Talking with . . .

Nick Wreden
An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

I DON'T KNOW NICK WREDEN (Korea 1974–76). We’ve never met, never spoken on the phone, never “taken a meeting” as they say in New York, or had a power breakfast or business lunch, but one day up popped an email from him, and better yet, word about his new and first book, FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future, a management book that came out in September. I don’t know anything about business, but books like this, with funny titles: FusionBranding (sounds like science fiction) appeal to me. After several email exchanges, I decided to interview Nick because (1) he knows about stuff I never think about, and (2) most RPCVs are hopeless when it comes to business. I thought all of us writers might learn a thing or two about the “real” world. I began the interview with some simple questions just so I could get the answers straight.

What were your Peace Corps years and your assignment?

I was an English teacher from 1974 to 76 in a middle school in southeast Korea.

What is your academic background?

I graduated from Washington & Lee University days before stepping on the plane to Korea. After getting out of the Peace Corps and spending some time in Asia, I came back to the US and earned a graduate degree in journalism from the University of Missouri/Columbia. In 2000, I received an MS in Technology Management from Mercer University in Atlanta.

Tell us a little about how you got into this field of “branding”?

I was asked to teach a class on marketing. For some perspective, I picked up a marketing textbook from the 1970s and another one that had been recently been published. I was shocked at how similar they were. While management, financial, manufacturing and supply chain practices had advanced dramatically in 30 years, marketing books were still talking about “awareness,” “positioning” or other fuzzy concepts. I started reading a lot of books on branding and marketing. Most were little more than recaps of personal experiences or careers. There was little hard research, and little integration or even recognition of the vast advances in other areas of business. So I figured there was a market for a fact-based, holistic look at branding from a business — not a “creative” — viewpoint.

For those of us who know nothing about branding, what is it?

Branding is a word that is frequently misused. It is not about ads, logos and slogans. It is not about new brochures or press releases. Branding is a long-term profitable bond between an offering and the purchaser. This relationship is based on trust and loyalty, backed by everyday operational excellence and measured by customer equity. A lot of companies try to brand on the cheap with, say, a lot of advertising. But the level of marketing has little to do with a brand. Take Starbucks, for example. A well-known and respected brand, yet it does almost no advertising.

What is the most interesting developing in business today that relates to branding?

The democratization of technology, the increasing marketing and other sophistication of consumers and the growing control over messages that reach them are creating new branding challenges that few companies are meeting well. Email is symbolic of that change. It can be a wonderful marketing vehicle, but many have opted out of receiving any messages. How do you brand in a world that is increasingly opting-out of any marketing?

Looking at the Peace Corps, what suggestions would you make for the agency to improve their branding?

First, it must protect its current brand. One key to protecting its brand is reinforcing the absolute ban on intelligence activities. It was extremely troubling to see the Peace Corps kicked out of Russia on suspicions of conducting intelligence operations.
     It must also seek to extend its brand in two areas. First, it should expand its reach across more countries with more resources. Second, it should expand its efforts to leverage the vast resources of RPCVs. The effort to encourage RPCVs to speak at schools, etc. is a great start, but more needs to be done to harness the incredibly valuable perspective of RPCVs on international issues.

How would you use the RPCV “brand” in America? Do you think “Returned Peace Corps Volunteers” might have an influence with regard to how America sees the world, and how should be go about “branding” our image?

RPCVs have an enormous amount to contribute. We’ve given two years of our lives to our country, speak two or more languages and have an understanding of culture and perception that few Americans do. RPCVs continue to serve, from the halls of Congress to the corridors of business. However, RPCVs do have a brand problem. Unfortunately, we’ve been better at cross-cultural communication than communication about our contributions here at home. Federal government support and visibility has been low for the last two decades. In some quarters, altruism is regarded suspiciously; look at the trouble Americorps had getting through Congress. And major media have regarded military activity as the most newsworthy aspect of U.S. foreign policy. To change it, we need greater support and contributions in Washington, including greater PR efforts with national and local media. We need to coalesce around issues that reflect our international understanding, such as the full-page ads in the NY Times by RPCVs. And, after 9/11, we need to do a better job of linking our past and future efforts to the long-term security of the U.S.

