Owning the Conversation
Steve Cranford is chief executive officer of a company called Whisper Brand Strategy Consultants. But the company’s message is anything but a whisper. Whisper is an international brand consultancy that “creates competitive advantage by use of breakthrough simplicity,” Cranford said. “The key to any effective brand effort is to change and take ownership of the conversation within an industry on behalf of the client.” If that sounds like a mouth-full, it is. Cranford is using his experience as a businessman to help set Whisper apart from other brand strategy companies. Cranford knows a thing or two about growing a business as he started TumbleDrum, a family play center, in 1991 and opened his first store in October 1994 in St. Peters, Mo.
The 1972 Cowley graduate has been a busy man since The Tiger Alumni News last checked in with him in fall 1998. He sold the operations of TumbleDrum, in which he was CEO, and moved with his wife Jeanne from St. Louis to Newport Beach, Calif., five years ago. There they founded Ironweed Strategy, a brand and business strategy firm based in Newport Beach. They’ve spent the last four years building the company. During that time, the company created technology development and product commercialization plans that led to a series of issued patents on behalf of a client. The company also received a Best of Innovations Award at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show.
Steve joined Whisper, Inc. in 2004. He explained Whisper’s mission. “We assist clients in framing the most compelling and authentic message to communicate before spending a nickel on advertising or promotion,” he said. “So much of advertising today is wasted as an advertising strategy rather than a branding strategy. It institutionalizes large year-over-year advertising expenses and/or fades into the white noise of contemporary culture. Most organizations are populated with leadership that understands how to do things right. In contrast, we assist organizational focus upon the right things to do.” Cranford, who also serves as an instructor in the University of California-Irvine’s Graduate School of Management, said it was helpful for some people to understand the term branding.
“Branding—owning the conversation—is a natural function of human psychology and information processing,” he said. “Human development ensured that survivors were those best able to abbreviate the details of their surroundings, judge and categorize them for easy storage, recall, and decision-making. The mental phenomenon that makes branding work has been around for millions of years. “The nature of human information processing is that we jump to all kinds of conclusions simply based on knowing one or two things about a person, place or thing—which we halo with all kinds of other characteristics, rightly or wrongly, in an effort to aid quick decision-making. This mental shorthand or ‘halo’ is your brand. Your brand is your promise. How you keep it means everything.” Companies in which Whisper developed specific brand strategies include InterNext Group, a large social service agency in Southern California; Guidant, a medical device manufacturer; and Medical World Conferences, a leading provider of high-quality accredited continuing medical education. When work was completed, Whisper had changed the InterNext name to Front Porch, changed the name of Guidant’s medical device from Axius to Heartstring, and changed the name of Medical World Conferences to Antidote.
Cranford, who serves as chairman of three non-profit boards, is one of three partners who have a collective 17 years experience in the field of brand strategy. Whisper’s four offices have a combined staff of 38 people. The company is about eight years old and also has an affiliate brand naming company called Igor (pronounced EE-gor) that specializes in product and company naming (www.igorinternational.com). Whisper’s client list is impressive and includes Amway, Bank of America, Canon, Cisco Systems, GAP, Intel, Nike, and the state of Kansas.
In fact, Cranford facilitated three sessions of the Kansas Brand Image Task Force in April and May 2004, but was not involved in developing the state’s new image and campaign, “Kansas. As big as you think.” Cranford said Whisper’s clients didn’t just fall into the company’s lap. “As you know, it’s not accomplished with an eight-hour day or 40-hour work week,” he said. “As with any business, it takes a progression of roll-up-the-sleeves hard work, preparation, and opportunity to develop such a client list. And a bit of luck. As is often said, preparation is often the foundation for what many refer to as luck.” Cranford said Whisper “accepted those engagements we believe will, over time, add to our own brand reputation. This practice has sacrificed short-term revenue dollars in some instances, but not at the expense of our brand equity.” Whisper’s client base has been built by word-of-mouth recommendation. The company also strongly believes in creating opportunities for prospects to find it through optimizing Internet search engine results. “We are constantly improving our search engine rankings for key search terms such as brand strategy consultants,” Cranford said.
