Then create a brand story you can celebrate with your customers

The new president of Washington State University cringed at the school’s legendary nickname: WAZZU.

V. Lane Rawlins took the helm of WSU in 2000, and apparently didn’t want to run a major university with a brand story associated with that part of the anatomy. So he decided to ban it. Gone were the coffee cups, beer mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with our WAZZU call-to-arms.

“Inconceivable!” I thought.

What would the Tom Tuttles from Tacoma, WA do if this travesty was allowed to go down?

I had a plan.

The Cougars were playing their first football game of the 2002 season at Century Link Field (The Link) in Seattle to cozy up to their west side alumni. The problem was that I was living in Phoenix. I hatched a plan to print 500 t-shirts through my pal, Jack Hutt, who lived in Seattle. And then I recruited my fellow frat bro, Don Busch, his son, and a couple of his friends (also Seattleites) to join my caper and sell the shirts before the game.

I figured we’d take a stand to save WAZZU and make a few bucks in the process.

Even legendary Seattle Mad Man, David Stearn, who retired just north of me here in the desert, got into the game. He let one of his Seattle Time’s cronies, Columnist Jean Godden, in on the story. Here’s what she wrote the Friday before the big game:

Whither Wazzu? Count Park Howell among the Washington State University alums who are dismayed over WSU President V. Lane Rawlins’ desire to downplay the school’s Wazzu nickname. (In April, Rawlins said the nickname is derogatory and plays on the perception that WSU is a place where booze trumps books.)

Howell, who lives in Phoenix, disagrees, saying, “Even my Husky buddies can’t understand why we’d consider dropping Wazzu. They say, ‘What? You want to be like us?’ “

Howell’s solution: He’s coming to town for tomorrow’s game armed with T-shirts that say: “I’ve Had Political Correctness Up the WAZZU.”

I got to town that morning and Don and I went to The Link to find the best locations to hawk our WAZZU shirts. “I’ll roll through the tailgaters, you make your way through the incoming fans, and we’ll post the boys across the street from X McRory’s pub,” I coached.

IMG_0002Pleased with our strategy, we retired ourselves to a couple barstools at a hole-in-the-wall across from the The Link, becoming more proud of our plan with every pint. The liquid courage produced another fabulous idea: “Let’s go knock on the door of the most popular afternoon drive-time radio personalities in town and get on today’s show,” I said to Don.

“Uh… ok.” he replied. Don is smart. He’s a CPA, so he knows how to hedge his bets. He was all in on this gamble, with only one foot in the escape hatch just in case. Always admired that about him.

So we pulled up to KZOK-FM at the base of Queen Ann Hill, and explained to the receptionist who we were and what we were up to. Turns out the “Who we were” part didn’t much matter. But what we were up to was going to make for some good fodder on the Robin and Maynard Show. In fact, when Maynard heard the overview of our story, he hollered to their producer directing her to cancel what they hand planned for the next 30 minutes. “We’re putting these jokers on.”

Bam! At 4 pm, as commuters were backed up on I-90, I-5 and the Evergreen Point Bridge progressing toward the weekend at the pace of a Banana Slug, we were blabbing on about our great social cause of saving WAZZU on KZO-f’ing-K, the rock station we grew up on.

“How could President Rawlins even consider ditching our beloved WAZZU moniker?” we cried, with Amber Ale passion. We let the listeners know that they could join the cause with their own “…Up the WAZZU” t-shirt before the Coug game for only $15 (a 200% profit for us) – all activism requires a margin we’ve learned. And finally, we explained, since we only had 500 to sell, they better find us quick if we didn’t find them first.

We left the Robin and Maynard show and our phones lit up. Friends and family called saying they had just heard us on the radio. “How did you get on the Robin and Maynard show?” “I didn’t even know you were in town.” “What in the hell are you up to, now?”

What luck!

