From the Minds of Marketers with Ron Johnson

In our third interview with influential marketers in the Caribbean, we speak with Ron Johnson, the Managing Director of Barbadian-based branding agency, Blueprint Creative. Blueprint Creative has a unique perspective on advertising, branding and marketing that Ron shares in this insightful interview.

Ron Johnson is co-founder and Managing Director of Blueprint Creative, one of Barbados’ leading branding agencies.  Blueprint Creative is comprised of more than 20 problem-solvers, idea generators, entrepreneurs, designers and copywriters, who have studied, trained and gained working experience in a range of countries, including Barbados, The Bahamas, Canada, England, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and the USA.

Ron and his team of brand specialists work with CEOs, marketing teams and HR Departments to help solve their brand-related business challenges. As Managing Director, Ron has advised clients in several industries, including energy, banking, insurance, convenience retailing, accounting and security. Blueprint works on a range of brand-related projects, including logo design, advertising campaigns (print and radio), press releases, packaging, design of publications (such as annual reports, newsletters and magazines), articulation and documentation of company core values, enhancement of company cultures, improvement of internal communications & employee feedback mechanisms and other related projects.

AE: People often confuse marketing, branding and advertising. What do you consider to be the difference between the three?

Ron: For us at Blueprint Creative, marketing is all about promoting your products and services, and advertising is marketing that you pay for. Branding is related to marketing and advertising, but it has a broader scope. Our working definition of branding is that branding is what your customers, your employees and the general public think and feel about your organisation and its products and services; it is both emotional and logical. Branding can therefore include any activity, initiative or behaviour that has an influence on how people view your organisation, products or services; which means that you can brand your business without even knowing you’ve branded your business. For example, you may place an ad in the newspaper. People come into your store because they saw the ad. Your frontline staff may give these prospective customers poor service. The ad, the store environment and the experience with your staff are all part of your organisation’s brand. Another way to look at it is to consider marketing as the process of telling people about your organization and its products and services. It would include advertising, inbound marketing, public relations, etc. Branding takes this one step further to include experiences with your staff, turnaround time for products, etc.

Theory considers marketing as the umbrella term and branding as a subset. If you think of your brand as your logo and colours, then branding would be a subset of your marketing. But the discipline of branding is changing. When the concept of branding was first developed, a brand was literally a ‘brand’ that was burned into cattle to distinguish one farmer’s cattle from another. Then the concept of a brand evolved to become a symbol of quality, e.g. the Nike Swoosh. Now, most people understand that your brand is what people think and feel about your organisation, so even your prices can influence how your brand is viewed. And, in our small closed economies, the principles of branding extend to include the owner’s brand, as both the corporate brand and the owner’s brand are very interlinked. In a store in the Caribbean the public will probably know (or know of) the person who owns the store; but in large countries, even with small companies, you may never meet and know nothing about the owner.

AE: How does this view of marketing versus branding influence the day-to-day execution of the marketing function in organisations?

Ron: In my opinion the discipline of branding is still finding its own voice in the Caribbean. Consistency is a major key to successful branding. Some people still believe that the sum of marketing is advertising, so you may see a newspaper ad for a sale in a store tomorrow. You go into the store and the frontline employees do not know what you’re talking about. If internal communications between sales and marketing is poor, the customer experience will be poor and staff morale will be low. Part of the role of brand professionals is to help ensure consistency across the organisation. It should not matter if you call, go on to a website or go into a store; it should not matter who you speak with; the level of service should be the same. Consistency is a problem in many Caribbean organisations because those responsible for the brand still view their roles as advertisers.

We also have to remove some of the silos within organisations. Many companies believe that the marketing department is responsible for bringing customers through the door, but that’s not true. Everyone in the company has a role to play in attracting and retaining customers. Branding is not the function of a particular department. As a simple example, consider the relationship between branding and HR. In our view, brand professionals should interact closely with HR professionals, especially in service-oriented companies. Even the most clever advertising campaign can be completely neutralised and derailed by employees who are disengaged and give poor service. A conversation about the company’s brand should include a conversation about the company’s culture. Branding definitely needs the support of the HR team to be successful. The HR department is responsible for recruitment, performance management, training and other employee development activities, and the more they understand the overall brand strategy, the better they can ensure that the organisation and the talent elements are aligned. Branding can also support HR by helping win the war for talent. Larger companies in the region now may have a Customer Experience Manager who is responsible for customer experience. In some cases that role may be with the store manager, but in other cases it may be centralised, so things are slowly changing.

