FedEx at Forty: Brand Ex
FedEx has become one of the best known brand names in the world, and it didn't happen overnight.
photograph by Hudd Bayar
This story is about the odyssey of FedEx branding over the years. Apart from the facts of its existence, what is FedEx? When did FedEx become FedEx? Seems like a chicken-egg situation: Did FedEx become its brand or did the brand become FedEx? And what specifically does the FedEx brand project? Actually, one might go more basic than that: How do you define a brand?
First things first, a little unpacking is in order.
In hindsight it’s obvious, though of course nothing ever is in the moment: The entire nature of how business works has evolved profoundly in the last 40 years. FedEx has had a significant role in that. The company has also learned that it needs to have a flexible enough brand to stay on the leading edge of the constant curve of change.
Despite the company’s now famous slogan, that success did not happen absolutely, positively overnight. Fred Smith founded the Federal Express Corporation in 1972 and began operation in 1973.
Prior to Federal Express, says Laurie A. Tucker, senior vice president of corporate marketing at FedEx, “The only way you could get a package anywhere overnight was to be a big company. Smith invented an industry that democratized overnight shipping, and suddenly companies had the ability to wait until the last minute to ship something. A lot of our growth those early years truly came on the back of the procrastination or inefficiency of industries.”
“The evolution of our advertising is an important part of how the brand was built,” says T. Michael Glenn, FedEx’s executive vice president, market development and corporate communications. “When Federal Express started, transportation companies didn’t do any mass media advertising — maybe some trade print but no television advertising to any significant degree.
Tucker says, “FedEx had to be domestically national on day one or it wasn’t relevant. To buy national advertising back then was very expensive, but Fred Smith had that vision.”
“The initial FedEx advertising was terrific work,” Glenn says. “One of the first ads was ‘America, you have a new airline.’ It’s a great spot. The problem is that it didn’t resonate with people. It and several other early ads were focused on how Federal Express was doing it: We were flying Falcons, we ran an airline just for packages, the fact that we were running a hub-and-spoke system. All of that was interesting but it didn’t resonate with customers.”
Federal Express began to understand that its brand shouldn’t be overly tied to specific image details, such as the airplane.
“A big turning point setting the stage for our advertising for the next 30 years,” Glenn says, “was when we turned the telescope around, and all the advertising focused on problems we were trying to solve for customers.”
After it acquired Flying Tigers international air-cargo company in 1994, Federal Express decided to officially become FedEx. Part of the reason, Tucker says, is “FedEx is a lot easier to say around the world.” Over the years, the company had gone from a domestic U.S. service, to international, to global.
To help sell that new name, FedEx turned to the San Francisco firm of Landor Associates. Designer Lindon Leader tweaked two fonts, Univers 67 and Futura Bold, to create a deceptively simple logo. So simple, in fact, that most people don’t notice the subliminal arrow (featured on this month’s cover) inserted between the “E” and the “x” that is designed to represent speed and precision.
The logo, which appears on the company’s planes, uniforms, packages, forms, and just about everywhere you look, really, “helps to power the brand,” said FedEx Director of Advertising Steve Pacheco in an interview with Memphis magazine’s sister publication, MBQ, in 2006. It obviously worked, winning more than 40 national design awards. Rolling Stone named it one of the top eight logos of all time, alongside such other classics as Apple, Coca-Cola, and Nike.
The logo design may seem only a small part of marketing, but it’s a crucial one, said Pacheco. “People love smart, intelligent design. It makes them feel good about the company they work with.”
FedEx has used just three ad agencies in its 40-year history. In the beginning, the company hired Ally Gargano, based in New York, who crafted the “Fast-Paced World” TV spots and the “absolutely, positively” tagline. After a few years, FedEx shifted to Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis.
Since 1989, FedEx has employed BBDO Worldwide, based in New York. “Most agency-client relationships last only three years,” said Pacheco. “BBDO makes great stuff happen for us consistently.”
“There is no great secret to good advertising,” said Pacheco. “It’s just measured consistency, if you will.”
