Branding- what is it? A short cut of beliefs and values that differentiate and simplify our decision making process. It holds a position in our customer/prospect’s mind based on past experiences, current associations and future expectations. In short, it’s a promise of value to be received. - Branding as a discipline is misunderstood. Ask 10 brand experts to define branding and you’ll get 10 answers. But all of them will ultimately boil down to “Perception and expression in the marketplace.” It’s a verbal/visual representation that needs to be maintained, reinforced and restated constantly. It removes doubt, inspires confidence and starts conversations. Because it’s misunderstood, businesspeople crave information to clarify it. And when it comes to branding, we’re surrounded by hundreds of examples everyday. Our consumption of this information as buyers and observers is mostly passive. We almost never look at a logo, sign, billboard, email or advertisement and examine it strategically regarding it’s design, organization, message, colors and imagery. We take all of these for granted and consume or discard (read: ignore) in an instant. Meanwhile, all of these value judgments create our perception of what makes branding effective. The perspective is exclusively that of a consumer, never from the brander or marketer’s viewpoint. The Rat in the Maze Dilemma. Experience as buyers and consumers is not the same as expertise. Just because you’ve seen thousands of logos and advertisements does not mean you are experienced at their creation and judgment. It’s like saying you’re ready to play shortstop for the Phillies because you watch every Phillies’ game. The best stores, websites, restaurants, and other buying venues are all crafted for you by experts in consumer and human behavior. Layout, colors, messages, type faces, headers, call outs picture selection- all of these have been carefully crafted by people that include eyeball tracking reports in their reading for amusement pile. Why? Because they realize all of these corridors for consumer consumption are stadiums for commerce. Be hesitant in trusting your instincts or experience as a buyer as useful knowledge in creating and executing a brand. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve sat in with accounting, engineering and law firms, staffing agencies and manufacturing companies- places I would never dream of trying to tell them what I think is the right answer to a problem in that discipline and yet they’ll gladly defend their biases in looking for brand and marketing advice. I used to think it was all me but then would meet colleagues in similar businesses at conferences around the country and we ALL fight this fight. Which leads us to mistake #1.
Letting an amateur (or falling prey to one) create your brand identity, website and other brand vehicles. Now I know everyone in this room has tremendous DNA pedigrees and all of us have terrific relatives. However, is your wife’s nephew REALLY the most qualified to help you design your logo and brand? Aside form the fact that he/she took a class in high school and can do it on the cheap? Consider for a moment this fact: Your logo is your most concise statement of quality. Like anything that will be with your business for a long time, it makes sense to put it firmly under “investment” rather than expense. Your enterprise is what you’re doing everyday, the activity that puts money in your checkbook to pay for gas and food, your mortgage, your kids’ education, your retirement. Are you ready to hand this responsibility to the lowest bidder? The bar for quality brand design is set by the best of the best. Major corporations, product manufacturers, educational institutions and large scale service providers have set the bar for brand quality very high. Every day each of us is exposed to the likes of CNN, Amazon, Verizon, Microsoft, Apple, etc. An amateur artist who can’t draw, think inventively in a competitive market and relies on computers for ideas is doomed. We’ve all been exposed to advertising with type that is set (not just keyed in), photos taken by pros specifically for an advertisement (not stock images) and messages written by copywriters who are also sales experts. This is the expectation and you as a small business don’t need a major agency or international brand house to get it. Your brand precedes you. The price of amateur design can literally cost you your business. It’s certainly sad that so many businesses mistakenly think their people, their experience and their skills precede perceptions from brand identity, workplace environments and websites. And I mention websites because they’re often responsible for blocking more business than they let through. Why? Because too many people forget they are your new front door. Amateurs tend to create complicated solutions because they rely on computer tools to create logos with color blends, shadows and other gimmicks that don’t have a refined artistic and simple form. Simple and beautiful has more recognition value than complex and cumbersome. Simple is easier and more cost efficient to manufacture. Simple, refined brand identities have more durability and visual impact. They stand the test of time, elevate above passing trends and provide a sense of stability. Simple means thoughtful and deliberate both traits every organization wants to evoke. Why do ALL leading corporations use professional designers? Because beauty is like a magnet. And the visual bar for communicating credibility is very high. Opportunity is attracted to ability and talent. Moths to the light. Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, Retail Environments, Store Windows, Commercials crafted by Film Directors and Professional Writers, Movies, Digital Media, Product Packaging and the rest of the media that surrounds us is designed, composed, photographed, written and edited by the best of the best at communicating ideas and emotions.
