Kenn Fine of FINE: “5 things you should do to build a trusted and believable brand”

Fotis Georgiadis
May 13, 2020 · 13 min read

It has never been more important to be extremely clear on who you are and what you do for people inside and outside your company. You can’t just say how you’re different, you have to BE how you’re different. There’s too much noise and transparency in the marketplace to try and fake your way through with clever sales pitches alone.

had the pleasure of interviewing Kenn Fine. As FINE’s founder and Executive Creative Director, Kenn Fine has served as creative visionary, strategist, consultant, and confidante to leaders in hospitality, wine, technology, and yet-to-be-defined industries since 1994, developing and growing dozens of award winning brands along the way.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

oughly 30 years ago, I founded a mountain bike clothing business, working through all the startup challenges to help make it successful before selling it off and beginning to do spot gigs with other companies. I found that I loved the continuous process of parachuting in to problem-solve creatively, and that my mind naturally used brand as a compass for making all sorts of decisions — not just the more obvious design and communications activities, but the operational and service practices that make the whole organization go. I developed this belief that brand is operations. So, whether it’s the minutiae of choosing which of 100 different varieties of Velcro straps work best in a new breed of biking shorts, or figuring out how to deliver service standards at a global hospitality brand, weaving brand into your operational DNA drives everything. So I’ve just been on one long, exhilarating, rewarding mountain bike ride from the start.

Can you share a story about the funniest marketing mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It was back in the clothing company days, before we were even able to afford color printing. I had the genius idea to design a black and white “photocopyable” product brochure with a highly sophisticated scheme of delineated squares that could be colored in — manually! — using a suite of carefully selected colored pencils. I believed I had single-handedly defeated the entire overpriced offset printing industry with sheer ingenuity and elbow grease, while simultaneously imbuing our brand with a more personal and artistic flair! Then, of course, our very first promotional push required 1,000 pieces be ready to distribute within a few days. A few all-nighters and bad hand cramps later, I’d learned a valuable lesson on scale, and the real price of hard cost vs. opportunity cost.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It’s really our belief that brand has the power to make big things happen across your organization and your industry if you treat it as a compass heading for operations, not just a cosmetic layer on top of it all.

We take a vertical approach to brand integration, trying not to get lost in the top five percent of making things look good before understanding what connects the entirety of an organization’s behavior and practices. Again, to us, brand is operations.

We create brands from the inside out and design experience from the outside in. Meaning, we are thinking about the essence of what makes a company unique while simultaneously crafting the experience and expression of that brand as it meets the customer. That gives us the DNA and compass heading for everything from the product and service, to environments where it’s delivered, online and off.

The best stories in our industry come from the gaps that kind of thinking exposes, between what companies say their core purpose and promise is, and how they’re expressing it in the marketplace. We have these meetings all the time where the purported project calls for groundbreaking creative, but there’s nothing to attach it to — it is an empty sales pitch. I remember meeting with a global tech client developing what they said was a revolutionary smart phone accessory requiring breakthrough creative. We filled out NDAs, and flew down to meet with a sizable innovation team under strict security protocols, and shared our best work to be worthy of consideration. When it came time to reveal their idea, with great fanfare they pulled off the shroud concealing what appeared to be a makeshift lamp stand you could use to take photos of documents. To this day, I believe that our immediate, involuntary laughter may have lost us that project. And that perhaps a deeper understanding of brand would’ve led them to a different solution.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

There’s so many. We’ve begun work with Canyon Ranch, pioneers in wellness who are looking to re-center on their mission of transformation that goes far beyond hospitality and into the impact they have on people’s quality and duration of life. The Hotel Del Coronado is completing a massive revamp and we’re helping use brand to guide and shape their vision for a new generation of Del guests to fall in love with that special place. Both follow this theme of re-imagining hospitality pioneers that started during our work with Kimpton several years ago.

Exciting ones in consumer products include our work for Chateau Ste Michelle, who’s evolving beyond traditional consumer packaged goods branding to meet today’s consumer tastes, rethinking the experience on their property and direct-to-consumer across their dozens of unique brands. And we’re working with some real digital upstarts that are changing the world by designing experience — Lime bikes are leading sharing economy urban transportation, and Mojo Lens is actually developing a contact lens that lets digital information integrate into your life seamlessly, rather than you bending to devices. That’s just a few examples of some very exciting stuff with companies who understand they need to dig deeper into how they deliver and communicate value to people in order to succeed today.

