Bruce Turkel Discusses European Travel, Sea-Monkeys, and what Separates a Good Brand from a Truly Great One
A sneak peek at the industry wisdom and branding insights he’ll share during his Nov. 17th talk in Fort Lauderdale.
Founder and CEO of Turkel Brands, Bruce Turkel is an advertising and brand guru who has worked with a range of well-known companies, including Nike, American Express, Hasbro, and Citicorp. He is also an accomplished public speaker and author with five books to his credit, including his newest effort: All About Them.
On November 17, Turkel will be speaking at an event hosted by the Greater Fort Lauderdale American Advertising Federation (Ad Fed), and he recently sat down to discuss his latest book and a range of other topics.
Q: What do you know about Ad Fed? What do you know that they’re currently doing and perhaps maybe what do you wish they were doing?
BT: I know a lot about Ad Fed because I’ve been a member since the dawn of time, I think when we used to meet in caves. Actually, we used to meet in the Miami Herald Building, which is no longer there. I was on the board for Miami Ad Fed for years, all the way in the rotation until it was the year before I was supposed to become president – at which point I bailed, although I told them in the start I was not going to be president. I know quite a bit about it.
Q: You just came back from traveling overseas. Where did you go and what fundamental differences did you see between how brands communicate here in the States and how they communicate overseas?
BT: We had an amazing time. We went to Portugal and Spain. We spent about a week and a half in Portugal and we spent about a week in Spain. It was just wonderful; the food, the people, the design, everything else.
The difference that I saw over there is that brands tend to be a lot more intimate than they are here. Maybe it’s because European culture is more intimate. Here in the States, we all tend to stay in our homes, turn on the AC, and turn on the television. It doesn’t seem like they do that as much over there. You have smaller private spaces; houses are smaller, not the castles that we went to visit, but where people live today. Houses are smaller, stores are smaller, bathrooms are certainly smaller.
Public spaces are enormous. You’ve got town squares that are open. There are people on them. You have streets that are closed off. To us down here it’s like Lincoln Road. There, it’s every town you go to. Everywhere you walk there are closed off areas. People are walking and eating ice cream and drinking coffee and drinking wine. We drank a lot of wine, too. That’s another big distinction and difference, and I didn’t get a headache which was awesome. Because of that, the brands are a lot more intimate. You feel like they participate with people a lot more.
Q: Can you give an example of that?
BT: Sure. Here you get stiff items, right? You’ll get a squeeze ball or you’ll get a sponge with a brand name on it or a charger for your phone if you’re a decent customer. There it seems like when you walk into a store, there are samples, there are examples. The people there are wearing the goods.
We had a much more personal relationship with the people we spoke to. They were more interested in talking to you about – in clothing stores, for example, or in leather stores – why what they did mattered. They knew the story behind the brand. It was part of who they were.
Also, the towns themselves had that kind of sense. When you’re in Malaga it’s a different feeling that when you’re in Cordoba. When you’re there it’s different than when you’re in London. Understand, those cities have 800- year histories, thousand-year histories and the people all know about it. They know about when the Moors were there and they know about when the Christian armies kicked the Moors out. They understand about King Philip or King Louis. They tell you about it.
It’s like we learned in Hebrew school all those years ago, that what happened to them happened to us. The prayers, we always say we even though it happened five thousand years ago. That’s what you find in Europe. They talk about that. They talk about their town, their city, their kings, even though the kings have been gone, that king’s been gone for eight hundred years. It’s a sense that you’re a part of something. They don’t seem to be as polarized either as we are here.
Q: Would you say they are more authentic?
BT: There is a true sense of authenticity. Remember also, Europeans are not transient like Americans are. I met a woman in a town in Portugal. When she found out where I was from, she [said she] knows someone who lives in Florida. We had a lovely chat. I said, “Where are you from?” She said, “I’m from here.” “Where are your parents from?” “They’re from here.”
