Max Brand – Entrepreneurs’ Branding Maxims

Frederick Schiller Faust is a nobody. His face evokes no recognition; his name conjures no associations, nor do eighteen of his nineteen pseudonyms. However, one of his aliases elicits widespread recognition.

Nearly 65 years after Frederick’s death on the front lines during World War II, his celebrated penname remains an enduring brand that invokes a spirit of adventure and escape.

Frederick and his publishers fostered his renowned nom de plume into a vibrant and meaningful brand. Many of the maxims utilized to create that lasting brand can be applied to your startup.

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The word “brand” is derived from the Old English word baernan, which means “to burn.” For thousands of years, ranchers have branded their livestock to indelibly mark them and thereby communicate to the world their ownership. A marketing brand serves a similar purpose. It declares to the world the underlying ownership (and associated responsibility) to deliver on the brand’s promised value proposition.

Although skilled rustlers can readily modify livestock brands, entrepreneurs need to tread lightly when it comes to modifying commercial brands. In the case of the rustlers, pernicious brand alteration can result in an unwelcome necktie party. For entrepreneurs, the consequences of such re-branding can be a similarly dismal fate, unless the process is conducted with the following Brand Maxims in mind.

Do you doubt that Frederick’s famous Max Brand pseudonym is a “max brand?” More than eighty of his stories have inspired films, three have resulted in television series and one was the genesis for a Broadway show. The distinctive lettering is a widely recognized registered trademark. Much like a corporate logo, Max Brand is represented in a consistent font and design, as shown at right.

Even non-consumers of American Western literature readily identify the Max Brand with the Western genre. A smaller segment of readers may also identify the brand with the soap opera character Dr. Kildare, another popular Max Brand creation. Yes, a brand can envelope multiple products sold to disparate users, as long as proper care is taken to manage the specific messaging to the various markets and there is an overarching promise with which everyone can identify. In the case of Max Brand, the bond which holds the brand together is the promise of an entertaining, straightforward, action-oriented story.

Frederick’s heirs understand the power and importance of the brand they are stewarding. Just as buyers of detergent can quickly select their preferred brand based upon its readily identifiable packaging, the Max Brand allows book buyers to quickly identify Frederick’s books and differentiate them from the multitude of competitive literary offerings available online, in bookstores and in other retail outlets. Brands evoke feelings, emotion, understanding, empathy, desire and satisfaction in an instantaneous, Gestalt manner and Max Brand is no exception.

The power of Branding Maxims is cleverly articulated by Guy Gabriele, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Idea Engineering, in his “Little Red Book” series. With Guy’s permission, I have taken the liberty of applying his maxims to the Max Brand. To avoid besmirching Guy’s intellect with my humble ideas, all of his thoughts are shown in italics. If you follow these Branding Maxims, you will significantly increase your chances of creating a max brand.

Maxim #1 – It’s About the Promise, Stupid

Those of us that work with brands should constantly remind ourselves that a brand exists because it has made a promise to the consumer and delivered on that promise. What promise is your brand making? How well has it delivered? – Guy Gabriele

Max Brand promises the reader a light, rapid-paced escape into a literary world in which the plots are straightforward and the characters are clearly delineated as good or evil. Ironically, many of the conventions which cause Frederick’s contemporary scholarly critics to dismiss his prose are the very reasons readers relish his works.

For instance, in his article “Frederick Faust’s Abrupt Endings,” Duane Spurlock notes:

“Frederick Faust’s stories frequently seem to defy the traditional plot arc, in which a denouement — or falling action that wraps up loose ends — follows the climax. More than one reader has commented with a grumble about the abrupt endings of Faust’s stories. With the body of his tale told, the author seems to have no interest in providing a typical sense of closure to his readers. Like a rocket that has expended all its fuel and then falls to Earth, a Faust story speeds pell-mell to its climax, and then stops.”

Spurlock poses a reasonable literary criticism. However, what Spurlock may not have appreciated is that most of Frederick’s readers were less interested in “denouement” than they were in the stories’ conflicts and climaxes. Disregarding his critics, Frederick focused on his brand’s promise, which he upheld book after book.

