Three Decades Shaping Experiential Brands


"Which Nike are you from?" Steve Jobs probed my past like a master sommelier of brand vintages in our first meeting. He had just rejoined Apple and had long-loved Nike but knew it wasn’t perfect. 1985-86, for example, was a bad time by any definition despite signing Michael Jordan in 1985. Revenues dropped 25%, 10% of the company was let go in the Fall of ’86, and Wall Street shorted the stock. In 1987 I joined Nike as head of advertising and went to work trying to reposition a third-place brand for elite jocks and teenagers as a more relevant inspiration to the rest of us. Blessed with a tiny but talented Portland agency, Wieden and Kennedy, we launched the “Just Do It,” "Spike and Mike,” "Bo Knows" and “Women's Empathy” campaigns in the first few years, forever changing how the world thought about the swoosh, the meaning of three pedestrian words, and the real power of sports and fitness. 

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Taking a break from Nike, I began writing and sent a few early chapters of my first book to CEOs I had never met for review. The CEO of a fast-growing regional specialty coffee company in Seattle, Howard Schultz, invited me to his office for a French press of Sumatra. Before our second cup, he asked me if I would consider being his Chief Marketing Officer. Wall Street was shorting Starbucks stock in the belief it was overpriced and that a coffee house chain was an oxymoron. Nonetheless, I signed on to help Howard redesign the Starbucks experience as more than coffee, increase store openings from one per week to three per day and expand into international markets. Key to our success was, repositioning the brand more broadly, as we had done at Nike, but this time as a welcome “Third Place” between home and work.  A new purpose – to lift the human spirit one cup, one customer, one neighborhood at a time – helped make Starbucks the case study for experiential marketing, innovative retail design and the importance of providing dignity and benefits to minimum wage employees.

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After my three-year coffee break from writing and consulting, I left Brewtopia to pick up the manuscript and create Brandstream, an advisory firm for companies big and small. I began re-engaging with subject matter experts around the world that I had worked with to join me as Brandstream Partners on a project basis. This nimble league of extraordinary men and women, masters of experiential marketing, storytelling, strategy, graphic design, insights, culture, human resources, project management, real estate, store design and store development, have shaped some of the most respected and storied brands in earth.


America’s largest and oldest managed healthcare system, Kaiser Permanente, initially asked for help with advertising but ended up asking our help to lead a fundamental repositioning of the brand experience across all touch points. A “Big Dig” insights study helped us see how an aging sick care platform could lead a broken industry by also delivering wellness and prevention. Working directly with Kaiser’s Plan and Physician executive leadership teams, we began transforming a blue-collar, World War Two-era health care organization into a more progressive and trusted 21st Century health partner.  Proprietary internal and external insights helped improve relationships with members, employees and the communities KP served across the country. An agency review netted Campbell-Ewald/Detroit and the creation of the “Thrive” campaign, a bold departure from healthcare marketing that drove record enrollment, won numerous awards, left competitors slack-jawed and inspired 165,000 employees and caregivers from Hawaii to Washington D.C.

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In 2001, one of the most iconic and enduring brands asked for help strengthening relevancy among younger consumers around the world for its flagship carbonated products, hardly an easy assignment. Brandstream Partner Qualitative Research Center/Boulder helped us rethink and reshape Coca-Cola’s approach to consumer insights across continents, while George Murphy, my former head of brand development for Starbucks explored opportunities for experiential marketing and a new visual brand language that could be applied anywhere on earth. Mid-way into the project our deliverables shifted on 9/11 to include deep exploration for how the world saw America, American institutions, and the most American company of them all in a tumultuous, terrorized world.   


In 2005, Grupo Modelo leadership in Mexico City asked Brandstream to examine and help strengthen its flagship franchise, Corona, which had become the third largest beer consumed around the world. Brandstream Partners enlisted the Modo Group/Seattle and QRC/Boulder to conduct qualitative and ethnographic research on five continents that could inform a more unified strategy across markets and distributors. New guardrails and processes for evaluating distributors, channel decisions, marketing programs, promotions and licensing opportunities were applied to help one of the most authentic beers in history navigate the headwinds of industry consolidation (it would ultimately be acquired by Budweiser and then InBev) and prepare for the growing invasion of craft brewers that now drive category innovation.  


“My brands are all over each other,” complained the new CEO. “I need you to help clean them up.” And, so began the repositioning of Starwood’s five flagship brands – the St. Regis, the W, Westin, Sheraton and Four Points by Sheraton. With research on four continents to map the experiences and timeless human needs each brand was uniquely positioned to deliver, we spent several months working with brand presidents and their teams to distill their brand propositions to a page, a paragraph, a sentence, three words, a three-minute video, and for some, like the W, a single word: Flirty. 


"We’re building a brand that will stand next to Apple and Nike,” said Brian Chesky in Airbnb’s third year of business, a cold call to my cell phone. He didn’t say this as  a wish as much as it was a statement. “Can you help us?” The three founders of Airbnb rolled up their sleeves in December 2011 to see how a Silicon Valley tech platform can do more than talk about bringing the world together and actually do it. No client has worked harder at crafting and communicating core values and beliefs that could form a foundation big enough to align and inspire millions of guests and hosts across 192 countries. Where some Silicon Valley Unicorns like Facebook, Twitter and Uber have buried their horns in the sands of controversy and rejected the responsibilities disruptive brands must accept, others like Airbnb learned to fly. 


Ferrero International entrusted one of the world’s most loved and unchanged products for a half century to Brandstream and Partner Modo Group to assemble a project team capable of designing, developing and opening the first free-standing Nutella café in the world. Experts from the Starbucks store design, real estate and experiential marketing were brought back together and joined by some of Apple’s original flagship store team to deliver consumer insights, retail and graphic design, operations, HR, supply chain, real estate and retail marketing. Focus groups on three continents refined customer segmentation, store location, product development and store design, while a three-month menu development process gave everyone on the team a few extra pounds. The first store, in Chicago, exceeded revenue projections by 40% and validated that the world could, indeed, consume more Nutella given the chance.


For Samsung to compete with Apple meant more than improving product features and benefits across refrigerators, wide screens, lap tops, tablets and cell phones. It would require defining the brand experience at its best at every touch point, and the exploration of new retail concepts from store-in-store to pop-ups to branded flagships. Working with Samsung’s CEO and global leadership team in Suwon City, Korea, Brandstream and the Modo Group, led by George Murphy, began the initial consumer insights, brand strategy and business model assumption work, sharing best practices and introductions to architecture, design and construction management firms capable of keeping pace with one of the most aggressive, fastest growing companies in the world.

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Campbell-Ewald, advertising agency for Navy Recruiting Command, called to ask for help with its pitch to retain the recruitment account. When told that they had arrived at “The Best Job on Earth” as a proposed tagline I took the next flight to Detroit to help. For our insights work, we conducted a “Noah’s Ark” exercise on base in Norfolk, Virginia with 15 groups of two that represented a cross-section of fliers, surface ship support, boomers and SEALs. Winning hearts and minds of young men and women (and their parents) in the U.S.A. was important, but so was shifting opinions around the world where brand America was losing trust in an age of prolonged military involvement on foreign lands. The final line, “A Global Force for Good,” served to remind us that America has enormous soft and hard power, and that sometimes a little soft power can help avoid misperceptions, unnecessary hate and avoidable wars.