Branding lessons…from a groundhog


It’s all over but the commercials, the ticker tape parade, the echoes of Renee Fleming’s national anthem, and six more weeks of winter.  As the Super Bowl and Groundhog Day fell on the same day, some might ask what could be more American? And even more American is the span of branding that was going on—from the Western Pennsylvania hamlet of Punxsutawney to the national airtime purchased by such advertisers as General Mills, Ford, Budweiser, and Priceline, to name a few. You can watch all the spots again on Mashable.


Lessons to be had from this veritable festival of prognostication, prediction, performances, players, and a groundhog named Phil? Certainly the power of brand plays a great role in the pricey spots top companies employ to reinforce brand power. Even Quickbooks sponsored a spot forGoldie Blox, a girl-empowering brand that Quickbooks apparently believes in.


For most nonprofits, the reach of a Super Bowl spot is but a dream. Perhaps there are some applicable lessons from the very rodent who drew the wrath of the most the country when his handlers declared Phil predicted six more weeks of winter.


Now, if you have never been to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania—or even if you have—there’s not much to see. On an average weekend, people shop, go out for “a bite to eat” as they say in that neck of the woods, head out to worship, and do the things people usually do on Saturday and Sunday. This year, with Groundhog Day falling on a Sunday—and on Super Bowl Sunday at that—the drama of Phil’s appearance has a special mid-winter cachet.


For that little guy, it’s a lot about his special day, but there’s a lot of merit in how the little town of “Punxy” as us Penn’s Woods folks call it, handle Phil’s image and care year-round. “Gobbler’s Knob” is the location of Phil’s early morning wake-up call every February 2, but during the rest of the year he lives in town, at the heart of the town, actually, where is a pampered, gets out for some personal appearances, and receives visitors during set hours.


The effectiveness of Phil and his brand is due to some hallmarks of the care of feeding of brands—and good rules for nonprofits, especially as the scale of Phil’s resources would be more in line with a not-for-profit than a true business enterprise.


Here are 7 rules of thumb—uh, paw—from Phil’s good example:

1.        Be consistent. From mission to location to logo, keep it consistent. For some small entities, the look and feel of the basic communication tools you may employ are powerful tools—and may be among the only tools you can use every day, regardless of budget. Phil’s image and that of his handlers is carefully managed—from his groomed coat to the top hats of his entourage. His team knows to deviate from tradition would be to disappoint.


2.              Keep it simple. Why confuse when your mission and method can be crystal clear? If Phil sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. The mantra of the day is repeated always and usually predicts the outcome. It’s kind of like Santa Claus; we tell the story and it becomes true. But everyone knows about Phil—whether they believe he can really see his shadow or not. Or “no shadow means spring is here.” This provides cohesiveness to the anticipation, the celebration, and the international media coverage that ensues each year.


3.       Be transparent. Phil’s Facebook page is clear: The content is provided by members of his “Inner Circle,” the dignitaries who officiate on his Feb. 2 appearance. “Punxsutawney Phil does not speak,” notes the page. Good to confirm this from a PR stand-point, however, we do know that he weighs 12 pounds and has brown eyes. Phil’s living arrangements and routine on his 354 days off are well known. It’s no secret that he doesn’t live at Gobbler’s Knob all year. And he’s even more accessible the rest of the year and visitors like that. There’s even a view of Feb. 2 festivities from a top hat camera, shared onYouTube (below). Why not share the perspective of the “Inner Circle” with thousands of fans via the web? What better way to generate buy-in and include more potential fans (read: donors) in all the fun?




4.              Take a collaborative approach. Run with your brand and welcome everyone who’s a fan to join you. The streets of Punxsutawney are lined with 32 large groundhog statues, “Phantastic Phils”—painted to suit the theme of the business or location at which they are placed. There’s the patriotic groundhog at city hall, a floral rodent at the flower shop, a ground hog in an apron at the diner. Everyone loves Phil and the business he brings to town. Everyone benefits from Phil’s brand.


5.              Educate your audience. Omit no opportunity to tell your brand’s backstory to instill ownership among your constituents. Phil makes great use of social media. And teachers and parent can use lesson plans from Phil’s website.


6.              Celebrate your history. Groundhog Day derived from the observance of the Christian holiday Candlemas Day, which falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Germans in Pennsylvania adapted the tradition of relating a badger or hedgehog’s prediction to the arrival of spring to employ Pennsylvania’s ubiquitouswhistle pig, or groundhog.


7.              Know your strengths. Phil’s attributes include cuteness and he’s apparently a great listener—even before having his coffee-as this year’sCNN video of his early morning appearance confirm.


You may also want to consider lessons from the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, as capsulized for nonprofit byNetwork for Good.


Sure, Punxy Phil has the benefit of a long run in the spotlight, but his handlers manage the groundhog’s brand well. We may have six more weeks of winter, but the little guy sure gets to bask in the glow the rest of the year.


Yvonne Hudson, principal of New Place Collaborations in Pittsburgh, shares her home county of Indiana, Pennsylvania, with Punxsutawney Phil as well as opera singer Renee Fleming and actor James Stewart, both born in Indiana, the county seat. She loves Western PA as a great region for both work and play.