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Branding Relationships

Alabama's brand masters turn company names into front porch neighbors.

When Hibbett Sports wanted to expand its digital presence, it hired the Red Square Agency, which created animated “Thumb-letes” to spread the word.

When Hibbett Sports wanted to expand its digital presence, it hired the Red Square Agency, which created animated “Thumb-letes” to spread the word.

Hibbett Sports

Brand Managed by Red Square

Hibbett Sports has been selling athletic shoes and other sports apparel and equipment since the end of World War II. With approximately 850 stores in 30 states, the Birmingham-based retailer is a well-known brand among brick-and-mortar customers. The challenge in recent years has been to get the company’s foot in the door when it comes to a digital presence.

“About two years ago, when digital really started becoming important from a marketing perspective in retail, we realized that in order to be successful, we needed to have a strong campaign that would garner engagement from the consumer,” says Becky Jones, Hibbett’s senior vice president for merchandise and marketing. “We wanted a mobile and digital strategy to bring our brand to the consumer in a way that they’re looking to receive information today.”

So Hibbett began working with the Red Square Agency, out of Mobile, in developing a new mobile website to attract potential online customers. This resulted in a marketing campaign with the tagline “Get your thumb in the game” — a digital-savvy reference to thumb-directed navigation on most mobile devices.

Red Square created a series of animated thumb characters representing athletes in different sports — dubbed “Thumb-letes” — to promote Hibbett’s new digital presence. The campaign included a series of 15-second YouTube videos that were heavy on the puns.

In one, a baseball thumb-lete who sat out “for testing positive for nail polish” returns to action and gives his performance “two mes up.” In another, we are introduced to a basketball thumb-lete for the L.A. Cuticles. His bio reads, “Height: 2.5 inches. Weight: 6.3 ounces. Hometown: Finger Lakes, Texas. Position: Opposable digit. Hobbies: Wrestling.” And in a football-themed video, the announcer says the team “is hungry after losing last week’s nail-biter.” Each video ends with the phrase, “Hibbett Sports mobile. Get your thumb in the game.”

“We were able to help Hibbett build something that has made it easier for their customers to buy their product. Then we were able to promote that mobile site through a creative campaign,” Red Square CEO Rich Sullivan says. “So we’re kind of working on both the product and the promotion of that product. The (website) traffic and resulting measurable metrics reflect a successful launch.”

Because of Hibbett’s longevity, the goal was not to establish the company’s brand, but rather to promote that brand in a different way. Or, as Red Square Creative Director R.T. Herwig says, “We’re evolving it.”

“That not only allows their communications to grow, it also allows their customer base to evolve with the brand,” Herwig says. “It’s about making that emotional connection between the brand and the consumer. There are so many different ways to connect these days. But to move product, you need to move people. And to move people, you have to tell good stories. That’s what we’re trying to do with Hibbett, give them a better story to tell and just evolve who they are.”

Hibbett officials embraced this move into the digital world, which was a key component in the success of the branding effort, says Sullivan.

“Hibbett is a very forward-thinking company,” Sullivan says. “They’ve been willing to dive into the digital space and do some interesting work there, and they’re getting attention for it. And it’s not just from a brand standpoint. From a sales standpoint and a metrics standpoint, they see the returns on their efforts for digital.”

A whimsical tune, a bright green bicycle and other human touches have helped customers relate to Regions Bank. Luckie & Co. designed the campaign.

Regions Financial

Brand managed by Luckie & Co.

Advertising agencies will tell you that one of the keys to a good brand is creating something — a character, a catch phrase — that is easy to remember. Something that once you learn it, you never forget — like riding a bike.

That was the angle Luckie & Co. went with nearly 10 years ago, when the agency was attempting to craft an image for Regions Financial Corp. — an image that would cut through the number-numbing clutter often associated with banks. The result is one of the most iconic creations in recent Alabama advertising — the bright green Regions bicycle.

“You want some sort of shortcut where consumers already have an image of what you’re about in their mind, so you don’t have to tell your story all the time,” Luckie Chief Strategy Officer Jay Waters says. “So we came up with the idea that life is complicated, but banking shouldn’t be. And the bike is a manifestation of that. Banking that’s as easy as riding a bike.

“We talked about a lot of things that Regions could be about. A community bank, a top-10 bank, a high-tech bank. But really the image that people had in their head was something down-to-earth and accessible and easy to do business with. Make a complicated subject — financial management — easy.”