These are just a quick 7 that YOU bring to the table, not your computer. Here are just a few of the intangibles that rely on the human component of sharing the information to bring to life. -What gets remembered involves the force of your imagination and the power of your expression.
Professional service firms are notoriously lousy branders and marketers and that makes the journey less effective and enjoyable. They find it difficult to sell their own services but easier to sell something someone else has or offers. YOU must cultivate a sincere belief in the value of your services including your counsel, techniques, tools and your ability to bring positive, profitable change and then market it to prospective clients. If you’ve spent 4 years involved in your profession then you’re effectively and MBA. Your ongoing challenge is to make sure you don’t have 1 year of experience 4, 8 or 20 years over. The challenge is for you to KNOW your offering and not just the facts and figures. What story can you construct that helps communicate and convey the drama of the what and the why and the how. Letting Doubt Creep In. Being something you’re not. Lacking Conviction and Belief. There is nothing worse than a brand that becomes little more than a decoration or adornment. Belief is essential if you want others to believe. Conviction in your brand, its purpose and its message is more valuable than anything if you want it to build value. What story are you sharing around the fire pit that brings your value to life. COMMON STORY: A company decides they need to create or refine their brand. They start with their identity. They say “we want to look big.” Every year we hear this desire. But is that really what they want or are they looking for the instant benefits and traction that comes with having developed a big brand? If a customer wants a big company, what happens when you actually meet them in person. What happens when they ask you “how many people do you have?” What you really want is credibility. When I hear “big” I know their current brand image and message don’t feel credible to them. That undermines their belief and that means one thing: DOUBT.
Brand Neglect. Lacking Consistency. Impatience / Changing too often Not being consistent in your communications. If the DNA in your hair were different from the DNA in your fingernails, you’d be a mutant. The same is true for the way you communicate your brand. Power positioning means you establish your beachhead and then communicate it – consistently - across everything you do. If your positioning says one thing, but your website or a brochure you’ve created communicates something else, your brand will mutate, and you’ll appear confusing to your prospect. Confusion is not the leave behind that helps you close more business. Your target market can only get to understand your brand well if all of your materials are clear, confident and consistent with what you stand for. Keeping all brand contact aligned (on paper – online – on anything) is an ongoing campaign form the first day you open your doors. We see everyday with every project how businesses struggle to find the time to do work for themselves. If you have a marketing department and dedicated positions, there’s no excuse for this, but for most organizations, marketing is an ad hoc effort with fits and starts based on how busy the business is at any given time. Most companies are not directly hurting their brands, but they’re not strengthening and enhancing them either. They’re treating them with benign neglect, possibly the most vulnerable brand state. Changing your brand identity or message too often in an attempt to figure out what works is a sign of impatience. Brands are not built in a day, week, or month. It’s important to keep the energy up and active. Brands shouldn’t change too dramatically unless it’s a strategic objective to erase the old brand. Evolution over time is the better course to preserve equity in the form of recognition. Honesty and integrity are truly palpable. You can tell instantly when you are getting handed a load of bull. If the entire organization is not singing the same song it’s obvious to customers and the public. If you drive an $80,000 car and wear cufflinks but have customers sit down at secondhand chairs from an auction, there’s a disconnect that hovers over your brand image. Example: We visited a prospect recently and we have the up to date Porsche in the lot while we’re herded into a conference room with 1970 accents. I recently did some work for an organization noted as a top place to work in Philadelphia and every photo on their website is a bad stock photo from a 1976 catalog of clichés. Not aligning promise and delivery. The number of brands who do not deliver on their brand promise is legion. Why waste advertising dollars making a promise that your organization is simply going to break? Not only does this waste today’s marketing budget, it actually erodes any positive equity your brand may hold. Changing too much or too often. Brands do not change radically; they evolve. A well defined brand with a strongly differentiated position doesn’t need to change too frequently. If you find yourself looking for a new brand position every couple of years, slow down, do some research and get it right. Then stick with it.
