long it took or finishing first, it’s about finishing together.

Races are not timed, so everyone is free to help everyone else, whether on their own team or another – and they always do. In this way, the product and the message are in perfect harmony and as a result Mudders are free to create their own great stories.  Because as we all know, the strongest stories are ones in which humans show their best naturesputting aside the rush to the finish, and stopping to help others achieve their own greatness.

How can you create memorable stories like this for your own brand? Think about your ultimate purpose. Why does your company exist beyond just making money?  Use that noble purpose to find your own customer stories, and you will be well on your way to creating your own Mudder-like success.

All screenshots and images courtesy of ToughMudder Inc.