Not only has the bike become readily associated with Regions, but so has the whimsical tune that accompanies the television ads, with its relentlessly upbeat, “La … la, la, la, la … la, la, la, la.” Both the sight and sound of the campaign were a deliberate attempt to establish the Regions brand as being something other than a faceless corporate entity, according to Luckie Chief Creative Officer Brad White.

“We humanized the bank in a way that many other banking institutions haven’t been able to do,” White says. “By using the bike, the tone of the advertising and the music, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We heard over and over through focus groups that Regions just seemed like a friendlier place to do business. We found that was very powerful.”

Powerful enough that Regions is the only Alabama-based company on the 2014 listing of the 500 most valuable brands in the United States, compiled by the brand-valuation consulting agency Brand Finance. White says the strength of the Regions brand was one of the things that helped the company make it through the years following the 2008 banking collapse.

“We had five or six years to build the Regions brand before the economic crisis hit, when banks went to the bottom of everybody’s list,” White says. “They have told us that the strength of the brand really helped them keep their heads above water during that extremely difficult financial time.

“Everybody loves a brand when things are going well,” says White. “But if it can support you when things are not going well, then that shows the power of the brand.”

Regions has found several high-profile ways to keep its name in the public eye, including title sponsorship of the new downtown stadium where the Birmingham Barons play baseball and the annual Champions Tour golf tournament that takes place at Shoal Creek. Yet it is the simple green bicycle and ridiculously catchy tune that seem to resonate the most.

“When we rolled out the bike as a metaphor for the experience of banking at Regions, it was really kind of a test to see how consumers would respond to it, if they would get the association. They did, and it caught on,” White says. “So the bike became a really prevalent piece of the brand. We have a giant 15-foot green bike that they take to events. People look for it and they recognize it, and they see it as representative of Regions. If you can create an asset that is that powerful, it’s hugely valuable.

“In focus groups, people sing the Regions song back to us. A lot of times we have people describing to us what our original vision was for the bank. They say it seems simple, friendly, uncomplicated. Once you’ve achieved that space in their mind with a brand, then you know it’s really successful.”

Buffalo Rock

Brand managed by o2ideas

The challenge is to take a company whose roots stretch back almost to the 1800s and create ways for it to remain fresh and relevant well into the 21st century.

For o2ideas, it was a piece of cake. Or rather, cupcakes.

The company in question, Buffalo Rock, was founded in Birmingham in 1901. While Buffalo Rock is an independent Pepsi bottler, the company also has developed some of the South’s most iconic drinks, most notably Grapico and Buffalo Rock ginger ale. This is a brand that is so firmly established in the region, it is practically part of the Southern heritage. After more than 100 years on the market, does such a brand even need managing?

“They have obviously been doing something right to have been in business for that long,” says Howard Pearlstein, director at o2ideas, which works with Buffalo Rock to promote several of its products. “But brands have to adapt and stay relevant to their customers. Grapico has a loyal following already, but you have to continually appeal to the market and stay fresh.”

One of the freshest ideas on the marketplace in 2012 was the trend toward gourmet cupcakes. So o2 proposed pairing Grapico with Birmingham bakery Dreamcakes to produce a cupcake that has batter, filling and icing made with the popular grape soda. Planned as a limited time offer, it became such a hit with customers — and received substantial attention from both traditional and social media outlets — that it soon was added to Dreamcakes’ regular menu.

Does a 100-year-old product really need branding? Sure, said Buffalo Rock, which got help from o2ideas of Birmingham to make Grapico an appealing beverage for the new generation.

“We monitored Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and there were tons of mentions of that cupcake,” o2 account supervisor Sara Nichols says. “We got great media coverage in TV and print. It got people talking, whereas since Grapico has been around for such a long time, maybe people hadn’t been talking about it in a while. That was definitely a success for Buffalo Rock, because they’re not used to seeing that type of attention for Grapico every day.”

David Miller, general manager of retail marketing at Buffalo Rock, says the cupcake concept worked on several levels. He was particularly pleased with the way it emphasized the connection between the brand and the South, pointing out that Buffalo Rock, o2 and Dreamcakes are all based in Birmingham.

“It’s a grassroots approach to reaching customers,”
Miller says. “Grapico has a huge local following, and then you go with a local partner like Dreamcakes and come up with a new fun product that plays on our Southern roots. That’s something we key on.