Whereas, nobody is from here. I tell people that I’m the perfect Miamian because I was actually born on Miami Beach. My parents are from New York and my wife is from Cuba. I have it covered, right? Even so, I’m only a second-generation American. My wife is an immigrant. My kids on her side are first generation, on my side they’re third. Nobody is from here. Whoever was from here is dead.
Q: Transitioning into the books, how did you come to write them? Was there some kind of an ‘ah-ha’ moment? What was maybe a little bit of the genesis around the new book?
BT: It was a total ‘ah-ha’ moment about the concept ... Actually, my last book, which was called Building Brand Value, there were seven points to it. Point number one was all about them, which then became this new book where the whole book is only on that one subject. Theoretically you could say, “Good, so you can write six more.” I’m not going to.
There’s a whole story behind where it came from. I actually did a TEDx talk about it. Quite quickly, I’ll spare you the long story, but when my first book came out, I was invited to a design conference to speak on the book. They asked me to do a signing. I was going to do a signing along with Stef Sagmeister who’s a pretty well-known German designer.
I went down the expo with my six-year-old daughter, hand-in-hand. It was this long line of people waiting to get their book signed. My daughter said, “Are they all here for you, Daddy?” Of course, I didn’t want to sound like the egotistical guy that I probably was, so I said, “No sweetheart, I’m sure some of them are here for Stef’s book.” Then we walked into the room and every single person was in his line and there wasn’t a single person in my line.
We sat behind that little table with the drape. My daughter took my Sharpies and she was drawing. At some point she got fed up with it and she crawled under the drape and tried to drag people over to my line which they had no interest in.
By this point, probably Stef had sold all his books. He was just doing a grip and grin, taking pictures. The thing that dawned on me later is both our books were new. Because they were coffee table books, they were both wrapped in plastic. Nobody knew what was in his book and nobody knew what was in my book. If you would ask me “Was his book better than mine?” I think now I would tell you absolutely it was, but at the time, there was no way to know. Again, they were both hermetically sealed.
There was some other reason why people wanted his books and I understood why: because he was a celebrity and I was not. The function of the book was almost irrelevant. They were both design books by these two guys who were tall, thin, and have dark hair. When they bought his book, they got to touch the fire because they got to be with Stef Sagmeister. He signed the book to them and that mattered. That was the road to Damascus moment. I didn’t think about it at that moment, by the way. I was way too bummed.
A couple weeks, months, whatever later, all of a sudden it was like that was the ‘ah-ha’ moment which was, oh my God, it had nothing to do with the book. It had nothing to do with the person who wrote the book. It had to do with how the book made the buyer feel about themselves. They could go back to their design firm or their ad agency and say, “I just went to this conference and I met Stef Sagmeister.” Everybody would go, “Dude, cool.” Or they could have said, “I just came back from this conference and I met Bruce Turkel,” and they’d go, “Huh?” That was really the turning point.
From that point on, I started studying that, exploring that, looking at advertising that does it, design that does it, politicians who do it, celebrities who do it, and that’s where the book came from.
Q: Would you say that brands that communicate in such a way that instills that feeling in their community, that those are brands that succeed more?
BT: Of course and of course because I’ve given it so much thought, I’ll tell you how to say it: Good brands make you feel good, but great brands make you feel good about yourself. That’s the difference. Think about the brands you love. If you think about Apple or BMW, or you’re wearing a Panerai, they do that. You look at that watch, you go, “Cool.” Even though it’s heavy and uncomfortable.
Q: What have you done to convince your clients to make their content within their messaging all about the customer?
BT: There are two problems, of course. The traditional way of marketing was to talk about yourself. If you didn’t, nobody would. Marketing was one directional. If you had money, you could control media or you could purchase media. You could run ads or you could print brochures or you could put up billboards or whatever. If you didn’t have the money, you couldn’t. Marketing was always one direction. There’s no way for consumers to talk back to companies except to write a letter – which no one in the Ad Fed even knows what a letter is anymore, with a stamp and an envelope and all those archaic things.
