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Branding; Taking Responsibility for Better Business Outcomes

Two Case Studies about Good Branding and Advertising

I’ve always been a sales guy, but I’ve developed an interest in branding and advertising recently. Like most sales guys, I’ve wondered “what do you do, marketing?” when my sales pipeline was bereft of warm leads. But I know, marketing plays a huge role in the success of the sales team. That’s true no matter what any self-declared “sales guru” says about “hustle” and “grind”. Daft bromides be damned.

What do marketing and advertising do for a brand?

While learning about things like SEO and digital marketing, my mind wandered to examples my memory stored of unusual branding efforts. Like anything else, it’s the unorthodox anecdotes that stand out and etch themselves into memory. I mulled them over as they contained some useful lessons for entrepreneurs that I’d like to share.

First things first, defining terms. According to The Hartford “Branding, marketing, and advertising are all tools you use to help promote your business. They help you acquire and retain customers, as well as drive sales and profits.”

“Branding is what your company believes in, why it exists, and how consumers feel about your business and products.”

“Marketing encompasses strategies to build awareness of your company’s products and services.”

“Advertising is a subset of marketing, focused mostly on acquiring customers and driving sales.”

What it comes down to is that these things are all pieces of the same puzzle. What companies, and the entrepreneurs who build them, do is put the pieces together to form the narrative about why they give their customers what they really want. They craft tales about why they deserve their customers business. I touched on this in my previous piece on The Queen’s Gambit.

First Branding Case Study: Domino’s Pizza

Branding and Marketing, done with class by Domino's Pizza

Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll discuss the idiosyncratic branding efforts I recently recalled. At some point in life, everyone is insulted and deals with that unpleasantness. The people who learn to most effectively deal with this unpleasantness realize owning these insults is a powerful way of neutralizing them.

Domino’s Pizza is a great example of a business owning the less-than-flattering remarks made about it. As a result, it achieved significant business success.

Unlike insults kids throw at each other on a playground, the remarks people made about Domino’s weren’t just intended to be hurtful. People really did not like the pizza. “The crust tastes like cardboard”, “The sauce tastes like ketchup” and “This is an imitation of pizza”, were among the many harsh criticisms customers candidly fed back to Domino’s. I live in NYC, where we have terrific, authentic pizza everywhere, so I can’t speak to what it was like. Can’t remember the last time I’ve had Domino’s. I’ve heard enough remarks to complement the one’s above and form the opinion Domino’s Pizza wasn’t very good.

Marketing Revolutionized

Domino’s implemented a very unique response. This was some time ago, so hopefully you remember it, but I’ll forgive you if you don’t. Domino’s basically said “you’re right” to these customers. They didn’t just admit it behind closed doors at executive meetings, they made an advertising campaign that amounted to the world’s most gracious mea culpa. They even ran a billboard in Times Square, with positive, neutral, and negative comments from customers.

Domino’s execs starred in their advertising and they said “our pizza is awful.” They poked fun at themselves for failing so miserably when it came to making good pizza. Also, they promised to do better. And they meant it.

Domino’s put its proverbial money where its mouth was. It set out to prove it was worthy of reconsideration from its customers. After overhauling its recipes, Domino’s committed to proving its change was real with things like publicized taste tests. Domino’s documented its journey from the bottom of the customer satisfaction rankings to respectable chain eatery. They cultivated further goodwill towards their brand with more of the same honesty in their advertising that their customers appreciated, most notably by using real photos of their food instead of the touched-up, stylized photos their competitors used.

Domino’s took things a step further in its quest to earn back customer loyalty. They innovated technologically. They learned customers did not like ordering pizza over the phone, so they created social media and Apple Watch ordering capabilities to give them a more preferable method.

Domino’s re-Brand…the Results

In 2009, Domino’s ranked dead last for customer satisfaction among big pizza chains. As a result of their marketing pivot, Domino’s share price has grown sixty fold by 2017. In addition, they now rank higher than Pizza Hut and Papa John’s in customer satisfaction.

