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  • 04.30.01

Battle of the Brands

John Hancock’s outspoken CEO names names and points fingers at some high-profile brand offenders in his new book. He also offers some good advice on not screwing up your own company’s brand.

David D’Alessandro, CEO and president of John Hancock Financial Services Inc., isn’t afraid to name names. Boston Brahmins cringe at his loud mouth and loud ties. And he doesn’t care much about toeing lines, gaining backroom consensus, or acting like CEOs of most major public companies, who shy from making a stink about anything. After all, making a stink is bad news for any public company, let alone a life-insurance company. It’s bad for the brand, right?

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Right, says D’Alessandro. Unless you’re making a stink because something really does smell out there. Then you do what’s right, not what’s subtle. And if you do what’s right, your brand — which is all about trust and integrity anyhow — will come out smelling like a rose.

That’s what happened in 1998 when D’Alessandro, who had made Hancock one of the primary sponsors of the Olympics, publicly took the International Olympic Committee to task for their slow-footed response to bribery scandals. After threatening to withdraw his sponsorship — estimated at between $40 million and $50 million for four years — if changes weren’t made, D’Alessandro was attacked personally and professionally. But he stuck to his guns and made the IOC implement an ethics clause (now called the Hancock Clause), which allows any sponsor to pull out of the games if a committee-related scandal erupts.

“Our motives were very simple: Don’t splash mud on our brand,” he says. Today, John Hancock is still a sponsor of the Olympics, and its own brand is one of the most respected in the country.

D’Alessandro, one of the only public-relations executives ever to make it to the corner office of a major public company, thinks that a company’s brand is its single most valuable product — something that few, if any, executives realize. In his new book, Brand Warfare: 10 Rules for Building the Killer Brand (McGraw-Hill, 2001), D’Alessandro shares his very public experience with the Olympics and other entertaining, brutally honest brand success stories. The book is plainspoken, opinionated, often hilarious, and smart. It’s got a fair bit of piss and vinegar, as well as boundless common sense. So, unsurprisingly, does the author, who, at age 50, became the youngest CEO in John Hancock’s history last June.

Although D’Alessandro is a trained “spinmeister,” what comes out of his mouth can be surprisingly raw. Just listen to him talk about the life-insurance business, something that those in the industry usually mention only in hushed tones. Brand is critical in this business, he says, because life insurance is a commodity product and because it’s about death, a topic no one really wants to discuss.

“Life insurance is a wonderful business if you know what you’re doing,” D’Alessandro says, betraying a trace of an upstate New York accent. “Why? People, on average, die right on time. They pay you money because they’re afraid that they might die earlier. It makes the people here insane when I say that this is the bookmaking and loan-sharking business. And we’re the house. We know the odds. So we win every time.”

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Hancock’s ads, which have won numerous awards, are not about gambling, however. They’re about the one critical emotion for anyone in the death business: empathy. The company has run memorable black and white ads commemorating a baby’s birth and a college graduation — events that celebrate the passing of time. More recently, the company has drawn attention with a notorious spot in which two women go to the airport to adopt an Asian baby — which has been interpreted by some as a subtle endorsement of lesbian families. Whatever characters are displayed, the message, says D’Alessandro, is always the same: We care.

The branding extends to the ads’ placement — at wholesome events, such as the Olympics and Major League Baseball games, but never at NASCAR races. “We’re a life insurance company,” D’Alessandro writes in the book. “We don’t particularly want to attach our brand to a violent death on the racetrack.”

Here are four of D’Alessandro’s most important rules for building a killer brand.

Never forget that you are your brand.

D’Alessandro first experienced the power of the brand as a child in Utica, New York, when he helped protect the family delicatessen’s reputation with a rather unusual skill: licking meat. When he was six, his family discovered that he had inherited his grandmother’s ability to determine if meat was going bad by licking it. “My tongue tingled,” he says. So, much to the chagrin of the owners, his dad would bring him and his tingling tongue to the slaughterhouse when it was time to buy meat. “The owners hated me. They didn’t want to give bad meat to a supermarket because they were afraid that they’d lose those huge orders. But they didn’t care about us,” he says.