Maxim #2 – What You Say It Means Doesn’t Mean Anything

What you believe your brand represents means nothing in reality. What the brand means to your customer means everything. Whatever they say it means, that’s what your brand means. Find out what they think.

Remember: it’s all in their heads. – Guy Gabriele

Frederick’s primary reason for utilizing pseudonyms was his desire to preserve his given name for his literary love, poetry. For the most part, he was embarrassed by his pulp fiction works and felt they were unworthy of the “Faust” name. He masked his identity because he did not want “Faust” to be sullied by the pulp prose that he wrote to pay the bills. This conflict is similar to that experienced by Jim Morrison of the US. rock group The Doors, in which he denounced his lucrative “rock star” status in favor of a languishing career as a poet.

The same dissonance is seen with entrepreneurs who strive to enter a market they feel is “worthy” of their incredible talents, but find themselves selling a mass-produced product to an undiscerning audience. At one of my adVentures, we were forced to modify our business model in order to address the realities of the market. During one heated debate, a senior executive stormed out, declaring, “I didn’t join an <expletive> CRM company!” He was frustrated, as Customer Relationship Management software sold to large enterprises was not as sexy as the company’s prior, individual user focus. However, there are times when entrepreneurs must offend their own sensibilities and subsume their egos for the best interest of their adVenture.

In his mind, “Faust” represented a high-quality brand of literary and poetic excellence. However, in the minds of most readers, the Faust brand was non-existent. For those few who were familiar with it, most felt the Faust brand represented self-conscious, second-rate poetry. Ironically, many years following his death, Kirkus Reviews declared, “Max Brand is the Shakespeare of the Western range.”

Aside from Faust’s primary reason for eschewing the Faust brand, he seems to have unconcerned with the possible confusion with the protagonist of the classic German myth Faust, in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly success. Given Frederick’s success at a field he held in low regard, the irony of his name and that of the myth was not likely lost on him. If there is a potential area of confusion with respect to a brand you are emotionally attached to, you must overrule your personal desire and utilize an alternative brand in order to avoid potential brand confusion.

Maxim #3 – Gap, Gap, Everywhere A Gap

There is always a gap between what you intend your brand to be and what the consumer believes it is. Find that gap and take steps to close it. – Guy Gabriele

As the gap in Frederick’s Max Brand increased, he did nothing to close it. In fact, the more widely his pulp fiction was accepted, the more he derided it and frequently noted that he only wrote prose, “to pay the bills.” Entrepreneurs must realize that, at some point in their adVentures, especially in the early stages, they must follow the flow of funds and not attempt to swim upstream. You already have so much working against you when launching an adVenture, you cannot fight against the motivation of those who are willing to pull out their wallets and exchange their hard-earned money for your brand’s value proposition. Close the gap. Frederick succeeded despite his antipathy toward his brand. It is improbable you will be so lucky.

Maxim #4 – Frankly, They Don’t Give A Damn!

Consumers don’t want to hear about your company Mission and Vision. Those things are about you. They care about their experience with your product and your company. Their experiences create the brand. – Guy Gabriele

Pulp fiction readers did not care about Frederick’s mission to become a vaunted poet. Even if they had been aware, they would not have been concerned with the dissonance his pulp fiction success and poetic failure caused him. This personal drama was irrelevant to them, just as the internal dramas at your startup are of no consideration to consumers whose only care is their experience with your brand.

Maxim #5 – Consistency Is Not Simply Replication

Remaining consistent to a brand’s visual and verbal guidelines helps breed familiarity, but familiarity can breed contempt. Simple repetition and thoughtless replication fail to take into account the place where the brand lives: in your customers’ minds. To live a full and productive life a brand must be allowed to grow, evolve and reshape itself. Consistent relevancy is your goal. That’s why brands are “managed.” – Guy Gabriele

Frederick’s literary gifts allowed him to craft compelling and fresh stories. Despite the fact that he wrote over 500 novel-length books, he maintained a relatively consistent quality while simultaneously taking the Max Brand in new directions, as the markets he served evolved. For instance, in 1940, Frederick introduced Dr. Kildare under the Max Brand. This stretched the brand’s promise and could have potentially resulted in expanding the brand gap, as noted under Maxim #3. Fortunately for Frederick, by using a non-Western font, such potential brand confusion was minimized. Stephen King is another author whose brand has spanned several genres, while minimizing brand confusion.