The Seattle Times morning edition, and now the top afternoon drive-time show, covering our story. For a once P.R. guy turned ad guy turned business storytelling guy, this was just the publicity we needed to make our statement, sell our shirts, earn a tidy profit and enjoy the game on a warm and wonderful Fall afternoon.

wazzuThe only problem was that our story also reached the WAZZU trademark deputies. They were onto us, and I hadn’t accounted for how much they just might care about our enterprise.

Game on!

On game day morning, as Don and I assembled the boys, draped gym bags full of gray cotton t-shirts over their shoulders, furnished them with some small bills for making change, gave them our last bit of t-shirt peddling advice while uttering a few words of caution about thieves, staying hydrated and getting lost and such, she arrived.

I don’t recall her name and I should’ve kept her official business card – and in hindsight I should’ve even retained the cease and desist order – she caught us red handed (or Crimson for you Cougs). She was kind, but forceful. She told us that the university had learned about our “little stunt,” and that they owned the copyright to WAZZU, and that in no way were we legally able to sell our “cute little shirts.”

We received an ultimatum to pack up and head out, or WSU officials would confiscate our WAZZU loot, or even worse…

Then she softened: “Look, I’m a Coug, too. And we’re here with our two kids and just want to enjoy the game like you. So please stop selling your shirts and let’s all have some fun. Ok?” I believed her, although I didn’t see any hubby on guard in the crowd prepared to intervene should things get ugly. Nor did I see two little darling kids leaning into their father’s thighs wondering why mommy was acting all official before a football game.

Nonetheless, I assured her that we would stop selling the shirts in front of The Link and that all was right in Cougarville. She said thank you, took a couple of steps, paused and turned, “You mean selling them anywhere. Right?”

We had already scurried out of earshot, or at least I hoped she believed that.

We made a quick sweep through the maze of motorhomes in the parking lot asking $15 a shirt. We didn’t have many takers. Those who did buy had either heard or read about us the day before, or simply got the joke about having political correctness up the WAZZU and appreciated the effort.

But I was sweating. These shirts weren’t moving and I felt like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with the WAZZU posse on our tails.

We darted out into the oncoming fan traffic like salmon swimming upstream hoping to get them to bite. We dropped our price to $10 cutting our margin in half, and we started moving merchandise.

Don, I and the boys finally ended up on the corner across from FX McRory’s, a full football field away from The Link. I thought if that copyright cop really had two kids in tow, she probably wouldn’t chase us all the way out here to shut us down. I sensed that she felt she had done her job anyway, providing us a stern warning and the cease and desist order. Plus, I kind of think she was on our side.

Sales picked up and we sold around 150 shirts before kickoff. We muled the other 350 shirts back to the car, considered our next steps, and eventually headed into the game.

Then the magic happened.

We were sitting in the stands with my mom, my brother Chris and his daughter Elsie, who came for the game and, as it turned out, the show. This lady behind me taps me on the shoulder and points to the jumbotron screen and said, “Hey, look. They’re showing your shirt.”

There it was splayed across the huge screen right above the O to O score – our shirt. It brought a beer to my eye.

The buzz had begun.

Throughout the game the cameramen focused on our shirts three or four times, each time gleaming on the scoreboard video screen. Free pub! People stopped us at the concession stand and in the bathroom asking where we got our shirts. If it was happening to us, we figured, then it was happening to lots of others.

Don even ran into Maynard from KZOK-FM in The Link rocking our “…Up The WAZZU” t-shirt.

We scrambled out of the stadium before the end of the game, hauled out our merchandise and started making our way back to our corner. We were intercepted by Coug fans who swarmed us, a little close to the stadium exit for my comfort. They came upon us in three ways.

