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Future Feature: The Art of Building and Growing Alaska Brands

Feb 20, 2020 | Monitor

Finding the right tactics to garner hard-earned Alaskan loyalty

The Brilliant Media Strategies team is one marketing firm with an eye for authentic, Alaska branding.

Brilliant Media Strategies

Branding is an intangible but powerful force. It subtly shapes the identity of a company in the minds of consumers and, ultimately, the marketplace. That’s why it’s imperative that businesses make a conscious effort to establish, maintain, and grow their brand. And branding can be even more important for companies operating in Alaska, a relatively small market where relationships and reputations often play an expanded role in business success.

The words “brand” and “branding” are somewhat nebulous terms that marketers define in a variety of ways. So what exactly is a brand? In a broad sense, it’s the combination of all the attributes that make up a company’s identity and the essence of what it represents to consumers. To Sarah Erkmann Ward, a company’s brand is what it wants customers to think of when they see its logo, promotional materials, and advertising, along with what they read about it in the news and online. “The brand helps the company stand out from competitors by drawing attention to their products and services, and it’s what makes them unique,” says Ward, president of Blueprint Alaska, an Anchorage advocacy and strategic communications firm.  

Branding is when a company creates a name, symbol, or design that is easily identifiable as belonging to that company. And it’s critical for businesses and organizations because it tells customers what the experience with the company will (or should) be. A strong branding program gives companies a competitive edge because it clarifies what makes them different and better than other companies. “A solid brand ultimately leads to increased awareness and sales and creates a favorable business environment,” Ward says. “Branding also provides clarity to company employees and helps them develop pride and satisfaction in their work.” 

A brand is much more than a logo, color palette, or tagline, according to Kaylee Devine, an account planner with Spawn Ideas, which was named the 2018 Small Agency of the Year by Ad Age. A brand is a promise to customers, a promise of an experience. It’s the associations people think and make about a company, and creating those associations is important. “About 95 percent of our decisions are intuitive, so helping to create those strong brands helps you get to those associations faster,” Devine says. 

However, the brand also must be very ownable, resonate with customers, and drive a company’s value propositions. There’s real weight behind a strong brand, Devine says. It’s not just a fluffy marketing strategy. “A powerful brand helps you drive longer business growth and minimize price sensitivity,” she explains.

Brand Building in Alaska

Given the uniqueness of Alaska, there are marked differences between building a brand in Alaska versus other places. Ward sums it up this way: “Alaskans demand transparency and authenticity. It’s the reason voters are skeptical of politicians wearing shiny new Carhartts. If you’re going to succeed in Alaska business, it’s critical to understand the nuance of the market and avoid unforced errors. Consulting with Alaska-based professionals can help.” 

She adds: “Of course, businesses nationwide are also expected to be authentic, but there’s more emphasis on being ‘one of us’ in Alaska than in other places. We’re provincial that way.” 

Alaskans have a strong sense of pride, Devine says. And local companies tend to convey their “Alaskaness” prominently in their identity. However, they should be mindful that Alaska has a sizeable transient population. “We are always going to have a new batch of people who have come up from the Lower 48,” says Devine, whose Anchorage-based agency has hubs in Denver; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho; and Madison, Wisconsin. “So it’s important that those Alaska values translate to new residents. It’s making sure that their Alaskaness is extending a hand to people who are new to the state. You have to keep in mind that you’re going to be talking to potential customers who don’t know you from Adam.” 

The state of Alaska carries a certain mystique that companies often promote when marketing their brands, says Debbie Reinwand, president and CEO of Brilliant Media Strategies, which is based in Anchorage and also works with firms outside Alaska. While Alaskans place a heavy emphasis on patronizing local businesses, a key difference between building a brand in Alaska and elsewhere comes down to money. Reinwand says: “We’ve done work for Outside firms a lot…We spend a fair amount of money trying to figure out what people responded to. Here in Alaska, you can build a heck of a brand for not very much money, compared to outside Alaska.” 

Alaska’s small population has a distinct impact on the effort necessary for a business to maintain its brand. It makes relationship building and reputation management even more important in the marketplace. “When you’re in a major metropolitan area, there will be twenty-five dentists; up here we don’t have as many choices,” Reinwand says. “But people talk, so you need to make sure you do manage your reputation.” 

Companies can get a sense of where their reputation stands by conducting reputational polling on an annual basis. Or they can do a less formal assessment by regularly reviewing the comments on their Facebook page. Then they can see where they need to make necessary tweaks to improve their brand image. 

In the Alaska market, there’s such a zero degree of separation, Devine says. But whether companies are local or national, social media gives customers a greater ability to provide public feedback. So businesses should always be conscientious about how they conduct themselves. “It’s always really important for an Alaska brand to treat their customers—and employees—like neighbors because they really are,” she says. 

The importance of reputation management and overall brand building cannot be overstated. In Alaska, people expect companies to operate on a personal level. National brands, Wards says, expecting a one-size-fits-all approach to work in Alaska usually figure out the error of their ways. She explains: “For example, Delta Airlines believed that simply by providing cheaper fares in and out of Juneau, they could eat into Alaska Airlines’ year-round market share. They underestimated the strength of Alaska’s brand in the state, particularly in Southeast. Despite cheaper fares, customers stuck with Alaska out of loyalty to the brand (and the mileage program, which contributes to the brand).”

Ward continues: “Alaska Airlines has also developed its brand in Alaska by being a visible community partner for decades, sponsoring hundreds of events across the state and providing excellent customer service. Saving customers a few bucks was not enough incentive for Alaska’s brand enthusiasts to switch carriers. As such, Alaska Airlines’ domination of the Alaska market continues.”

Read more about authentic Alaska branding in the upcoming March 2020 edition of Alaska Business.

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