10 steps to a better brand
1. Realise it’s not yours
If you’re managing a business, you’re managing a brand. If you’re a brand manager, then your job is to make sure the customer understand the value being offered and the story that sits behind it.
But when it comes the ‘brand’ itself… it’s not yours. Your job can only guide our markets or better understand it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a local small business or a multinational – you will never own your brand. In fact, as you get larger, your brand is more and more removed from your control as customers, media and shareholders begin to seize the rights to influence your perception in the marketplace.
We need to understand that brands are organic, they live, and grow, and breathe and they are entirely dependent on a customer or audience in order to exist. By changing your mindset to one that aims to influence perception, rather than advertise a product or business, the task of a marketer can become very different.
2. Find the story
A popular article in the Harvard Business Review in 2010 stated that “the internet [had] upended how consumers engage with brands.”. He discusses how the rise of branding as a practice has evolved from a ‘funnel’ to a ‘Customer Decision Journey’ (CDJ)– something I talked about recently on Expert360’s blog. And on a CDJ we’re more likely to connect with customers on things like ideals, values and benefits.
This is where a business can draw a line in the sand on issue and idea that matter to it, and the people that depend on it, whether that be staff or customers.
Often, the best way to capture this is in a story. Your own brand’s narrative or manifesto that explain why you do what you do and what drives you to draw your lines in the sand on certain issues.
Probably most famous of all is Apple’s ‘we’re for the crazy ones’ ad in the late 90’s, calling on the market to ‘think different’. Not selling a product at all, but a manifesto that aims to connect with people authentically.
Your brand’s narrative gives you the opportunity to be deliberate and creative in your marketing, as well as your communications. Highlighting and investing in what matters to the people making the business tick, not just those buying the products.
3. Market the story, sell the religion
Brand marketing today is about marketing innovation. It’s about finding ways to use creativity and media to influence perception and ask people to consider or prefer you over someone else. This can happen in your traditional marketing mix and can earn the brand you want by telling stories that frame a customer’s reference points around your business.
But remember, a brand ultimately rests in the hands of your customer, so telling that story, and giving them stories to tell and social proof to help them become advocates is as much a role of a brand marketer as the commercials, activations and identity work. It’s the never-ending task of influencing and directing the way it’s perceived as much as possible.
I call it a religion because it’s about advocacy, it’s spread by evangelism and it’s as much about drinking the cool-aid and giving people reasons to become advocates, fanboys or subscribers as it is about developing and maintaining the best possible customer experience. And that has to be grounded in a healthy place that fits with the strategy, leadership and purpose of the company – something that’s more common in religious practice than anywhere else.
As Simon Sinek would put it; it has to help people to define why people want to work there, and why people want to buy from there.
4. Spend money on what matters
Guy Kawasaki who once said:
If you’ve got more money than brains, you should focus on outbound marketing. If you’ve got more brains than money, you should focus on inbound marketing”
When we understand that a brand isn’t our own to hold, then the task shift to influence the perception and consideration of brand in order to gain preference from customers and the market. This changes the way we spend money.
If you’re a new business or a start-up, it’s easy to argue that until you’re ready to shop for investors, or until you’ve built a customer community, traditional “branding” dollars are poorly spent.
We’ve all seen it. That one guy who’s business is on fire, but his “brand” sucks. He hasn’t needed fancy logos – his stuff is mostly black and white and his website isn’t crash hot either… but his market awareness and customer experience game is on-point. When we commit to developing a brand it has to start with the customer first, because they’re the one’s holding it.
When NAB repositioned to ‘more than money’ I was stunned at the authenticity and customer-centric vision for the organisation. 35,000 people could get behind a brand new brand because it was simply a better reflection of who they were. One of the most refreshing experiences of my professional career.
If we’re talking about the way the world around you perceives and experiences your business and the way you influence and control that perception. Then “branding” dollars should be more about the first customer experience, than any logo, colour scheme or website at all.
5. Earn your brand
I’m not saying don’t spend money on branding… quite the opposite. I’m saying start with the customer – develop the brand from a truthful place that focuses on the stuff that matters. Spend the money on fixing that first. And whatever’s left – that’s what you’ve got to tell stories and make your business look and feel better.
Douglas Holt (HBR) writes: “Once audiences could opt out of ads, it became harder for brands to buy fame.” We second-screen when the ads com one, we watch Video On Demand services, we YouTube, we podcast… brands are losing the ability to buy our attention. Sure, if you’re committed and prepared to triple-down on social to get your ROI from YouTube and facebook, then you’ll be OK. But we’re all still learning just how much that takes.
But if we spend our money earning our brand, and earning the social proof to build a strong brand then our advocates reach out for us. They do the selling for us… and not it a weird, AMWAY or Tupperware kind-of-way, but in an authentic way because they’ve been treated well and want to share their experience.
There’s a heap of work that businesses can do on their look and feel, but if they’re not earning the recognition to go with it, or they’re not developing a strong foundation for the decisions and alliances they make, then there’s little depth the veneer that any ‘branding project’ will build.