“It’s nice when you deal with a local company like o2 that understands that heritage. They understand the product and the market. We’re proud of the Southern nature of our products, and o2 accentuates that for us in the strategies they develop. They understand who we are and what our objectives are.”

In addition to the Grapico cupcake, o2 has promoted other Buffalo Rock products such as Sunfresh Lemonade and Dr. Wham with a variety of efforts, including a wrap for the delivery trucks that makes the bed of the truck look like a humongous 12-pack of soda. It’s all part of an attempt by o2 to attract new customers to Buffalo Rock’s products, while also staying true to the company’s long history and tradition.

“It’s about taking something old and reaching customers in a new way,” Pearlstein says. “There are people who passionately love the ginger ale and the Grapico. That sort of connection with your customer shows value, and you don’t ever want to do anything to lose that.

“But one of the key aspects of brand marketing is to continually find ways to engage a customer and keep them emotionally involved with the brand. The Grapico cupcake was a new twist on something that’s been around forever.”

Nichols agrees, noting that a recent reworking of the Grapico can design gave the container a new look while still maintaining a distinct retro feel. “We wanted something that would attract new customers without scaring off the loyal Grapico drinkers,” Nichols says. “We’re not trying to change the core of the brand. We’re just tapping into new audiences.”

One drink, and bite, at a time.

Tiffin Motorhomes used Lewis Communications to bust out of its relative anonymity and introduce RVing to a whole new class of customers. The ads emphasized the company’s service-oriented culture. 

Tiffin Motor Homes

Brand managed by Lewis Communications

Tiffin Motorhomes has long faced the odd dilemma of being both well known and unknown. Anybody who has spent time traveling on the interstate or attending a major college football game or auto race has undoubtedly seen their product. The problem is, many people don’t realize that Tiffin has anything to do with the product they are seeing. And they certainly don’t know that this 42-year-old motorhome manufacturer is based in Alabama, in the small town of Red Bay.

Spencer Till, the executive creative director for Lewis Communications’ Birmingham office, used to be one of those people. About 10 years ago, Till says, he was conducting research in preparation to make a presentation for the “Let’s Go RVing” national campaign when he discovered that one of the main manufacturers of motorhomes was churning out the vehicles right here in Alabama.

“I had no idea,” Till admits. “I was doing research and suddenly found out about Tiffin.”

Like many people, Till had seen Tiffin’s products, he just didn’t know it. He was familiar with the Allegro motorhome, one of Tiffin’s models, which has been roaming the nation’s highways since the 1970s. But unlike the name Winnebago — the RV manufacturer that is nearly synonymous with recreational vehicles — for Lewis Communications’ Birmingham office, the name Tiffin remained hidden in the background. The company was in sight, but out of mind.

Till thought Lewis Communication could help change that. So on a hunch, he helped develop a marketing campaign for Tiffin detailing ways the company could enhance its brand name, and then sent the pitch along with a cover letter unsolicited. Tiffin replied, expressing interest in better promoting its entire line of six motorhome models.

“They had never really done what I call 60,000-foot branding, where they take a look at their entire brand and everything that is going on,” Till says. “What they were doing was product marketing. They were basically just focused on the individual vehicles they were marketing, and they weren’t really taking a larger look at what Tiffin as an organization could be doing.

“Our assessment of their brand was that their product was a lot more high-end than their messaging.”

One thing Till wanted to emphasize was the friendly, service-oriented atmosphere that was established by company founder Bob Tiffin and continues today with his three sons, Tim, Van and Lex. Tiffin representatives have been known to roam the campgrounds at Talladega Superspeedway during race week and ask people in Tiffin motorhomes if they needed anything for their vehicle or had any questions.

“We’re trying to exude that kind of personality with what they do with their branding,” Till says. “Because that’s who they are, knocking on those doors and talking to people. What we’re trying to do is capture that and get it out to people.

“We’re in the developmental stages of some apps that will allow socialization of their users on the road. Apps that can read parts of the vehicle and can give you a quick synopsis of how to diagnose a problem. And if you can’t diagnose it yourself, the app will give you a way to contact Tiffin for help. We’re trying to take that door-knock thing and put it into tools that they can get to their consumers.”

