Pastrami on rye

I ate pastrami sandwiches tooday with Joe Kennedy, the CEO of Pandora. Great, really interesting guy. If you haven't heard of Pandora you should check it out. It's a website that helps you discover music you like based on what music you already like. It's like a personalized radio station, just for you.

I met Joe 6 months or a year ago when Traction was trying to get our client, Virgin Mobile, to marry their song recognition feature with Pandora's music recommendation service. Virgin Mobile already has a service where you can hold up your phone when you hear a song you like, dial *99 (or something) and you'll get an SMS in a few minutes with the name and artist. Now, imagine you could add that song, and others "genetically similar" to it, to a personalized radio station that streamed music to you over your mobile phone. And, of course, the ability to purchase that MP3 with a couple of clicks.

Anyhow, that was the idea. Virgin didn't bite, but I still think it was an awesome idea. Joe gave me a tour of Pandora and the Human Genome Project after that and now we're friends.

We spent lunch talking about branding. Joe was the VP of Marketing at Saturn back when they were redefining what a car company should be. In my humble opinion, that makes Joe somewhat of an authority on the subject of brand building (no matter how modest he is about it). Last time we met, he made the comment that "nobody knows how to build a brand anymore" and it really stuck with me, so I asked him to get together and elaborate.

Some stuff we talked about:

1. The idea that the best brands are the ones that have iconic leaders and a real story to tell. He talked about the guy who ran Saturn and the founder of Pandora. Of course, there's the Steve Jobses and Richard Bransons of the world. We talked about how Dell had that kind of leader in Mike Dell, but neglected to tell a story and missed an opportunity to create a great brand—and are now facing stiff competition in a market that they commoditized.

I brought up a Cornell alumni wine industry event I attended a few months back. The guest speaker was Roy Danis, the marketing guy behind Yellow Tail wine. Telling the Yellow Tail story, Roy showed an aerial photo of the tiny little vineyard with the farmhouse where the guy who makes the wine lived back in like 1987. Then, same overhead angle, about 9 years later: 10X bigger vineyard, same farmhouse, same guy living in it. Cut to 2004. Friggin' crazy-giant mega-plantation, same farmhouse, same guy living in it. Now, consumers don't know this story, but the fact that this guy exists, that he is so part and parcel of Yellow Tail that he still lives in the little farmhouse, is what makes the people that are that company believe they are part of something greater than just another winery. I think it's the same kind of thing that happened with Saturn. It was about more than metal, glass and plastic.

2. We talked about engagement. We had both seen the same article in the New York Times a while back declaring "engagement" was the new awareness. Joe's take on it is that in today's world, marketers cannot talk at their customers, they have to talk with them. Marketing today is a conversation, not a speech. I've been saying to clients lately that I think engagement is all well and good, but without relevance it has no value. I think Joe is right on. Conversation means give and take, which equals engagement with relevance. It's what this whole Web 2.0 phenomenom is about and why it is so important to marketers right now.

3. He told me one of the keys to Saturn's success in those years was that Hal (Riney) was incredibly blunt and they were a client who was willing to listen to someone who was incredibly blunt. I felt good about that one. One of our key company values at Traction is candor (with each other and with our clients). Personally, I have absolutely no filter between my brain and my mouth at all. Made me feel like we're on the right track.

Oh, and if you haven't tried it Miller's East West Deli on Polk Street in San Francisco has the absolute best hot pastrami sandwich in town. And, please, you eat pastrami on rye, okay? It's just the way things are.

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