Q. What’s the difference between building a brand for a state and one for a business?
A. When you’re an entrepreneur and you’re starting an entire business, there are a lot of other functions beyond brand. There are operations, accounting, human resources and all those types of things. But when you just compare the marketing and brand experiences, they are surprisingly comparable, because brand is really about reputation and reputation is about consistently bringing forth the real you. The authentic attributes of what you stand for.
So, when I was building [Noodles & Co.], the brand was in some ways about what I believed and what I stood for but also about the team members in the early years that came in and gave more depth and richness to that culture. Brand and culture to me are kind of one and the same. Noodles & Company embodies a certain character and has developed this sort of rich culture—it’s an enduring one that people are really drawn to—both to work there and eat there. But that really is almost synonymous with our brand. Because when people think about Noodles & Company, you get a warm feeling inside about how you will be treated there and how the food makes you feel. Brand isn’t just a logo - it’s not a catchphrase, or a slogan, either. It’s a deep, consistent expression of what you stand for.
So, taking this idea to Colorado, I realized that I needed to figure out what Colorado stands for all over the state. So it was a bit of a different challenge because we have 5 million people that live in Colorado. So I set out to meet as many of those people as I could. We interviewed and engaged nearly 5,000 people face to face, through formal interviews and participation in workshops, etc. And we had 200,000 people that got involved on our website, www.makingcolorado.gov, which was designed to allow people to follow along in the process, as well as participate and contribute.
The scale of this branding project was immediately much larger and we had to figure out, “What do the 5 million people who live in this incredible place stand for? What are the threads that unite these people? What are the pillars of Colorado that are consistent whether you’re in Sterling or Walden or Denver, etc.?” A lot of people said, “Oh, this state is so different, you’ll never find something like that out.” But we did. We found that there were 5 core pillars that really unite our people and our state. And that is really our core culture of Colorado that we want to share with the world. And then we had to figure out what distinguishes this place from other places in the world. Something that only we could say, and then went on from there.
How has Colorado performed economically since these branding changes?
I wouldn’t exactly say that there were changes, it was a matter of clarifying what it is that Colorado stands for, and how we express it. And this is just the the first phase. It took 2 years to get all of the [research] done, implement a unified brand, and get that graphics system across all 20 state agencies and all the divisions within those agencies. So now every single state agency in the state of Colorado has a unified graphical look and feel for all their signature lines, all their vehicle graphics, and all their stationery and promotional materials—everything from the state of Colorado has one unified look and feel.
So what’s the second phase?
The next scope of work is really marketing Colorado to the nation and telling our story. We know what story we want to tell and we know it resonates with people around the world. We’ve tested and validated the message that Colorado is the place where you can live the life you want without being forced to make a personal or professional sacrifice. You can have a great lifestyle along with a world class career in Colorado. You can’t have that in many other places. That’s our selling pitch.
Theoretically, it’s always possible to change the name and brand of a business. But, with a state’s brand, how malleable is it if you can’t change the name?
I suppose in a way, you can change the name of a business, but it’s very unlikely—it doesn’t happen very often unless the business itself has endured a serious crises that they don’t think they can recover from under that name. And, of course, there are some examples of that. But for the most part businesses are not willing to change their name either.
And by the way, the word Colorado, in our testing actually proved to be remarkably strong—you wouldn’t want to change it. What you want to say is, when people think of the word “Colorado”, what is the image that you’d want to have in their mind? Now there are cities, states, and countries that, when you say their name, don’t conjure positive images. However, Colorado isn’t one of them. It fosters positive imagery responses just on its own.
We want “King of the Mountains” to come to mind. There’s no place on earth that has running water and flushing toilets, and has mountains like Colorado. There just isn’t. Switzerland, which is thought of as a mountainous place, only has five 14,000-foot peaks. Colorado has 54 such peaks.
What draws you to branding?
It’s the creative aspect of it. It’s not all numbers, it’s not all math, but it is one part quantitative and one part qualitative, and I think that’s part of what’s made this something that I can thrive. A lot of creative people don’t have the quantitative skillset and they’re uncomfortable dealing with numbers. I feel very comfortable with both of those things. This allows me to not only help foster design solutions that are (hopefully) inspiring, but also to test, measure, and develop them, and use instruments that will validate or invalidate the strategy.
Why did you leave Noodles & Co.?
Well, Noodles & Company was really to me just an incredible labor of love. The vision hit me when I walked into a noodle shop in New York, and I realized that people all over the world people grew up eating pasta and noodles—that was their comfort or daily staple and I wanted to put the best of those things onto one menu, and make it fast, affordable, and friendly. That hit me in 1993, and it was almost 15 years later that I realized that I’d accomplished well beyond the goals that I had for that mission and my creative side needed to be stimulated a little differently. I needed a fresh challenge.
I thought it was only fair to the business, and the people who were involved in running the business, to be able to charge forward with a new leader who had fresh energy. So I parted ways, and did so on really good terms and feel I left the business in a really good upward trend.
When the Governor of Colorado asked me to do this I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe no one has thought of marketing a state before, beyond tourism.” And the thought of developing and fostering a reputation for a place, I was really captivated by the idea. And I liked Governor [Hickenlooper], I thought he was a really solid person and I decided that this was a good mission for me to take on. I actually signed up for a 2 year stint, and I’d give 2 years of my professional life to the state of Colorado and actually my 2 years is now done.
So what’s next for you?
Whew, I’m taking a sabbatical, my friend. Honestly it was so intense—perhaps more so than I really had anticipated, but it was also so much fun and we got more done than I thought we would. So I’m going to move on, where I go from here, I don’t know but I’m going to take some time to decompress and then in the fall revisit that. But I think I’ll be in the entrepreneurial world, either as an advisor or in some sort of new launch or start-up. There a couple of ideas that have been swirling around my head...
Aaron Kennedy is the recently retired Chief Marketing Officer of the State of Colorado, where he has overseen new brand designs as part of Governor John Hickenlooper’s economic development plan for Colorado. The designs, which have been adopted by state authorities and are adopted by many businesses as well, will also help support a variety of state-preservation organizations, such as Great Outdoors Colorado. Prior to working for the state, Mr. Kennedy was the founder and CEO of restaurant chain Noodles and Company, a fast-casual restaurant with approximately 400 locations around the country. Mr. Kennedy has significant experience in the world of branding and design. Before starting Noodles & Company in 1995, he served as the NY Director for the design firm BrandImage, the Brand Manager of Pepsi, and helped develop and launch “Lunchables” products for Kraft/General Foods in the 1980s. A member of Inc.’s 500 Hall of Fame and named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young, Mr. Kennedy holds an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a B.A. in Journalism from Augustana College.