  1. The “All In” fan (50% of the market)
    These were Cougs who had seen the shirt on either a fan or the jumbotron and wanted a piece of the action. They came searching for us, and often bought two or three shirts. And once we caught on to their want, we moved our price back up to $15, even $20, per shirt.
  2. The “You Know You Want It” buyer (30% of the market)
    This guy (and it was always a guy) would walk up, slow down looking at the shirts, pass by debating on whether or not to buy one, and then finally conceding to his desire. We learned that when you spotted one of these guys, all you had to say was, “Come on, you know you want one. You know you deserve one. You better get one now because they’re going fast.” They’d almost always circle back and buy; sometimes waiting as long as five or 10 minutes to give themselves permission to have their very own “..up the WAZZU” t-shirt.
  3. The “Social Proof” customer (20% of the market)
    This customer would not buy unless there were others buying shirts. He or she would stand around watching the commotion and wait until there was a fray to jump into. We would get customers in waves, and when it got quiet, we would often have to identify the “You Know You Want It” buyers to gather around for a shirt, and then the “Social Proof” folks would follow suit. 

At one point in all of the sales frenzy, I looked over at my young niece Elsie, who somehow found herself in the middle of the commotion. She was holding a bouquet of five and 10 dollar bills in her little hand. I was afraid some drunk would run by and swipe her money and hurt her in the process. I quickly gathered up Elsie and her money and found a safe place with her by grandma, who was watching from the curb.

All in all we sold roughly 450 shirts. We even had one raving fanatic who found us in a sweaty bar celebrating our success after it was all over who bought the greasy shirt off my brother’s back, and then removed his own shirt and put that disgusting thing on. Yeesh.

That’s brand evangelism, folks.

How do you celebrate the victories through your brand story?

I got some street smarts about brand appreciation that day. It starts by celebrating brand awareness with your customers. In our case, it was congratulating those 150 innovators who bought our shirts out of their appreciation for the WAZZU brand and what we were standing up for.

Then it was celebrating those who adopted our form of “…up the WAZZU” branding as they seeked us out after the game. They are broken down into “All In” fan, or early adopter, the “You Know You Want To Have It” early majority, and the “Social Proof” customer, or late majority.

Regardless where they fall on the Adoptive Curve Scale, we celebrated every purchase with them, and I hope in turn they enjoyed investing in our cause to save WAZZU.

A month later, my brother Mike and Chris took a bag of 30 or so shirts with them to a Cougar game in Pullman, WA, and they were scooped up by tailgaters before they even got to the stadium. The word was out. We had arrived at not brand appreciation, but evangelism.

Rawlins got his shirt, too.

That November, I found myself on the campus of the University of Arizona where the Cougs were taking on the Wildcats. I had six shirts left. I gave five of them to the WSU Booster club that gave them away as door prizes to appreciative Cougs. And then I stepped up to President Rawlins and introduced myself. I pulled from my bag the last XL and handed it to the tall drink of a man.

“This is a fitting end to my cause to gift you our last shirt, and it would be a tragedy to lose WAZZU,” I said.

He was delighted. “You know, we have made a lot of money off that logo,” he commented.

“We have, too.” I said.

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This is article eight in the series guiding your through the 10-step Story Cycle process. Each post is written to help you craft a compelling brand story strategy. When you adopt the process you…

  1. ParkandCo-story-cycle-Bold copyEstablish your brand’s #1 position in the marketplace to clarify your essential differentiation from your competitors
  2. Identify your top three audiences so you can tell the right story at the right time to the right people
  3. Determine what’s at stake: What your customers gain by adopting your product or service, and what they lose by not buying into your brand to create relevance
  4. Define your brand’s unique value proposition to craft a story you can live into and profit from and become timely, even urgent, to your customers
  5. Embrace your obstacles and antagonists to overcome any challenge your brand faces in connecting with and delivering for your customers
  6. Humanize your brand by appreciating and expressing its promise, gift and personality to the world
  7. Map your three primary story mile markers in brand awareness, adoption and appreciation.

Before anyone will buy into your brand story, you have to own it first.

Start clarifying your brand story by downloading your  DIY brand story strategy guide. You can easily capture your story inside this interactive PDF. Plus, you can use the new video tutorial to quickly take you step-by-step through the process.

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Then, let us know how it works for you as it has for thousands of business leaders and communicators before you.
Story on, my friend.