Once he’d given the goods the thumbs-up, his dad would stamp the D’Alessandro name onto the flank to make sure that the meat David had approved was what the delicatessen actually got — and that the meat sold under the D’Alessandro name was of good quality. The lesson: Keep brand front and center in all decisions, and know that it is the boss’s responsibility — and everyone else’s too — to protect it. You only have one name.

Know how easy it is to destroy a brand. Don’t.

It takes time and care to construct a brand, but it can be destroyed in an instant when scandal hits. If trouble strikes your company, deal with it. When D’Alessandro threatened to withdraw from Olympic sponsorship in 1998, other companies berated his public approach. But D’Alessandro says that he has no regrets: His brand was in danger of being found guilty by association. “As sponsors, we risked being criticized for supporting an organization that clearly condoned corruption. There was a pig in the middle of the table oinking, and nobody was willing to talk about it because of the IOC’s and other sponsors’ holier-than-thou attitude.”

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But what if it happens to your own company? In 1995, John Hancock was sued over deceptive sales practices. At the time, D’Alessandro was in the hot seat as head of retail: “I said, ‘There’s only one problem: We did these things, and we’re going to pay. So how do you want to handle this? Do you want to litigate, get five years of publicity exposing hundreds of depositions, incur the wrath of the public and the media, and still have to pay $2 billion? Or do you want to admit that we did it and pay?’ ” In 1997, the company settled the suit for approximately $350 million. “I made that call,” D’Alessandro says about the decision to settle rather than litigate.”

Obscurity is not smart branding.

D’Alessandro is a major sports fan. His office boasts such top-flight sports memorabilia as Michael Jordan’s shoes and Muhammad Ali’s gloves and silk trunks encased in glass showcases. He has built his company’s brand around sponsoring events like the Olympics and the Boston Marathon.

But his face registers disgust and he gets agitated as he talks about watching the past two Super Bowls. The games were fine, he says, but the dotcom advertising and branding were horrendous. “The ads were dreadful!” he says. “Companies were trying to out-subtle each other.”

What, exactly, was subtle about Cyberian Outpost.com’s ad, which showed a gerbil being shot out of a cannon? The ad itself was, simply, gross. But D’Alessandro said Cyberian Outpost and others made a fatal flaw when they decided that it would be cool to separate the brand from the product entirely. Sure, people remembered the gerbil. How could they forget? But they had no idea what Cyberian Outpost actually did, so how could they know whether to care about it?

“It was almost a badge of honor in the dotcom business to be remote from the message. Many dotcoms took a page out of Apple Computer’s book,” D’Alessandro says, referring to the famous 1984 Big Brother ad that ran only once and never referred to computers. The difference was that people already knew the Apple brand and what it stood for. D’Alessandro says that the dotcoms should have built brand awareness before deciding to get cute during the Super Bowl, when a raft of very expensive messages is diluted by dozens of other cute ads anyway. The rest, as we know, is history.

The best brand doesn’t remove the need for a good product.

If you manage to create a great brand, says D’Alessandro, the last thing to do is relax. The pressure to sell a product that protects and enhances brand reputation has only begun. The worst thing is to become arrogant and removed from your customers.

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One of the most biting stories in the book concerns D’Alessandro’s experience working at Citibank, where people started pushing products because those products were from Citibank, not because customers needed or wanted them.

He relates the story of a senior executive who delighted in intimidating his underlings by telling them to “put the cup up” when he thought that they said something stupid. Each infraction cost the offender a nickel. Once a junior executive tried to explain why a product wasn’t launching as planned; logistical problems were delaying the rollout. After making him “put the cup up,” the senior executive said, “We’re Citibank. This is a marketing problem, not a product problem” and ended the meeting.

For D’Alessandro, the anecdote illustrates what can happen when you let a brand become too powerful. “You can have the best advertising in the world, but once you turn off a customer, he won’t want to come back to you. The best thing that you can do for your brand is to execute well. Customer service is our biggest struggle — that and making good products and answering the phone on time.”

Jennifer Reingold (jreingold@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact David D’Alessandro (rcollet@jhancock.com) by email.

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