Your Story is Your Brand…and Your Product! (2010)

Your Story is Your Brand…and Your Product! (2010)

Branding and Marketing Report Feasibility Report

Prepared by Jim Petersen, Managing Director, The Evergreen Foundation

Thirty-fourth annual National Indian Timber Symposium

April 19-22, 2010, Hosted by the Mescalero Apache Tribe

Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino

Mescalero, New Mexico


Good afternoon.

How many of you heard my presentation last year in Lewiston, Idaho?

For those who did not, it was titled, “Your Story is Your Brand.” In a nutshell, I said that I believe your story – the story of how and why you manage your forests as you do – is your brand.

But after listening yesterday to my friend Larry Mason’s reasoning, I’d like to amend what I said in Lewiston. I now believe your story is also your product.

There are real bragging rights here. I cannot think of another forest landowner on the face of the earth who can say the things you can say about how you manage your land - or your connection to land and place.

In Fred Clark’s presentation yesterday, he quoted three tribal elders who prove my point in spades.

One said, “The land and language are inextricable.”

Another said, “Natural and cultural resources are the same.”

A third said, “It’s up to all of us to protect the life of the world.”

No other forest landowner can make these statements and be believed, but you can because in your world, place is much more than the land itself.

In your world, place is, as someone suggested yesterday, the embodiment of all that you are expressed in prayer, song, dance, chants, language and traditional knowledge passed from one generation to the next.

There are real stories here. They are your stories, and they connect you to land and place in a way that is unique in the American experience. Only a handful of landowners in the country have owned their lands for more than 150 or 200 years. You have owned yours since the end of the last Ice Age. Again, there are stories here - real stories - and they are your stories.

My role in our branding and marketing study is to assess market interest in your story, to figure out where the opportunities are hiding and how you might flush them out. This is both a qualitative and a quantitative exercise that is, at its core, designed to determine whether the marketplace will – on the strength of your story – reward you with a price premium for your logs, lumber, value-added wood products and non-commodity forest products.

Rather than keep you in suspense, I will tell you that the preliminary anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered suggests that your story can earn you a price premium in the marketplace, but earning it will take time and cost money. Moreover, the road to success is far from assured.

When our branding and marketing team met in Seattle last January, I was asked if I could reduce your story to a few paragraphs. Gary Morishima and I fiddled with some concepts and came up with something we all like. I have since shared it with a few friends whose opinions I value, and they liked it too. It’s much too long for me to read in its entirety this evening, but I’d like to share the preamble with you. It reads as follows:

“We are Indian people. As the First Stewards, we have cared for the land since time began. Our natural resource management practices are rooted in traditions, knowledge and wisdom handed down to us by our ancestors over countless generations.

“Our Creator has entrusted us with the care of our land and its resources. In exchange, He has blessed us with precious gifts of Life: foods, clothing, medicines, fuel, shelter and goods for trade and commerce – the means to nurture our bodies, minds and spirits.

“We share a deeply felt responsibility to protect the land for those who will follow in our footsteps. The future of our peoples depends on stewardship of natural resources that are both our heritage and legacy. We care for Mother Earth so she will continue to care for us. We are part of the Land and the Land is part of us. It is the Indian Way.”

We have made good progress in our work since January. Ivan Eastin has shared with you the preliminary results of his surveys. If your tribe has not completed its surveys, please do so immediately, as your responses will help guide us in our research.

You have also heard from Vinnie Corrao, whose assessment of the Byzantine and sometimes aggravating world of forest certification is both thought provoking and hopeful. Be that as it may – and at the risk of stating the obvious - it seems to me that landowners who have been in the land management business for at least 10,000 years must hold some sort of moral authority over organizations that have been in the forest certification business for a mere 10 or 15 years.

You have also heard from Jim Haas, who brought you three alternative organizational structures for your branding and marketing outreach. This is where the rubber meets the road. Assuming that you elect to proceed with a branding and marketing program, I think you will need to pick an organizational structure sooner rather than later.

This brings me to my role in our study – and here we need to steer a course correction. We had originally hoped to include a quantitative assessment of market interest and alternatives in this report.

Unfortunately, our study has not yet been funded, so our team has been working in good faith since January, and we have to deliver a final report to you by the end of September. Very simply, there isn’t enough time left to do the quantitative assessment we had hoped to do.

When our team met last night, we landed on a new tact that we believe will get us another kind of information that is just as valuable. We are gong to interview marketing experts within the nation’s largest wood-using companies: Pella, Anderson, Marvin and Jeld-Wen in the window and door sector, major homebuilders, lumber brokers and the so-called “Big Boxes,” Lowes, Home Depot, Minard’s and 84 Lumber.

These are companies that think strategically and are at the forefront in wider discussions involving forest certification, green building standards and, more broadly, sustainability itself. We believe their anecdotal assessments of your story will be very useful in our research, and in your progress.