AE: Now let’s turn our attention to the perceived difference between the quality delivered by local marketers compared to what is delivered by international marketers. Members of the public seem to think that local marketing efforts are not of the same quality. Do you agree with this?

Ron: To some extent, yes there’s a disconnect between what local marketers can deliver versus what international marketers can deliver. There are a few reasons for this. First, the marketing budget for a single ad for an international brand can be more than the entire annual marketing budget for a local brand. International brands benefit from tremendous budgets and are increasingly asking the agency to take a stake in the success of the campaign to make sure that agencies are not just trying to win an award and are actually driving sales. This is not the norm, but it is a growing trend.

The other major disadvantage we face is that our research budgets are either too low or non-existent. International marketers benefit from very, very deep insights from research firms, so they understand their target market very well. Research is also relatively easy to access in more developed markets. It seems that in the region we are faced with two challenges when accessing research: there is insufficient publicly available data and we do not research enough on our own. I believe that both the researchers and the marketers have to jointly own the responsibility of making research available, and one step in this direction would be for marketing professionals in companies to make their agencies justify their suggestions.

AE: Given your time working in marketing in the Caribbean, how do you think local brands are performing in terms of developing strong brand identities? How do you think local brands compare to international brands?

Ron: That’s a complex question. I think the performance varies across different industries and depends on how well that brand – local or regional – is integrated into the local culture. We are quite proud of niche products, especially in the food and beverage industry. That industry is highly emotional as we consider food and drinks a part of the Caribbean experience. Another example of local brands being perceived as equivalent or better than international brand is Automotive Art, which has a presence throughout the Caribbean. Chances are other islands have embraced it as their own and may not even be aware that it is Barbadian-owned. If we go back about 10 years, the region had great fashion labels – Rhaj Paul, Irie Blue, Radical Designs, etc. – and those products had a high emotional connection and consumers felt a certain level of pride in those products.

We have to acknowledge, though, that many overseas brands have tremendous marketing power because even before they reach our shores we are familiar with their brand. I believe that branding is about getting people to know, like and trust your organisation. Generally, local and regional brands do a good job of being known. People will know they exist. But, they need to focus more on the like and trust factors. We have had companies request an advertising campaign or a visual rebrand, but after our consultation around their entire brand, they switch gears to deal with the culture issues that may be derailing their marketing efforts. Progressive organisations are increasingly realizing that they need to put more effort into the like and trust components of their brand and can no longer just focus on brand visibility. It is now easier to advertise at least on radio or through an email blast or a social media campaign, and as the barriers to getting your name out there came down, it exposed the like and trust challenges.

AE: As we turn to the advertising side of brand development, do you think that the presence of a small number of local TV channels is hindering the development of the advertising industry in the region?

Ron: Yes, it hinders the development of the advertising industry but not the branding industry. We have professional service clients (lawyers) that legally in their country cannot place an ad on TV, but they can still brand. Advertising is not the only tool available when you are branding, but if the only thing in your toolbox is a hammer, everything will look like a nail.

AE: What do you think will need to be done to further develop advertising in the region so that consumers perceive our efforts to be of the same quality to foreign ads?

Ron: The problem in the Caribbean does not appear to be a lack of creativity; we have a high level of creativity. We can also compete fairly effectively in radio ads and print ads. TV is a challenge for some companies because of the high costs associated with producing TV ads. We also could be more strategic with digital marketing.

AE: Apart from advertising, are there any other avenues that local brands should be pursuing more to strengthen their brands?

Ron: I have 4 main suggestions. First, we have to work on overall brand strategy. Companies should place greater emphasis on using their brand strategies to out-manoeuvre and out-think their competitors. Our brand efforts have to be more strategic. Which leads me to my next suggestion: we need more useful insights into the consumers themselves. A bigger budget does not automatically mean bigger results. Even internationally, there are examples of successful campaigns executed on shoestring budgets. What is needed is greater insight into our customers. The final 2 points are interlinked. We have to improve our customer experience and we have to understand how our company culture and employee engagement levels influence perceptions of our brands.

Ron Johnson is the Managing Director of Blueprint Creative. This interview was conducted by Stacia Howard, Managing Director of Antilles Economics.

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