Branding Roundtable #11

Brand relevance was the topic under the microscope at the BrandSmart 2015 conference, held recently in Chicago and hosted by that chapter of the American Marketing Association. Branding Magazine was there to interview speakers and also to hold the first live Branding Roundtable.

Chuck Kent, moderator of The Branding Roundtable, led two client/agency teams through a discussion of just what it takes to effectively collaborate, as marketers and consultants, to keep brands aligned in substance and promise to current customers, emerging prospects – and to changes in their own business structures and strategies. This month’s Branding Roundtable is devoted to the heart of that discussion: case histories from United Airlines and TransUnion. Participants included:

  • Tim Simonds, now Chief Marketing and Engagement Office at The Kellogg School of Management, and formerly the Managing Director of Marketing for United Airlines, along with Scott Davis,, Chief Growth Officer at Prophet, whose more than decade-long working relationship with Simonds dates back to their days working on United.
  • Julie Springer, Chief Marketing Officer of Transunion, the information solutions company, and Bob Domenz, the CEO of Avenue, the brand strategy and activation firm that recently helped her rebrand a transformed TransUnion, from the inside out.

Collaborating to Keep United Airlines Relevant

Chuck Kent: The heart of the Roundtable today is to hear from each of these client/agency teams about a specific example of what it took for them to maintain and boost brand relevance. We’ll start with Tim Simonds, now of the Kellogg School of Management, and Scott Davis of Prophet, describing their former collaboration for United Airlines.

Tim Simonds: I’ll take folks back to United Airlines in 2005, 2006, in the middle of bankruptcy, bleeding money. At that point, two-and-a half years into bankruptcy, if the discussion that we went to have with the C-suite was, “We think we have an awareness problem,” or, “We think we have a customer satisfaction problem,” or, “We think we have a repeat problem,” their eyes would have glossed over. It was all about “What are we doing to either boost revenue or cut costs?”

Through the work that we did with Scott’s team, we were able to say, “Listen, we’re not getting our fair share of the super-premium customers. They’re about 10% of folks, but they provide about 40% of the industry revenue. That share is going to American or Delta. If we got our fair share of those folks, that’s worth half a billion dollars per year in revenue.” The conversation with the CEO and CFO is far more interesting when you walk in and say, “I think I have a half-a-billion-dollar revenue opportunity,” than when you say, “I think we have a customer satisfaction or repeat issue.”

Scott Davis: The only way this works at an airline, and I didn’t know this walking in the door, is you have to get literally every functional area involved on day one. I’m going to tell you right now – we missed some of the functional areas. We got all the typical finance and operations and IT people involved. We didn’t do a great job with HR. We didn’t do a great job with the folks that owned CSR. We didn’t do a great job with the folks that owned baggage handling. We didn’t do a great job with the flight attendants. We had the C-suite nailed, and we felt really confident about them, but then when we started bringing the recommendations out into the field to the people that actually had to bring it to life, and “operationalize the brand,” we got a ton of resistance.

The focus of the initiative was winning more often with premium customers. But if you’re a flight attendant or a baggage handler, or if you’re customer service rep, you feel like you’re discriminating against 90% of the population by giving the 10% preferential treatment. They don’t like that. They feel bad about that. In fact, they’re going to rebel against it. I remember when that first red carpet got rolled out for first class check-in, they rolled those things right back up.

Tim Simonds: Literally threw them in the dumpster.

Scott Davis: Yes, we threw them in the dumpster. While the C-suite was critical, the operators in the field who had to bring this to life were equally as critical. It took a while for us to figure that out.

Chuck Kent: So is “brand relevance” a misnomer? You’re really talking about trying to make a business throughout be relevant to its customer versus, if you’ll pardon me, a purely marketing move like rolling out a red carpet. Is that what you basically discovered?

Tim Simonds: I think your brand is your business. I don’t separate those two. I think it’s beholden among marketers to help lead some of the corporate strategy of the organization that they’re in. The reason a corporation wants a stronger brand is usually to drive top line growth, and being able to put those two things together. The CEOs are going to hear a lot about digital this or social media that or content marketing this… and their heads spin. It’s the job of the marketer to bring that down to, “How is this going to create, enhance, and bring more value to the organization?” The conversation with the CEO and CFO is far more interesting when you walk in and say, ‘I think I have a half-a-billion dollar revenue opportunity,’ than when you say, ‘I think we have a customer satisfaction or repeat issue.’”

