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Branding Out Loud

Since joining Deluxe Corp. five years ago, chief brand and content officer Amanda Brinkman has emboldened the once-conservative, multibillion-dollar company to think outside the branding box. Now, what's next?

Branding Out Loud
Photography by Travis Anderson

Amanda Brinkman only breaks for blazer changes—each one a different boldly colored, shoulder-padded display of moxie. This time, it’s royal blue over a crisp, hot-pink button-up.

The large board room at Deluxe Corp. in Shoreview has been transformed, for this one sunny May day, into a production studio, and it’s as frenzied as a Hollywood set. The director, the camera crew, the marketing team, and the guests rush about; there’s a sense of urgency in each task. But Brinkman leans against a table in the center, rocked back in her neutral stilettos, cracking jokes with anyone nearby. The whole room orbits around her.

Small Business Revolution—MAIN STREET, SEASON 4

Season-opener air date: Oct. 8 Featured town: Searcy, Ark. Where to watch: On Hulu, smallbusinessrevolution.org, or Prime video.

As the crew sets up for the next shot, Brinkman’s co-host, reality-TV carpenter Ty Pennington, saunters on set, in a white V-neck T-shirt, cargo pants, and black plastic flip-flops that scrape on the thin office carpet as he walks.

“Do you have another shirt you want to put over that?” Brinkman asks, her smirk quickly turning to laughter. Everyone within earshot snickers—Pennington included—as cameras turn toward the pair. They have 14 scenes to shoot by 5 p.m.

Brinkman hosts the popular Hulu series Small Business Revolution—Main Street, a show that helps revive small-town businesses across the country. Season four debuts Oct. 8, featuring Searcy, Ark. Brinkman spent more than a month in Searcy filming and working with local businesses on everything from marketing strategy to financial advice to design improvements. That’s after a nationwide search for the season’s featured town and businesses that involved hopscotching around the country to conduct interviews and an online public campaign spanning several weeks. After filming wrapped, Brinkman jetted off to Austin, Texas—home to the show’s director—for a full day’s worth of interviews with the winning business owners. She also hosted this season’s owners in the Twin Cites and arranged for them to meet with industry experts, including restauranteur and 2019 James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim. Affixed to Brinkman’s well-used carry-on bag is a sticker that says: “Support local.”

How to Enter for Season 5:

Nominations for Small Business Revolution—Main Street Season 5 are open Oct. 8–22. To find out more about how to nominate a town, visit smallbusinessrevolution.org.

Small Business Revolution (SBR for short) has attracted more than 5.6 million views and established Brinkman as a personality—someone who’s recognized at the grocery store, a hero to mom-and-pop businesses everywhere. Brinkman is a regular on the speaking circuit, giving keynotes and TED Talks on the importance of supporting local business, emceeing events for women in leadership, and hosting awards ceremonies. Fielding interview requests about Small Business Revolution can take almost as much time as filming an episode; the program has racked up thousands of media stories, most of which quote Brinkman.

It’s easy to forget that TV host is not her leading role.

Brinkman is the chief brand and content officer of Deluxe, the centenarian, $2 billion company that built its name and fortune printing checks. She dreamt up the TV series to reposition Deluxe from outdated check printer to modern provider of small business solutions. The show has succeeded beyond the company’s wildest dreams, and has established SBR as a “movement,” Brinkman says, which encourages support of small businesses everywhere. The questions now are how long does it make sense for Deluxe to continue investing in the series, and does the overwhelming success suggest that other companies should rethink the way they allocate their marketing budgets?

Or: Is the spirited host in her bright blue blazer essential to pulling off this sort of branding feat?

Amanda Brinkman and SBR co-host Ty Pennington on set at the Deluxe Corp. headquarters. “[Brinkman] doesn’t just believe in small business, she works hard to make sure the owners believe in themselves,” Pennington says.

The brand whisperer

A career marketer, Brinkman’s resume includes stints in senior marketing roles with Allianz and UnitedHealth Group. A big personality since her college days, she even deejayed for Winona State University’s KQAL 89.5 FM. She was consulting at General Mills in 2013 when Deluxe called and offered her an interview for the top spot in its marketing department. She says she had the same reaction as everyone else: “Wait ... the check company?”

