Building a Brand

By Dennis Boone

Any branding or marketing professionals worth their salt can tell you what defines the value of an organization’s brand, and how
public perception of it entails more than what one discerns beyond the optics of a logo, a television commercial or an Internet video.

So yes, product quality is an element of what defines a brand. Customer service, another. Visibility, yet another. The value of a product or service, one more. Even what a company does in response to a negative print or Web review or when confronted with a public-relations crisis will become part of the way a brand is perceived.

Taking a somewhat wider view, the brand of a locally based company also says something about the market it calls home, and the local business infrastructure. That message may be implied, rather than expressed, but when a highly regarded company and its brand are clearly recognized and associated with the places they call home, people from other regions begin to notice.

To that end, Ingram’s has compiled a list of what we believe are the Top 25 Brands in Kansas City. Our selections will raise the ire of some, but few, we hope, will argue with our choices. These are companies we consider to be at the top of their sectors in this market, that generally project themselves onto national, even international stages, and that have well-respected brands both locally and beyond.

Subjectivity always plays a hand in making determinations like these, and for the purposes of this project, we limited it to for-profit companies, which by definition left out some highly recognized non-profits like the University of Kansas Hospital, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City, Saint Luke’s Health System and Children’s Mercy Hospital, as well as some emerging for-profit brands. (See methodology,  Page 40.)    

We recognize that many organizations can—and will—make sound arguments for why they should have been included. But we’re pretty confident, however, they can’t make a good argument for excluding any of these 25. Enjoy!

AMC Entertainment
His father and uncles bought what would become AMC Entertainment back in 1920, but Stan Durwood is the one who would put a brand on the business with innovative theater experiences. He created the multi-plex concept, making the single-screen theater
as anachronistic as black-and-white film.

Today, the company has more than 300 theaters nationwide, and 200 million viewers a year catch a flick at an AMC Entertainment theater.

A year after Durwood took over the company in 1961, AMC opened the world’s first multiplex—multi in the sense that the Parkway Twin had two screens. The next year, Ward Parkway Theatres became the first setting designed as a multiplex from the start.
Durwood passed away in 1999, but the company continued its growth, acquiring Loews Theatres in 2006. Now led by CEO
Gerry Lopez, AMC is based in Leawood, and since 2012 has been a subsidiary of China’s Dalian Wanda Group.

American Century Investments
Until his death in early 2014, Jim Stowers lived the classic American entrepreneurial dream. In 1958, with $100,000 in seed money from 24 investors and offering only two mutual funds, he founded his money-management firm on the belief that if he helped make people successful, they would in turn make the firm successful. Today, American Century Investments manages more than  $140 billion in assets for many of the most sophisticated clients around the world and carries on his vision in both the financial-services and philanthropic communities through “Profits with a Purpose.”

Through the generosity of Jim and Virginia Stowers, more than 40 percent of the firm’s annual profits support the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, a basic medical research center focused on the development of innovative approaches to diagnose, treat and prevent diseases like cancer.  It’s the ultimate example of how financial success can be a force for good.  

Applebee’s International
Applebee’s International lasers in on its mission, declaring that it focuses on “serving good food to good people.” That has served the restaurant chain well in the 35 years since its founding as a single unit in Atlanta. The start-up quickly moved onto a track for na-
tional growth after being acquired just three years later by deep-pocketed W.R. Grace and Co. in 1983, and its ties to Kansas City were forged when John Hamra and Abe Gustin opened the first franchise here in 1986.

Today, the chain has 24 locations in the region, part of an international network of more than 2,000. One of the branding successes has been to incorporate the idea of “neighborhood” into the brand during its early years. Formerly known as Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill & Bar, it still  strives to achieve location-specific décor and styling in each community it serves.

Associated Wholesale Grocers
In the grocery world—a sector that counts everyone in the country as a customer roughly three times  a day—the brand behind the brands in this region is Associated Wholesale Grocers.

As a cooperative, it is owned by the retailers it serves, it delivers goods to more than 2,900 stores in more than 30 states ranging from New Mexico to the Great Lakes region and the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Associated Wholesale Grocers supplies meat, produce, specialty foods, general merchandise and more, but also provides the AWG brands like Best Choice, Always Save and IGA, among others.

