Giving New Meaning to "Branding"

An ad agency responds to bigger rivals by going back to basics and giving clients the how, when, and why of what it can do for them

By Karen E. Klein

When it comes to marketing, Corporate America bandies about big words and backs them up with bigger bucks. Meanwhile, small-business owners implement major marketing efforts on minute budgets. In this occasional look at marketing strategies, Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein will detail a small outfit's marketing strategy and efforts and run them by Chicago marketing executive Meg Goodman.

The Company: Metaphor Studio, based in Cincinnati.

The Entrepreneur: Ran Mullins, CEO and Creative Director.

The Challenge: With the economic downturn of the past few years, Metaphor Studios, a midsize advertising and technology agency in Cincinnati, began to see its potential client pool raided by larger agencies -- competitors that had not been interested in the smaller outfits that are Metaphor's bread and butter. As a result, winning new business became particularly tough.

The Need: Mullins saw the increased competition as a prime opportunity to refocus his business. Specifically, he and his staff set out to put a new face on a tried-and-true advertising practice: "branding." The term, which was much bandied about in the freewheeling '90s, confused clients because of its manufactured mystique, Mullins says.

"While small-business owners readily accepted that the big companies were branding every day, they had no concept that they were doing the same thing," he explains. He realized that Metaphor needed to redefine branding as it applied to the needs and everyday business experiences of clients and prospects.

The Solution: "We decided that the translation of marketing language would be the key to success," explains Mullins. "We worked to break down the term and its execution into steps that our prospects could identify with, hoping they would recognize those steps as something they commonly practice."

The team at Metaphor Studios defined "branding" as "community experience development" (CED), a comprehensive consulting method for creating, managing, and tracking brand communities [i.e., consumers] and leveraging the information to cultivate, fascinate, and illuminate the target audience. Metaphor began to leverage this terminology on its Web site, in sales presentations, and with business associates.

It defined "cultivate" as the means by which clients attract and nurture customers, in part by creating demographic and ethnographic profiles. For "fascinate," it pointed to clients' desires to engage customers with relevant, creative, and informative content, and then to track the effectiveness of new products and services. As for "illuminate," that referred to client's need to educate customers about new offerings.

The Result: Armed with the new definition, Metaphor Studios has steadily turned project work into long-term client relationships. The company exceeded its goals in 2002 and marketing experts recognized the strategy with Web site awards and a mention in a new leadership book. Mullins says his favorite recognition came from a prospect who attended a presentation, then exclaimed, "Oh, that's marketing 101!"

Expert's Verdict: "The new definition that Metaphor Studios developed has succeeded in attracting new clients, who thoroughly understand what work will be performed for them," says Goodman. "Metaphor has achieved what companies often fail at doing: clearly giving structure and substance to a service. In addition, they have made a complex methodology easy to understand.

"However, the firm has taken what they term a 'decidedly e-approach' to their marketing efforts. This is quite evident in their Web-page explanation of the process. Perhaps additional companies would be receptive if Metaphor applied this concept to more traditional marketing channels, such as print, radio, TV, and direct mail. Expanding their efforts would give them a bigger tool box to use for reaching their clients," adds Goodman.

"Nonetheless, the central point is that they have clearly demonstrated to small- and midsize companies that they are routinely using and succeeding with the very same marketing methods once attributed solely to big companies. And, when all of the fancy rhetoric and buzz is stripped away, it becomes more obvious that there are in fact many [clients] whose successes could rival the big guns with Metaphor's help."

If your marketing drive achieved good results and you'd like to share your strategies for success, send us an e-mail at and tell us what you're doing. We will choose the most interesting submissions, interview the business owners, and have a marketing expert comment.

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