Till also thought the company could do a better job playing up the strong Southern connection between RVs and college football. That led to a popular advertising campaign that included YouTube videos with Alabama and Auburn mascots Big Al and Aubie playing pranks on each other and driving Tiffin motorhomes into the stadium parking lot.

“For a long time they’ve done some sponsorships of SEC football and had simple spots that would run on the coach’s show, things like that,” Till says. “We told them to punch that up a little bit more. We started getting them to use the mascots more. In the last few years, we’ve started using Facebook to create a connection between the fans and these mascot spots. That’s gotten a huge following.

“A brand is not a logo. It’s not just a laundry list of why you should buy this product. It’s all about having a two-way conversation. People want you to engage them. Brands that can do that just soar, and we think that’s happening with Tiffin.”

Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission

Brand managed by Big Communications

A year after the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, there was still a considerable stain on the perception surrounding the safety of Alabama coastal seafood. Images of tar-filled beaches and oil-soaked pelicans were hard to wash away from the minds of consumers. If that’s what was visible on the shore, the thinking went, then who knew what was happening to the creatures beneath the surface of the murky waters.

In an effort to revitalize the industry, Gov. Robert Bentley formed the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC) in March 2011. Shortly afterward, ASMC hired Birmingham-based Big Communications to help establish a positive image for a newly named brand – Alabama Gulf Seafood – as it attempted to recover from a highly publicized ecological disaster.

“The most important thing we needed to do as a commission was hire an advertising firm to help us get the message out,” ASMC Program Administrator Chris Blankenship says. “Because we started from nothing. We didn’t have a brand. We didn’t have a previous program that we were trying to make better. We had nothing.”

Big’s creative team contemplated several ways of delivering the message that seafood from the Alabama Gulf Coast was safe to eat. They considering hiring a celebrity chef such as Emeril Lagasse to act as a spokesperson. They examined the possibility of focusing on the scientific data about the safety of the seafood or promoting the economic impact of the industry — some 11,000 direct jobs along coastal Alabama, with statewide annual revenues of nearly $500 million.

Big Communications used branding magic to make Alabama seafood producers seem more like hard-working neighbors and less like faceless statistics. 

But in the end, Big decided the best way to talk about Alabama seafood was to use the people who know it best — Alabama fishermen.

“It was about changing the conversation from safety to the character of those fishermen,” Big Communications Chief Creative Officer Ford Wiles says. “Because if you believe in the character of your fellow Alabamian, you know they would never serve something to us that they didn’t think was safe enough for their own family to eat. It all came down to character. That’s the core of the whole campaign.”

Or as Chief Brand Officer Mark Ervin puts it, “We decided to shorten the distance between the fisherman and the consumer. The closer you felt to that fisherman, the more likely you were to trust him. We wanted to say, ‘This is an Alabama fisherman, and this is what he believes. All he knows to be true is what he looks at every day when he pulls it out of the water.’ That’s a much more compelling way to talk about the problem.”

The ensuing campaign included numerous images of determined-looking fishermen — stubble on their face, baseball caps pulled low — standing next to their boats and trawlers and staring out at the Gulf waters.

Surrounding the photos were such taglines as, “Caught By Few, Enjoyed By All,” and “Support The Waters That Support Alabama.” The copy for one of the ads stated, “It’s not corporations that do this work. It’s everyday folks like you and me. Hard-working men and women who fight sea, salt and sun to bring in the very best shrimp, fish, crab and oysters for us all to enjoy.”

“When you talk about a brand, it’s all the emotional intangibles that go with it,” Wiles says. “That’s what we wanted to fully explore, so people understood what this work is all about. If you go to the coast and see them tong for oysters, you have a whole other perspective about what it takes to get that food to your table. We wanted to celebrate that fact as something we should be very proud of in Alabama.”

Not only did the campaign win a regional Best of Show award from the American Advertising Federation, but it also helped spawn a new spirit of cooperation among all levels of the Alabama seafood industry, from the fishermen to the processors to the distributors to the retail outlets and restaurants. That led to the creation in 2013 of the annual Alabama Seafood Summit in Mobile, which brings together officials from the various organizations.

“There wasn’t much collaboration before,” Wiles says. “It took this event (the oil spill) for them to market themselves as a whole. Once they saw (the campaign), they said, ‘Everybody knows about us now. This thing is working.’ My hope is they’ll continue to do that, and we’ll continue working with them. If we have a chance to help change the perception of the state of Alabama — on anything we do — that’s a home run.”

Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

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