Small Business Revolution Winners, 2016–19

Season 1
Wabash, Ind.
“One of the things we found interesting in our economic impact report was that local business and retail was up 7.4 percent year over year. This was a direct result of Small Business Revolution because we learned that we needed to pay attention to branding.” —Christine Flohr, executive director of tourism, Wabash County and Visitor’s Bureau

Season 2
Bristol Borough, Pa.
“The vacancy rate used to be as high as 40 percent. Right now, if you wanted to go to a Realtor and say, ‘I’d like to open a business in downtown,’ there are only two properties available. [SBR] has really had a ripple effect downtown.” —Bill Pezza, president, Raising the Bar economic development organization

Season 3
Alton, Ill.
Small Business Revolution has been an incredible accelerator. I can’t explain it. We just took off. It’s like we hit the button and off we went … The downtown area … is basically almost full now. It’s really neat to see us find our way again.” —Brant Walker, mayor of Alton

Season4
Searcy, Ark.
“[The SBR team is] investing so much into educating us—all kinds of investments in us and growing us as business people.” —Catrina Mendoza, co-owner of SBR business El Mercado Cavadas, via Harding Alumni Magazine

As debit/credit cards and virtual payment systems overtook the functionality of checks, Deluxe knew it either had to turn the spotlight to its other products and services or risk obsolescence. But the company had no idea how to even begin to retool its deep-rooted legacy.

Deluxe had for years also offered a suite of services aimed at small businesses—everything from payroll services and trademarking to logo design and web hosting. But less than 1 percent of its targeted audience knew that five years ago, Brinkman says.

“Deluxe wasn’t telling their own story very well at the time,” says Nancy Lyons, CEO of Minneapolis digital agency Clockwork, which was recently selected as Deluxe’s new partner in digital strategy. “So I think when people made up the story, it was really limited to checks.”

Brinkman says that she was up-front from the start with then-Deluxe CEO Lee Schram. “[In the interview], I told him, ‘I want to do something really bold. Do you want to do something really bold?’ ”

He was all for it, she says.

“I love taking these disparate brands that either people haven’t heard of or have different perceptions of, and proving what the craft of marketing can do,” says Brinkman, 40. Plus, she adds with a laugh, “I’m an optimist, so I like to say that everywhere from there [for Deluxe] was up.”

Her idea initially began as a yearlong series of photo and video essays telling the stories of 100 small businesses across the country, in celebration of a century of enterprise. That quickly snowballed into the current TV series in which Deluxe (and voting viewers) choose one small town and five or six of its small businesses each year to win a “makeover” from Deluxe valued at $500,000. Deluxe then aids them with any business needs. In turn, Deluxe takes some of the credit.

Since the start of SBR, Deluxe has earned more than 5.7 billion total earned media impressions from more than 3,600 news stories.

That runaway success earned Brinkman the nickname “the brand whisperer” by Deluxe vice president of public relations Cameron Potts.

Actually, her persona and industry impact are more like a shout.

The evolution of the revolution

The key to SBR’s success is emphasizing the authenticity of the stories and not letting the show resemble an ad.

“We feel like if [SBR] was too Deluxe-forward, that would be a turn-off,” Brinkman says. “It’s very much a strategic play not to have our brand in your face.” She believes a brand doesn’t have to be overt to get its message across—that viewers who watch even one episode of SBR easily understand the Deluxe role.

Mike Porter, a University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business professor, applauds Deluxe’s restraint. The format works well, he says, because Deluxe is not pushing their services directly, but they’ve created an environment that allows them to highlight their offerings in a credible manner. “They’re not saying, ‘Nobody else does this.’ They’re saying, ‘Well, here’s how Deluxe would support you in doing this for your business.’ ”

Each season, however, the Deluxe team adds just a little bit more of its brand into the show, via a product or brand mention, for example. Now that there’s a lot of awareness of SBR, Brinkman thinks it’s time for the company to take a little more credit for it. But never at the expense of the authenticity or genuineness of the program itself, she says.

Since SBR has helped Deluxe change its brand perception and reach that initial goal, Brinkman is looking for new ways to utilize the show’s value. She says the show can begin to serve as a vehicle for new messages. “We feel like the Small Business Revolution has an opportunity to help us brand a little bit more across all of our products and services now.”

