Would you rather be drinking bourbon? And when you think of bourbon, does Kentucky come to mind? The Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau hopes the answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. But in case that association between bourbon whiskey and its hometown of Louisville, Ky., is not so immediate, the bureau aims to convince you with its branding effort, called Bourbon Country. The idea is to position the city in the hearts and minds of travelers and tourists the world over as the destination for food, fun and, of course, bourbon whiskey.
Brands are absolutely everywhere, populating the spaces all around us, even sometimes permeating our very being. From Apple to Samsung, Amazon to Yahoo, Titleist to TaylorMade, even Obama to Palin, brands are the bundle of constructs and promises that consumers expect to receive from a product or service. In Bourbon Country that happens to be a barrelful of smooth, mellow promises.
Branding is the fascinating art and science of creating and shaping associations and perceptions. When executed properly, it’s an incredibly powerful tool, and artfully wielding that tool is de rigueur for the new generation of marketers emerging from the Owen School.
Enter “BrandWeek Louisville 2009,” a weeklong immersion program held last October to provide Owen marketing and brand management students with rare access to three of America’s largest and most successful companies—Brown-Forman, General Electric and Humana Inc. Orchestrated by Owen’s Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Yvonne Martin-Kidd, along with Marketing Operations Manager Ann Davis and John Hamilton, Associate Director of the Career Management Center, BrandWeek offered us a practitioner’s perspective on the challenges facing marketers in three very different industries.
The adventure began in a very familiar setting: a classroom at Owen. Our facilitator for the week was Jack Kennard, Principal of WhiteOaks Consulting and former Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Services at Brown-Forman. He provided a thorough overview of Brown-Forman’s history and global growth, including the rise of its flagship brand, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey. Kennard spent the better part of his 27 years at Brown-Forman growing Jack Daniel’s into one of the most recognized brands in the world. His unique insights into the spirits industry gave us a better understanding of what it takes to gain traction and maintain relevance in today’s crowded marketing landscape.
Branding is the fascinating art and science of creating and shaping associations and perceptions. When executed properly, it’s an incredibly powerful tool.
The next day we left Nashville and headed north on Interstate 65 to Brown-Forman’s headquarters, where we were treated to lunch in the posh Bourbon Street Café. (Perhaps you’re noticing a theme here?) Following a delicious meal, Chief Operating Officer Mark McCallum led a discussion about the company’s global branding efforts and the intricacies of managing the growth of their more than 30 wine and spirits brands, which include the aforementioned Jack Daniel’s, as well as Chambord Liqueur, Finlandia Vodka, Herradura Tequila and Sonoma-Cutrer Wine. This session afforded Owen students the opportunity to interact with an impressive group of marketing and human resources executives. They answered even our toughest questions with aplomb, leaving us with little doubt as to why Brown-Forman remains an industry leader after more than 139 years in business.
Our branding discussion gave way to a tour of the Brown-Forman design center, led by Eric Donninger, VP, Global Brand Director of Design, and then into a discussion about corporate social responsibility, a topic of particular concern for one of the world’s largest wine and spirits producers. Later that evening we broke into smaller groups and enjoyed some of Brown-Forman’s fine products with the brand managers themselves, talking shop over hors d’oeuvres and cocktails at some of Louisville’s hot spots.
Even our accommodations at the 21C Museum Hotel in downtown Louisville were an exercise in brand excellence. Recently named by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as the highest-ranking American property on its 2010 Gold List of the world’s best places to stay, the 21C is nothing if not unique—part boutique hotel and part contemporary art museum. It’s definitely the place to stay and play in Louisville.
The next morning began with a coach ride to General Electric’s Monogram Experience Center, where the staff of in-house chefs prepared a wonderful spread of breakfast foods, all produced in the center’s demonstration kitchen. The Monogram Experience Center is a veritable kitchen stadium, albeit one designed for product demonstrations rather than Iron Chef competitions. The center plays host to GE’s training efforts to educate appliance sales professionals about the features, benefits and proper use of the company’s professional-grade Monogram kitchen appliances.