Scott Davis: Tim, I think it’s important if you tell the story around Economy Plus, and how they almost canceled Economy Plus and pulled it out. It’s an interesting story about how management shifted their point of view on what needed to be done.

Tim Simonds: If you remember, back in 2006, 2007, United had Economy Plus. American had more room throughout coach. They took very different angles to an aircraft. Economy Plus was the first 20% or 25% of the aircraft that had three to five more inches of legroom. More room throughout coach was basically every seat on the aircraft having an extra couple of inches of legroom. American Airlines, as they were going into bankruptcy, put rows of seats back on their plane and got rid of that section. You can imagine the conversation with the CFO – we should get rid of Economy Plus because that’s what American’s doing. I can count the extra revenue from the extra row of seats on every aircraft. That’s a pretty big number.

We walked in with our presentation on how that was going to really impact customer satisfaction, those types of things. I remember the CFO looking directly across the table at us and saying, “You either figure out how to monetize Economy Plus, or I’m putting a row of seats back on the airplane because I know what that dollar is worth.” What we did was start selling Economy Plus to non-premium customers.

We kept it as a product for our premium customers, but monetized it by selling at $19, $29, $39, $49 depending on the length of haul for non-premium customers. Over a three-year period we built over $270 million or so in incremental revenue for the organization. It wouldn’t have come without that core challenge of, as a marketer, how do you preserve what you know to be true as a real need for your customers? How do you think about monetizing it for the folks that weren’t in your target sweet spot?

Chuck Kent: Just one other thing. You mentioned that you didn’t do a good job, you felt, with some of the areas of the company. Did you have to reload? How did you go back and repair that?

Tim Simonds: Yes, I think as Scott mentioned, at the higher levels we did a pretty good job at aligning the organization to the branding platform. We even had some mid-management, but we missed the front-line employees.

I think that was the painful lesson that we learned through this whole process. Before you go try to put all of the initiatives and task forces and all those types of things into the market, align the employee base. Aligning an employee base (which at the time, was also going through bankruptcy with the airline, and also having their pensions ripped away and put into 401K plans) wasn’t an easy task.

We went back to literally going break room by break room at O’Hare Airport or La Guardia or LAX or San Francisco explaining what we were trying to do, explaining that, if we were successful at this, there would be more revenue for the company. And that would be something for us to talk about in future negotiations, as it relates to employee contracts – because that’s what’s in it for them at the end of the day.

Scott Davis: We engaged them in a conversation around how they could help us make this a reality. I’d say half of the ideas that are now in the field came from the frontline employees. The minute they started to see that they were not only in the dialogue, they were being listened to and we were actually acting on the recommendations, the word traveled really fast. SFO talked to LAX, La Guardia to O’Hare, and it started to become their plan, as opposed to corporate forcing it down. The bottom-up approach…we got there eventually, but it probably took us four extra months that we didn’t have.

“I think your brand is your business. I don’t separate those two.”

Tim Simonds: Eight.

Scott Davis: How many? Eight, okay. It felt like twelve, actually.

Chuck Kent: How much of this are you actually doing together? Back to the collaboration, are you flying around the country, literally together as a team?

Scott Davis: Yes. Tim got first class. I sat at the back of the seats.

Chuck Kent: You didn’t get Economy Plus?

Tim Simonds: I didn’t even put him in Economy Plus.

As a partnership, I’m a true believer in seeing it from beginning to end. Very early on, we spent a lot of time establishing trust. Part of the job that any partner has with you is to tell you where they think things are going right, but also to smack you upside the head and tell you where you’re probably missing it. That’s what I enjoy about the relationship with Scott and Prophet – they tell you the truth.

Chuck: What a concept. Telling the truth.

Collaborating to Keep Branding Relevant to Business Reality: TransUnion

Chuck Kent: Now we’ll pass the batons. Can you tell us the truth of the TransUnion and Avenue collaboration?

Julie Springer: We had, I think, an experience that was different, from the perspective that our senior leadership completely bought into the idea. It was their idea, which was great. That’s what you want.

The bad news: all of the sudden, we’re sitting around the table and the CFO and the head of HR and the CTO and head of international, everybody has an opinion! They’re very passionate. They’re convinced that theirs is the clearest route to ideal relevancy. How are we going to get this done?