For Season 5—already in the planning stages, with town nominations set to open for two weeks beginning Oct. 8—that will mean tying in messaging about Deluxe’s financial services offerings, such as data-driven marketing programs for community banks and credit unions. The end of each episode in Season 4 points viewers to Deluxe’s website, where they can find a small business resource center and in-depth case studies. “But again,” Brinkman emphasizes, “it’s at the end,” keeping it out of the main storyline.

Through his lens as a marketing professor, Porter asserts that Deluxe adds value to viewers’ lives through SBR. Even though the viewer isn’t purchasing anything from Deluxe, the company is educating viewers—many of which are small business owners—for free as it helps the real people in the show. So whenever a viewer is ready to spend money for help, he says, they’ll think of Deluxe first.

This format also allows Deluxe to show up organically in the show rather than overtly pushing products and services, further strengthening its authenticity.

Research supports Brinkman’s instincts. According to the Content Marketing Institute, content marketing—defined as online marketing that does not explicitly promote a brand—costs 62 percent less than more traditional outbound marketing and generates more than three times as many leads. Add in video, and content marketing is likely to generate 66 percent more leads, according to Aberdeen Group, a Boston–based research firm.

Brinkman isn’t the only one who’s figured this out. Market research company MarketsandMarkets says that the global content marketing industry, valued at about $1.96 billion in 2016, was up to $4.12 billion last year, and is projected to be worth nearly $10 billion by 2023.

“I love taking these disparate brands that either people haven’t heard of or have different perceptions of, and proving what the craft of marketing can do.”
—Amanda Brinkman

Creating a movement

Despite the show’s continuing popularity, Brinkman still fields questions about its effectiveness. “Even my own dad is like, ‘Cool, your show’s awesome. Is it selling stuff for Deluxe?’ ” she says. “It’s a natural question.”

When Brinkman started at Deluxe, she estimates its marketing department was being outspent 14-to-one by tech-savvy competitors like GoDaddy, ConstantContact, and VistaPrint. Potts estimates that those three companies each spend upwards of $100 million a year on brand awareness; Deluxe spends “far less than 10 percent of that,” he adds.

“I knew we had to do something really scrappy that would stretch our spending if we were even going to hope to compete,” Brinkman says.

She starts any new job by spending time with the customers. While meeting with individual small-business owners, Brinkman zeroed in on their passions and tribulations. She saw how hard they worked to make their businesses succeed. “I thought, ‘Let’s create a movement for these small businesses. Let’s do something good for them and inspire people to support them.’ ”

As a marketing leader who touts the motto “Doing well by doing good,” Brinkman saw an opportunity for Deluxe to tie its own success to that of its customers.

Her team began thinking beyond traditional paid advertising to explore ways that it could earn media attention (publicity that cannot be bought).

Instead of using sales numbers, Brinkman and public relations VP Potts say they measure growth through those “earned media” opportunities as well as social media impressions (the number of times content is displayed online).

In SBR’s first year, Brinkman says nearly 1,000 news stories covered Deluxe; social media impressions totaled 1.7 billion. The show engages viewers by allowing them to vote for the city on each season.

That “shows the kind of audience that we were able to build,” Potts says, “one that is much more engaged and active in wanting to share our videos, be online, vote.”

By Brinkman’s calculations, Deluxe reached 12 times more people with the first season of SBR than it would have if it had invested the entire production budget in paid advertising. Potts adds that it has actually spent less on SBR each year than was allocated for year one; the company declined to disclose production costs for the show.

Since SBR launched in 2015, Deluxe’s annual revenue has increased from $1.7 billion to $2 billion. The company doesn’t draw a direct connection between the two events, but clearly, Small Business Revolution hasn’t hurt.

Attracting more than an audience

Viewers aren’t the only ones drawn to SBR. Deluxe says the show helps attract and retain employees.

“I’ve had employees who have been here for 30 years stop me in the parking lot with tears in their eyes, like, ‘I just watched last night’s episode, and I’m so proud that we’re doing this as a company,’ ” Brinkman says. She says that almost all of Deluxe’s senior hires during her tenure have told her that SBR played some role in their decision to come to the company.

