By Matthew Broderick
From chickens to Cheerios, Connecticut marketing guru Harvey Hoffenberg has brought a fresh approach to branding, turning an art into something of a science.
It’s a safe bet that Harvey Hoffenberg has spent some part of the last two decades in your head. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, his slogans will. He made Pepsi “the choice of a new generation.” He transformed a nondescript morning breakfast cereal into “the one and only Cheerios.” He let us know that Pizza Hut is “making it great.” In fact, during his 25-year career in advertising and branding, Hoffenberg has worked with some of the biggest names in corporate America—from General Electric to Gillette—and with celebrities from Donald Trump to Mike Tyson.
But ask Hoffenberg, the CEO of New Canaan-based Propulsion, Inc., a marketing communications firm specializing in branding and re-branding, about the key to his success, and he’ll tell you it’s less about products and pitchmen than people. “I’m a huge believer in finding out what customers need, understanding the target audience,” Hoffenberg says. “It’s about listening and discovering the intersection of products and [consumer] needs, and using the right voice to communicate strategically.”
For Hoffenberg, that voice has traditionally been simple and humorous. Such an approach is a reflection of both his personality and his strategy.
“The reality is that people aren’t waiting around to see your commercial,” Hoffenberg concedes. And in a world of Web sites, satellite radio and DVR technology, the public’s attention span is often much shorter than the standard 30-second television spot. The key, he argues, is to entertain as much as educate.
“The worst thing you can do is bore the customer. If you do, you can lose them forever,” Hoffenberg says. “People are looking to be engaged. That’s how brands are built.”
And Harvey Hoffenberg knows branding. In fact, he approaches the subject more like a scientist than an advertiser, studying a brand as a researcher might study an organism under a microscope. He speaks of “brand DNA,” wanting to know where a product will live and what it will stand for, and dissecting all of its elements. He argues, for instance, that every aspect of a company—from how the receptionist answers the phone to the choice of hold music—is a part of creating and strengthening a brand. “It’s about opening a dialogue with the consumer and winning over hearts and minds,” Hoffenberg says. “You’ve got to earn the brand, and that happens over time.”
Many companies, he explains, don’t understand that. He points to firms that get their corporate logos out there and think they’re branding. Oftentimes, he says, companies push products at people without understanding that the consumer will define the brand and, in turn, the company itself. “Many companies fail to do their homework, Hoffenberg contends, “to find out where the real [branding] home runs are.” And that is where Hoffenberg and Propulsion, Inc., a company he founded in 2001, have made their mark.
“My company is different, in that we focus on reintroducing and re-energizing brands,” Hoffenberg says. “If a brand is stuck in the mud and business isn’t as good as it should be, or a company is talking to clients with the wrong voice, we can bring a new perspective.”
And, evidently, a tailored one. In fact, Hoffenberg assembles different, customized project teams, depending on the campaign and the industry. For example, he notes, if a client works in the financial services industry, he builds a campaign team whose members understand that arena. He says his biggest challenge—and one of the most important aspects of his branding efforts—is to create the personality of the client. “I focus on the company as if it were a person, and I ask what kind of person it is, [and] what kind of car it might drive,” Hoffenberg says.
Stew Leonard Jr. is CEO of Norwalk-based Stew Leonard’s, the world’s largest dairy store, with more than $400 million in annual sales. He hired Hoffenberg’s company to create some product publicity and strengthen the company’s brand. “Working with Harvey is like hiring a personal trainer to get you in shape,” Leonard says. “Except instead of a training coach, you get an ad coach.”
And, sometimes, a naked chicken. Hoffenberg introduced the underdressed bird as part of the first branding campaign that he created for Stew Leonard, to highlight the company’s new line of all natural, hormone-free chicken. “We knew we had a strong brand,” Leonard says. “But Harvey helped us focus and refine our image.”
“My clients, including Stew, have allowed me to be entertaining while getting the message out,” Hoffenberg says, who noted the Naked Chicken campaign gave rise to a humorous logo—a chicken in a barrel—and a number of catchy slogans, like “Don’t be chicken, get naked.”
But successful marketing, like the Naked Chicken campaign, are measured not only by tag lines, but by bottom lines. According to Stew Leonard, sales of his all-natural chicken more than doubled after the launch of Hoffenberg’s campaign.
Hoffenberg, in turn, is quick to share credit with Leonard for both providing a top-quality product and for being willing to step out of his comfort zone. “I think Stew was initially uncomfortable when I recommended the Naked Chicken idea,” Hoffenberg says, “but sometimes you need to do that with a client.”
Before founding Propulsion, Hoffenberg was managing partner and chief creative officer of California-based Bozell Worldwide, and was executive vice president and executive creative director for Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. During the course of his career, he created hugely successful marketing and branding campaigns for clients like British Airways, Burger King, Disney, ESPN, Gillette, National Geographic, Paine Webber and Samsung.
Hoffenberg is credited with Diet Pepsi’s “Now You See It, Now You Don’t” campaign, Gillette’s “Essence of Shaving,” and the “You Are Tomorrow, You Are The Navy” slogan for the U.S. Navy. He has worked with numerous high-level corporate executives, including Michael Eisner, and with celebrities like Michael J. Fox, Linda Rondstadt, Tina Turner, Lionel Ritchie, and Spike Lee.
Given his track record, it seems Hoffenberg’s instincts are usually correct. His success is based largely, he argues, on doing his homework and asking the right questions. “It’s very much about understanding demographics,” he explains. “What are you trying to communicate? What is the vehicle? Maybe it’s the town newspaper. Maybe, for a 16-year-old target audience, it’s the Internet.”
The process of figuring out those answers is what Hoffenberg enjoys most about his profession. In many ways, he sees himself as a problem-solver as much as a branding expert. “I like working in many different areas and learning about different businesses,” Hoffenberg says. “I do a lot of reading, talking and listening to understand how my clients can start a dialogue.”
Hoffenberg’s messages—sometimes funny, sometimes thought provoking—have been helping his clients build that dialogue for more than a quarter of a century. From General Electric to General Mills, he has helped advertise some of America’s top brands, but always with a respect, he says, for the end consumer.
“You need to speak the customer’s language,” he contends. “Keep it simple, speak to people intelligently and be honest.”
Given the right approach, people, it seems, will listen. And then once again, Harvey Hoffenberg’s unique voice will be in our heads—right where he and his clients want to be.