I think one of the key roles of an agency that Avenue played early on was coming in and being that neutral third party. When I sat in internal meetings, I was just a colleague, just one more voice. But when Bob sat there, or Rachel [Klein, Avenue’s Director of Strategy] sat there, there was that neutrality that was a really important factor for us in getting all of those wandering voices heard, but then corralling, really herding the cats, and getting us down to a point where we could all agree. I think that was a really key part of the collaboration early on.

Bob Domenz: You guys really want the truth? I’m just kidding. Yeah, that’s actually a very accurate depiction. Key to that was again the willingness and openness of the organization to participate. As example, we didn’t just reach out to the C-suite or at the Executive Leadership Team level, we also brought in and had the participation of hundreds of others at different levels of the organization. That type of open dialogue and that type of candor – and in the process finding the company’s true purpose, and what were they in the position to brand from – that’s an act of archeology. That’s uncovering something that’s already inherent in the organization. “Open dialogue… and candor…and finding the company’s true purpose – that’s an act of archeology. That’s uncovering something that’s already inherent in an organization.”

By allowing us to have access to that size of a population, we were able to see those red threads and get those kernels of thought, of belief system, of what proved to be their core differentiation in the marketplace.

Another key aspect of this is that there were proactive and reactive reactions to making their brand relevant. [He speaks to the audience] Quick survey: How many people feel that their organization is very proactive and takes the necessary steps ahead of time in order to stay relevant in the market place? [pause] One-half of a person. How many people feel that they wait for external
factors or some driving force to get you to pivot off center and make a change? It’s the majority maybe. There’s a whole bunch of people who do not see any change required.

In TransUnion’s situation, they were doing it from what we’d call a position of strength. You can simply get this down to, “Who’s moving first?” Is the organization going to move first to make itself more relevant, to get ahead of the curve among its targeted audiences? Or is it going to wait until that market place shifts, or until customer behavior shifts…. and then responds to that? In this case, externally, there could be lot of factors that drive a need for a brand to become relevant: an aggressive competitor, consumer behaviors changing, regulatory changes, and so forth.

Alternatively, an organization can have internal forces that drive it to become more relevant. One example of that is when a company evolves past its current brand. I think that’s a great example of what happened with TransUnion.

Chuck Kent: Can you just back up to that, and give us the context of where this started? What the business context was, and then where you’ve come out with it?

Julie Springer: The operative word for us was “disconnect.” TransUnion… [she speaks to the audience]… does anyone know what TransUnion is? We’re an incredibly well kept secret, and it’s a funny company. In 1968, it was a railcar company that had excess storage in its data center. They went out and bought the Cook County credit records just to monetize the data storage, and one of the nation’s largest information solutions companies is born.

For a lot of people, TransUnion had never really evolved much past that point in terms of our external image. We had this huge disconnect between what was really going on within the company and what the perceptions were. The purpose of the brand was to close that gap, and to find ways that we could capture what was the reality of where we were going, and make sure that our brand platform and our strategies aligned to the existing business strategy. “I’ve worked with a lot of branding agencies in different projects… and the trust isn’t always there.”

Chuck Kent: So it sounds like you need to drive this process together. Do you ever play good cop/bad cop as you’re doing this? Do you have to come in and be the heavy, Bob, as the outsider who can take the heat? How does that work?

Julie Springer: Can I just throw one thing in? I will say, before you answer that, there’s a huge amount of trust. [She addresses Tim and Scott] I bet you guys that this relationship, whether it’s 12 years old or not, it’s a very trusting relationship. This person has to have access to everybody. I’ve worked with Wolff Olins out of London, and Siegel + Gale in LA., I’ve worked with a lot of branding agencies in different projects, and the trust isn’t always there. And it shows. I think that’s one of the critical success ingredients to any of these relationships.

Chuck Kent: [He addresses Tim and Scott, who joked earlier about having a collaborative business relationship that is like a marriage.] Could we hear about your “marriage” Tim and Scott? I’ll be your marriage counselor here. How do you keep the marriage fresh? You’ve been together for 12 years.

Scott Davis: Wow, Chuck, that’s very personal. [audience laughs]

Chuck Kent: You’ve had some problem children. You’ve had some beautiful children. It comes down to relationships. How do you, as working partners, keep that going?