In contrast, consider the branding confusion illustrated by the Saturday Night Live parody product New Shimmer.

Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!

Husband: No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!

Wife: It’s a floor wax!

Husband: It’s a dessert topping!

Wife: It’s a floor wax, I’m telling you!

Husband: It’s a dessert topping, you cow!

Spokesman: Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!

Spokesman: (after the Husband has tasted New Shimmer and the Wife has mopped her kitchen with it) New Shimmer, for the greatest shine you ever tasted!

Entrepreneurs should avoid creating a “New Shimmer” product that attempts to deliver on wholly divergent promises, as the market is likely to not believe any of your branding assertions.

Although Frederick’s brand confusion was minimized, the Max Brand might have been well served if the highly successful Dr. Kildare works had been penned under a different brand name. If done properly, such brand extension can benefit the new brand without distorting the meaning of the established brand, much in the same way Mercedes has successfully leveraged its reputation for safety and engineering excellence via its Smart brand. Although the two brands leverage each other, Mercedes realizes that the Smart cars’ value-pricing could cause brand confusion with its high-end autos if it allows the two brands to become too closely aligned. With a bit of clever thought, it is probable that the Dr. Kildare stories could have leveraged the Max Brand while establishing a new brand targeted to female readers.

Maxim #6 – Sometimes The Baby Does Have To Be Thrown Out

Before you re-brand, re-think. A brand refresh is often considered to be the least painful way to fix a failing brand. Do a relevancy check. Are the basic underpinnings of the brand still meaningful? If so, then a refresh may be in order. If not, you need to have the courage to throw out everything and start over. – Guy Gabriele

During Frederick’s lifetime, there was no need to refresh the Max Brand. However, in the years Following his death, his heirs have gone through a series of such refreshments. Just as Aunt Jemima shed her racially insensitive headscarf, Max Brand book covers have been given a new, updated look to appeal to modern readers’ evolving desire for realism.

As you can see from these paperbacks spanning nearly 80 years, rather than a comic book illustration, the modern cover depicts a photo of the book’s protagonist. The distinctive Western lettering is significantly larger than the book’s title, further evidence that modern readers are seeking out the Max Brand, as opposed to the specific content of any particular book. This is reflective of the Max Brand’s ability to consistently fulfill its promises for the past eight decades.

Maxim #7 – Viral Marketing Could Make You Sick

A viral initiative should be embarked upon with great caution. The high risk (losing control of your brand expression) may be too great a price for the reward (Millions saw me on YouTube! –Whoo hoo). – Guy Gabriele

Frederick’s version of viral marketing was the discarded magazines left behind on countless buses, trains and subways. A new reader would pick up a used magazine, read an entertaining story and later seek out the Max Brand when subsequently purchasing a pulp magazine. In such instances, the Max Brand was delivered to the end-user intact, without the risk of it being co-opted or otherwise commingled with third-party content. Unfortunately, things are not so simple in today’s digital era. As such, focus your valuable resources on viral marketing that can be controlled and monetized.

The CEO of Morpheus Software created a video that was nominated for a 2007 YouTube Video Award. His “Kitty Said What?” video, created using his company’s photo-morphing software, was viewed approximately 4.5 million times. Although it was fun and exciting to be associated with a popular YouTube video, the resulting revenue was modest, approximately one penny for each time the video was viewed. This may seem like a lot of money to a kid who makes a video of himself fighting with a lightsaber, but it is chump change to any viable business. At the depths of the Great Depression, Frederick was paid four cents per word, which is probably more than you are likely to make from uncontrolled viral marketing.

At the remote access software company in which I was a founding executive, we fostered the viral nature of our solution, without relying on it to significantly drive sales. One of our features allowed a user to invite someone else to view their desktop. When we launched the product in 2001, this was a novel and interesting feature that piqued users’ interest. To help satisfy users’ curiosity and gain wider market exposure, we presented a webpage at the end of each screen-sharing session that invited the guest user to learn more about screen sharing by clicking on a link. As such, we did not heavily rely on viral traffic to drive demand. However, we effectively tapped into a naturally viral aspect of our users’ experience in a manner that could be controlled, tracked and monetized.