However, now we all carry these little squares or rectangles of silicone and glass that allow two-way communication. Of course, I’m talking about a smartphone. There’s no need to talk about yourself anymore because everybody who cares about you already knows everything they want to know. If you’re showing up for a business meeting, if the client is interested in who you are, what you’ve done, they’ve already looked you up. They’ve looked at your website. They’ve gone on Google. They’ve gone on TripAdvisor or whatever sites they like to use and they know as much as they want to know. If they don’t care about it, they haven’t bothered because a lot of people don’t do their research.
You talking about yourself is irrelevant. A. B. function these days is irrelevant because all products work. If you’re on a dark road and you’re running out of gas and you see a gas station, you don’t care what brand it is. You just need gas. If you’re starving, you just need food. If you’re exhausted, you just need a hotel. I get that.
Most of us live on a higher level than that if you go up Maslow’s ladder. What you find is the function becomes irrelevant because all products work. Products used to break. They don’t break anymore. There has to be some other relationship that makes you buy one product over another.
Back to what we talked about with the Europe trip, it’s the intimate relationship with the brand that adds value and separates you from everybody else. That’s how you get customers. They can talk about themselves all they want, but that’s just like a bad blind date. You’ve got to move them beyond that.
Q: You’ve used the term “brand dart.” What is your process around that, creating a simple, powerful message that inspires consumers to take action?
BT: There are a number of different exercises we go through. The two main ones – one is what I wrote the last book on, it’s the seven points. The first one obviously is all about them. Hearts and minds. Make it emotional before you make it intellectual. Make it simple, make it quick, make it yours. The brand needs to be ownable, you have to stand for something. All five senses, it needs to be sensual. People need to relate to it on lots of different levels and then repeat, repeat, repeat. Be consistent and say it over and over and over and over and over. That was what that book was about.
The new book, we use the classic brand pyramid, which if you took marketing 101 you learned it and then you forgot to use it, which is first you go through your functional attributes. What does your brand have? We have business cards, we have computers sent out, we have trucks, whatever it is.
Then you ladder up to what we call POD, which is points of difference and points of distinction. Where are we different? Not unique, by the way. First of all, it’s impossible and second of all, customers don’t understand unique. Points of difference, where do we stand out, and points of distinction, what are we really good at. Marketers are supposed to say points of excellence, but excellent, like unique, is an absolute term. You’re either excellent or you’re not. Very few companies or businesses are excellent.
What are you really good at? What are your points of difference and what are your points of distinction? We ladder up further. What are the functional benefits of doing business with you? That’s what every sales course you take [emphasizes]; everybody you talk to talks about benefits, not features.
The real marketers, the ones who really figure out the all about them strategy, they go up another step and that is, what are the emotional benefits? Remember, a good brand makes you feel good. A functional benefit makes you feel good. I know what time it is. I had a good meal. My car got good gas mileage. Good functional benefits.
What’s the emotional benefit? I had a great meal with my family that was healthy and I’m a better parent or I’m a more romantic lover or whatever. That’s where the brand really lives. That’s where the ‘all about them’ messaging starts.
We take clients through these different exercises to bring them up this ladder so that we can show them, it’s great that you have all these locations and it’s important that people who want to drill down and find out if, in fact, if I’m in Wyoming, if I can find a location, that’s great. But that ain’t how you open the door. You open the door with that emotional connection.
Q: Content marketing places a strong emphasis on brand storytelling. How does one effectively tell their brand story through both traditional and digital and/or offline, if you will, advertising channels?
BT: I think the distribution of the messaging is less important than the message itself. It’s really nice to say, “Howard, what’s the best way [to respond] when clients come to me and say we need to have social media? We want to have Twitter, we want to get on Facebook. We need LinkedIn. We need traditional marketing.”
You don’t need any of those things. You need a freaking strategy. What did Sun Tzu say? “Tactics without strategy is the sound of failure.” You’re busy. It’s the difference between being productive and being active.
Q: If you just think about a full-page print ad for a second in a magazine, that’s a different medium obviously than an article or an eBook. How do you manage brand storytelling in those different mediums?
