McKendrys Brand Is Different

April 30, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Even though Hanon McKendry annually walks off with a box full of honors at the Addy Awards, Bill McKendry says the company doesn’t wish to be known as an advertising agency.

In fact, McKendry says the word “agency” leaves kind of a sour taste both in his mouth and that of the firm’s other principal, James Hanon (pronounced “HAY-nun”)

The distaste, McKendry says, concerns two aspects of the industry that he observed during the onset of his career.

One, from his days in Denver, was the observation that some agencies that tended to be particularly adept at one advertising venue tended to treat that venue as the solution to all its clients’ problems.

While still majoring in advertising and marketing at the University of Denver, McKendry worked at a local office of one of the world’s largest advertising firms, and that office, he said, “was really good at TV, and lo and behold, the solution for every client was TV.”

“I had a real problem with that,” he said. “It didn’t seem to me anybody was taking an objective look at things, like at the client’s or product’s life cycle. Were they mature? Were they new? Did they have many competitors? Did they not have any competitors?”

He felt all those questions were lost in the agency’s focus on its own special expertise.

“My second problem,” he said, “was with the commission structure. Nowadays clients negotiate. But back then, an agency got paid not by the client. Instead, basically every vendor would give you a 15 percent kickback.

“To me, that just precludes all objectivity. What if sandwich boards were the best solution? Or fliers stuck under the windshield wipers? Are you still going to be placing TV ads?”

By the time McKendry and his wife, Lauree, returned to West Michigan from Denver in the late 1980s, he said that clients of the industry were beginning to wise up and the commission structure was changing.

The move back to Michigan is a story in itself. “We were sweethearts at Mona Shores High School and we married young,” McKendry said. “And when we started to think about having a family, Lauree wanted to be back here where our parents are. I had to be dragged back kicking and screaming because I really loved Colorado.”

He feels differently now, though, because the couple and their two sons have been able to tour Michigan, something they never had the time to do before. “And it’s just, ‘Wow!’ We love it.”

The other reason he was glad to move back was that he’d always wanted to have his own company, and he was able to learn a great deal while working with two small firms first.

“It was good experience. Both shots gave me front-row opportunities. I got to do a mental checklist on management styles — because, you know, you don’t go out and start a big agency.

“I could really see the mistakes these guys were making. And once I got out on my own,” he laughed, “I realized how smart those guys really were.”

In late 1989 he and a colleague, Dan Hyma, started their own firm in their homes. Clients followed. “We kept our staff small and we were able to establish our business’s integrity,” McKendry said, so that the firm was able to grow through the slump of 1991. He was the company’s writer, and Hyma, the graphics and TV expert.

In 1994 McKendry bought out his associate and, not long after that, a friend and competitor, James Hanon, approached him and they had a talk. Among other things they shared the thought that their faith had a place in their work. They established Hanon-McKendry with a five-year goal of doing half their work for nonprofits and 10 percent of their work for free.

“We hit that point about year three,” McKendry said.

In the last year, they did something else — entirely discarding the term “agency” and instead becoming a brand consultant.

So, what the heck is that?

As McKendry explains it, branding is a marketing concept that literally embraces everything a firm is and does.

He illustrates by describing the odyssey of Howard Schultz, current owner of Starbucks, who found his ideas treated with hostility by Starbucks executives when he first started working there in the early 1980s. “They wouldn’t listen to his ideas,” McKendry said, “so he left, started another coffee company, and grew it so big that he was able to buy Starbucks and do with it what he wanted.

“Today,” he said, “Starbucks doesn’t do any ads, but they’re one of the biggest brands in the country.

“Ask any Joe on the street, ‘Do they advertise?’ and he’ll refer to their signs on the streets. Or the look of the store. Or he’ll say, ‘Those cup sleeves are cool.’” The key thing, McKendry said, is that Starbucks is known by what it serves, the products it sells, the music it plays, the people who staff it, the architecture of its stores.

“Everything, literally everything,” he explained, “is a part of their brand or an advertising contact.”

And what Hanon McKendry does in its consulting work is help a client identify the things that make that connection stronger — or weaker. “You can be doing things that are kind of neutral, or meaningless. I call it ‘unrealized brand contact.’ And it’s anything from the TV ads, to the napkins, to the management attitudes, to how your clients feel treated.”

He said branding requires some digging. “You’ve got to look at who you are. You talk to customers about why they go there and find out what it is that is motivating, compelling and unique to them. And you build on those things and make sure you keep doing them very well.

“Then you find out from people who aren’t your customers. You find out why. And you find out what’s most compelling, and motivating and unique to them. And then you amplify that and bring it to life.”

He said one of the things he and Hanon wanted their firm to do was make a difference. And he cites two examples of how he believes they have done so.

One was to engineer a complete turnaround in public opinion that led to the lopsided defeat of the proposed assisted suicide amendment to Michigan’s constitution.

The other, he said, was “re-branding” Mel Trotter Ministries, which now is able to raise roughly $4 million annually instead of $600,000 to sustain its nonprofit shelter for women and children.           

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