There’s a powerful lesson here. As it turns out, when you’re insulted or harshly criticized, the more effective response can be to own the criticism. Above all, it’s good business sense to commit to not only changing what customers don’t like about your business, but to look them in the figurative eye and say, “you’re right, I’m sorry, here’s how I’ll do better.”

Turns out, this can be harder than some people anticipate. Maybe you remember an infamous episode of Kitchen Nightmare’s about Amy’s Baking Company? This episode became notorious for featuring the only transformation attempt Gordon Ramsay couldn’t see through to the end. The reason why? The owners, among other things, were comically bad at owning criticism and improving. As it just so happens, saying things to customers like “Here’s your pizza, go (expletive) yourself!” is not a marketing strategy one can count on to enhance brand equity. Neither is getting into heated debates with customers over Yelp! reviews, or brandishing knives at them.

Second Branding Case Study: The Church of Latter Day Saints

SLC Tabernacle, home of the Mormon Church, masters at advertising and branding.
Photo by Bob Ward on

This one may appear as a bit of a head scratcher. What do Mormons have to do with entrepreneurship, reinventive marketing, and advertising? For the most part nothing, though some may recall their opportune marketing campaign in the wake of the release of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway. I, for one, believe it is an excellent example of owning, not criticism or insults per se, but a distorted (intentionally for satirical purposes) representation of the church for the purposes of connecting with people who don’t know or understand Mormons.

The church’s response has best been described as “measured”. The initial response was something like “we don’t mind you poking a little fun at us, just keep in mind we have a great set of beliefs over here.”

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of The Book of Mormon and South Park before that describe being warned that the play would set off protests, to which they essentially said “we don’t think so, Mormons are a lot cooler than you give them credit for.” Indeed, they were proven correct. I recall shortly after the play seeing billboards with a marketing campaign titled “I’m a Mormon.”

The advertising campaign the church launched featured profiles of Mormons and was meant to show they were normal, nice, and decent folks, just like everyone else. They highlighted their racial and cultural diversity, and featured some prominent Mormon spokespeople, likely to demonstrate members of their faith often achieve great success. The predictable response to being satirized, especially when the butt of the joke is something as dear to a person as religion, is usually a passionate, combative response. Instead, the Mormons chose to brand themselves as thick skinned, tolerant, and for lack of a better way to put it, friendly.

Mormon Church re-Branding: The Results

Ultimately, it’s hard to measure the exact impact of the Mormon re-branding since there isn’t a whole lot of data. They weren’t, after all, selling anything, not in the most commonly used sense of the word at least. So, that makes it a bit more challenging to measure influence.

I can speak to the impacts on my perception of Mormons. I still remember this whole to-do about the Mormon church’s response in part because it fostered a sense of respect in me for them. In other words, their branding was a bit of a success, at least in my eyes. They showed kindness, understanding, and above all else, real conviction in their beliefs, since clearly, they weren’t so fragile as to be wounded by light hearted satire.

I thought of Mormons as a bit kooky, and still kind of do, but kooky is harmless. I probably view them this way out of ignorance. My knowledge of Mormons is limited to a few acquaintances I’m not close to, as well as cultural depictions and notable politicians like Mitt Romney and Harry Reid.

Lastly, it should be noted that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign ended in 2018. The President of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints decided that nicknames such as Mormon were “a victory for Satan”. The church’s stance has shifted to disavow the moniker of Mormon. So, if any members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reads this, please keep in mind I’m only using the term Mormon for expedience and understanding.

Final Thoughts on Owning the Narrative Around Your Brand

Not much more to say here. So, at the risk of being redundant, I’ll sign off with one final musing. I implore business leaders and entrepreneurs to do more than numb themselves to criticism. Invite it, welcome it. If you own your mistakes, and the criticisms and insults people make about your business you will take control of the story of customer success, the foundation of business itself, and be able to create a more compelling account of why your enterprise deserves your customer’s loyalty. The self doubt and resultant defeatist mindset that often creeps in can be warded off with a commitment to do better, to fix your mistakes, which can best be accomplished by first taking full accountability for them, loudly and publicly.

As Always, Leave Your Thoughts in the Comments. Please, criticize me so I can have something to own 🙂

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