Scary, Big and Hairy Branding?

The following is the complete version of an article Sean wrote for NEFMA’s (New England Financial Marketing Association) most recent newsletter.  He was also a guest author online at


There’s an acronym, BHAG, that most of you will have heard(1).  It stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal.  I first learned it from a priest friend of mine, Tim, who ten years ago twisted my arm to help him with his BHAG: to found an independent middle school(2) (out of thin air, no money, no patrons, no buildings, no land, no faculty, no students…nada).  Tim employed the BHAG concept well and taught me that doing something way out of one’s comfort zone, something that is scary, big, and audacious is actually doable—if you have a relentlessly positive attitude, a lot of faith in your idea, and the ability to ignore the naysayers.

Which leads us to what the readers of this article, I hope, want to hear: how the BHAG applies to marketing your organization.  Well, here we go.  I’m working on refining a branding/marketing/advertising process that I’m calling the ABC’s of Marketing: Audacious Advertising, BHAG Branding, Concise Creative, and Dogged Development.

You want your brand to have it’s own BHAG and to be pushed to new ground, higher ground, a leadership position.  Big, hairy, audacious.  When you see/hear it first, it should scare you.  It should be rare (or never seen before).  Think Bigfoot (that’s right, Sasquatch).  It leaves a big footprint (if/when you see it, it leaves you wanting to learn and see more).  In other words, BHAG Branding makes a huge impression.   It will generate earned media (like Bigfoot, who never bought an ad in it’s life but has generated much “buzz,” using documentaries, movies, news articles, books, and so on).  Ford’s BHAG was to “Democratize the automobile,” Microsoft’s “A computer on every desk and in every home,” Amazon’s “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds,” and Twitter’s, “To become the ‘pulse of the planet.’”

One of our clients, Town & Country Federal Credit Union in Maine, uses the word “LOVE” in its advertising when describing how customers feel about them.   This was the result of a series of branding workshops I conducted to re-brand the financial institution.  As you might well imagine, when the term first came up, senior management was not comfortable using the “L” word in the financial sector.  It’s scary.  Would consumers believe that someone could actually “love” their bank?  Would it seem frivolous?  Disingenuous?  For managers of this financial institution, using the word LOVE in their ads and making sure their service always lived up to it  was a BHAG.  But Town & County was confident it was appropriate and would match the “in-store experience.” So they pushed through their initial discomfort and used it.  Eighteen months later, having aired a few TV spots (and radio, print, in branch merchandising and internet ads) with their customers talking about their LOVE for the bank, independent quantitative research now proves it’s working like a charm.  People remember and retain the advertising and are moved by it.  Awareness and perceptions of quality among both members and non-members, and membership and deposit growth, are all up by double-digit percentages since the last benchmark research.  The credit union is exceeding all it’s organizational goals for the time period.

You need to have Concise Creative.  Here’s how I see concise.  It’s strategic.  You want people to know you for what you want to be known for.  Mere awareness is good but not good enough.  Your creative needs to be targeted at the right audience and to resonate with them—to strike an emotional chord or connection. Creative needs to be terse.  Say no more than you absolutely have to.  A quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great evangelists, is “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.”  He got it right.  More image, more example, fewer words.  During one of the worst periods of our current recession, 2nd Quarter 2008, we launched an advertising campaign for another financial client, National Grand Bank in Marblehead, MA.  It used the simple headline “MONEY TO LOAN” in all media, on all channels (print, in branch posters, newspapers, statement stuffers, radio, direct mail and Web/Internet).  Photos of couples in front of homes with SOLD signs, and other simple images rounded out the ads.  Jim Nye, President of National Grand Bank, reported the 2nd Quarter of 2008 included “the best two months for mortgages they’ve seen in three and a half years.” Our research indicates that during this period, most other financial institutions were not as successful marketing their lending products.  Concise Creative, having a compelling message that’s relevant to your audience, and being known for what you want to be known for, really works!

Once you’ve got the BHAG Brand message and a Concise Creative, continuing through with my ABC’s of Marketing, it’s time to launch with Audacious Advertising.  You need to pick the right media (place) for your message.  Where will it stand out?  Where will it be unusual but still effective?  Which comes first?  An internal launch, initially to your employees and team, or an all out blitz of traditional media (TV, radio, print, direct mail)?  Or, is it time to invest largely in social and new media channels?  That depends on where you’ll find your audience and where your new message will be best revealed and distributed.  Your ads need to be timely.  Saying the right thing in the right place at the right time exponentially magnifies the results.

Perhaps the best example from my own experience is an ad we created for our long-time client, Bigelow Tea.  In the six years we’ve been handling their advertising, Bigelow has gone from the #13 to the #1 selling tea in America.  This with a marketing budget that’s less than 10% of their competitors’ annual budgets.  How did we do it?  We found a niche market that held some promise (focusing on selling green tea to men).  We suggested that Bigelow’s BHAG would be to “own” the growing green tea category (no small feat). Then we could use it to leverage (and create a halo effect for) the entire brand.  A little over 4 years later, Bigelow did become America’s #1 selling green tea. We advertised this fact with an ad in TIME magazine showing the entire United States colored green.  The headline read, RED STATES, BLUE STATES. WE ALL HAVE ONE THING IN COMMON…DRINKING BIGELOW GREEN TEA.  It ran in a November issue, the week before the 2008 Presidential Election, and again in a Commemorative Issue at the time of the Inauguration.  It created tons of buzz and notoriety for our client.  Bigelow’s Sr. VP/Sales & Marketing, Bob Kelly, remarked, “The ad is prominently positioned on page 7 in this historic issue, which will generate unprecedented national exposure for the Bigelow brand.”  Targeted Audacious Ads, Concise Creative, and perfect timing multiplies your ROI.

Finally, with your ABCs in place, you move on to the Ds—Dogged Development.  Dogged Development is the follow through on all your hard work and smart decisions. And it’s all R’s.   Relentless—your target has to see your message often (frequency).  Reach—must be seen by many.  Repetitive—the same message, on all media channels.  Re-doubled—make a firm, long-term commitment to support and finance the message over time.  Keep banging the drum.  Returned—monitor your ROI (return on investment) often and tweak the media mix and/or the message to extract the maximum return.

Then, it all starts again, full circle.  You’ve got to tweak the BHAG Brand message from what you learned in the Dogged Development phase, refine the media mix based on the ROI, and create another new wave of Concise Creative and Audacious Advertising.
It’s fun.  It’s productive.  It’s what we marketers love to do.  Good luck!

1 The term Big Hairy Audacious Goal (“BHAG”) was proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1996 article entitled Building Your Company’s Vision.

2 The school, Seacoast Academy (, has been up and running—actually thriving—since 2007. Last year three of their students scored in the top ten on a New Hampshire statewide achievement test, and one of their students was the #1 middle school scholar —this with an enrollment of only 65 students. I remain a member of the board of trustees, my arm still twisted.

Sean Tracey is Brand Strategist/Creative Director at his advertising firm, Sean Tracey Associates in Portsmouth, NH.  He has led creativity and branding workshops for Adweek Magazine, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAAs) and the Canadian Advertising Association, and taught Communications at Emerson College.  He is an accomplished film producer/director that has created television commercials for many of America’s most well-known brands, including Sears, McDonalds, Bank of Montreal, Citizen’s Bank, TD Banknorth, and others.  Interested in a BHAG Branding Program or other marketing initiative for your organization? Sean can be reached at 603-427-2800 or via email at

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