Alumni Profile / Ramez Toubassy '94
Building a Brand
By Ellen Alperstein
Editor's note: This is the longer, online-exclusive version of our profile of Ramez Toubassy '94.
We didn’t know Ramez Toubassy in the early 1990s when he was a Pomona College student working toward a degree in economics. But if we had, he’d have been the one we would have asked for advice about whose class to take, which guy to date, what club to join. See, Ramez Toubassy gets it, gets how relationships work, and how to handicap your chances of forging successful partnerships.
As president of Brand Sense Partners (BSP), a business-development enterprise that often follows an oblique angle to form a more perfect union, his job is to help large corporations and entertainment celebrities expand into markets otherwise alien to what industry wonks call their core business assets. BSP helped to wed Thermos with high-tech Geetex to spawn Thermos Apparel (outdoor wear). Its pitch-perfect duet of Britney Spears and Elizabeth Arden synchronized into the Britney Spears Beauty line of fragrances. It teamed Electronic Arts and Bank of America for a credit card winner that benefits players of The Sims and other EA games.
Toubassy ’94 partnered his econ degree with an MBA from Stanford, then leveraged them into a gig as an investment banker working on mergers & acquisitions and IPOs at Deutsche Bank. By the new millennium, he says, he “had a revelation that finance was so competitive that no matter how good you were there was always someone smarter and better than you. So I bailed out of the finance world.”
He landed at Indian Motorcycle, a once-venerable company that predated Harley Davidson but had been out of business from 1953 to 1999. Capitalizing on its still-vibrant name and product recognition, Toubassy helped resurrect the long-dormant company. He realized “how valuable a brand could be—46 years and it still had power. I made the connection between how executing on a core business can be repurposed by the value of the brand.”
In 2003, Toubassy joined two-year-old Brand Sense Partners, and became president in 2007. He grapples with a moniker that has outgrown its initial, well, brand. “We’re not branders,” he explains about the company whose name nevertheless has such positive buzz that to change it would be bad business. “We’re business development partners (with) brand capability. A brand is an asset that big companies can’t fully extract the value from because they’re focused on their core business development.”
BSP’s outsider status confers license to generate the sort of “say-what?” ideas often unwelcome in a more buttoned-down white-collar environment. But because its methods are strategic, structured and traditional, BSP has the credibility to bring unorthodox ideas to the executive suite.
Prove it, we say. Build our brand.
Let’s say we’re Apogee, a small, established liberal arts college known particularly for our arts and language programs. We’re starting a marketing degree program. We want Brand Sense Partners to raise the value of our educational currency without compromising our reputation as an exclusive institution that excels in other courses of study.
Although BSP has not worked with an academic institution, it’s not unfamiliar with the loftier consumer strata; it once helped the American Museum of Natural History build a brand extension plan for marketing educational toys. Here’s how Toubassy would handle the Apogee account.
“No. 1, we help the client nail down the brand attributes by interviewing [representatives of] everyone with a stake in the college—administrators, faculty, students, alumni, recruiters, donors, etc.”
Based on the yield of that widely cast net, BSP conducts consumer research via online surveys and focus groups composed of Apogee applicants, people who chose not to apply, and admissions counselors. Getting these perspectives is crucial, says Toubassy. Clients often think they know how their brand is perceived, but that’s not always the case.
The next step: brainstorming. Without identifying the source of the attributes, BSP asks staff, researchers, client representatives and college stakeholders to free-associate those terms of attribution—say “prestigious” or “rigorous”—with real-world products and services they believe successfully manifest them. It’s not about academia; it’s about word association.
From that, Toubassy says BSP would derive a list of potential partners to expand Apogee’s core business of teaching liberal arts on a residential campus, and then do a market analysis of the potential new products or services.
He’d find five colleges with similar brand equity--small, exclusive, liberal arts—and analyze whether the marketing course makes sense with the brand and if there is too much competition in the marketplace. His goal is to ensure such a course could capture a significant part of the academic liberal arts market.
If it doesn’t make sense, Toubassy says, BSP considers developing a potentially more successful service by leveraging Apogee’s brand equity beyond the campus. What about partnering with a publisher to establish a line of marketing books? What about finding a partner to expand into distance learning? “There are a billion people in India who want to learn what you teach, and the L.A. market is saturated,” he hypothetically concludes. “What about finding a partner in an online business?”
It takes BSP eight weeks to conduct the research and deliver a business plan, the fee for which reaches into six figures. BSP also receives a percentage of the revenue generated by the new partnership, and manages this new business entity.
Matchmaking in the real business world is a far cry from introducing some homesick Pomona freshman to new friends. Or is it? “This,” Toubassy offers, “is what Pomona massively prepared me for: making connections between diverse data and situations that people wouldn’t ordinarily connect. It provided a major advantage to enable me to see and connect disparate things, to find and create value from those connections.”