Businesses find they can’t grow without branding

Evy Mages/For Capital Business - At Honest Tea in Bethesda, image is interwoven with product. In the works: more messaging for displays in grocery stores.

Not long ago, as Honest Tea was preparing to dramatically expand the distribution of its organic beverages from its natural foods base onto shelves in the general market, company officials determined it was time for a branding overhaul.

So last year the Bethesda-based company, which made news recently when it was fully purchased by Coca-Cola, dropped a tag line designed to be a short and sweet nod to consumers who’ve stuck with the product long enough to get the subtle humor.

(Evy Mages/For Capital Business) - Samme Menke, public relations manager; Peter Kaye, marketing vice president; and Lauren Freundlich, national marketing manager, stay current.

It settled on a wordier message highlighting its natural ingredients. Out was “Be Real. Get Honest.” In was “Nature Got It Right. We Put It in a Bottle.”

In the Washington area, Honest Tea is far from alone in seeking a brand make-over. The business of image enhancement is heating up in the region — and not just among companies selling consumer products. Government contracting firms are adopting new nomenclatures that create buzz. Charities are changing their names to reflect new missions. Trade associations are updating their logos and tag lines to remain relevant to members.

And even some local government agencies are reinventing themselves. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, seeking to recover from the lead contamination controversy from a few years ago, has rebranded itself to D.C. Water and introduced a whimsical new logo depicting a giant blue drop of water.

The D.C. region is among the biggest locales in the country for marketing, advertising and public relations specialists, according to the local chapter of the American Marketing Association; their bread and butter is helping candidates craft their campaign messages and helping fallen politicians reinvent themselves. Now that work is being supplemented by a growing list of business clients seeking to differentiate themselves in the marketplace or recover from the economic downturn.

“Everything’s changed,” said Christie J. Susko, immediate past president of AMA DC, which recently changed its logo and tag line. “Resources have changed. Products have changed. Prices have changed. Business models have changed. People are spending money differently. [Some companies have] gone out of business and others have changed their value proposition to stay competitive.

“As a result,” Susko added, “everybody is trying to figure out their place in the new market.”

Decades ago, branding was mainly confined to consumer companies touting their products in the marketplace. Advertising agencies often would introduce iconic brands — Betty Crocker, Chef Boyardee, Uncle Ben’s — made up to convey homey images that had no relation to the conglomerates behind the campaigns. Today, experts say, branding is based on authenticity. It has expanded to tie together the product with the companies’ business practices, values, culture, reputation and sometimes leaders’ personality. Think Apple Computer and Facebook.

These days consumers are driving the public perception of companies, offering their sometimes not-so-flattering reviews of products and services through blogs, Web sites and social media. Companies are responding to the public’s demand for transparency; in this era of the 24/7 news cycle, consumers no longer are tolerating firms that represent one thing in their branding but demonstrate something entirely different in news coverage, experts say.

“There is so much information available to us and we can make up our own minds” about companies, said Susan Waldman, partner for strategic services at the Washington-based branding firm ZilYen. (Her business is thriving. The firm’s revenue from March to May, she said, surpassed what it made during the entirety of 2010.)

“Now the whole company is really being charged with standing behind the values claimed in the marketplace,” Waldman said. “Everything you do and say becomes part of what audiences see as your brand.”

What’s in a name?

A key element in a company’s branding is what it calls itself. Business nomenclatures of the past were more straightforward; firms typically were named for their founders or the services they provided. Now names are much more creative — consisting of made-up words, atypical spellings and odd combinations of capital and lower-case letters: strEATS, QinetiQ, Opower, PopVox, 20/20 GeneSystems, JESS3. Today’s names are designed to stand out, create buzz and reflect innovation.

But creative naming isn’t confined to software and biotech firms. The typically staid, acronym-heavy government contracting sector also is getting into the act.

When a private-equity firm announced in March it was acquiring Global Defense Technology & Systems, the McLean-based contractor, better known as GTEC, had about four weeks to come up with a new name. Company officials settled on Sotera, a made-up word based on the Greek mythological term “soter,” which means safety deliverance and preservation from harm.

“We felt acronyms were not a great way to go because people don’t know what they stand for,” said Andrew Bryden, Sotera Defense Solutions’ vice president for marketing and communications. “Fortris,” a coined word evoking “fortress,” was among about 20 names the company ruled out. Bryden said the firm rejected Fortris after learning another company had registered a similar name.

Sotera “resonates with what we do, focusing on counterterrorism, cybersecurity and helping our military be more effective when deployed overseas,” Bryden added. Sotera is among several contracting firms that renamed themselves during the past year, three of which — Exelis and Acentia are the others — opted for made-up words.

Taking on a new identity

Changes in names, logos and tag lines are often prompted by a merger, an evolution in mission or a new business opportunity — even in the nonprofit and government spheres. Trade associations, charities and government agencies in some cases are dealing with the same economic factors at play in the for-profit world: a need to set themselves apart and find new funding sources amid heightened competition for dollars.

Last month, the 25-year-old Youth Service America charity, which recruits teenagers for community service projects, unveiled a new name — YSA — as well as a new logo and tag line. The organization outgrew its name; it is now identifying itself as an charity that focuses on projects across the globe, not just in the United States.

Among several changes, National Youth Service Day has become Global Youth Service Day.

In the past, the emphasis for nonprofits “wasn’t on branding,” said YSA’s spokeswoman Jen Voss. “Now they’re run more like companies. I think they have to be to be successful.”

This summer, the Washington Convention and Sports Authority, the amalgamation of two agencies, rebranded itself Events DC. The group spent nine months and $100,000 on the effort.

“We’re competing with other tier one cities — New York, San Diego, Atlanta — for visitors,” said Greg O’Dell, president and chief executive of Events DC.

Events DC “gets us away from the traditional government agency” name, O’Dell added. “We want to act and think like a private entity where we’re marketing our city to bring business here.”

Reaching a new audience

Honest Tea, which has garnered a cult of loyal followers since launching in 1998, said its new tag line was needed to introduce a new crop of consumers to the firm’s low-sweetened drinks, religious-like adherence to socially minded principles and penchant for quirkiness (like when the head of the company put out a rap video touting the benefits of organics).

The previous tag line “didn’t necessarily tell you what the benefits of the product were,” said Seth Goldman, who calls himself the company’s president and TeaEO. “It was a nice sound, but not as effective in communicating what you’re getting out of this product.”

After establishing a foothold in the natural foods space, “now we’re going into CVS, Rite Aid and grocery stores” where there is more competition on the shelves and where consumers are less familiar with the brand, Goldman added. “We want to still be meaningful and authentic to our core audience but accessible to a wider audience.”

The company is working on additional messaging it will unveil in the fall to supplement the tag line on point-of-sale displays in grocery stores around the country. Still, Goldman said he recognizes that branding isn’t everything — it can’t cover holes in a weak business plan.

“You have to have a product that delivers on the brand and you have [an extensive distribution system] to get that product into people’s hands,” he said. The distribution system “was something that we initially didn’t have.”

It was the deal with Coke, not so much the branding, that expanded the product to 75,000 stores from 15,000. Goldman said he expects the number to grow to 100,000 by the end of the summer.

 
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