Where FedEx really jumped out from the crowd was with its television advertising. Many people remember the early commercials featuring actor John Moschitta Jr. as a fast-talking executive making deals, hiring people, and running meetings, with the spot concluding with the tagline, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” Industry experts who thought using humor to promote a “serious” business was a mistake were soon proved very wrong. The “Fast-Paced World” spots were so memorable that Advertising Age ranked them 11th in the Top 100 Advertising Campaigns of the Twentieth Century.
“We filmed those in the ad agency’s offices,” said Pacheco. “Back then, the production budgets were what we would spend on catering today. But they worked. They helped define the brand and showed people how active and fast we were in a fast-paced world.”
Later came a series of clever ads featuring Steve Carrell, who would go on to fame on The Office. In those spots he played a savvy FedEx employee who battled wits with a somewhat slower colleague. “Nobody knew who he was, but we saw the comic genius that was Steve Carrell before anyone else did,” Pacheco recalled. “Those commercials launched our ‘Relax, It’s FedEx’ campaign. My only regret is we didn’t keep him around a few more years.”
The success of the ads goes back in part to keeping the advertising focus on the customers and providing solutions to their problems. Frequently, FedEx itself isn’t in the ads, but people who would use the company are.
“You look at the reel from the last 30 years, and you’ll see that same approach,” Glenn says. “And it still works today. Humor is a big part of the FedEx brand. The fact that we’re able to have fun with ourselves is a big part of why we find ourselves on lists of most-admired companies.”
As for what the next iteration in FedEx will be, Glenn says the company keeps its thumb on the pulse of the market. “We have to know where the market is headed,” Glenn says. “You don’t want to skate to the puck, you want to skate to where the puck is going.”
Meet T. Michael Glenn & Laurie A. Tucker
Tucker (pictured, bottom) is senior vice president of corporate marketing at FedEx. She started with the company at 21 years of age, in September 1978. That was a memorable time because it was the year FedEx made a profit and the company went public. Tucker is employee #10002. If only she had begun her first day a little earlier that morning, she says with a laugh, she would have had a more memorable employee number.
Tucker graduated from the University of Memphis and started at FedEx right away, in finance. She worked in that department for five years before applying to be the manager of pricing, her first “customer-facing” role. Tucker knew all about the operation of the company but “didn’t have any clue what we charged our customers for services.” She threw herself into the endeavor, learning and researching everything she could before she even applied. She moved into the marketing department in the early 1980s.
Tucker’s boss is Mike Glenn (pictured, top). He is FedEx’s executive vice president, market development and corporate communications, and a member of the company’s five-person executive committee. Glenn graduated from Messick High School, then got his undergrad at Ole Miss and his grad degree from the University of Memphis.
While attending night school at the U of M, Glenn met a classmate who worked at FedEx and was looking to hire someone in sales planning administration. Impressed by Glenn, she hired him over a Harvard M.B.A. (To illustrate the point of pride Glenn and so many FedEx employees feel about their company, he remembers the day he was hired — June 15, 1981 — and even what he was wearing that day — a brown suit, yellow shirt, brown striped tie, and a vest.) After about three years, Glenn moved into FedEx marketing and worked his way up the organization.
The FedEx Way
So much has changed over the decades, but the image of FedEx is very consistent. “Whatever we do, we’re going to do it this way,” Tucker says. “Maybe now FedEx does ground service, but it’s still going to be this FedEx way.”
But what is the FedEx way that has been defined over the years?
Tucker holds a branding class occasionally and asks attendees the first thing that comes to their mind when she says “FedEx.” The number-one word she says she hears is “reliable.”
“We create a system around our brand where, if you work for FedEx in Hong Kong or Canada or Dubai, we all use the same brand guidelines and brand tenets, and we all know what our brand attributes are.”
“The FedEx brand is based upon peace of mind,” Glenn says. “If you ship a package FedEx, you can rest assured it’s going to get there in a timely fashion, without damage, and within the time frame committed.”
To get that peace of mind, FedEx uses principles of speed, reliability, dependability, and information. Brand tenets include the concepts “connected, dynamic, committed, innovative, and excelling.”
