The mechanics of branding

A well designed brand is like a well designed car – lovely to look at, lots of power, and can really take you places. The power of a brand is based on how well it can convince people to buy your stuff. There are countless definitions of what a brand is, and regardless of your definition, if the brand doesn’t help you sell more stuff, then, it isn’t doing its job.

All brands are built with three essential elements: Personality, Message and Identity.

Brand Personality: Defining the underlying personality of a brand is sometimes difficult, but is always necessary if the rest of the brand elements are to come together. The personality reflects what the organization wants its brand to be known for. Think about specific personality traits you want prospects, clients, employees, and partners to use to describe your brand. You should have 4-6 traits (5 is ideal), each being a single term, usually an adjective.

Authentic, Creative, Innovative, Approachable
Trustworthy, Trendy, Cool, Desirable, Reliable
Relevant, Honest, Flexible, Unique, Relevant

How you define the personality determines the tone and voice of your brand, and therefore all your communications. A brand that is “hip, cool, trendy” sounds decidedly different from one that is “honest, trustworthy, reliable”.

Brand Message: What do you customers need from you? Why should they choose your brand of product or service over another one? What can your brand deliver that no one else can? The answers to these questions form the foundation of your messages. I have found it useful to create three core messages based on these customer needs. Each of these messages needs to be supported by “proof points” which are specific, measurable and relevant to the audience. For example, think of Brand X as a car.

Brand X is BETTER: safety record, flexible seating arrangements, trade-in options
Brand X is CHEAPER: gas mileage, insurance premiums, maintenance costs
Brand X is FASTER: redesigned engine, chassis, performance measurements

Which of these messages best reflects the brand is based on the brand personality and the needs of our customers. It is not based on what we think sounds good, what is easy for us to prove, or what our boss thinks. At least it shouldn’t be anyway…

Brand Identity: Ask ten graphic designers their opinion of a company logo and you’ll get ten different answers. Brand design is the aesthetic that communicates the underlying message and personality of the brand. There are five core elements to any brand identity:


How these elements work together are explained in “Brand Guidelines”. These help anyone working with the brand know what to do and not to do with the brand. Combined with templates (Presentations, documents or web pages for example) and standardized collateral (business cards, signage and such) your brand begins to take form. From here on, it is all about execution.

Build your brand based on passion

It’s a lot easier to do things you like, than things you don’t like. You might be thinking…”duh”. But how many of you spend your time doing what you are passionate about? How many companies focus on the things they can do, as opposed to the things they should do?

I’m talking about what in most MBA programs would be called “core competencies”. These are the fundamental things your customers value, and that your company does better than any of your competitors. Let’s use HP as an example. HP is a company with many lines of business, many products and even more things they could be doing. One of the things that has made HP successful it its ability to “stick to it’s knitting”, as my Grandma used to say. When they have veered off course, they have acknowledged it and pulled back – sometimes not as fast as they would have liked in hindsight, but they eventually realized it and corrected their course so that they play to their strength of innovation. Their core competencies are the things that HP people are passionate about – innovation is what they are about. R&D is a vital part of every successful division. HP Labs holds more patents than any other working technology lab. The net result is that HP continues to lead in the businesses where it innovates. Why? Because it is doing what it loves to do.

When it comes to smaller scale businesses, the idea is even more important. Brandon Mendelson (@BJMendelson on Twitter) started his company in response to, well, having nothing else to do (his words not mine.) The company, Earth’s Temporary Solution, is the production company behind Brandon’s campaign “A Million High Fives (#AMHF on Twitter). Brandon is a guy who does good things, because he wants to. He is sarcastic and a bit wacky, but he is nothing if not following his passion. “Our goal is to empower others to help those in need. In the not-for-profit world there’s a lot of mistrust and people looking to make a quick buck on willing, happy people, so as a for-profit, we want people to trust us and know we are providing them with the right tools to do the greatest good,” says Brandon. By following his passion, and sticking to his core competencies, Brandon has amassed a huge following on Twitter, FaceBook and other networks. Currently, Brandon is one of the most followed non-brand, non-celebrity, non-media outlets on Twitter. He is following his passion, and consequently, people are following him.

Now you ask, how can you identify your passion, your core competencies? Ask yourself these questions about your business and your brand:

  • Why do my customers choose our brand over another?
  • What do we do that our competitors don’t?
  • What is the one thing that we would protect over anything else?

Your answers will lead you towards clarifying your competencies. Take them, build on them and make them to focus of your branding (and business) efforts. When your brand is built on passion, it is authentic. There is an honesty that comes from doing what you like to do. You can’t make that up and you certainly can’t fake it.

Your brand is being created with or without you

Brands are dynamic. Customers use our products and services. They like or dislike their experience and they say so, publicly. This type of customer engagement directly impacts your brand. In this way, your brand is being created with or without you. You can’t control it. What you can control is how you deal with it.

You’ve probably heard the saying “feedback is a gift”. It’s also a gift that you can’t return or exchange if you don’t like it. It’s yours to deal with whether you like it or not. Since most brands have some sort of an online presence today, customers have a very public option when providing feedback. They can leave their comments on your 1-800 customer feedback line or send their concerns to some anonymous email. More likely, however, they will post their issues to a website, blog or user group.