Scott Davis: I think at Prophet, for Tim and the organizations he’s worked with, we continue to bring new ways to see problems that he’s challenged with. Whether it’s through a new way of getting to analytics and looking at data, or really interesting ways of getting to insights through design and digital, we help with marketing more tightly to business strategy and the financials. If I gave him the United Airlines playbook for what we’re trying to do at Kellogg right now, it wouldn’t work. It would be totally irrelevant. My job is to keep him as fresh as we are, and actually at the same level.

The good cop/bad cop thing… the data breaks through all of that. The insights and the analytics. And Tim’s been fortunate to have CEOs who are willing to hear the bad news along with the good news. I cannot think of once in 12 years where either one of us has not walked in lockstep into those meeting – nor have we thrown each other under the bus, which I’ve seen happen with other client situations I’ve been involved in.

I’m fortunate enough that I’m on the board of the Kellogg School of Management, so part of Tim’s role as an officer is always to present to the board, and I always have his back at the board meetings. As you can imagine, the Kellogg board is made up of really famous marketers at the highest levels, so they like to challenge almost everything that Tim presents. I also feel it’s not about protecting my buddy. It’s about actually backing up my buddy because I believe in where he’s going, the direction that he’s setting.

Tim Simonds: I think part of that has to be from a client side willing to hear some of the recommendations. There have been times where, I think, Scott’s probably had to make the same recommendation three times, and I finally got it through my thick head and made changes where changes were necessary. I think we can both point back to areas in the relationship where we had engagement manager A or B who wasn’t gelling with the team, and I said, “Scott, we’ve got to make a change because while that person is extremely smart, in terms of getting the relationship to work on all levels of our organization, that personality is getting in the way.” We’ve made changes quickly. It’s that type of willingness to change and pivot quickly on both sides that is what I think helps build some of that trust.

How to Stay Relevant in Your Own Branding Career

Chuck Kent: We’re talking about brand relevance, so before we go to Q&A, I’d like to hear how we as branding professionals can stay relevant in our careers, in this very rapidly changing industry. How can we get and remain qualified to, say, be on one of your teams?

Bob Domenz: The first suggestion that comes to mind is basically be a student of the game, and that means looking outside of your industry, outside of your category, to see what others are doing. To look at marketing brand strategy up one level, through the level of business strategy, back to the earlier point. If you are in a position where you can afford to align with a resource who can act as your advisor, who can also help act as an educator because they’re able to bring you outside ideas and new thinking and perspective and so forth, obviously that’s a great help. In the spirit of sports… to be the best, you have to practice and play with the best. It’s trying to find the absolute best you can find to be your partner. That will go a long way in terms of your professional development.“I’ve worked with a lot of branding agencies in different projects…and the trust isn’t always there.”

If you’re in a position where you’re not able to actually, say, hire that consulting firm or that agency partner, and you’re more working or operating within your own internal resources, it’s still finding that outside advisor to you. That could be a colleague. Academia is a great place to look. Become friends with a professor of marketing, someone who can serve as a sounding board to you. Someone you can pose questions to. Someone you can grab that quarterly lunch with and say, “What’s new? What’s happening in this field?” That can go immeasurable lengths in terms of development.

Chuck Kent: Any other advice?

Julie Springer: Maybe just this: don’t have a completely fixed perspective on how you’re going to get there. A couple of my team members are here, and I know that sometimes you meander into these projects a little bit differently, and you might have had a plan. It’s rarely going to go exactly according to plan. I think it’s good to be flexible and open to however the opportunities come to you.

Tim Simonds: I’d miss the opportunity if I didn’t say this: come take a class at Kellogg [School of Management]. In seriousness, just become that lifelong learner. If you’re really steeped in marketing and you don’t understand finance, go figure out how you really learn it. Read the Harvard Business Review cover to cover. Find new areas where you don’t have as much knowledge as you think folks in other parts of the corporation do, and become a lifelong learner on that.

Q&A on Brand Relevance

Chuck Kent: [He addresses the audience] I’d like to know what questions you have out there. Anybody have a question for the panel while we still have a few minutes?

Conference Attendee: There’s a lot of integration going on and acquisition. I’m curious how you evaluate brands that are brought in, and how you treat them?

Bob Domenz: First and foremost, in an acquisition scenario, the question is “What was the business intent through that acquisition?” On one hand, you acquired a company because it is successful. It’s doing well. Maybe it’s making money or it’s penetrating a market place. You don’t want to be too soon to make changes to that just for the purposes of accelerating integration. You need to understand the strategic intent.