Maxim #8 – Pennywise Is Unwise

Examine the brand investment. Brands need the proper support and funding. If you haven’t invested in a Brand Audit recently, strongly consider it.

The economy, marketplace and your customers have changed. Your Brand expressions need to be audited on an annual basis. – Guy Gabriele

Frederick would have been well-served by a brand audit. His rampant use of pseudonyms and the broad variety of genres covered by the Max Brand risked confounding and potentially alienating his readers. However, as his overriding objective was to generate as much near-term revenue as possible, Frederick was not concerned with the Max Brand’s longevity. Entrepreneurs cannot afford to take such a short-term, pennywise approach to managing their brands.

Maxim #9 – You Are Not Nike Or Apple Or Target

Remarkable marketers each one, but even if you have budgets as large as theirs, don’t do as they do – learn from what they do, and then make it your own. – Guy Gabriele

Frederick and his publishers realized that the Max Brand was not Dickens, Twain or Poe. Rather than attempting to sell expensive hardback books, they stuck to what worked - short stories published in inexpensive pulp magazines.

In the years following Frederick’s death, as his writing gained favor with critics and he began to be recognized as an important voice in American literature, his writings were published in hardback form and many of his short stories were included in scholarly anthologies. This evolution is akin to a startup that must work its way up-market to its eventual goal. As the marketplace becomes familiar with your brand and you continually deliver on your promises, it may be possible for you to broadly compete with the largest companies in your space. However, in the early days, you my have to initially focus on less glamorous, conscribed market niches, as a means of economically building your brand.

Maxim #10 – What Is Your Brand Manifesto?

“It’s all in your head.” And in your heart.

That’s where brands live. A brand is not a logo, a package, an identity system, tagline, color palette or marketing campaign. These are merely cues we give our customers to help them know us, understand us, and, yes, like us. Every brand expression is meant to help our customers shape a persona for our company, product or idea. A persona, like a brand, is not a “thing.”

A brand is created in the instantaneous assessment the customer makes upon encountering a cue. They know you in their minds and in their hearts.

“I like this.” “That’s cool.” “They suck.” “I need that.”

We all change our minds and change our feelings. That’s why we stress that branding is a process that results in a brand. And the process has to be actively managed. Win their hearts; the money will follow.Guy Gabriele

Frederick’s heirs likely utilize some form of a Brand Manifesto to manage the Max Brand. Even if they have not formally defined a Brand Manifesto, they clearly have a very solid and clear understanding of the Max Brand, as evidenced by the fact that they have taken a studious and deliberate approach to maintaining the Max Brand’s relevance in today’s global literary market.

A Great Brand Manifesto? iThink Apple

Apple’s Brand Manifesto has been relatively consistent – cool technology for discriminating users. Marketer Marc Gobe, author of Emotional Branding describes Apple’s brand using words such as, “imagination, design and innovation.” Charles Pillar, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times depicts Apple’s brand as invoking “…a sense of belonging to an elite club by portraying the Mac as embodying the values of righteous outsiderism and rebellion against injustice.” Idea Engineering’s Guy Gabriele believes Apple’s brand taps into our collective desire for, “creative diversity” and our disdain of “anonymity and conformity.”

In some instances, staying true to the elite nature of their brand has hurt Apple, such as its decision in the late 1980’s to not license its Operating System. However, one can argue that the iPod and iPhone would not have seen the light of day if the company’s Brand Manifesto had morphed to “delivering products for the largest and least discriminating markets possible”. Would a computer maker logically enter the phone and music distribution businesses? No. However, Apple’s Brand Manifesto does not define the company as a computer maker. Apple makes cool stuff for cool people. Period.

Max Your Brand

Despite Frederick’s disdain for his Max Brand, it endures as a vibrant and relevant source of entertaining literature. If you follow these Branding Maxims, you may be able to craft a max brand for your adVenture - then again, you can always contact the nice folks at Idea Engineering.

Copyright © 2008 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse is a partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage web-based businesses. John has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions, which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition. He is also a Co-Founder of RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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