When customers provide this type of public, direct feedback, we basically have two options:
1. Engage – and hopefully influence the nature of the discussion
2. Remain passive – and let the discussion continue without us

I encourage companies to engage in the discussion. That’s the point of the internet, social media and online communities. We have the capability to have these discussions in real time with many more customers than we could have ever have done in the past.

Yet, there are hundreds of examples where companies have had negative comments appear online about their products and they chose not to engage, or even acknowledge, the feedback.

In most cases this sort of “head in the sand” approach doesn’t work out very well for the companies involved. They appear aloof, disconnected and uncaring. Customers post comments on corporate blogs and social media sites, and the damage is done. Companies then spend a ton of money and time trying to “manage their online reputation” – which usually means feeding good content into these sites in order to push the negative stuff off the first few pages of search results.

While this may work in some cases, it seems to be that it is a lot more effective, not to mention efficient, to just engage in the conversation to begin with! Here are some ideas to help you proactively manage your brand online:

  • Pay attention: create Google alerts for your company name, brand names, etc. Monitor where you brand is being mentioned and in what context. It’s next to impossible to influence how the brand is being represented if you don’t know where you’re being mentioned.
  • Be active: identify the key places where your brand is being mentioned and get involved. Participate in discussions relevant to your brand but not where you are directly mentioned. You will get insights into the tone of the conversations and understand more how to position your brand appropriately.
  • Acknowledge feedback: when someone posts something negative, acknowledge their issue. Let them know you heard what they were saying. Explain your response, but don’t try and justify your position, as you will only serve to annoy them further.

Don’t get caught in the hype

So…you have an exciting strategy; your messages are relevant and consistently integrated throughout your brand and all customer touch points. Now you need an actionable marketing plan that delivers your message to your customers in ways that will increase the chance that they will pay attention, and ultimately buy your stuff.

There is a lot of talk about the latest new trend (Twitter, vblogs or who-knows-what’s-next) and the coolest new technology. However, these things are only useful if they are being used by your target customers. This point bears repeating…these things are only useful if they are being used by your target customers. This is the kind of thing that sounds so simple – it is common sense. Unfortunately, it isn’t commonly practiced.

It is critical to the success of your brand that you identify customer-preferred communication vehicles and prioritize those above things that are “really hot” at the moment. While they may be the latest fad, they might not generate the results you want.

Different marketing tools are good at doing different things – think screwdrivers and hammers. This is, again, why it is so important to know what your goals and objectives are so that you can select the right tools for the job. The right balance between online and offline marketing vehicles ensures that you are reaching your target customers in a variety of ways which will improve your overall results – whether they are to increase awareness or to generate demand.

For example, if you are a start-up just launching your company, you need to generate awareness that you exist. PR is a very cost-effective tool to do this. You also need a website to explain what the company does. To get the ball rolling you might launch an email and/or direct mail campaign with an introductory offer so that customers connect their business problem with your company. If you are a small company trying to generate demand, a combination of webinars and SEO with speaking engagements and telemarketing could prove to be very effective at generating quality leads. It is important to focus on the quality of the lead rather than the volume generated as the conversion rates tend to be much higher.

It is easy to get excited about the latest technology and cool marketing techniques. Be careful, and remember that the end result is to achieve the business objectives – which is typically to sell more of your stuff. This means you don’t need to do everything, but you need to strategically select a few key vehicles and do them exceptionally well.


Important elements of personal branding – the results are in

In a recent survey conducted by Impact Marketing Group, we asked entrepreneurs, business owners and independent professionals about their perceptions of personal brands.  Here’s what they said:

– The most important elements of a brand are Authenticity, Honesty and Expertise.

– Visibility online via events, books, blogs and articles is more important than traditional media coverage.

– Your website isn’t as important as it once was – the focus has shifted to personal presence (both online and offline).

What does this mean for you?  First, it means we all need to evaluate who we are and what we stand for in business.  As a whole people are tired of promises made and broken.  We see it in politics and big business, and it is clear that our customers expect more from us, the entrepreneurs and business owners.  We need to be true to our customers and keep our promises.  Remember that we all sell something – whether it is a political message, bookkeeping or graphic design – that helps our customers improve the ways they do things.  They want to hear from us and it is our responsibility to tell them who we are and what we do to help them.

Second, it’s time to start talking to your customers, not the media.  It’s time to start taking part in conversations that are relevenat to your customers.  Hear what they are saying and find out what’s important to them.  Chime in and share your thoughts, expertise and experiences.  Don’t sell them during these conversations – just talk, and get to know them.The time to sell will come once you have gained their trust and become a known entity.

Finally, it isn’t just about your website anymore.  The focus has shifted to a more dynamic type of communications where your personal presence is more important than your webpage.  By personal presence, I mean, your message and presemnce on and off line.  If someone Googles your name, what will they find?  FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn accounts all sharing different parts of an integrtated story? Or, more likely, wil they see some stuff here and there that doesn’t help them to get to know you.  Websites are about credibility, but they aren’t what people need to make a decision to do business with you.  People need to know that you’re the real deal, that you’re a real person with experiences to share and ideas that might help them.  Blogs, articles, videos, speaking appearances can all work to help you build your personal presence.

Here are the details for anyone who’s interested in seeing more:

Brand Perceptions