BT: Let’s talk about the specific and then the general. The specific is, I do a lot of that. Why have I written five books? Why do I have a blog that comes out every week? I’ve never missed a week since 2007. I have ninety-thousand readers on the blog now because I’m telling stories and I’m providing content. I’m almost always not selling anything.
Most of the time I’m just saying, “Did you see what Donald Trump did? Here’s why you need to know about this.” I don’t even take sides, even though I’m very passionate and partisan – but I don’t. I say, “Let’s take our partisan hats off.”
Why am I on national television all the time talking about brands and what’s happening? Because I’m promoting myself as the person who understands what’s going on, so when people look at these things and say, “What do I do?” “You know that Bruce guy, I read something he wrote that’s kind of cool. Let me send it to you.” Using those tools, I practice what I preach. I think it’s critical.
Q: How do you do that for your customers?
BT: We show them either how to do it themselves or how to have us do it for them or quite often we work for companies much larger who have created departments much larger than us. What we do is we call it “Brand in a Box,” where we do all the messaging, we figure it all out, but then we give it to them and then they can have their PR department do something in there. We show them how to do it. I’ll call it blogging but really that messaging, comes from the top. I don’t care if the CEO likes it or not but it has to come from their voice, their words. They can hire folks like you to do it. I think that’s a great way to do it.
That’s the specific. That’s what we do. Then there’s the general that everybody who’s listening to this should do. You need to go buy a book. I’m not selling my book here, by the way. You need to go buy a book by a guy named Joseph Campbell called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He wrote it, I think in 1954.
His theory is that there are only seven stories in all of human history. He explains them and he breaks them down. It’s impossible to read, by the way. It is so dense and obtuse. After you give up on it then, in my book – now I am selling my book – I wrote a chapter in it on storytelling. Then a guy I know named Bill Stanton, who’s a communications and comedy expert on the west coast, he wrote something called the Dummies Guide to Joseph Campbell. I got his permission to talk about that in the book and show the steps of how you do it.
It’s astounding once you understand it. You look at Star Wars. George Lucas read that book before he wrote the Star Wars story. Or you look at the Christ story or you look at Joan of Arc. The storyline is right there. It shows you. Or you look at Steve Jobs. The storyline is right there. It shows you exactly [how to tell a story]. It’s a step-by-step diagram of how to do it.
Q: What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the advertising industry since you started?
BT: When I entered, the business wasn’t any different than when Gutenberg just invented the printing press, other than radio and television. Basically, you took a potato, you carved your logo into it backwards, you put it in ink, and you stamped it on a piece of paper. Then, of course, technology with radio, with television, with internet, with all these different things, that’s not the biggest change. The biggest change we talked about earlier is the direction of the communication. Communication was always one-way.
Here’s a product that you could not possibly sell today that we all bought when we were kids: Sea-Monkeys. Look up Sea-Monkeys and it would say they were sea lice or sea fleas or whatever the hell they were. They were just nasty little things. Back then you saw that really cool thing in the comic book with the little castles with the little pink and purple seahorse-looking things ... those are awesome. You wouldn’t have those today.
The difference is again, the function. Two things that happen simultaneously, it’s the age of knowing. I can find out if the product will do what they say it’ll do. Number two, because of computerization, for the most part, the products do what they say. They’re still crap, but mostly the products do what they say they’re going to do because they’re all designed the same.
You know that only two companies manufacture the little engines that read CD-ROMs? Sony and Philips. That’s it. Sony invented it. Philips licensed it. You could buy the cheapest CD player or the most expensive. It’s got the same components, and because it’s digital, it’s either on or off, black or white, yes or no. There’s no better or worse. It doesn’t matter which one you buy. You’re buying them for other reasons.
Q: What is the most challenging advertising campaign you’ve ever run and why?
BT: I can think of one but it ultimately did not get approved. It was so awesome. We were working ... right before the turn of the century, so before dot com blew up, for Mortgage dot com. They were the first company to sell mortgages online. We worked very hard on the story and the strategy and what it was going to be all about.