In mid-February, the phrase “brand strategy consultants” listed Whisper first on Yahoo’s search engine, second and third on MSN, 16th on Google, second on Dogpile.com, and seventh on Ask Jeeves. “Search engine results are a terrific form of free advertising,” Cranford said. Cranford said the company also was honest with prospects that it believes would be better served going elsewhere. “We do not waste time, most notably ours,” he said. “We have developed a reputation of getting to the point very quickly, supporting our clients in feeling the walls as they move through what, for them, is often uncharted territory, and moving to results that may be demonstrated. We understand many organization leaders come to a branding process with deep insecurities about how they may be able to reach a good branding result. We directly address this insecurity, and provide confidence as we adhere to our process discipline.” Not all of Whisper’s clients are large companies. Cranford said the firm also worked with business executives of smaller organizations.
The company also works with non-profit organizations. “We dedicate a portion of our time to pro bono (without a charge) work for philanthropic organizations,” Cranford said. “We consider work with non-profit groups part of our duty of social responsibility.” Cranford was born in Oakland, Calif. In 1967, his family moved to Arkansas City, where his mother is from originally. He graduated from Arkansas City High School in 1969. He completed his education at Cowley in December 1971, then transferred to Pittsburg State University and completed a bachelor’s degree in accounting. From there it was on to Washburn University law school, where he graduated in 1977. He held numerous jobs as an attorney in Pittsburg and Houston during the first several years after graduation, and came back to Cowley County in 1981 as deputy county attorney. How did an attorney learn to help companies with their branding? Cranford said he’s been doing it all his life. “When asked to speak in front of groups, I often begin the answer in this way,” he said. “When I was a boy, I called people names. When I served early in my career as a special prosecutor, I named names. And today, I am naturally engaged in the profession of developing corporate names. The real answer is more complex, but it comes down to this—the realization that I have been engaged as a branding professional throughout my career.” Cranford said brand strategy as a stand-alone discipline had not been a topic of business school curricula, until more recently.
“After law school and as a trial lawyer, the target audience was a 12-person jury,” Cranford said. “The task of any effective trial lawyer is to quickly brand their case to the jury; to offer members of a jury the mental shorthand necessary to extend a personal invitation to each juror to follow along with the advocate during the course of a trial. I did not understand what I was doing as a prosecutor as branding, but branding is exactly what occurred. “After moving into a corporate position with a public company in Wichita, and looking back on our early Monday morning executive staff meetings, it is interesting now to recall how most every executive in the room, myself included, understood advertising while believing they knew branding.” He discovered that wasn’t the case. “Years later, when I became CEO of a retail company and was faced with the need for effective brand strategy in our business, I was struck by the number of respected firms professing to offer brand strategy expertise, when instead they delivered ineffective advertising glossed over by high-production-value creative,” he said. “It was a revelation, further confirmed in discussions among peers. After experiencing disappointment with the work product of three different agencies, and realizing the deliverables we received were instead advertising recommendations, I began to self-educate on the topic of brand strategy.”
A book titled “Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind,” had a major impact on Cranford and opened up a new way of thinking. “We frame the difference between branding and advertising on our website,” he said. “Branding is demonstrating; advertising is explaining. What you fail to demonstrate, you are left to explain. Branding engages your customer to lean forward and pursue you. Advertising pleads with and chases after customers. Branding is a seduction; advertising is stalking. Advertising is a shout; branding is a whisper.”
Cranford’s wife, Jeanne, is vice president of an interior design firm in Orange County. The firm specializes in hospitality architectural design, such as golf course clubhouses, food service operations, and hotels. Brother Scott and his wife continue to live in Arkansas City, as do parents Leon and Dixie. Cranford’s sister Debbie lives in Winfield with her family. Steve said he often seeks Debbie’s reaction to a direction Whisper may be thinking about for a client. “She possesses a wonderful intuitive sense of the issues involved in the development of branding solutions,” Steve said. Jeanne’s parents both live in Wichita, as does her brother John. Her sister Susan lives with her growing family in Jacksonville, Fla. Jeanne’s father and brother are both practicing lawyers in Wichita. Steve also occasionally bends his wife’s ear. “As Jeanne is an accomplished business professional and entrepreneur in her own right, I often seek out and rely upon her business judgment,” Steve said. Log on to www.whisperbrand.com if you would like to learn more about Cranford’s company.