Those offerings allow retail locations to increase sales with tiered pricing structures. That model, bolstered by a wide range of merchandising and support programs for retailers, seems to be working out well. Annual revenues have been growing sharply in recent years, and in in 2013, sales hit a record $8.38 billion.

Burns & McDonnell
Core values define a brand, but driving the message sometimes requires fresh visuals. With a new burst of hiring, with global expansion and with revenues soaring to nearly $3 billion last year, engineering giant Burns & McDonnell just rolled out its new logo and brand.
As a 117-year-old company, says Melissa Lavin-Hickey, director of corporate marketing, “it’s important for us to balance that rich history of our firm with the modern vision of who we are and where we intend to go.” In this case, the message is implicit in the treatment of the ampersand, which links the company’s past with its present. “That ampersand has always been very special to us because it represents thousands of successful collaborations between Burns & McDonnell and our clients,” she says. “It’s that constant reminder that we’re never quite satisfied—we’re always looking for another opportunity to make an impact—to excel at the job and more.”

Black & Veatch
At Kansas City’s biggest engineering firm, Black & Veatch is challenged with the task of brand establishment, education and awareness, says Fredrik Winterlind. That sounds more like a start-up than a century-old company, but Black & Veatch is still in fast-growth mode from a global perspective, entering new markets and countries, says Winterlind, vice president of global marketing and communication.

“Our brand is the essence of what we do and who we are,” he says. “It is our culture and it is tied to a strong set of core values.” Every single action, he says, has brand-reputation implications of some form: “How we handle one specific development can be very important to our brand reputation, but more important is how all our professionals represent our brand on a daily basis.” Regardless of a company’s size, “a brand isn’t just a logo, a catch phrase or the color palette you use,” Winterlind says, “and a brand isn’t built overnight.”

Cerner Corporation
It started out as a medical software company in 1979, but what does Cerner’s brand stand for today? Bonus points if you answered “innovation”—it now offers programming for hospitals and medical systems’ patient health-care information and billing systems, as well as software for extended care and home-health providers, physician practices, pharmacies and more. Those systems are credited with shifting the focus of health-care IT, moving it away from managing financial operations in favor of systems built around patient-care needs. “Maintaining the consistency of the Cerner brand and our culture worldwide, with every associate, in every facility and with each client interaction is a big challenge, but a great one to have,” says President Zane Burke. The biggest current challenges, he said, entail absorption of 5,700 employees from Cerner’s acquisition of Siemens Health Services and making them part of that culture.

Commerce Bancshares
According to statistics compiled by the FDIC, only one other Missouri-based bank (Scottrade Bank of St. Louis) had a bigger deposit market share statewide than Commerce Bank boasted as of June 2014. That lofty status, with $13.63 billion on hand, says something about the way customers perceive the Commerce Bank brand.

More broadly, brand enhancement is an opportunity that comes with every transaction, and it’s also a function of the operating hours offered, numbers of branch locations, ease of access and other factors, bank officials say.

Commerce Bank has enjoyed additional polish on its reputation in recent years with a run of appearances near the top of Forbes magazine’s annual list of the best-managed banks in the nation. It has been as high as No. 3 on that list (in 2010), and came in at No. 10 in 2014, among nearly 7,000 banks nationwide.

Ferrellgas Partners
“Ferrellgas,” Scott Brockelmeyer declares, “is a propane company. We’re not Coca-Cola and we’re not McDonald’s.” The company’s vice president for communications and marketing correctly notes that “propane is propane. The product we offer our customers is the same as the product offered by our competitors.” Bringing life to the brand, then, comes from “proving that the experience one has when doing business with us is better than it is when doing business with a different propane company,” he says. That  starts with customer service, but includes overcoming supply-chain challenges, making deliveries that are on time and submitting accurate invoices.
The ability to acquire product at virtually every supply point in the nation, he says, “gives our customers additional security that we’ll have the propane they need when they need it.”

Min Kao and Gary Burrell helped usher in the use of global-positioning devices for consumers with car, truck, RV and motorcycle-mounted units that allowed motorists to access precise driving instructions to their destinations.

A strong innovative stripe, which continues under CEO Cliff Pemble, has added aviation, marine, outdoor and wearable
devices that do more than just give directions: They provide feedback with training tools, offer details on the layout of thousands of golf courses, measure bik-ing pedal-power—if you can do it, Garmin has a way to track it and improve it.

