Russians pick up marketing and branding tips from Memphis experts

by Jane Roberts

Published in the Commercial Appeal, April 23, 2008

Moscow, with thousands of entrepreneurs rushing into business, is a brand-maker's paradise.

Businesses are everywhere in the city of 10 million people, said Arkadiy Baranov and Vladimir Fedorov, after a weeklong intensive in brand creation at Tactical Magic, with side trips to inferno and Oden.

"But most don't have identity. There's quite a lot of outdoor signage but," Baranov said, hesitating a tiny second, "it's quite ugly."

Forgive him if it seems critical, but because Fedorov and Baranov are in the signmaking business, they're able to speak with an insiders' cachet.

Fedorov created Navigator Style in 2001, a stand-alone sign company that over the years has grown to include NV Design, a design services division to improve message appeal; NV Light, a LED-component manufacturing arm in China; and NV Brand, the fledgling branding agency that brought them to Memphis.

When they tell Americans about storefront signage in Moscow, they describe a thicket of signposts and poorly lettered signs hanging from a mishmash of heights and angles.

To get even a tiny piece of the naked imaging would send sales zooming in NV's branding division, which has eight employees and is less than a year old.

They're leaving Memphis with a formalized contract to share resources with Tactical Magic, which gives the Memphis firm a niche in the international sphere and gives NV access to American-style branding, preferred by Muscovites because, well, it has the feel of American-style capitalism.

Trace Hallowell, managing partner at Tactical, runs the agency from a gothic office building on Madison in Midtown. From its recesses have come national honors for Lunar Productions, sBox Storage and the banana peel billboard for personal injury lawyers Stroud & Harper in Southaven.

"U.S. branding is perceived as being more skilled and more desirable," Hallowell said, choosing his words carefully. "We have decades of experience. We can show the process. That feels more tangible."

He would not comment on the size of the contract between Tactical and NV, but said money will be involved.

"We're formalizing a way of working together, but we're not projecting a certain level of business."

Dozens of U.S. advertising firms have set up shop outside the country, if not in branch offices, then through alliances that allow them access to another agency's expertise.

"The benefits tend flow both ways," said Todd Coats, chief creative officer at Capstrat in Raleigh, N.C. "In the world of advertising, you have to know your audience. You have to be inside your audience's head. That doesn't mean just being able to speak the language, it's a cultural thing."

And to be "breakthrough," he said, the message has to reflect what a culture admires, finds funny, poignant or honest. The danger, he said, is that it's often most powerful in tiny bits of nuance outsiders wouldn't catch.

This is Fedorov's second trip to Memphis to study advertising from local firms. The first, in 2004, was funded by the Center for Citizen Initiatives, a nonprofit group once funded by the U.S. State Department as a way to promote U.S. interaction with Russian business owners.

"It gives me so much pride that Vladimir felt he learned so much from the Memphis advertising community that he wanted to came back, this time on his own money," said Mickey Woodham, longtime member of Memphis Advertising Federation and staff member at inferno.

"Everybody agrees that branding is important in Moscow, but they don't understand the value of it," Baranov said. "They think it's having a nice logo and corporate colors."

Hallowell tends toward the poetic when it comes to branding, describing it as part science, part art.

"Branding happens at your discretion because you choose what messages get in and which ones you believe," he said.

The most common response?

"Apathy," he says. "We're hit with about 2,000 branding messages a day. We ignore them on purpose because it's too much to take in."

The half-dozen or so a day that get through are laced with an intrinsic message that rings true to the subconscious, perhaps because it affirms an experience or is so clever that the brain's filtering mechanism gets knocked awry.

Doing it, Hallowell said, requires an intimate understanding of product, which Tactical does by "relying heavily on personal interaction."

In Moscow, where traffic jams make people reluctant to schedule face-to-face meetings, technology is the interface, as it will be in the union between Tactical and NV.

In joint work to brand a Russian-owned pipe company, for instance, Tactical and NV used the Internet, e-mail and PDF files to share information and opinions.

While time zone and distance create difficulties, the time has never been better, Hallowell says, for bridging the gap.

"It comes at a good time to be addressing these questions because technology is accessible and relatively inexpensive."

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"Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind." - Walter Landor