The only people who would buy online, by the way, were affluent, educated consumers in their thirties and forties who got the internet. Anyone older was afraid. Anyone younger couldn’t do it. It was a very limited audience. They had to be educated. They were somewhat jaded. They were David Letterman watchers. They were Jay Leno watchers. They grew up on Saturday Night Live and Mad Magazine. That was their personality.
We spoke to a lot of them. We did a lot of research. What we found was nobody really cared about a mortgage. A mortgage was just a means to an end. It was to get the home I wanted at a rate I can afford. It was such a pain in the ass. It was, again, it was before the days of Quicken. You had to go into your closet and take the shoe box from the top shelf with all your pay-stubs. Then you had to sit with some bank officer that you didn’t know. You had to explain to them why you didn’t pay your credit card bill because when you got divorced your wife ran up the bill. You basically had to tell him everything except how often you had sex. It was an awful, awful thing. You didn’t understand any of what they were talking about regarding amortization and everything.
Now, along comes this technology where it’s faceless. You type in all that information. No one’s looking at you. You could explain. If I don’t know what amortization is, I could click on it and it would explain amortization. If I didn’t understand what lock-in means, I don’t have to look like an idiot to the mortgage broker who’s a third of my age, and I feel like a moron when I’d say, “What does that mean?”
Here you didn’t have to do any of this. We came up with this awesome line, which by the way, someone used much later for something else. It was, “Mortgage dot com. Now getting a mortgage sucks less.”
Everybody we tested to loved it. The client loved it. Everybody loved it. Then we went to produce it and the client called me up and he said, “You know what? Our major investors are bankers. I can’t show them that line.”
I said, “You’ve changed technology. You’re changing the industry. You’re changing the business.” It was the most challenging campaign. I could not sell it. The line we eventually used was very emotional. In fact, Zillow uses something similar now but it was, “Mortgage dot com, the easiest way to own.” It was nice and it was sweet and it said what we wanted to say.
Q: What is the most important mindset for an advertiser to have, or really anyone who’s putting out communication to the universe?
BT: I have a client who uses a quote that’s corny but it makes perfect sense. He says, “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.” That’s what it is. It’s knowing who your audience is, what they will respond to, and then knowing what your product stands for and finding that intersection. If you stick with that instead of running out to whatever’s most trendy or whatever’s happening, but here’s what it’s selling to, here’s what I provide. Where’s that intersection? If you stick to that.
It takes courage, because quite often you’ll either want to do what everyone else is doing or you get shiny object syndrome. You go, “Score! Look at that!” and run off and do something else. Again, look at the best brands that we know and respect, whether it’s Herman Miller or Porsche or Starbucks. You watch – they know where they’re going and they stay focused. They have the courage to say no.
Q: In a blog you mentioned President Obama’s “Yes We Can” mantra or slogan will likely go down as the second or third best advertising line ever written. What are the first two?
BT: I think “Yes We Can” is an awesome line. In fact, I do believe it’s the third best advertising line ever written. The second best advertising line ever written is “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.” That word “repeat” changed that industry. Amazingly enough, it almost doubled shampoo sales. No one needs to wash twice. That’s number two. Number one is my personal favorite which is, and it wasn’t even a tag line, it was in a disclaimer: “If you have a four-hour erection, call your physician.”
Q: What keeps you up at night?
BT: I have a terrible problem with mind chatter, so everything keeps me up at night. It’s why I run. Somewhere around seven or eight miles, when it hurts too much, the mind chatter goes away. Mostly figuring out what’s next. It’s too easy to do what we’ve done before. We have to keep reinventing our business. We have to keep pushing on clients to reinvent themselves. We have to keep looking for new clients because old clients sooner or later have to move on.
It’s not even just about the business. Also with my family, with life – what am I going to do next? How am I going to help them next? My whole goal is to add value, add value to my clients, add value to my wife, to my kids, to my mom, to the people who work with me. It’s always what’s next. That’s the biggest issue.
Q: What advice have you gotten along the way that you still follow?
