The hotel lobby was a scene right out of Studio 54. Mirrored disco balls and track spotlights hung suspended from the ceiling. The check-in desk also served as a bar, with colorful bottles of liquor lining the back counter behind the bartender/reservation clerk. For a brief second I thought I’d given the taxi driver the wrong address and ended up at some űber-hip German club rather than the Pentahotel. To my delight, it turned out to be both.
“Checking in,” he asked?
“You tell me.” I laughed as I handed him my credit card and glanced around the lobby looking for something hotel-like.
“First time here, ja?”
“May I offer you something to drink?”
“You may. I’ll have a glass of white wine. Sec please.”
He swiped my card and popped a cork on a bottle sparkling German wine. How very efficient, I thought.
I took a stroll around the bar/lobby and was enchanted by the whimsical décor, especially the jumbo-sized, six-foot tall lamp that also served as a bookshelf. A man sat reading under the enormous lampshade. I felt like I just tumbled down the rabbit hole and shrank to the size of a doll.
I was in town to give a presentation on branding to a group of international marketers for a car manufacturer that wanted to rebrand one of its divisions to help it compete on a global scale. If their choice of hotel proved one thing it was that they were probably already pretty savvy when it came to communicating the right image, maybe even light years ahead of where I was. I was worried. There was a lot at stake for me. If my color marketing presentation succeeded, our company stood to gain some new business in an industry other than paint. We would create an automotive color guide, our first in Europe.
The “color guide” is the bible of all car manufacturers and automotive refinishers. It’s a book of colors and finishes that shows the various paint colors in different finishes. And it’s the finishes that make all the difference. Beige becomes “Champagne” just by adding some metallic flakes. White takes on a luminescence of a pearl necklace by adding a pearlescent pigment. But the most amazing colors of all belong to a class called “extreme”. Extreme colors have a pigment set of different colors mixed up in the paint. They color changes depending on the viewing angle. Cars can look blue viewed straight on, or green when looked at from right to left or purple from left to right. Our lab technicians call it metallic magic.
Buying a new car is at once a terrifying and thrilling experience. You want to make sure you invest your money wisely. It’s usually a purchase that you have to live with for a long time. That’s why the automotive industry offers very few trendy colors and sticks to time-honored classics, like black, white, and silver.
I agonized over the eight colors available when I purchased my first car all those years ago. I bought Champagne. Of course that was when I was still married. Post-divorce I chose Burgundy.
Early the next morning, I spied Siegfried Mueller at the breakfast buffet. Siegfried is Director of International Marketing for a major European car manufacturer. We had met at color marketing seminar in Greece six months earlier and struck up a conversation one morning over coffee during which we talked about his color guide suppliers. They were all European, and I had mentioned that I thought we could do as good a job and at a more cost effective price point out of our Mexican facility. That got his attention. Being young and globally savvy, he was open to looking at new suppliers and invited me to speak at the company’s annual marketing meeting. It was a great opportunity for my company and me.
“Wie geht Ihnen Sieg,” I said, addressing him by the diminutive name given to him by his American colleagues.
Sieg himself is far from diminutive. He towers over me. That morning, he wore a dark blue Hugo Boss suit that fit his lean runner’s body in all the right places: the wide shoulders, the narrow waist, and the long legs. (I noticed the hem on his pants was slightly long at the heel – a European hem.) The cerulean colored tie brought out the blue in his eyes. His curly blond hair was starting to gray at the temples. He once joked that he didn’t mind turning grey at a young age. As the youngest manager on the executive team, it lent him an air of gravitas that belied his thirty-five years.
“Did you have a good trip, Katrin?” he asked.
“Ja, es war gut.”
“Does this mean you’re going to give your presentation in German today?”
“Ha, not likely, that’s the extent of my German language skills, danke. Nice hotel by the way.”
“I thought you’d like it.”
“So tell me a little bit about my group today.”
“I’ll do better than that; I’ll introduce you to some of them.”
Over breakfast, I managed to meet at least half of the Eastern European marketing team. The managers, a mixture of men and women, were in their early- to mid-thirties. They came from Poland, the Ukraine, Russia, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Siegfried gave me an impressive introduction. He highlighted my ad agency credentials and marketing and sales experience. It was a good way to establish some credibility with my audience.
But it was just that type of buildup that makes my heart leap to my throat. It’s the same feeling you get when you reach the top of a roller coaster. I stood up, exhaled and took the plunge. Today’s presentation, I explained, would focus on the difference between production differentiation and brand distinction and the importance of story in creating that distinction. My PowerPoint presentation featured companies that manufactured soft drinks, cereals, shampoos, and different kinds of toothpaste.
Focusing on the latter, I told them: “You start with one kind, like cavity fighting, and then you create a line extension by adding whitening, breath freshening, and tartar fighting. Line extension provides differentiation only. Your brand only becomes distinct when you have a story to tell. Right? My audience nodded.
I switched to distinctive brands. These brands told a story that my audience knew well even if they were Eastern European. The Tiffany blue box and the Harley-Davidson Low-Rider brought smiles to their faces. “Who can forget Audrey Hepburn standing before Tiffany’s store window having her coffee during the wee hours of the morning? As for Harley, the Low-Rider appeals to the “live dangerously” rebellious side of your personality no matter how many academic degrees you have. Each of these brands speaks to your own personal story. It’s the ongoing life narration that plays out like a movie inside your head.
I went through icon after icon, comparing and contrasting brands that differentiated themselves against those who are distinctive – those that have a story. The last example I gave was the story of Ralf Lauren and his transformation from Ralf Lifshitz, the tie designer to Ralf Lauren, the creator of first the Polo brand and then an empire. Lauren became a success because his brand of clothing told a story, a story we all aspire to. “His clothing and home goods are evocative of good taste and snobbishness without flashiness,” I explained. “We don’t have to own a house in the Hamptons or have a private jet to project an image of class taste, a sense of timelessness and the lifestyle that goes with it.”
Sometimes it’s difficult to see the story for the trees. When I asked the marketers what they thought their company’s story was they came back with items like performance, quality, styling and safety. I agreed that these all made for a good sales copy but it placed them in the toothpaste category of cars.
“Tell me one thing about your brand that is distinctive,” I said. “Something that your competition can’t claim.” Every claim they made I countered with a competitive product with a similar offer. I sensed they had never considered this aspect of their branding strategy before, that this was a new approach for them. I could also sense they were getting frustrated not having an answer at the ready.
“I don’t expect you to answer this question now. You’re here for three days. Think about it. This is a great opportunity and if you approach it the right way, it could be a lot of fun. “When it comes time to create brand distinction for your product and the operative word here is create. So I will ask you one final question. What’s your story?”
As applause erupted spontaneously from the group, I couldn’t help but ask myself the same question. What’s my story? I had spent two years writing my book Any Color but Beige, a product that continues to find its audience. But what now? Where do I take it from here? As the applause continued, it occurred to me that I had the same task ahead of me as my car manufacturer: what’s my story? what now, Cat? what now?