The most difficult part of the process of marketing (yourself, your product, your company, your ideas, etc.) is the concept of branding. Because it’s so difficult, most people skip to the “fun stuff”: the routes-to-market (RTM) which includes social media, advertising, and creative outlets. The risk of skipping this step (or abandoning it too early) is that if you don’t, someone else will do it for you – and it can be more difficult to undo someone else’s branding once it sticks.
Too often we use the “Branding” phrase without really understanding what it means, or how to do it. Worse, branding can go haywire if you believe you have established a Brand, only to find out that the law of unintended consequences has re-branded you into something else.
To help you with your own branding needs, we’re going to first identify what a Brand is, then we’ll find out how to determine whether or not you’ve done a good job.
It Isn’t What It Is, It Is What It Isn’t
Sometimes it’s easy to identify a Brand because the examples are so readily available. Coca-Cola, Apple, and Disney each have easily recognizable brands, even though most people don’t know why they are so recognizable.
It’s tempting to think that a Brand is a tag phrase, a logo, a color scheme. The risk here is that you wind up attempting to use a gimmick instead.
Debbie Campbell, Vice President at Right Management, a career management consultancy firm, talks about branding as the bedrock of your external message. “Branding has to come from the inside out,” she says.
She points out that branding needs to be driven from values and must be authentic. Most importantly, it must represent what you believe. This is as true for personal branding as it is for corporate branding.
Branding needs to be value-driven and authentic
So what is branding?
- A process
Look, because of its very nature having a brand means that you need to differentiate yourself from others. This means that you are carving out a unique place in the world by which people can identify not only who you are, but what you mean to them. Campbell notes that personal brands are most often weakest because job seekers don’t want to define themselves out of a prospective position. “Branding is differentiation,” she says. “Branding is becoming unique, but most people don’t want to be unique.”
Implicit in a Brand is the fact that you’re going to have to make a stand for something you believe in. If you don’t know what you believe in, how can you make a stand? Do you think that Disney’s, Apple’s, and Coca-Cola’s brands don’t get flak about what they mean to people?
Being something for everyone and being unique are mutually exclusive.
Your Brand must have clear relevance
What Is a Brand
- Clear understanding of identity
- Clear understanding of capability
- Clear understanding of value to others
In order to be clear, you must be consistent and avoid mixed messages. Clarity also requires an intuitive differentiation to avoid getting muddled with all the other messages surrounding it (read: you gotta be unique).
Clarity also means that it’s easy to understand what’s in it for your audience. Your Brand must have clear relevance to them.
A Brand must also be consistent over time, mostly because it takes time to build a Brand. Once that Brand is built, you don’t want to go messing around with it. Just look at what Coca-Cola did in 1985 with “New Coke” and how customers reacted to the branding change. Simply changing from one sugar water formula to another wasn’t the issue; it was that suddenly the Brand – the value to the customer – changed and the consequences were negative.
Be consistent and avoid mixed messages
What Isn’t a Brand: The Tyranny of “Good”
A Brand isn’t simply a listing of attributes or a description of an identity. A brand is not the item itself. As S.I. Hiyakawa once famously stated, “the map is not the territory.”
Most people attempt to simply identify everything that is “good” about their product (especially when that product is themselves). In technology, “good” invariably meant speeds-and-feeds or, to put it another way, “Our stuff is faster than their stuff.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of job seekers. Looking through a stack of business cards on my desk, it didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for. The recent trend of placing tag lines on business cards as a Branding initiative provides us with some classic examples:
“Enabling people to work more efficiently and produce greater results through innovative solutions.”
In less than five minutes I found five more cards with nearly the exact, verbatim Branding, or some slight variation, ranging from HR professionals to IT managers to Supply Chain managers. I stopped counting after going through only half of the cards on my desk.
When we break down a tag line such as this, we find that what the person is really saying is that they are “good.” In this case, good at thinking outside the box. The “enabling people” may seem like it’s externally focused but that’s misleading, as it really forces the audience to try to interpret the message, forces them to try to figure how “out of the box” thinking might actually help them. This, in turn, places the burden upon the audience and, if they aren’t so inclined they are less likely to even attempt to make an interpretation.
The risk is that we are merely hoping that the audience/customer will see that our product is “good”, will find a use for it, and then accept it as applicable to them. Without realizing it, you have created extra work for your audience which can cause your message to be ignored.
As I’m fond of saying, Hope is not a strategy, and Branding involves being able to detach yourself from the product (especially if you are the product) in order to understand whether or not you are focused externally, or are just fooling yourself into thinking you are.
Why is your product good…. for THEM?
Creating a Brand
Resist the temptation to sprint to the finish line: the tag line, the quote, the theme, the logo – all of these things will restrict your overall message when done prematurely.
Assemble all the attributes of your product and list them off. I’ve included a Branding Workbook – using myself as an example with some starter fields completed – to illustrate how to do this.
In particular, we want to try to examine five (5) things:
- Identify the characteristics and attributes of what we’re marketing,
- Determine whether it’s something it is or something it does,
- Identify who finds this valuable,
- Understand why it’s valuable, and
- Determine how it’s differentiated and unique.
Even though the example is about marketing an individual, the same approach can be done to accomplish a corporate or product brand.
The idea here is to develop and establish the materials from which you can then create shortened catch-phrases, tag lines, logos, etc. We’re setting up the raw materials, the marble for our statue to be chiseled out. Pretty soon you’ll find a theme begin to emerge based upon what your product’s identity and capabilities signify to your intended audience.
That theme becomes a distillation, which in turn leads to your Brand.
Testing Your Brand
As you build your product’s brand, periodically ask yourself some fundamental questions:
- What is the value of this brand to others?
This needs to be really, totally, completely bloody clear. Do not make this vague or ambiguous. Remember it’s important to determine if you are simply internally or externally focused. As we saw above, sometimes that can be deceptive. How do we know? Ask yourself the next question:
- Is the value to others immediately and intuitively clear?
If it’s not, try, try again. Really good, sustainable brands are so good that most people have internalized them to the point where it’s difficult to express them in words. The examples of Disney, Coca-Cola, and Apple are so ingrained in the culture that the actual products come to mind after the brand. In other words, what they are selling is not what they are selling! The value to the customer is what they’re selling, and you need to do the same thing with your message.
- Is it consistent?
By this we’re talking about internal- and external-consistency. Is the product branding consistent with what’s gone before it? Is it a radical departure that could wind up hurting your message, even in the short run (think “New Coke”)? Is it consistent with similar products being marketed from within the company? In other words, does it share the same values across the portfolio?
- Is it unique?
The distillation process can risk losing any differentiation. Like our business card tagline, when we try to use gimmicky approaches we risk becoming a gimmicky product. If your Brand can be used to identify something other than yourself (or worse, your competition!), you have an epic fail on your hands.
- Does it work in reverse?
Your brand should be connected to you and only you. Had the quote above been even remotely unique, you should have been able to identify the individual had you known them. As it was, there were several people who used that tagline across multiple industries, and as a result there’s no connection between the Brand and the product.
Don’t think so?
If I asked you to identify the owner of the brand, “Maker of insanely great products,” even though that’s not their official Brand, do you really not know to whom I’m referring?
Lining up the Shots
Just like our Step 1 prepared us for the Branding, we’ve already started doing some work towards identifying our Audience. Moving through our M-A-M™ funnel we’ll find it a bit easier as we pass through each step, and have provided ourselves with the appropriate clues to creating our marketing message.
M-A-M™ and Yes, M-A-M™ Copyright 1999-2010 J Michel Metz, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.