Ok let’s now jump to the core part of our interview. In a nutshell, how would you define the difference between brand marketing (branding) and product marketing (advertising)? Can you explain?

Brand is who you are. It’s your DNA. We may “sequence” it using words and pictures initially, and then expand to other important forms of documentation and standards, but it gets expressed in all the ways you do what you do. Product marketing and advertising and even brand marketing are all examples of tactics where brand plays out and comes in contact with your customers in specific ways. The important thing to remember is that a single ad campaign or product line is not your brand; it should reinforce and emerge from it, but in order to do any of these things well and consistently, you need to have a very strong, very clear core understanding that connects them all. It’s not something that gets published only in a visual standards guide; it’s something that gets published, communicated, documented, trained, improved, and proliferated every day for as long as you are in business.

Can you explain to our readers why it is important to invest resources and energy into building a brand, in addition to the general marketing and advertising efforts?

It has never been more important to be extremely clear on who you are and what you do for people inside and outside your company. You can’t just say how you’re different, you have to BE how you’re different. There’s too much noise and transparency in the marketplace to try and fake your way through with clever sales pitches alone.

We make brands that are “pully” not “pushy”. The more you invest in the brand, the more people will come to it, and the less you will have to add your pushy voice to the chaos of information in the marketplace. You simply invite and introduce.

If you would like your company’s existence to depend upon paid media, buying eyeballs and clicks and one-time sales, focus only on marketing and advertising. If you would like your company to have a foundation of earned and owned customer relationships, focus on nurturing your core brand.

It takes resolve to not resort to quick-hit tactics — there are so many platforms and methods of communication that the biggest issues in brand and communications nowadays are what to say no to. Reduce noise, distractions, and wasted motion. Don’t focus on B2B or B2C marketing, focus on H2H: human-to-human value creation.

Can you share 5 strategies that a company should be doing to build a trusted and believable brand? Please tell us a story or example for each.

#1: Know thyself. Have a clear brand foundation, value proposition, and experience intent to build upon that’s grounded in the right blend of historic reality and future aspiration. Pioneering brands, like Kimpton and their boutique hospitality or Canyon Ranch with wellness, often have a strong legacy spirit they’re trying to both recapture and reinvent. New brands are trying to build a lasting legacy, like Makr Hospitality that centers on the culinary hospitality vibe of its owner Charlie Palmer, or even Holt Homes who’s building residential communities on differentiation meant to last 100 years. Either way, it starts with knowing who you are.

#2: Be loud and proud. Confidently broadcast your distinction without fear of alienating those not in your audience. The urge to be “all things” or “common denominator” is a vestige of mass marketing past. Our work with wine brands like Ashes & Diamonds or Realm is a good example — they’re not for anyone who seeks a traditional wine vibe, and they’re highly successful at it. Pebblebrook Hotels set up a whole new brand — the Unofficial Z Collection — dedicated to the idea that hotels are not a place to sleep, but to wake up. I think of Mojo Lens, who’s leaning into the transformative impact of wearable tech at a time when some are afraid to tread there.

#3: Map the experience. It’s not just about sales funnels, it’s about knowing when you have permission and opportunity to impact a customer in some way. For Lime, knowing how customer use and need information drove digital communication strategy in a new sharing economy category. Bode is a brand trying to make hospitality group-friendly as never before by engineering a shared experience more reliably inspiring than Airbnb or branded hotels. Hotel Del Coronado expanded their property by mapping guest interest to earn added stays and spend by being more relevant and timely. Be methodical about where you can add value to the way customers think and behave.

#4: Empower your culture. We have a saying: “customers buy brands that employees buy into.” So many industries now depend on finding, attracting, retaining, training, motivating, and aligning their people around a common cause. Our tech clients are nowhere without committed engineers. Hospitality is nothing without great service. Our yearslong collaboration with Kimpton is the case in point. Aligning their customer brand and their employer brand, having those mapped journeys overlap to create “ridiculously personal experiences” is why they’re a great brand and consistently voted a top workplace, too.

#5: Acknowledge your customers. Maybe this sounds too basic, like it should amplify to “the customer’s always right” or “cherish your customers.” But start with this, that in every decision you make you will think of the people who pay the bills. You will find ways of considering their point of view and experience, with clarity and empathy. Doing this helps you keep your brand promises. It also leads you to all sorts of tiny gestures, rituals, and touchpoints that do not go unnoticed. I think of the loyalty program we helped Kimpton shape, Kimpton Karma rewarded guests not just for buying but for doing the things that ensure they had a great brand experience and kept the promise “good things come to those who stay” by acknowledging them all along the way. Also, it leads to lots of very cool brand schwag.

