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What’s in a brand? For Rebel Interactive, everything

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This is a story about a pair of accomplished women who are partners in life and in work and who have branded themselves and their company as Rebel. M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson form a dynamic couple.  Their passion for what they do and how they do it attracted me to them and their story, and I believe this article for the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly,com), which ran a shorter version of the piece, does them justice.  I think you’ll like them as much as I do.


What’s in a brand? For Rebel Interactive, everything

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)


When you’re audacious enough to go by Rebel, you better live up to the name. It turns out M.J. McBride and Caroline Wilson, owners of Omaha branding agency Rebel Interactive, are mavericks in most everything they do.

For starters, consider that these women left corporate careers to go in business for themselves. The move was also a commitment to their personal relationship, as they’re partners in both business and in life. The couple enjoy an openly gay relationship in conservative Nebraska, a state notoriously unfriendly to same sex unions. Imagine the risk McBride and Wilson take in being up front about who they are in social/business circles that undoubtedly include some homophobes.

The couple’s quite comfortable sharing their life status with people they meet for the first time, which is certainly rebel in these parts. That’s the point. McBride and Wilson are comfortable enough in their own skins to declare their love, to have it published, without fear of repercussion. Why? Because they’re all about being true to themselves. The truth will set you free. That, as much as Rebel, is the credo behind their own personal-professional brand.

“A powerful aspect of the Rebel brand is being authentic,” said McBride. “This applies to all aspects of our lives, and our business is a big part of our lives. Caroline and I believe that being open and real is our opportunity to educate, create possibility and make a difference in the world we live in.”

Living out loud is nothing new to this pair. “We’ve lived more than half of our lives ‘out,’ so it’s common to us,” said McBride. “What I recall is being in a much more powerful place when I was open and willing to educate people who needed more understanding. The other principle I always remembered — and this goes for anything — is your silence will not protect you.”

Far from silent, the couple’s chosen, especially McBride, to publicly advocate for gay rights. She’s past president of Citizens for Equal Protection (CFEP).

“What’s important to us today is letting people know that same sex couples need the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Caroline and I are at an extreme disadvantage legally,” McBride said. “Most are shocked when we explain that when either of us dies we will pay a 48 percent-plus tax to pass assets to each other. Nebraska has (among) the highest combined taxes. And I believe it is our responsibility to bring about the change we want to see in the world. Working with organizations like CFEP is a great way to do this.

Educational activism is Rebel.”

Ah, there it is again, the “r” word. Since this is a story about business/life partners who brand themselves and their company as Rebel, it’s important to note McBride and Wilson are far more than the sum of their parts. To just say they’re rebel is as superficial as calling them Lesbian Ad Babes or using some other misogynistic, gay-bashing label. By itself, rebel doesn’t represent what the partners and their company, a full-service marketing, advertising, Internet agency, are all about, which is designing innovative, interactive experiences that connect clients to customers.

The desired result: commerce. Selling clients’ brands/products in the marketplace.

M.J. McBride

McBride and Wilson work the way corporate consultants do. They interview client management/staff, review current marketing efforts, gauge customer attitudes, discover what makes a company tick, what distinguishes its products or services. Rebel figures out what works, what doesn’t, what needs tweaking or overhauling. Rebel also operates like industrial psychologists in determining a client’s values, personality, character. Where its healthy, where its dysfunctional, where what it promises to provide fails to match what it delivers.

Gaps between perception and reality are identified, addressed. Think of it as image inventory. Brainstorming occurs in Discovery Workshops, Ignite Sessions and the Rebel Think Tank. It’s all part of the proprietary branding process that’s become Rebel’s M.O. Before Rebel externally launches a brand, McBride said, the brand must be understood, embraced internally, among owners, managers, employees. Only then does it go live. Among Rebel’s promises is “bringing brands to life.”

“We talk about being your brand, in all levels, all layers, in every single thing you do and say — your hiring practices, how you pay people, the choices you make, the partnerships you make, the vendor relationships you make and definitely the customer relationships you have and the products you build,” McBride said. “It’s either all brand-enhancing or brand-damaging.”

Visit Rebel’s web site, rebel-interactive.com, or its offices at 1217 So. 13th St., or view any of its self-promotion print pieces, from business cards to letterhead, and you’ll see a consistently sleek, spare red-white-black design and color scheme.

“It’s our colors,” McBride said. She calls this coordinated, integrated strategy “environmental branding.” It can be accessorized, too, to fit any occasion. “It’s about making everything rhyme, wardrobing your brand basically. The concept is it’s an inclusive wardrobe that is YOU, whether you’re at a cocktail party or the pool or the office.” Thus, Rebel has its tuxedo and its casual outfits. Wilson’s collectible red Honda 450 motorcycle is often parked in the client lounge.