“The foundation of our culture is honesty, integrity, and respect for associates, customers, and business partners,” the company declares. “Each associate is fully committed to serving customers and fellow associates through outstanding performance and accomplishing what we say we will do.”

H&R Block
For 60 years, one brand has come to absolutely dominate the income-tax preparation world in the U.S.: Kansas City-
based H&R Block. And even though on-line tax preparation tools now account for 40 percent of the annual filings by American taxpayers, H&R Block is still better than 10 times the size of its nearest competitor. Over the past decade, though, the Block brand has responded to those on-line challengers with services of its own.

A decade ago, as those threats were emerging, the company underwent a concerted rebranding, complete with a new logo featuring the bright green square—yes, it’s a block—to position itself as a full-service financial firm. It continues to see itself as the natural solution to more complex (and more profitable) tax returns for businesses and individuals and less as the answer to the tax-filing needs of the no-deductions/Form 1040EZ crowd.

Hallmark Cards
Is there a brand in the Kansas City area more immediately recognizable to people around the world than Hallmark? We’re all ears if you have a candidate to suggest. From its 1910 founding by Joyce C. Hall, the company has grown to iconic status , with annual revenues that top $4 billion.

Far more than a greeting-card company, Hallmark is as well known for other personal-expressions products as it is for cards to celebrate Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day—if it has “Day” in its name, Hallmark probably has a card for it. Its team of artists and designers produce 10,000 new and redesigned messages a year. The firm specializes in gift wrap, invitations, announcements, keepsakes and more—products that are available in 30 languages at 40,000 retail outlets in 100 countries.

And it remains a formidable force in Kansas City, with 3,200 of its 11,300 full-time employees working here.

Helzberg Diamonds
Nearly 50 years ago, Barnett Helzberg took the branding efforts for his family-owned chain of jewelry stores and turned it into a sensation. It was a little red pin-back button that read, simply, “I Am Loved.”

It was a defining moment in the history of the company, which grew to more than 150 stores nationwide by the time Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway acquired the chain in 1995. And yet, it didn’t originate with a top-down directive for a new marketing gimmick—it came straight from the heart, a personal expression of the exhilaration he felt when Shirley Bush accepted a marriage proposal from the third-generation jewelry-store owner. The concept was a huge hit, and not just in Kansas City—I Am Loved buttons made it to the White House, to soldiers in Vietnam, and to sweethearts speaking the Romance languages of Europe, Chinese, Portugese, Russian and many more.

J.E. Dunn Construction Group
With national growth come new brand-defense challenges, and that’s true for the largest contractor based here. “One of our biggest brand challenges is making sure we have consistent messaging and visual identity throughout all of our 19 offices around the country,” says Emily Fors, vice president of communication for J.E. Dunn.

The Dunn brand has long been an icon in Kansas City. But more than that, the name of the founding family has been a part of that brand, too. For three generations and 91 years, Fors notes, a Dunn family member had been at the helm of the company, so it was big news last year when Gordon Lansford succeeded Terry Dunn as CEO and president. “Our communication plan for that announcement took place over the course of several months,” Fors said, and was a strategic message that focused not just on employees, but on constituents such as clients, architects, and building partners.

Kansas City Chiefs
“A brand faces uncertainty every day,”  says Bill Chapin, senior vice president of business operations for the Chiefs. Some games you win, and the brand can shine in spectacular fashion. Some days, you lay an egg in front of millions.

In the NFL, Chapin says, “the changing complexion of on-field performance varies game-to-game, month-to-month and year-to-year. … We focus on building an enduring brand experience at Arrowhead Stadium that transcends wins and losses.”

To do that, the team focuses on creating lasting memories from fans’ game-day experiences, he says, and when successful, “all 70,000-plus fans at each game become our story tellers.”

Whether it’s doing things to enhance a nationally-renowned tailgating experience, or finding better ways to manage crowd flow, or using Wi-Fi or testing in-seat ordering apps, Chapin said, “we are committed to have the best fan experience in the NFL.”

Kansas City Power & Light Co.
What if most people, once a month, associated your brand with a payment to be made? The challenge in that case is making sure they understand the value proposition behind your brand, and for KCP&L, that means providing reliable service at a comparatively low cost.
But the power company also helps consumers manage those costs with monthly billing-statement tips, and it is a highly visible corporate citizen, with a focused program of targeted donations to non- profit and civic causes and promotion of employee voluntarism (nearly 20,000 hours a year by its workers go to char-itable causes).