In your opinion, what is an example of a company that has done a fantastic job building a believable and beloved brand. What specifically impresses you? What can one do to replicate that?

I think it’s interesting to answer that question not by professional dissection but by observing our own human response toward it. I know in my own life I tend to gravitate toward unassuming natural brands like Tom’s of Maine (at least before they were bought out), or Bob’s Red Mill for many reasons. In my line of work, we get a lot of “I wanna be like Apple” input when we ask what brands they want to emulate and I’ve always been an Apple loyalist. But in recent years, a new brand has emerged to get more mentions: Tesla. We could attribute that to being purpose-driven, as much a cause as a brand. They have a strong loyalist community who will enumerate the ways the product is demonstrably superior, and some vocally conspiratorial detractors who will promote its risks and ulterior motives. They got there by emphasizing design, innovation, and continuous improvement in operations that’s reflected in all the experiences where the car and its driver intersect. Out of necessity, they maintain their own rebel operational infrastructure to provide everything from off-channel sales to roadside assistance. But more than all that, think of the many attempts to start even a standard car brand in the past that have failed while Tesla is inventing a category using no advertising. Their willingness and ability to take on the combustion engine institution and create a highly aspirational consumer and business brand is not much short of miraculous, and if you can approach your brand with half that drive and moxy, you will succeed.

In advertising, one generally measures success by the number of sales. How does one measure the success of a brand building campaign? Is it similar, is it different?

If your only measures of success attach to the short-term return on media spend investment, you will not build a brand. You can measure those returns in simple behavioral ways, from clickthroughs to purchases at points of sale, online or off, and optimize them over time. But if you do that to the exclusion of all else, you can become a victim of your own success where you begin chasing the market instead of creating one. You lure the wrong audience using the wrong message — often, you begin to discount and bend your message to suit short term returns.

The right measures to layer on top of that will depend a bit on your industry and model, but the things to measure in brand are about the price and margin your product commands (measures like revPAR or ADR in hospitality, average purchase price in real estate, contribution margin in consumer goods, etc), the lifetime value of the customers you attract and retain, and the equity that is created in your company by the “soft” asset that is the brand perception you’ve built in the marketplace. These are the measures that tell you you are no longer a commodity that must pay to maintain its place in the market, but a company that has a strong, loyal customer base willing to pay a premium for your product. That is the game.

What role does social media play in your branding efforts?

It’s really different for every organization. The important thing is to understand the extent to which social, or really any channel, is a hub or a spoke in delivering your message and connecting with customers.

It can be a very meaningful place to interact with people, and it’s important to treat it not just as a “broadcast” channel but as a place to have a conversation. The slippery slope of social media is when it becomes its own independent “activity engine” that requires constant content that may feel disconnected from the rest of what you do and just there to create noise. So we spend a lot of time orchestrating that using social media “playbooks” that extend from the core brand to do the job that’s right for the channel. And you have to be prepared to use it the way the customers want to use it, which means it will be some combination of promotional messaging channel, owned media, customer service department, and random incident report all mixed into one. The important thing is trying to retain the balance that is right for your company while remaining responsive to the customers who want to find you there.

What advice would you give to other marketers or business leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Take care of yourself first, stay curious by doing creative and challenging things outside of work. Then bring your mad game to your workplace.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

People in the creative trades share a remarkable alignment on what makes organizations admirable, and we hold the power to help them succeed or not through our superpowers with strategy, ingenuity, words, designs, images, and ideas. What if our entire industry resolved to work only on behalf of organizations that could demonstrate responsibility for the positive impact of their products, services, and actions on people, communities, and our planet? Those companies we threw our weight behind would disproportionately and decisively win.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. — Lao Tzu

It’s one of those quotes that should speak for itself. But the color I would add to it is that branding doesn’t get handed down from the mountain on stone tablets by aloof, black turtlenecked creative directors. It is created and enacted by aligning a great many people over a very long time who must all feel invested in the outcome.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Tom Robbins. His imagination is an inspiration to me and, I find, unexpectedly very practical as it relates to how I approach my work. He could literally make a can of beans worthy of a story. Everything he did was ridiculously different, completely sincere, rich with irreverent statements on our social context and the human condition. I’d like to find out if you can teach and learn that.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@weare.FINE on Instagram.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Pop Culture, Business, Tech, Wellness, & Social Impact

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

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Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.