A team of marketers and engineers from GE’s Consumer and Industrial division then joined our group for a discussion centered on the marketing of innovative products. Specifically we talked about the challenges that accompany the introduction of an entirely new, and rather exciting, product in a category most consumers take for granted every day: water heaters. That’s right, I mentioned “exciting” and “water heaters” in the same sentence because the new product in question is GE’s industry-exclusive hybrid electric water heater. (Now you can have two hybrids in your garage!) The hybrid provides the same hot water to which we have grown so accustomed, but it uses a pump to draw heat from the ambient air and transfers it into the water. It, therefore, requires only about half the energy of a traditional water heater. Sounds like a win-win, right? So where’s the challenge? Although it’s certainly cleaner and greener than its competitors, the hybrid is a costlier alternative that requires a certain level of awareness and understanding—no small feat in a product category that hasn’t changed much in several decades. However, given the qualifications and experience of GE’s team, we were left convinced that hybrids are the future—at least for water heaters.
The next stop was the towering, marble-lined headquarters of Humana in downtown Louisville. Founded in 1961, Humana has grown to become one of the nation’s largest publicly traded health-benefits companies. Walking through the expansive halls from the cafeteria to the conference room, I couldn’t help but notice that pedometers nearly outnumbered BlackBerrys—a reassuring sign that Humana’s employees do indeed take their business seriously on a number of levels.
And as you might expect from a company in the business of health and well-being, Humana’s corporate cafeteria has a decidedly healthy-eating theme to it. But that’s not to say that pizza, burgers and fries are nowhere to be found. Instead, the cafeteria employs a pricing scheme to encourage healthier eating decisions, whereby, for instance, balsamic grilled salmon with steamed veggies and brown rice is actually priced lower than the aforementioned burger and fries combo. I found the application of the carrot-versus-stick paradigm to be fitting in the cafeteria context; schools, universities and other corporations would do well to emulate Humana’s system.
Humana’s Corporate Manager for Consumer Marketing William Hambleton facilitated the afternoon’s discussion, which featured presentations on no fewer than 10 different areas of the company’s marketing and branding efforts. It was a fascinating afternoon which explored nearly every possible facet of the marketing function, from messaging, social media and sponsorships, to B2B engagement, market research and sustainability. What I found most interesting, however, was Humana’s brand architecture plan for developing and sustaining their health care brand. The company faces the challenging task of aligning around two dozen differently branded initiatives—some grown from within and others acquired—with the Humana superbrand.
Before heading home to Nashville, we made one last stop at The Green Building in NuLu, Louisville’s arts district. Slated to become the first commercial building in Louisville to attain the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification, The Green Building hosted our group for a presentation on the branding of Louisville by Brett Jeffreys of Red7e, the firm responsible for implementing the Bourbon Country initiative. Later that morning a panel presentation on the art of client/agency relationships rounded out the week. Facilitated by Martin-Kidd, the panel featured Ann Stickler, Vice President and Group Director for Developing Brands at Brown-Forman; Paul Klein, General Manager of Brand and Advertising at GE; and Toni Clem, President of Louisville-based advertising and marketing firm Creative Alliance.
On the ride home, and in the intervening months, I’ve reflected quite frequently on my experiences from BrandWeek. I’ve set new goals and pushed myself to look at my coursework in different ways, always seeking a new angle of approach. BrandWeek served to reinforce the vital importance and value of creating meaningful—even profound—brand associations with consumers. The three companies we visited in Louisville offered excellent examples of how to build and maintain powerful brands while dealing with the unique challenges of their specific industries and customer targets.
So remember, the next time you find yourself with a lesser beverage in hand, you could be drinking bourbon. And when you think bourbon, think Kentucky.
Brian Bellinger is an MBA candidate for 2011.