Caroline Wilson

The Rebel Gals, as they’re sometimes referred to, practice their own principles. McBride, who can sound preachy at times, even goes by “The Brand Evangelist.” She’s the author of a book, Small Business Brand Plan, a motivational seminar, “Access to Personal Brand Power,” and s workshop, “Be Your Brand Technology.”

Internalizing this whole brand thing is not just about tags or slogans or mantras for McBride-Wilson, it’s the way they do business, it’s the way they interact with the world. It’s their lifestyle. They embody what it is to be your brand.

“It shows up in family, at home, at work, in our professional affiliations, in the pro bono work we do and in the other communities we participate in,” said McBride.

Sharing the same brand helps them successfully live and work together.

“When you have two people that are really passionate about what they do and each other,” McBride said, “it just becomes your life. It’s all a part of your life. We’re the perfect yin-yang balance. I have global brand-managing experience. I know brands inside and out. I know what’s going to work for our clients. I am extremely comfortable consulting any size client any time of day. Caroline brings banking and operations and what we call razor sharp creative and then client research. She’s just an encyclopedia of information.”

Both love people. McBride enjoys developing staff, Wilson doing customer relations.

Rebel gets clients to see branding as a 24/7 proposition. “The fastest way to get them to understand that is to talk about what it costs them to not be their brand or to have a brand that is fragmented. It exponentially costs more to have a confused brand,” said McBride. “When you have clarity with your brand and everybody understands it then you’re just prone to have more brand enhancing activity going on and therefore you’re having an exponential result, which is what we train our customers to think about — exponential results on brand value.”

McBride offered classic examples: Coca Cola’s “the real thing,” Nike’s “just do it”  or YouTube’s “broadcast yourself” campaigns. Simple, clear, enduring, identifiable messages that encapsulate each company, its culture, its product, its image.

Rebel-designed brands include “Edgeworthy” for Fringes Salon, “Progressive Christian thinking” for Augustana Lutheran Church and “The Benson Beat” for the Benson/Ames Alliance. Clients range from small businesses and nonprofits to large corporations and organizations to neighborhoods and communities. All need a hook.

“A tag line is a perfect tool for clarity when it comes to a brand,” McBride said, “so if a company has a tag line that actually is relevant to internal and external audiences then we are excited about bringing it to life. If it doesn’t relate, if it’s generic, if it doesn’t present any competitive advantage or create an experience, then it’s really just some words. What we want to do is create a cohesive, clear message. The more clear your brand is then the easier it is to break through all the noise, all the clutter and actually deliver that message.”

Said Wilson, “Brand alliteration may stand the test of time, like BMW — ‘the ultimate driving machine.’ You still see that, they still use that, and they’ve used that as a campaign for at least 25 years. I like to use cars because cars are an excellent example of big brands, big advertising dollars, big names, global reach. Chevy, ‘like a rock.’ Like a rock stood a long time, people still relate to that. It’s still part of their brand and it really illuminates Chevrolet and who they are. So it can start as a tag line and be a powerful alliteration and then it can just take on a life of its own.”

Tag lines are just one tactic, McBride emphasized. “Not all companies are going to use that tactic but sometimes they’ll use that and then other tactics,” she said.
An effective branding campaign, she added, is an expression of “how we experience the brand through our senses. To the degree you can have a hook into those different areas and build on those, the more relevant your brand becomes. Then you can create brand loyalty and then develop new products, extend your brand and grow your business with a lot less effort.”

“A great example is Rebel,” said Wilson. “Exponential Results was our brand. It was under everything, it was on everything, and that was our promise, that was our brand. Now that lives on, that’s still our promise, but its really the experience now people have” that brands the agency. “Everything we do at Rebel in terms of branding — the thinking, the methodology, how we start here and just keep pushing it up — that’s what we give our clients,” she said.

“What makes them rebel is they’re not afraid to get out there. They’re very bold, they have very cutting-edge, fresh ideas, they’re very fun,” said Bluestone Development’s Christian Christensen. “We’ve been very impressed with what they do. And they’re just fun to be around.”

The agency’s name grew out of Rebel Graphics, which Wilson opened in ‘99. M.J. joined her and their boutique agency took off in ‘05. They now employ six people.

“We had the opportunity when we started the company to call it Wilson-McBride, McBride-Wilson and Associates, which is fine, but then we started looking at other ways to name the company and Rebel was it because we knew we were rebel for all these reasons,” said Wilson. “We wanted to start our own company, which isn’t something everybody does every day. We left great jobs, great companies to do that, and everyone thought we were nuts. We just said, ‘This is going to work, this is something we want to do, we’re going to make a difference.’”

A catchy, provocative name by itself is not enough, McBride pointed out. “A name and a logo is not a brand. We’re talking about much, much bigger than that.” So, what is a brand? “Well, it’s everything,” Wilson said.

