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Emerging Trends: Riding Out Storms by Building Value in a Treated Wood Brand

Great Southern Wood Preserving

 - The following article originally appeared at

When you think about it, a lot has happened in the past four decades in American business-Southwest Airlines took off for the first time, FedEx created overnight delivery, companies like Microsoft and Apple changed our lifestyles forever, and something called Google was incorporated in a garage in California.  

Even before those well-known corporate brands were launched, there was a guy in Abbeville, Al., with a problem and a dogged determination to make the most out of a bad situation. The result of his journey has been the creation of one of the best-known brands in what was once a commodity category-pressure treated lumber.

Great Southern Wood Preserving got its start in 1970 when Jimmy Rane, a senior in law school, tried to mediate a family dispute concerning his late father-in-law's estate, which included a small wood treating operation in the small town of Abbeville.

Now, four decades and a number of recessions later, Rane has built the YellaWood® brand in a category where consumer brands didn't previously exist. Times are tough all around, but the Great Southern story is one that illustrates the principle that building a brand that stands for value and integrity in the eyes of customers can pay handsome dividends in good times and help weather the bad times. 

In the first decade of operation, Great Southern Wood grew, as many new small businesses do, by identifying a product and a market and working hard to add value, while squeezing out the thinnest of margins.

As business began to grow, Rane found himself restless to build something bigger than a single pressure treatment plant in southern Alabama.  He recognized the opportunity to connect with his dealers and his consumers. That's when he accepted an invitation to attend a resident-study program at Harvard Business School.

One of the case studies that attracted his attention while at Harvard was that of Perdue Chicken and its patriarch Frank Perdue, a pioneer in branding commodity products. It was then that Rane realized the importance of establishing a brand name that consumers recognize and trust. And he set out to do just that.

The company embarked on sponsorship of college football coaches' shows throughout the South, where college sports are followed with passion and enthusiasm. When the company began featuring collegiate football and basketball coaches in humorous commercials, the spots became so popular throughout the South that one well-known coach once remarked that his appearance in the ad series helped his recruiting success.

Soon, however, the ambitious and marketing-savvy Rane realized that a broader approach was needed-resulting in the birth of both the YellaWood® brand and Yella Fella character. 

The message of the earlier advertising had always been, and continues to be, "look for the lumber with the little yellow tag on the end," signifying that the wood is a pressure treated product of Great Southern Wood.

The company continued to invest in the brand over the years through consumer advertising and has built a significant awareness in the marketplace. So much so, in fact, that it was able to obtain a federal registration for the "little yella tag" as its trademark icon, and YellaWood® brand products became among the most widely recognized in the category.

Rane had never been afraid to be the face of the company in its advertising, but Yella Fella took the notion to a whole new plateau in 2004. Rane didn't hesitate, slipping into a cowboy character that was a little bit whimsical and incredibly affable.

Cowboys had always engendered a good warm feeling among most Americans, Rane concluded. Old western movies had a message-that good triumphs over evil. It is a message that today's cynical society has all but forgotten, Rane believes. "It's not a complicated message, but one that we need to continue to reinforce with people of all ages and especially young people," he said.

The message emphasizes values of honesty, service, character, integrity, patriotism and family, among others.

"We live in a time when young people need to hear that good guys don't finish last, that truth and justice can prevail, and hard work does pay off," Rane says. "It is so easy for young people to get discouraged but the message of the Old West offers hope."

If it sounds like Rane is a crusader, perhaps he is. Even though society often sends messages that are 180 degrees from The Code of the West and The Golden Rule, Rane is fighting valiantly to get the message across. He has linked those values closely with the brand he has created.  

Creating a brand in a commodity category has taken Yella Fella a bit off the beaten trail, but it's not the first time he's "gone against the grain." One of the principles Rane learned early in his career was to blaze his own trail and not necessarily to go where everybody else is going.

"My philosophy is buy when everyone else is selling and sell when everyone else is buying," says Rane. "That is the way real value is created."

Through recent acquisitions, Great Southern Wood has grown to 11 facilities and added new geographic markets that now stretch from Texas to Missouri to Florida. 

At the end of the day, Rane hopes the unusual approach will add market share as well as make the world better for the next generation.