It also offers a robust series of services that promote economic development and assist new businesses, and it focuses on environmental issues like improving air quality, backing renewable energy initiatives, and supporting wildlife habitat development and restoration.

What if most people, once a month, associated your brand with a payment to be made? The challenge in that case is making sure they understand the value proposition behind your brand, and for KCP&L, that means providing reliable service at a comparatively low cost.
But the power company also helps con-sumers manage those costs with monthly billing-statement tips, and it is a highly visible corporate citizen, with a focused program of targeted donations to non- profit and civic causes and promotion of employee voluntarism (nearly 20,000 hours a year by its workers go to char-itable causes).

It also offers a robust series of services that promote economic development and assist new businesses, and it focuses on environmental issues like improving air quality, backing renewable energy initiatives, and supporting wildlife habitat development and restoration.

Kansas City Royals
Somebody put this brand into the Reputation Machine and punched the “Renew” button in 2014. The Royals’ improbable run to the ninth inning of Game Seven in the World Series made the team a fan favorite across the nation and restored Kansas City’s baseball image to that prominence for the first time since the ’85 Series.

Like the Chiefs, the team’s brand is constantly at risk during losing streaks, but during the winning streaks, the upsets, and the climb up the standings, it shines: It’s hard to tarnish the image of a winner.

In tandem with its Royals Charities arm, it sports a muscular program of community connectedness, organized around support for children, education, youth baseball and softball, and military causes. Direct grants and financial support for some organizations are supplemented with player engagement in nearly two dozen causes ranging from Alex’s Lemonade Stand to Team Smile.

Lee Jeans
Branding is a family affair at Lee Jeans—a corporate family affair. And it’s an extended family, given that it’s just one brand, along with Wrangler, The North Face, John Varvatos, JanSport, Eagle Creek and many other clothing lines owned by parent VF Corp, the world’s largest publicly held apparel company.  Lee, the denim specialist based in the Kansas suburb of Merriam, was founded by one Henry David Lee in Salina, Kan., in 1889, and has been a subsidiary of VF Corp.

since 1969. It made its name with lines of clothing for working men—emphasis on working —jeans, jean jackets, jump suits and overalls.
With a U.S. work force of 400, it’s one of the smallest employers among Kansas City’s best-known brands. But Lee flashes its corporate-citizen credentials with the best of them; it has raised millions in the fight against b reast cancer with its annual Denim Day event, with workers making $5 donations for the right to go casual for a day.

Lockton isn’t merely one of the nation’s biggest and well-known insurance brokerages, it is the world’s largest independently owned brokerage.

And yet, “Lockton is not a household name, and as primarily a business-to-business company, we are unlikely to become one,” says Dean Davison, director of communications. For sectors like construction, health care and real estate, Lockton is well known for its work in risk management and employee benefits, he says.

Lockton’s biggest challenge, Davison said, “is to keep raising our profile in more industries, more communities, and with more prospective clients around the world without big advertising campaigns. We raise our profile by doing great work with our current clients, sharing our expertise through various forums, and being an engaged member of the business community.” 

ReeceNichols Real Estate
You tinker with successful brand visuals at your own peril, but you’ll be a lot more successful if you simply own the local marketplace. And nobody has more signs up, or sells more homes, than ReeceNichols and its army of affiliates. The company pulled off the brand update last year by extracting the ampersand from “Reece & Nichols” and going to the one-word configuration, setting the stylized ampersand off to one side.

Jodi Schade, vice president of marketing, media and technology, outlined the extensive internal effort that underpinned execution of that change, including summoning to Arrowhead Stadium for the announcement. But that level of detail was needed to ensure the brand would hold up for those who matter most: “We know our consumers value our brand,” she said, “when they are making the largest financial, and most meaningful and emotional purchase in their lives—their home.”

Russell Stover Candies
Despite the 2014 sale to Swiss-based Lindt & Spruengli for a rumored $1.5 billion, Russell Stover will always be a Kansas City brand for many of us, regardless of where the owners hang their hats.

Over the course of the 80 years between its founding by Russell and Clara Stover and that sale, it has grown from a home-based confectioner in Denver into the Kansas City company known as the nation’s largest producer of fine boxed chocolates. The first Kansas City store opened in 1924, and a factory opened here in 1928, cementing the local ties.

