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Brad VanAuken

Brad VanAuken is The Blake Project’s Chief Brand Strategist. He brings an unequalled level of expertise in branding to his clients, leading them in the collaborative discovery process that results in strong brands. Brad gained his experience as director of brand management and marketing for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and as vice president of marketing for Element K, a leading e-learning company.

Brad VanAuken Brand Education

Superior Marketers And Their Brain


One of the reasons I love marketing is because it requires both sides of the brain to be a truly skilled marketer. While some highly intuitive leaders have achieved great success from their intuition alone and while some advertising agency “creatives” have created brilliant campaigns without the benefit of research, most truly gifted marketers know how and when to use each side of their brain.

For instance, it is important to create “out-of-the-box” stimulus to present to customers in research, but it is also important to know which research technique to use and in what order questions should be asked to minimize biasing. It is even more important to know whether the research was constructed in a valid way that can be relied upon. If you are a marketing researcher, CRM expert, direct marketer or product manager, analytical skills and metrics are very important. If you are developing advertising campaigns, you had better have a very active right brain. The same is true if you are developing out-of-the-box publicity approaches.

One must know when to listen to research results and when to ignore them.  And one must be able to understand why qualitative research findings might differ from quantitative research findings and what to do about it. Sometimes analytics will indicate a particular market segment, product benefit, pricing strategy or merchandising strategy can take your brand to the next level. But it is equally as important to be able to get deep inside your customer’s head to understand his or her deepest values, attitudes and motivations.

So, what skills are important for a top marketer? A highly skilled marketer should possess each of these skill sets:

  • Psychology – understanding human motivations in a deep way, knowing what makes people “tick”
  • Selling – intuitively knowing what words, phrases and approaches connect with customers and cause them to want to buy what you are selling
  • Communication – outstanding and persuasive written and oral communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills – good listening skills, personal charisma, being likable, connecting with others easily
  • Analytical skills – understanding budgets, financial statements, marketing research design, data analysis and statistics
  • Broad cultural knowledge – knowing what your customers are exposed to and what is informing their fears and desires
  • Broad exposure and experience across multiple disciplines – to stimulate creative connections between seemingly unrelated things

This is why I think of marketing as a “gestalt.” It is also why mediocre marketers outnumber marketers who are operating at a high level of functioning by a wide margin. Finally, it is why it is difficult for someone who is not a marketer to gauge the competence of any given marketer.  In the end, it is this constant back-and-forth between right-brain and left-brain that makes marketing so fresh and interesting.

Sponsored byThe Brand Positioning Workshop

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Featuring John Sculley May 16-17, 2013 in San Diego, California
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Brad VanAuken Brand Building

Brand Building And Fear


Unfortunately, fear is still the primary motivator among humans. I say unfortunately because I would hope that one day we would transcend our fears and be motivated primarily by our highest dreams and visions. It would lead to a much more utopian world.

Never the less, as I lead up to a brand marketing point, here is a partial list of some of our most common fears (in no particular order):

  • Fear of flying
  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of the dark
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Fear of commitment
  • Fear of crowds
  • Fear of making a mistake
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of change
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of damnation
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Fear of being discovered as an imposter
  • Fear of germs
  • Fear of clowns
  • Fear of snakes
  • Fear of spiders
  • Fear of wild animals
  • Fear of drowning

And marketing messages certainly play off of fear. Consider the opposite of each of these marketing claims. With our brand, you will feel:

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Brad VanAuken Brand Strategy

Brand Strategy For Commodities


I remember a particular branding workshop that I was conducting in Dubai a few years ago. Marketing managers from throughout the Middle East attended, including many from different energy companies.  In the pre-workshop survey, several of the energy company marketing managers (from different companies) indicated that they wanted to know how to differentiate their energy brand so that they could charge a price premium over the competition in what is largely a commodity category. At the beginning of class, I recounted the pre-workshop request and indicated that I could help them differentiate their brands but that each company would have to choose a different approach to brand differentiation for it to work.

I use a specific exercise in my educational workshops to prove that commodities can be differentiated. I create a team competition to brand water, the primary component of the earth’s surface, our bodies and almost every other living thing on this planet. This is as close as it gets to branding a pure commodity. I ask the teams to determine the target customer, brand position, brand story, advertising campaign and packaging, pricing and distribution strategies, among other marketing elements.

Over the years, some very good new business concepts emerged from these workshops. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them have been turned into thriving profitable businesses by now.

Here are just some of the ways in which water can be branded to remove it from the commodity category and to enable one to charge a price premium for it:

  • Taste/flavoring/carbonation
  • Color
  • Bottle/packaging shape/color/functionality
  • Source/story
  • Health qualities
  • Ways to drink
  • Temperature control
  • Size
  • Price
  • Suggested uses
  • Highly targeted markets
  • Bundling with other products
  • Distribution

And here are some general approaches to branding commodities, both B2B and consumer products:

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Brad VanAuken Brand Marketing

Brand Police Defend London Olympics


Ambush Marketing Brand Strategy Olympics

An interesting side story on the London Olympics (Games of the XXX Olympiad) is the power of brand sponsorships and the battle against ambush marketing. Olympic organizers have hired about 250 “brand police” to patrol the London streets to make sure brands that are not official sponsors of the Olympics are not presenting themselves in ways that mislead the public to believe that they are. The organizers raised more than $1 billion from official sponsorships. Given that amount of money, it only makes sense that some resources would be committed to minimizing ambush marketing, which had been significant at several previous Olympic games.

Wikipedia defines ambush marketing as “a marketing strategy wherein the advertisers associate themselves with, and therefore capitalize on, a particular event without paying any sponsorship fee.”

The first major example of ambush marketing occurred in 1984 when the International Olympic Committee awarded a sponsorship contract to Fuji. Kodak responded by purchasing large amounts of advertising space. Because of Kodak’s extensive advertising during the Olympic Games, the public perceived both Kodak and Fuji to be sponsors of the event, much to Fuji’s frustration. In subsequent sporting events, Nike has done this to Reebok and Adidas, as has Pepsi to Coca-Cola.

Since then, New Zealand, Canada and the International Trademark Association (among other entities) have enacted legislation against ambush marketing. 

Sponsored ByThe Brand Positioning Workshop

FREE Publications And Resources For Marketers

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Brad VanAuken

U.S. Political Party Brand Analysis Proves Revealing


Brand Analysis Democratic Republican Brands

Given that we are in a U.S. presidential election year, we thought it would be interesting to explore the Democratic and Republican parties as brands. In particular, we wanted to understand how different types of people perceived the Democratic and Republican parties differently.

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