Deluxe’s director of marketing partnerships Julie Gordon, who also works closely with SBR, says she personally knows at least half a dozen people who signed on for the same reason.

One of those people is Kortney Nordrum, Deluxe’s regulatory counsel and chief compliance officer.

Nordrum, a Red Wing native whose family still lives there, was working at the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics in Minneapolis in 2017. At that time, she had never heard of Deluxe.

That same year, Red Wing was in the running for Season 2’s SBR makeover. “What happened in my hometown [during that time] was so transformative and so amazing that I started paying attention,” Nordrum says. “It felt like the entire city came together for this Small Business Revolution contest.”

So when Nordrum began looking for a new job soon thereafter, she looked to Deluxe. If the company cares enough to help other businesses, she thought, it must be a positive place to work.

Now, about two years into her role at the company, she says it’s everything she had hoped for, and she plans to stay “as long as they’ll have me.”

Even Deluxe’s new CEO says the show attracted him to the company. Barry McCarthy, who assumed the top spot last November, says he was drawn to Deluxe by its readiness to undergo a true foundational transformation—made obvious in large part by its adoption of such a nontraditional marketing strategy. SBR is helping Deluxe reorganize itself by product—payments, cloud-based services, promotional products, and checks—rather than by customer type, McCarthy says. “We think that will give us more focus and allow us to make better investment decisions and accelerate our organic revenue growth.”

Room to grow

Many network series don’t get a second or a third season. But even as SBR releases its fourth, Deluxe’s leaders say there’s still plenty of room for growth.

“Every year we learn something new about how we do this,” Potts says.

Adds Brinkman, “I think we’ll keep doing the show for as long as it keeps being exciting and different and new.”

The Hulu series may be the centerpiece of the entire operation, but Brinkman says there’s much more to the Small Business Revolution “movement” than just the show. She and her team have other ideas for sustaining momentum.

Not seen on screen, for example, are the free, day-long marketing seminars that Deluxe holds for the top 10 communities in the competition. “We kind of take them through the same process that we take the businesses on the show through,” Brinkman says. An average of 300 to 400 small businesses show up each time.

Potts says the team may consider expanding those seminars to more towns and larger cities.

“Because of Small Business Revolution, we now know who Deluxe is, and we understand the value of the organization,” Clockwork CEO Lyons says. “It’s pretty clear what they stand for and what they’re interested in. They possess this spirit of helpfulness, and their brand story is sort of writing itself these days.”

Brinkman even envisions an SBR bus that crosses the country, helping businesses as it rolls along.

“We certainly recognize that we’re sitting on the gold standard when it comes to branded content and how you do it in a really engaging way,” Brinkman says. “We get to keep leveraging and building.”

Because, as any good branding expert knows, a brand’s story is never finished; it just evolves with the seasons.

Brinkman’s Tips for Out-of-the-Box Marketing

1-Be honest about your brand purpose. You should “really clearly define, ‘What would the world be missing if we weren’t in business?’ ” Brinkman says. And once you find that, she says, act on it. Don’t let it become an empty mission statement.

2-Find your unique brand action. “‘How can you participate in your customers’ lives in a way that matters to them?’” Brinkman asks. “It certainly won’t always be a show, but could you advocate for them? Participate in a nonprofit that enables that community? Can you celebrate that community? What can you do from an advocacy and walking-alongside-them perspective? Then turn that into brand action, and practice what you preach.”

3-Get buy-in across the entire organization. “I spent a lot of time at the very beginning explaining that this is a long-term strategy,” Brinkman says. It has to be more than just the marketing department that understands the value: “Manage those expectations on the way in.”

4-Always stay in front of the organization. Brinkman admits there are times when she could have carried out this principle better: “Remind people of the strategy. Why do we do this? What are we investing in? What are we seeing as a result of it? Why is this a good thing to be doing?” she says. “You can have so many fans internally of it, but even if you have just a couple of people who are questioning it, that can really erode things. Leverage it with employees at every available touchpoint.”

5-Protect the authenticity of your plan. It’s typical to want to throw your logo on everything you produce, Brinkman says. Don’t. “I have to have a lot of conversations about why we can’t do that. Because then it’s not a show; it’s an infomercial.”

Tess Allen is TCB’s associate editor.

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