Then, ultimately, it’s looking across some of the basics of what you would do in any marketing strategy planning scenario. What type of market place is it serving compared to the acquired versus the acquiree? Are there overlaps? Are there similarities or dissimilarities? Product offering, price point, channels to market, and so forth. You hope that there was some of that work done in pre-merger due diligence. That said, there are many instances where that’s done in and extremely shallow way, so your starting point is… two blank slates. Does anyone understand what we just bought here? Those are rare, but those do happen.

Scott Davis: My bias is fewer, stronger brands. When a client of ours makes an acquisition… everything Bob said, ditto. It’s also, what’s the end game? Is it three years, five years out that you’re trying to migrate all the equities into the master brand? Or do you want the value proposition to live on its own as a sub-brand or a co-brand or its own product brand? That takes a lot of research. That takes a lot of know how. There’s a client here who I won’t mention, who we went through this with. The executive leadership team did not buy into our recommendations. They disintegrated a highly valuable brand that you would all know because the CEO was adamant about continuing to build only the master brand. They lost a ton of clients as collateral to a decision that wasn’t very strategic.

I think you have to do the due diligence. We always love – and it sounds silly – but we always love doing decision trees, using the decision tree and all the different outcomes that can come on the right side of the page, and all the different inputs that have to be on the left side of the page. It’s a very strategic way of seeing what the different options are. Depending on the end result you’re trying to get to, it gives you a path forward. A lot of CEOs are very focused on building a singular master brand. That puts them in a position of migrating a little too fast.

Second Conference Attendee: Earlier you mentioned using brand ambassadors internally at a company. Are there different tactics that you utilized to really build a brand internally?

Julie Springer: It’s a long answer. Invite them in, first of all. Make sure that they are all in. Sometimes it’s the folks that you know, or you can anticipate, are going to be a great part of the solution… but a lot of the times it’s also making sure you include people that are going to be a problem. From a tactical perspective, we just made sure that we set up very regular touch points, and that we really communicated.

It’s funny. I have a tendency to go really quickly, but in these instances you have to just slow down and make sure that you’re being very thorough and very inclusive. A lot of communication. We gave them a lot of responsibility in their market. In some cases, this was global, somebody in our Hong Kong office. In others, it was a department, but we made sure that they understood their remit, and that they had something very specific to accomplish. They were really part of the whole thing.

We continue to keep them involved. The brand has been “launched,” but we continue to keep them involved. We keep them on a council to constantly provide us input in terms of what’s going on. We’re also including them in terms of what does this brand roll-out mean to the business, and gathering some of those ideas, whether that’s influencing how a product works, or some of our processes that you might not think are normally associated with this act, with a rebranding. We have those ambassadors out there bringing those inputs to us and keeping them engaged with that.

Third Conference Attendee: There’s a lot of talk today about going through consultants and people who would be representing your interests. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that. Is the strategy to arm them with information, and then take that forward, and then become more engaged with you?

Bob Domenz: If I understand the question properly, that could be how do you best engage and involve a channel partner, say, a distributor or union labor force. How do you best involve them in the process of creating and deploying a rebranding in order to become more relevant? I think the short answer is “early and often.” There isn’t a lot of secret to that formula, if you will, but quite frankly your outcomes will be significantly different if you roll out to them your new set of decisions and direction, say for example, new product architecture with brands removed and so forth, and you are telling them what’s new.

That’s different than inviting them into the conversation as part of the research activities, as part of your planning activities, to understand what their perspective is. What are their needs? What are their pains? What opportunities do you they see? Use that as input.

It’s not to say you’re going to be doing everything that they ask you to do, but it’s a materially different outcome if they’re involved in the process. You’ll hear different organizations give that different name sometimes, like Center of Influence meetings, or VIP meetings. You’re convening groups of those constituencies for the purpose of sharing with them your strategic intent, or sharing with them the problems you’re wrestling with, and inviting them to be part of creating the solution. Or you can do that in your “magic cave” and bring it to them one day, asking them to take this and love it. They usually won’t.

Third Conference Attendee: Like the airline example?

Tim Simonds: Yes. Then take it back to the simple WIIFM principle: “what’s in it for me?” They’ve got to know that this is for them.

Chuck Kent: Thank you all very much.

This eBook was originally published in Branding Magazine. To read more from Chuck Kent, click here.