Several generations ago, clever marketers put together a composite of traits designed to appeal to housewives who liked to bake cakes and cookies. Then they created a persona – Betty Crocker – who exemplified those traits, put Betty's image on the boxes of baked products made by General Mills -- and created a sales phenomenon that has endured for decades.
Years later, when superstar Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls basketball team in the early 1990s, it was his name that enabled the little-known team to become renowned around the globe.
Today, brands – which are what both Betty Crocker and Michael Jordan are to their respective franchises – are a critical sales tool. We are now inundated with brands within brands. United Airlines, for example, promotes its "Friendly Skies" by plugging the Starbucks coffee that it serves on its flights. For today's entrepreneurs, personalizing a name can spell runaway success or an embarrassing flop, depending upon whether or not the name catches on.
At Lillian Vernon Corporation, the company I founded a half century ago, when it wasn't common for women to be in business, we fully understand the name game. It has made all of the difference, enabling us to get valuable publicity, move more smoothly into new product lines, and deftly weather the inevitable storms that buffet all retailers from time to time.
More than Just a Name
The Lillian Vernon brand has always been more than just a name, although I never realized this back in 1951, when I sat down at my yellow formica kitchen table in Mt. Vernon, New York and designed a small advertisement for a monogrammed pocketbook and belt that I placed in Seventeen magazine. To my surprise, the orders began pouring in, and my company was launched.
I had my particular form of branding, which could be dubbed "personality branding."
Unlike Betty Crocker, to whom I am occasionally compared, I am a real person. Unlike Michael Jordan, I was about to build my company's brand on more than just a name. As a young housewife and mother back then, I was using my identity to appeal to my female customers who were similar to me.
In today's competitive direct-marketing industry –- and Lillian Vernon was one of the country's first cataloguers -– a strong brand identity is one of the keys to success. In the past half century, the number of catalogs has topped 10,000 from just 25 when I began. All are clamoring for the attention of today's increasingly busy consumer.
Direct retailers like L.L. Bean appeal to their niche by selling mostly their own branded merchandise. Others like Spiegel and Kmart take the department-store approach, offering branded merchandise from a number of manufacturers.
Within this universe, Lillian Vernon stands apart. Although we offer a variety of branded products, we mostly sell merchandise made to our specifications by small manufacturers around the world. The uniqueness of our products helps generate sales. But the manufacturers we work with don't have any brand identity of their own, so our company has had to create one.
I have had to forge – indeed, become one with – the brand that I desired for my company.
From Person to Brand Identity
That Lillian Vernon the company would assume the identity of Lillian Vernon the person was perhaps inevitable, regardless of my intentions. In the early days, as a young housewife and mother, I was selling to similar women who saw me as a role model. I alone carried the company banner: selecting the products, writing the catalog copy, filling the orders and answering the mail.
When we published our first catalog, I decided to use my given name, "Lillian." I added "Vernon," the name of my hometown, figuring it would be easy for customers to remember. I later had my surname changed legally. Fast forward a few decades, to a dinner in 1976 with a magazine editor, who suggested I write a note to my customers and include my picture in the front of my catalogues. So Lillian Vernon became more than just a name, it had morphed into a personality.
Add the values by which I live and that I have incorporated into my company, and there's a transition from personality to complete identity.
My values that have become indigenous to Lillian Vernon include the four that I have dubbed our "pillars." We work to ensure customers a broad selection of unique products. We price our products for value: our average item lists for $28.50, and few cost more than $100.
From the beginning, we have offered free personalization, a service that is now considered a Lillian Vernon hallmark. We offer an ironclad, 100% money-back guarantee. I once refunded money for a set of stoneware dishes that had been purchased 20 years earlier and hadn't even been opened!
In my messages in each of our catalogs, I stress that I am my customer's personal shopper, even though I have a team of buyers scouring the globe. I encourage customers to e-mail me, and I see to it that each is answered. I want customers to know and relate to me as an individual, and to understand that my company is a reflection of myself.
The Rewards of Personality Branding
As the Lillian Vernon brand evolved, becoming fully integrated with the personality of its founder, our company has enjoyed widespread name recognition and increases in sales, as well as an array of other advantages. More than 45 million Americans are familiar with the Lillian Vernon brand, and we receive 4.4 orders annually.
Chief among the advantages has been the amount of publicity we receive. Our name frequently appears in articles and on TV shows. Made-in-heaven PR coups have included mentions on shows, such as David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton even told a group of leading businesswomen that from my picture on our catalogs, she felt she knew me long before we actually met.
When we extend a product line, our strong brand built upon the foundation of my personality enables us to move into new arenas. In 1990, for example, when we introduced our Lilly's Kids catalog featuring children's products, the catalog was a success from the start because of the credibility of the brand.
Finally, during tough times, our brand helps anchor the company, as we chart new directions amid the winds of change. Our push into online retailing in 1995 was easier and quicker than it would have been because of our strong brand recognition.
Becoming a Brand, Being a Person
From the beginning, even as I personally shopped for merchandise and filled orders from my kitchen table, many customers didn't realize that I actually existed. On our Web site, one FAQ is: "Is Lillian Vernon a Real Person?"
When I secured a contract with Revlon that was our first big break in the business-to-business marketplace, Chief Executive Charles Revson was surprised to discover a flesh-and-blood woman running our company. He probably thought I was a concept launched by some high-priced marketer -- a la Betty Crocker.
Person into persona, individual into image: with the evolution of our brand now complete, it is easy to understand why such mix-ups occur.
But the good thing about being a real person who has become one with a brand identity isn't only its potential to spur company growth, but also that the values upon which the company is built are actual human values.
Move over, Betty.
The name that lies at the core of the constructed identity will last longer than the person whose name it is, thus belonging forever to the company.
Lillian Vernon Founder, Chairman, CEO Lillian Vernon Corporation