The Ward family purchased the company in 1969, and sons Scott and Tom, in the leadership roles, built it into an international operation. By some industry assessments, Russell Stover held 60 percent of the U.S. boxed chocolate market at its zenith, with 40 company-owned retail shops in the U.S. and Canada.

Kansas City Southern Railway Co.
Kansas City Southern Railway is the parent for a number of rail lines and brands, with a total of more than 6,000 miles of track running from western Illinois through 10 U.S. states and into Mexico.

That gives KCS access to shipments coming in from both the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. In tandem with CenterPoint Properties, the railroad operates the CenterPoint-KCS Intermodal Center, on the former Richards Gebaur Air Force Base site.
With 2013 revenues of $2.4 billion, it’s the smallest Class I railroad in the United States. But thanks to a major debt restructuring in 2008 and other moves, the company has met its goal of raising the profile of its stock to investment-grade status, further enhancing the brand.

That strategy paid off for company and investor alike; the value of Kansas City Southern stock has more than tripled, going from $31 in January 2010 to just shy of $110 earlier this month.

Sprint Corp.
Anyone who was in the Sprint store in the Power & Light District in 2011—when former CEO Dan Hesse was beaming over the telecom company’s award from J.D. Power & Associates for customer service—knows the importance of brand perceptions. That recognition was particularly welcome because it validated his efforts to raise Sprint’s profile with consumers.

Hesse’s successor, Marcelo Claure, has wasted no time in addressing branding efforts, mercifully extinguishing the “Framily”
ad concept and aggressively promoting Sprint’s delivery model and value with a campaign to cut the bills of competing companies’ clients by half.

Sprint also bolsters its brand with a huge range of civic-engagement efforts, support for non-profits (both financially and with time that its staffers donate to various boards), and, perhaps most visibly, putting its name on the city’s Downtown arena when it opened in 2007.

UMB Financial Corp.
At UMB, brand isn’t just reflected in imagery—it’s infused into each employee, and it’s right there in black and white with the TUCE book—for The Unparalleled Customer Experience.

Everyone is issued a copy, and even UMB Financial Corp. CEO Mariner Kemper carries his in his suit jacket, says Heather Miller, executive vice president for marketing communication.  “Our people are our best brand asset,” Miller says. “If you can consistently deliver a quality product, keep your promise and meet customer needs, that is our greatest brand strength.” That people connection is important, Miller says, when you consider the competitive nature of Kansas City’s banking market. “It comes down to this: Our money is no greener than anyone else’s, and our rates are usually not that different,” she says. “So we do a lot of work helping associates understand what the brand stands for, and our vision.”

Waddell & Reed Financial
Waddell & Reed offers financial advisory services, it offers investment products, and it provides institutional investment guidance. Those three channels, says Tom Butch, chief marketing officer for the parent organization, need to be unified in the public’s mind, and “the challenge for us is sustaining multiple brands to make sense of A) their interrelatedness, and B) their differentiation.”
Adding to that challenge, the company has its own proprietary network of more than 1,700 financial advisers, in addition to thousands of affiliated brokers throughout the nation. Building what he called a “nationally local brand,“ then, requried a judicious use of marketing-dollar resources in markets that can vary significantly, he said.

“At our core, we are a money manager,” Butch says. “But we’ve always been an amalgam of financial advice and investment products, and we’ve chosen to fuse the two in the way we brand in the theme line: Investing With a Plan.”

Kansas City has more than 100 private companies with annual revenues of at least $100 million. It’s home to more than two dozen public companies generating an aggregate of more than $80 billion in sales for 2013. So how does one objectively determine a roster of the Top 25 Brands in the greater Kansas City region?

We started with Kansas City metro-area companies, then created a scoring system to assign points for various measurements, including:
• Revenues, because nothing says you’ve made a connection quite like getting a customer to give you money.

• Geographic reach, the ability to project a brand to nationwide and foreign markets.

• Employment levels. A company’s ability to make an impact on this area is not limited to its sales volume—the money it circulates into the local economy by virtue of the work force it employs says something about the power of its brand locally.

• Civic engagement. Some brands, to be brutally candid, matter more to their home communities than others. We assigned extra points to those brands that recognize their own corporate fate is tied to the well-being of the community they call home, and act accordingly.