6. Be self-aware
No, not personally. I mean the business needs to be aware of its faults, limitations and strengths. If it’s a listed company – it’s focus is on returning value to shareholders. If it’s a private company, then the family at the top have all the power… these aren’t branding problems… but they can be if we pretend like they’re not there.
The perspective and advantage you gain by being a business that is fully self-aware are very hard to defend in the marketplace. Mining companies like BHP Billiton have a global reputation to uphold – but as Australia’s largest taxpayer for the last decade, their responsibility rests largely on returning that value to their investors… and doing so in an ethical way that makes the shareholders feel like they’re contributing. Which is why there is an unwavering commitment to sustainability, human right and indigenous peoples.Giving BHP a purpose beyond moving rock and dirt around the world; to make a difference with their earnings and leave some sort of impact.
Knowing who you are, and more importantly what you bring to what you do, not just what you do, allows you to connect with your customer emotionally, not just rationally.
7. Be authentic
The most powerful brands I’ve ever worked for built brands that reflected their current and desired DNA; a balance of both. The authenticity that comes from the combination of truth and aspiration is a sense of vulnerability. Where they might actually get it wrong once-in-a-while. But that’s even more important because it’s easier to build advocacy by recovering from failure than it is to try and be perfect all the time.
Imagine if an airline lost your luggage. An airline trying to be perfect might deny the loss, try to hide it or make it go away. It will package up a solution and set you up in with a gift card and some PJs. But an airline who’s prepared to own the failure will investigate the reason for you travel, listen and understand. Help you pick out a new suit for that interview and make sure you were never out of pocket in the process. It’s nuanced – but the authenticity creates a totally different customer experience.
Authenticity, next to self-awareness, gives people a reason to believe in the humanity of the organisation. And I’ve found that organisations who can capture this authenticity do a far better job of reflecting who they already are when it comes to look and feel.
8. Develop the identity
Now we can talk about the look and feel and voice and all the rest of it.
World renowned corporate identity thought leader Wally Ollins once wrote:
Overall, because branding is about creating and sustaining trust it means delivering on promises. The best and most successful brands are completely coherent. Every aspect of what they do and what they are reinforces everything else.
And this is where they way you look, act and reflect who you are as a business has to be completely coherent to the experience you provide and set out to achieve with your customer.
A corporate identity is a cornerstone of most brands, but what people can miss is that the centre of a brand identity is the very identity of the business. Allowing that coherence to connect with people in human ways. It’s the voice, the feeling, the smell, the smile, the experience, the philosophy, the service, the presentation, the attention to details. It can become of broad-brush or as nuanced as you like, just so long as you remember that the task is to influence awareness and perception.
A brand identity gives businesses an opportunity to influence the way it’s seen, experienced and engaged with. Which is why strong brands develop strong brand identities. Strong identities are more approachable, easier to recall and a more memorable experience for the business.
9. Get social
Identifying the roles of social media for your business means understanding the role it plays for your customers and the wider market. Understanding the role of digital media and beginning to use each channel exclusively to benefit your clients, from an authentic place, that earns their preference.
Social media can give you a place be real with customers and give them more than just a ‘broadcast brand’. These platforms are designed to give people an experience with you – and even if you’re a luxury brand and you’re dealing with ‘aspiration to buy’ you have a chance to build advocates and an audience you can monetise in more ways than one. But social starts with generosity, where you share, and advise, and help, and follow up, marketing relentlessly with content in the process.
It all starts with context and giving each social channel a job to do.
Strong brands take their brand position and identity and reflect it differently on different mediums. They inspire on Pinterest, tell stories on Instagram, product shows for YouTube and offer support services on Facebook. All while using each platform as an advertising channel.
Social isn’t ‘here to stay’ it’s been around long enough to start threatening every media channel we’ve ever had faith in. Cable news anchor, Betty Liu recently said:
After a long day at work, rather than sit back on the couch and veg out in front of the television, I lie back and open…YouTube on my phone. Yes, it’s happened—my boys have convinced me that it’s more relaxing to watch 5-inch video screens than 50-inch ones.
Let me introduce her again… her name is Betty Liu, and she’s an anchor for a cable news network. Social media is moving from ‘fun little side project’ to ‘primary media channel’ and it’s slowly but surely changing the way we brand and tell stories.
10. Don’t forget your staff
More often than not, your biggest advocates are your staff. Having them want to be a customer, not just forced to give rise to a fantastic and passionate advocacy that is both impossible to coerce or concoct and incredibly difficult to slow down. The network effects of a staff team that identify with the brand mean that the customer experience is laden with the brand identity every time someone smiles, opens their mouth or picks up the phone.
An inward commitment to a brand can often be overlooked but in the services game, where the brand is king and reputation can mean all the difference, a staffer who’s passionate about his or her organisation’s purpose and power is the one who just won’t shut up about it.
Internal branding and internal change can be a driving force behind the authenticity of the brand and often become the leading edge of the brand experience. Getting the story right for them and selling that religion internally can be difficult, but it’s as important to address as it is to get the look and feel right.