I actually began to move in this direction about three weeks ago. My search for anecdotal information led me to a very unlikely place – Indiana, more specifically the Indiana Hardwood Lumbermen’s Association, an organization with whom I have a long-term relationship similar to my relationship with you.

NHLA is in the throes of its own branding and marketing study, and they were gracious enough to share a few lessons learned so that I could share them with you. Their study actually began as a much more limited effort to promote Indiana forest products in Indiana. But it morphed into a more expansive branding and marketing outreach after a separate state-funded study revealed that forest products are Indiana’s No. 1 agricultural product, hardly a surprise when you know there are about 1,600 wood processors sof varying sizes in the Hoosier state.

Lesson No. 1 from Indiana: branding and marketing and the advertising and public relations work that go with it are expensive, long-term processes. I would go so far as to say that for America’s most recognized and respected brands the process is never-ending.

Lesson 2 from Indiana; IHLA’s members did not think on a large enough scale. They built an Indiana program – understandably so – but missed the opportunity to build, say, a North American hardwood branding and marketing program.

And why does IHLA now think a larger, more inclusive program might be more successful? Because, in the words of one member, “You can talk beauty, quality and craftsmanship until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, no consumer can tell the difference between a desk made from Indiana hardwood and one made from Pennsylvania hardwood.”

I asked Ray Moistner, who is IHLA’s executive vice president and a long time friend, to read the piece Gary and I wrote. He liked it. In fact, I think it is fair to say he was a bit envious of its power. He said he thought it opened the door to lots of “storytelling possibilities,” his phrase, not mine.

I also asked Jess Brand to read the piece. Jess is an old friend who runs several retail lumber yards in the Midwest. He said he liked the “patina” of the Indian story. That would be its glow or aura – and believe me when I tell you that your Indian story has a terrific patina. Once we develop your storytelling capacity, I believe news editors, feature writers and television journalists will flock to it. In the trade, we call this “unearned media,” meaning that you did not have to pay someone to tell your story.

Jess went so far as to say he thought your story tracked pretty well with his understanding of third-party certification systems, and that certifiers might readily embrace your story. Wouldn’t that be nice! Who knows, these systems are competitors. If I were a certifier, I would want you in my stable for the prestige you bring.

I also visited at length with Scott Atkison. Scott volunteered to join our branding and marketing team, but he had a schedule conflict this week, so he could not be with us.

Scott is the president of the Idaho Forest Group, a recently formed company created from the merger of Bennett Forest Industries and Riley Creek Lumber. Scott’s grandfather, Dick Bennett, is a long time friend and Evergreen supporter.

IFG owns 4 sawmills in Idaho: a sparkling new mill at Grangeville, one at Chilco, north of Coeur d’Alene, another at Moyie Springs, north of Bonners Ferry and a fourth at Laclede, west of Sandpoint. They also operate a terrific lumber brokerage at Hayden Lake. I think I am safe in saying that IFG is now Idaho’s largest log consumer.

Scott and I had a wide-ranging discussion about our tribal branding and marketing project just last week. Scott’s background is in accounting and finance, so I should not have been surprised when he reminded me that lumber manufacturing in North American has become a very competitive business populated by companies that are running state-of-the-art sawmills capable of competing head to head with any other sawmill on earth.

I think the take home message here is that if you are not running a technologically superior sawmill, your focus should be on logs; more specifically, your focus should be on getting more money for your logs. This is the Indian forestry story writ large, because if you want to get more money for your logs, you first need a better forestry story than the story your competitors are telling. You have it.

It is also Scott’s belief that it may be very difficult for tribal sawmills to aggregate their lumber under a common brand. Apart from what he believes are insurmountable logistics, he reminded me that, at least in the western United States, most lumber companies have long term relationships with their customers. It is this relationship, built up over long years of doing business together, that has value, not a particular brand.

I can think of several such relationships that go back more than 50 years, the point here being that those who buy lumber – brokers, wholesalers, retail yards and the so-called “big box” stores have trust relationships with lumber sellers, not brands per se.

Does this mean that tribes need to set up their own sales organization? Some of you already have sales departments. Others don’t. Frankly, I’m not qualified to answer this question, but it seems to me that this is partly a capacity question. You must be able to deliver what your customers want when they need it – and your products must meet or exceed market expectations or there will be no price premium.

Scott also suggested that tribes find a way to differentiate their logs from those of other landowners, so that lumber manufacturers, like IFG, can get paid more for the lumber they make from these logs.

Much to my surprise, Scott reports that, even in today’s lousy lumber market, IFG is getting an 18 percent premium for lumber it manufactures from logs that come from FSC-certified forests.

The third-party certification question is above my pay grade in this project – and I know that has been the subject of a lot of heartburn among ITC’s member tribes. But it seems to me that doing nothing is not a very good option in our fast changing world. I think Vinnie has cleared the way for you to overcome the negative aspects of forest certification, so that you can enjoy its positive market attributes.

I’m out of time. We need your feedback. Thanks for your friendship and support.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Evergreen Magazine.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.