Using Rebel as a case study, McBride said the two of them asked themselves, “What are we really passionate about?” The answer: “We’re passionate about what’s possible,” said McBride. “When clients come in here and they start talking to us about what they need to accomplish we’re interested in what is possible. What is possible means you haven’t thought of it yet. It’s like a breakthrough concept. We are passionately driven by what’s possible for us, for our employees, for our community, for our clients, for our planet. That’s what we’re excited about.”

The way Rebel applies that passion, McBride said, is by “giving our clients what they want, so really listening to them and laying our expertise on top of that and then making that a reality. We exist to help our clients have exponential results, exponential growth and profitability. If it’s not about money then it’s about prosperity.” Thus, the Rebel brand states, “brand, interact, profit.”

Getting people to buy into the whole brand concept is easy today, the partners said, but was a real stretch when they first opened shop. Mention branding then, McBride said, and people asked, “Are you talking about branding cattle?” Wilson said, “Yes, people literally said, ‘What do you mean by branding?’ So we were talking about it before most people, at least in Omaha for sure.”

McBride said while her evangelizing helped sell the concept here, Omaha finally caught on to the branding movement. “Other parts of the world are experts at branding and they got the concept a long time ago,” she said. “Now it’s a very strategic way to manage a business and it’s caught on and it’s here to stay.”

The current economic crisis would seem to be a bad environment for advertisers and advertising. Yet McBride said Rebel business has never been better. “We always say the best business to be in is branding, marketing and advertising or alcohol in these kinds of times,” she said, smiling. Skittish consumers, she added, are more apt to buy a strong, well-defined, easy-to-see brand.

“Customers are looking for stability and they want to go with winners,” she said, “and if you’re going to market during these times you’re going to be viewed differently than those dropping out of the market or not visible.”

Pulling ads sends the wrong message, she said. “People are going to assume you’re not doing well and you’re not a viable solution for whatever they want to be. Everything cycles and right now there’s less clutter, less noise in the market, so if you’re willing, like some of our ‘A’ clients are, to be in the game promoting your brand, you’re going to be way ahead when the cycle comes back to normal. Everybody else may be catching up or trying to reestablish or reinvent,” she said.

McBride said feel-good appeals lack traction right now.

“In these times it’s no longer about what people want or want to associate with, it’s about what they need,” she said. “We’re doing workshops on recession branding, working with clients on how to tailor their brand strategy for this kind of an environment. There’s lots of different strategies you can employ right now and really it’s about working with branding experts like us and then looking at what it is your brand is up against and finding creative, breakthrough solutions.”

Increasingly, Rebel’s designing wired, social connectivity campaigns for clients.

“There’s always a new opportunity to build their brand and to be in front of their customers,” McBride said, “and right now we’re developing a lot of social media packages for clients who already have a terrific online presence. We’re using all the applications Google has available, integration with Facebook, Twitter and all the popular social media outlets. We do eblasts or text messages that go directly to people’s phones. This is not random, it’s solicited, so it’s very powerful. All of a sudden our clients have a whole new universe of customers.

“Traditional marketing is very passive, whereas social media is right on target with authentic branding because it’s not passive, it’s participatory. It’s a one-on-one relationship and it’s very intimate.”“That’s exciting,” said Wilson.

A social consciousness attends Rebel’s popular social networking events. Its Rebel Yells and Rebelation Keynotes are forums for smart ways of doing business and for discussing community issues. Rebel taps its vast data base to get things done.

“Officially or unofficially we have a rebel network of extraordinary people we deal with as part of doing business,” said McBride. “For example, we sent out an appeal one Thanksgiving to help a family and in three minutes we had thousands of dollars donated. That got us thinking about the generosity of our clients.” That led to the Rebel Women’s Fund, a nascent micro-lending program “to support people who have an entrepreneurial spirit, just like Rebel, and want to really create something of value for their community and need the money to do it.”

McBride said a new, trademarked online donations product by Rebel is helping nonprofits across the nation raise money to support various women’s causes.

Wilson’s a driving force behind the South 13th Street Community, an association of area business-property owners and residents. She and McBride not only office in the neighborhood just south of the Old Market, they live there, sharing a Rose at SoMa residence. Wilson said the district has “a lot of potential, a lot of activity. It’s a great corridor into downtown. A lot of people are coming back into this area. Thirteenth St. was just designated an area of community importance or an ACI. That’s pretty much establishing a baseline for everything going forward there needing to map onto a specific code of design, so that’s exciting.”

The partners serve as “a conduit” for community development. It’s part of being good neighbors and social entrepreneurs. How very Rebel of them.

  1. October 21, 2012 at 8:45 pm

    I agree in part to this blog, but maybe i need
    to think about it more


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