What about branding and American foreign policy as it is linked to the Peace Corps?

I’m hesitant to offer observations to a group of RPCVs who might be much more knowledgeable about foreign issues than I, but I would make the initial case that a national brand is dependent on a foundation of diplomatic, economic, military and personal initiatives. There’s some overlap among those, and the Peace Corps would cover economic, diplomatic and personal issues. I’m a great believer in the Peace Corps, but believe that it must be subservient to diplomatic and even economic goals.
     The general characteristic of PCVs and the work they do is the face of America that is acceptable and appreciated. Peoples hostile to the American government (or a particular administration) have had little trouble making a distinction between U.S. government policy and an American citizen, like the resident PCV.
     However, I fear that too many years of anti-American policy will morph into anti-Americanism that will, among other things, hurt our ability to sell — and brand — overseas.
     For the Bush administration, selling an improved “American Brand” must include delivering the goods on promises made, like the US/UK Middle East plan. Will the occupation of Palestine end, will all Jewish settlers in Gaza and the West bank decamp, will we convene an all party conference on the disposition of Jerusalem? Hopefully, responses to those questions would go a long way to repairing US/Arab relations and perhaps prolong our shelf life in the Middle East.

How would you see the political parties and their “branding” on the war?

Not all the philosophical framework related to corporate branding in the customer economy can be transferred to the political realm. Still, leaders in business and politics always go for the low-hanging fruit. For example, a prime target market in business is the 18–34 demographic. In politics, only 13% of 18–30 year-olds vote, so the interests of that market (long-term health of social security, education support, etc.) are ignored while the needs of seniors (prescription drug benefits, etc.) get all the bills and votes.
     The key to branding in the customer economy is maximizing profitability, not sales or market share, primarily by increasing customer equity. In political terms, this is termed, “playing to the base.” Parties get the most mileage (donations, volunteers, etc.) by addressing the specific concerns of a limited number of supporters. Parties get hurt — just as businesses do — when they displease core supporters.
     Consistency is also vital in branding. It dilutes the effort if prospects see one message in stores; another in direct mail. In politics, the party that controls the White House obviously has a huge advantage in promoting — and enforcing — consistency.
     The double-edged sword of both politics and business is “grass-roots” movements. These can create huge momentum both for and against issues and offerings. In an age of “digital tribes,” “swarms,” and “smart mobs,” such grass-roots movements have more power and reach than ever before. One example: one factor contributing to the recent election of President Roh in South Korea was that 800,000 IM messages went to supporters on election day.
     As we move into the customer economy, the press is becoming increasingly irrelevant, both in business and political branding. For example, every major news outlet heard Sen. Trent Lott wish that Sen. Strom Thurmond had been elected in 1948, yet the event received no coverage until a West Coast blog started promoting it. The press handling of political reporting has turned into “gotcha” journalism, which is irrelevant to both the issues of the day and a politician's ability to handle those issues.
     Even the strongest market brands can be overtaken by events. Remember, Ayds, which was the leading diet pill? It disappeared from the market when the AIDS crisis hit in the early ’80s. Similarly, it is highly likely that current political brands will be overtaken by events now unfolding in Iraq and the economy.

Okay, to sum it all up in a nice précis paragraph, what’s your book about?

FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future examines emerging business imperatives and how they will drive branding in the years ahead. Because we have moved from the mass economy to the customer economy, old branding techniques based on advertising or PR are increasingly ineffective. What are required now are strategies based on everyday operational excellence, customer equity and operational excellence. The book also looks ahead to the branding challenges and opportunities of 2005 and beyond. I publish a brand futurist newsletter once or twice a month. Readers who would like to subscribe can email me: nick@fusionbrand.com.
     For autographed copies of the book, or discounts on volume purchases, you can order directly from me at: www.fusionbrand.com.