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Branding vs. Imaging

I recently cruised the Internet to satisfy my curiosity about how the “experts” define branding and don’tcha know that of the 25 or so articles I looked up, every one had a different definition? They all were in the same general ballpark but some of them were so vague, I wasn’t even sure I could say they defined it at all. So let’s be crystal clear. Branding means the same thing today as it did 150 years ago when cattlemen branded their livestock. If you spotted a steer with a big double X scar on its butt, you knew it belonged to my great-great grandfather Cyrus Josephus Foxx. Branding is a mark of ownership. To the average camp kid, it is nothing more than your name scribbled on the inner band of your briefs. Those briefs belong to you…nobody else. Of course, being in radio, we’re not branding our jockey shorts, well… most of us aren’t. We’re branding our product. If you’re a News/Talk station, you’re claiming stories as being your stories. “In an exclusive interview with KTLK news, the Mayor told….” If you’re a Music station, you’re claiming songs and artists as being your songs and artists. “This is Z100’s Cardi B!” “Here’s the Z100 world premier of Ariana Grande’s new release….” Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars every year trying to get us to think that their product is NOT a super-sweet, caramel-flavored soda, but rather a lifestyle. Lifestyle is their brand, not industrial tire cleaner. If you think that Domino’s Pizza brand is selling pizza, think again. For years, their entire advertising budget was wrapped around the idea of getting your pizza within 30 minutes. They’re selling service. A series of lawsuits made them give up the idea of a hot pizza delivered within 30 minutes, (too many traffic accidents) but speedy service – without the guarantee, is the brand they still push all the time, not pizza. So a brand is a mark of product ownership, pure and simple. As long as you are clear about what you are “owning” in your branding efforts, your message should always ring clear and loud. Image, on the other hand, is more about your station. Ever hear of a cattleman branding himself? (Well, there is that one ranch outside of LaGrange, Texas…but that’s another topic.) Imaging, or as a marketing expert would put it, positioning is about what your business stands for. It can be “one station…all the hits,” or “where hit music lives.” These are all “positioning statements.” Hopefully, the positioning statement is succinct. It has to be truthful too, at least in the mind of the listener, or it becomes an albatross around your neck. THIS is your station imaging. Ever try to wash one hand at a time? You can’t do it, at least not very effectively. One hand helps wash the other and vice versa. Likewise, your brand helps you support your image and your image helps reinforce the brand, but they’re not the same thing any more than your left hand is the same thing as your right hand. They have opposite perspectives. Branding is about the product, imaging is about the station. Knowing the difference allows you to evaluate the balance between the two. If your position is not supported by the brand, as perceived in the listener’s mind, your station begins to sound arrogant and boastful. It’s great to say that you’re the number one hit music station, but if you don’t have the branded product to back that claim, you’re spouting hot air and the audience knows it immediately. On the other hand, I would venture to say that it’s not possible to have too strong a brand, but having a lot of branded product lying around without any effective imaging doesn’t really help your station either. So let’s talk about how we brand our product. What is your product? If you’re a News/Talk station, it’s “the news.” Without any doubt, the most effective branding you can do is to get listeners to talk about different stories you’ve covered as being something they “followed closely on (insert call letters here).” This is your audience, talking to your audience and giving a big – thumbs up. The ultimate would be to get someone who is in the news do the same thing. If you’re a Music intensive station, it’s the music…and on a somewhat deeper level, the artists who make that music. Having the artists plug your station, over their songs, is a HUGE branding tool. I’m sure you’ve heard this on dozens of stations, including your own. It’s called a Power Intro. After hearing it enough times, the listener will begin to hear those elements, even when they’re hearing the same song on another radio station. This is SO powerful! The concept was originally developed in the 70s by Jon Wolfert at JAM Creative Productions in Dallas, working in concert with 77WABC/New York. The LOGOSET package was designed in multiple keys and tempos so that they would lead directly into hit songs. WABC would then dub them onto a tape cartridge WITH the song, so that the key/tempo and pacing were exactly perfect, every time it played.

Jon wasn’t satisfied though, and came up with a new concept a few years later called Pop-Tops. He would recreate the music of a pop hit and then have his singers replicate the vocals of the hit, changing the lyrics to make it sound like the band did a custom version, just for the radio station. The one that stands out in my mind is Starship’s (the second iteration of Jefferson Airplane) We Built This City. Jon re-built the beginning of the song to say that Z100 built New York City with rock and roll. We just edited it into the beginning of the song and had a powerful branding tool, every time it played. Naturally, Jon monetized the track with versions for other markets from Los Angeles to Frederick, Maryland.

Every once in awhile, an artist or band will do a custom intro. The idea is to get your station to PLAY the song, of course, but if the song is a hit, you’ve got some of the best branding you could possibly ask for. Tom Poleman and I were brainstorming branding ideas one day and we came up with what we called Power Intros…something between a pop-top and an old-school jingle. We bought a complete set of acapella jingles done in every key and different tempos. I would then combine them in the intros of songs, with some artist audio, “Hi, this is Adam Levine from Maroon 5…” and possibly additional imaging VO (usually Anne DeWig (later Kelly Kelly Kelly) or my voice saying “all the hits” or some such thing.)

Several stations I’ve heard have opted for an even simpler version of the Power Intro that only uses the station voice, pre-mixed into the intro with the calls and a strap line. Done well, they can be equally powerful. I produced a lot of those for Z100 as well, usually when I couldn’t get the acapella jingles to fit the tempo. Today, there is one company that is still making real pop-tops on a regular basis, much the same way Jon Wolfert did back in the 80s. Pure Jingles in Holland does them all the time, and they give pure amazement. (See what I did there?) Diederick Huizinga and his merry band of radio junkies crank these out for WKTU/New York and Most Requested Live among dozens of others every week.

The POINT of all these different pieces is to tie your call-sign to the product, basically putting your brand on the music itself. After hearing a song on 103.5KTU in New York over and over again, when you’re on vacation down the Jersey shore and hear the same song on a local beach station, you will hear the power intro or pop-top in your head because your brain is used to hearing it that way. It is branded, just as surely as putting a red-hot iron into a cow’s hide tells the world that the walking beef you’re looking at is owned by someone. The imaging is actually something different that adds to the overall flavor of the station and/or personalities. It should enhance the brand, just as the brand should enhance the imaging. One hand washes the other…always. I’d like to end this blog with a brief caveat. What I write here is not THE method for achieving success in the broadcast business. It is A method that I have developed over time. I offer my opinions on a variety of subjects and you can certainly take them for what they are…my opinions. Take from them what you will. This is not the gospel according to St. Dave. Have fun with this stuff. Try some new ideas. Expand your understanding of production, and then share. Please, post some of your ideas, suggestions or questions. Even at this late date in my career, I’m still trying to figure out how this whole thing works and would really love your help.

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