BT: I got a lot of good advice along the way that I follow because when I started my business, I went to talk to a bunch of my dad’s really successful friends and asked them for advice. When I was done with each interview, I would say “What’s one line if you were telling your son or your daughter, what’s one line I should think of?” One guy told me, “Don’t fix problems you don’t have.” I think that’s a great piece of advice and I follow it all the time.
Another guy told me to always take something to read. I do that. What else? My favorite one of all, “You can’t bluff a man who’s not paying attention,” which I think fits the same category. Don’t pay attention to the things that don’t matter. Focus. Know where you’re going. It is about the journey. It’s not about the destination.
If the needs are met – unless you’re the kind of person who totally keeps score by money, which I’m not – but if your needs are met and you’re accomplishing what you need to accomplish as far as taking care of your family, taking care of your kids, then it damn well better be something else. If not, then you should be doing something different.
Q: You mentioned journey and destination. What are the items you can’t live without when you travel?
BT: There’s a few. There are certain things I have to have. Number one, I always carry a case harmonica because I’m a harmonica player and I find musicians on the street and I play with them. Then I get invited to go see things and do things. I always take those. I always take pens and a sketch book because I’m also an artist. What else? Merino wool T-shirts because they don’t itch. They’re not hot. They don’t stink. You can wear them forever. Also, Merino wool running socks, a pair of running shoes that have a collapsible heel so they fold flat. What else? A toothbrush. You’ve got that, you’re pretty much covered.
Q: What’s your morning routine like?
BT: I usually get up at five. I load the espresso machine the night before. I get up, I turn it on, do what I’ve got to do in the bathroom. I meet my running buddies at 5:45, put in five to ten miles, go have breakfast with them, take a shower and go to work. Recently I had an injury, so I haven’t been running. I’ve been getting up and walking the dogs with my wife or going to the gym and swimming.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from for your content?
BT: I’m very lucky in that respect. I’m like a sponge. I believe that the best creative people are in fact sponges. We suck stuff up all the time. I’m a voracious reader. I read everything I can get my hands on, books, magazines, websites, whatever. I love to read. I listen to music all the time.
Then, when you need an idea, you squeeze the sponge. It’s like sucking up a bunch of water colors. When you squeeze it, something else comes out. I always have ideas. I don’t know actually where they come from. My mind, my skills, talents, or the gift is, I always have another idea. I always have something to think about.
Q: Any blogs you subscribe to or follow?
BT: Yeah, there are a lot of blogs that I follow. The one that I get the most value from is from a guy by the name of David Altschuler. He writes a blog on education and child rearing. Really, he writes a blog on life. He talks about being present, about what your mood should be about, how to treat your children. Unfortunately, I didn’t start reading it until my children were older. I wish I had gotten into it.
Bob Burg, the Go-Giver. He writes a phenomenal blog. What are some other ones that I love? I look at one called Bring a Trailer, which is always these really cool vintage cars for sale, because I love cars. There’s a bunch. David Altschuler, he’s just a big thinker.
To get more valuable insights about building your brand and how you can make your customers feel better about themselves, come see Bruce in person at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Fort Lauderdale on Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. Admission is $30 for AdFed members and $40 for non-members, and the cost includes a copy of his new book, All About Them: Grow Your Business by Focusing on Others. For more information on the event and to RSVP, go here.
This word should probably be abstruse or obstruse. But not sure if he was actually trying to communicate that Joseph Campbell is blunt or insensitive. Not sure.
The Greater Fort Lauderdale Advertising Federation was established in 1957 as a local arm of the American Advertising Federation (AAF) to serve the interests of all disciplines and career levels in advertising. Now in 2016, we have joined forces with the advertising federation of the palm beaches to form AAF Greater Fort Lauderdale & The Palm Beaches. Whether you're new to the fast-paced world of advertising or a seasoned professional, AAF Greater Fort Lauderdale & the palm beaches is for you. We're here to help you advance your career, build your connections and celebrate this ever-changing, amazing industry we work in.