Creating a Brand for Way Cooley Coffee: Break All the Marketing Rules

[Editor's Note: Notes from a talk Darby gave at the BrandNew symposium organized by BidwellID, Amherst, MA, November 1, 2005. Material in square brackets is my paraphrasing or summarizing.]

I developed an appreciation for branding in 5th grade, when I lit a cigar in religion class. I've been branded as troublemaker, rule breaker, and couldn't get into to Amherst College because of that cigar.

Branding is a corporate code word for uniform. The other word right behind that is template. So we can drop an ad in, look familiar, be safe and cheap.

[Fashion designer] Andy Spade said in Fast Company, 'brand consistency is overrated.' It doesn't have to look the same but feel the same. The element of newness, surprise, mystery--customers should never understand the whole picture.

[O'Brien has done a number of projects for a local hospital, Cooley Dickinson in Northampton, MA (CDH), including the introduction of the hospital's branded fair-trade coffee, "Way Cooley, which raises funds for Hampshire Health Connect, which pays the medical costs of uninsured patients.]

Way Cooley: we had no plan, no budget when we started. If anyone had asked, 'is this consistent with our branding strategy?' the whole idea would have been killed. The development of the coffee was a lot like the development of the Wiffle Ball; it was developed to solve a problem. Dave, Jr. was hitting hardballs through the old lady next door's windows, so the old man went into the cellar and created the Wiffle Ball.

We were brought in to develop a recruiting campaign for nurses. CDH had just hired a VP of patient care, Mary Beth Fairbrother. She said, 'we have a problem, all I hear is Cooley Dick this, Cooley Dick that--you've got to get the Dick out of Cooley.' That's where Way Cooley came from: no dick.

When the Bush administration was pushing for healthcare workers to be vaccinated against smallpox, the hospital said no way. We developed an ad, 'we do what's right, not what's expected.' National publicity, one of the first in the country [to refuse to participate]. The state legislature was cutting funding for Mass Health Basic [the state's program to cover care for un/underinsured workers]. [O'Brien developed an edgy ad featuring a well-known diabetic street performer, using the headline] If Beacon Hill Doesn't Wake Up,` One Day This Guy Might Not Wake Up at All. 'We do what's right' became the slogan. Again, if it had been asked, is this consistent, [the answer would have been no].

Dean Cycon [of Dean's Bens, which supplies the coffee to CDH] was a client, a New York City environmental lawyer. He got his start in coffee roasting when he roasted some beans in his squirrel catcher over a grill.

Dean spoke, kind of off the cuff, at the CDH annual meeting. At the end of the talk, the hospital threw a challenge at us, come up with a product we could sell to fund uninsured coverage. It's sold in hospital coffee shop and gift shop, served to patients.

The ad headline for roll out featured DCH CEO Craig Melin: 'This is one time I don't mind being called a bean counter.'

Out of that, hospitals started to call. We did a teleconference with 100 hospitals, to develop a licensed brand. We're in process of developing concepts: common grounds, solid grounds, and these revenues would also go to Hampshire Health Connect. There's still no budget, and sales continue to go up. Dean donated a $25,000 coffee roaster, so they could roast their own and increase their margins.

Branding: I'd throw the book out, ditch the template. Find your groove, have some fun, and like Ringo Starr said, act naturally.

Darby O'Brien is president of Darby O'Brien Advertising in South Hadley, MA, and for 25 years has been promoting "rebel thinking."

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