Not making branding “ Everyone’s Responsibility.” Firms that have enjoyed long and enduring success are those that have concentrated on building a strong and distinctive brand image and reputation on the marketplace. Much to the chagrin of many a small company, and even more solo-preneurs and small consultancies, it’s NOT an overnight process. It takes time to get there and it’s a good deal more than simply changing the logo and developing a new brochure. Branding is a process directed at all aspects of the firm- its culture, behavior, characteristics and communications so that an image is created in the marketplace supporting the aspirations . Marketing alone cannot continually build and strengthen the brand. If everyone in the organization is not holding the brand promise as a decision standard and a behavior guide, then marketing’s best efforts will fall short. Everyone must live the brand as a united team. Not choosing the right team members to reflect your brand. Because of their small company size, beginning entrepreneurs sometimes believe they should be “grateful” just to get people to work for them. Not true! Just as you represent your brand, so does every single one of your employees. Make sure the people you hire have the same character as the one you want your business to communicate in the marketplace. That means finding the best possible people to join your team, and spending a little extra to get them. The effort will pay back ten-fold.
Forgetting that your brand image extends to your employees, not just your customers. Do you treat your staff as well as you treat your customers? If you treat your team poorly, the word will get out, and it will undermine your brand. Consistently treat your team well, and eventually the best candidates will want to work for you. Word will get out that your company is up and coming. And that’s the kind of brand image you’re aiming for. If you work on being attractive, people will be attracted. Make every employee an advocate for the brand. It’s not your brand, it’s the entire organization and customer’s brand. Examples of brands who build advocates everywhere: Apple, Harley Davidson, Starbucks, Disney, locally Wawa does a great job. People look to get married at Wawa’s! How great is that?
Blending in to an Industry “Look” The most common brand path stops at obscurity – where a company chooses a brand look and message that “fits into” an industry trend. This is the safe choice if all you want is to “look professional.” Such brands are forgettable. For smart entrepreneurs and organizations, this is a gift. It means the landscape of commonplace forgettable brand ideas is wide and gray. It’s a landscape that takes just a little courage to stand apart to get attention. Branding is ultimately about differentiation. To accept a globe in your logo, blue as your color, a star, a swoosh around a ball or heaven help you – an acronym is to condemn your business to obscurity and to fall prey to brand conformity. This doesn’t mean you need to be fluorescent pink and blinking. There is a measure of taste and industry appropriateness to achieve valuable difference. Yet even this small amount of courage is hard to muster, especially for a group. Fear. Committees. Lack of Self-confidence. Fill the cutting room floor. When working on your brand image and message, collect everything about your competitors. Write down all of your ideas. Do it fast. Then put it all away and start over. What you just discarded is what everyone else has thought of already or impulsively uses when starting up. They are nothing but surefire maps to being commonplace and forgettable.
Invisibility. Obscurity. No Difference! No Value! Don’t get sidetracked trying to express what you do in your brand. A logo rarely captures what you do. The best express characteristics that reflect who you are. This is a very common stumbling block. Remember that your logo is a symbol for your brand. It is not the brand itself. Focus on expressions of character rather than portrayals of activity. Your logo will operate in the context of what you do with other images, messages and information. Difference Accelerates. Difference Dominates. Difference Penetrates. Difference Separates. Whatever you do with your brand, Create difference.
The Fortune 100 Sets the Bar – Not the Rules. The branding and marketing methods of a Fortune 100 company are not necessarily the best ones for a regional or local company. But the quality of their marketing is the bar average consumers expect. Rich corporations can buy enough market presence to put a new word into our vocabulary in less than a few months. Obscure names for example require dozens and dozens of exposures weekly to gain hold in one’s mind. That demands TV, print, web media, mail -- the whole package. This is not practical or even plausible for most businesses. For local enterprises, traditional methods like direct mail are seeing a resurgence in value. And in the right hands, the web is a potent tool for entrepreneurs willing to truly leverage the possibilities available. This may require trusting someone half your age. Our advice: listen to them. Many of them know what they are talking about when it comes to social media and the web in expressing your value with courage and conviction.