“Our brand tenets won’t change even as the business changes,” Glenn says. “The brand isn’t an airplane, it’s delivery.”
Corporate lawyers usually cringe when their company’s product becomes common nouns or verbs. A journalist who writes that somebody has “googled” a search item, “xeroxed” a report, “rollerbladed” through Overton Park, or wiped his nose with a “kleenex” may get an official-looking letter warning that those are trademarked brand names.
All the same, this awareness can be considered a sure sign that a company’s marketing efforts are paying off. After all, nobody says they are going to “post office” a letter or even “UPS” a parcel. But when your boss tells you to “FedEx” a package, you know he or she wants it sent “absolutely, positively” overnight.
“We have to protect the trademark and copyright it by all the legal means,” Pacheco told MBQ. “But I think it’s great that it’s interwoven into the language. It tells you how dramatically we have reformed American business.”
The most important thing Landor taught me is there are three legs to the brand stool,” Tucker says. They are the visual, the iconic FedEx logo, consistent around the world; the voice, the certain tone and up-beat spirit in communications so that you might be able to hear a commercial playing in another room and know that it’s a FedEx ad; and the behavior, how the brand is lived out.
It’s the last that is crucial to FedEx’s success, and it’s also tricky to pull off successfully. How do you live out a brand?
The answer is, you have to build a culture. “That’s something Fred Smith founded in 1973,” Tucker says. “He wanted FedEx founded on ‘People, Service, and Profit.’ We all live by it. We have a spirit at this company. It’s crazy to say a brand can’t embody a spirit. But in reality, it’s been the culture since day one. If you treat your people right, they’ll provide great service to customers, and the profits will come. Then you take those profits and put them back into the people. It’s at the heart of what we do.”
When Glenn started in 1981, “The company was much smaller. We were handling about 150,000 packages a day at the time, and obviously we’re a few million more than that now. By definition, the growth and scope of the company has changed things, but the underlying principles and culture are very much intact from what they were back then.”
The brand is FedEx, and FedEx is the brand. “It isn’t an ad campaign, it’s branding each individual employee to go out and be that thing.”
It doesn’t always go perfectly according to plan, as Tucker notes when she asks, “How do you live out a brand with 300,000 employees?”
“The one thing you have to do is recognize change,” Glenn says. “Things we did in the early 1980s to maintain culture are not as easy today. We used to go out to station visits and cook hamburgers for all the family members. When you’ve got a global scope with 220 countries and territories around the world, it’s not quite as easy to do that. You’ve got to reinforce the culture in other ways.”
There’s the positive reinforcement of excellent customer service by each employee in each instance of customer interaction. There’s also the avoidance of negative reinforcements, when things go astray.
“At the end of the day a brand will be made or torn down based upon those experiences,” Glenn says. “And when you have negative experiences, how do you recover? In our world, problem resolution is a critical part of that brand experience. We can’t do anything about a snowstorm in the Midwest. But how we deal with that and communicate with our customers, give them reassurance that we’re going to get the package there at the earliest possible time, all shape the brand.
“I’m the guy who runs the advertising and promotions,” Glenn continues, “and I’m not minimizing that, but if you don’t have those basic essentials of a brand experience that gets reinforced in a positive way day in and day out, every day, you have a tough time maintaining a reputation like we do. You’re going to have things that happen. It’s how you deal with it that matters. Customers will forgive you for making a mistake. They won’t forgive you for not dealing with it properly.”
And, last but not least, what is a brand in the first place?
Glenn says, “A brand is the sum total of the individual experiences somebody has with an organization, whether it be Memphis magazine, Hyatt hotels, or FedEx. The brand goes well beyond the advertising, promotion, public relations, and support. The brand is built upon the experience you have when a courier delivers a package to your doorstep, or you call a 1-800 number, or you walk into a FedEx Office and engage with a team member. Those are much more important in building a brand than the next 30-second ad.”
Greg Akers is editor of MBQ: Inside Memphis Business; additional reporting by Michael Finger.