Types of Brand Strategies Don’t Play to Types
There is a lot of hype and confusion associated with the word brand and even more so when certain types start flinging brand strategies around. Many define brand as a company’s visual presence. And while your internal and face-forward communications do influence your public through aesthetic appeal and meaningful content, your visual presence is not your brand.
Many believe their logo mark alone to be their brand. The right logo appropriately and consistently applied can become so prevalent that it replaces your linguistic name with a nonverbal hieroglyphic that conveys your company’s characteristics. Still, and acknowledging its importance, your logo is not your brand.
Nor is a color, or the silhouette of the building you occupy, or the letterforms that spell out your name above your reception desk.
A brand is not so easily had.
Think of it this way: There are two kinds of brands. There is the kind associated with livestock, a logo that sets apart one cattleman’s herd from another’s. It’s practical but has limited bandwidth. A mark alone is a one-pony show. The other kind of brand has great potential to shape your business, engage your public, and better your bottom line.
A brand, in the simplest of terms, is not what you put out there; it’s how others perceive your contribution. I believe a brand to be an expression of complex, fallible, imperfect, susceptible, error-prone human behaviors—not of algorithms—an articulation that 321 million Americans will interpret as resonant or tiresome, snarky or smart, false or true.
Evolving a brand strategy is something on which few agree. I liken it to rummaging through attics, the backs of closets, and beneath beds and uncovering truths, then devising tactics to communicate them. This should be easier than it is, but the truth is difficult to coax out of people, and getting down to raw truths is even harder work. But it’s the raw truths that you can build on. From raw truths come captivating stories. When you hold back, it is immediately apparent that something else is going on—and trust flies out the window. The good news about truths is that they are fundamental to all of us; if we were only willing to shelve the bullshit and acknowledge it so, if we were only to allow that truth is vital to the equation, we could more easily get our clients to do the same and in the mire of all that authenticity—not business babble that a certain type of book might call “emotive” or “experiential” brand strategies—latch on to qualities of humankind that are innate, even transcendent, and create real, resonant, joyous, touching moments that inspire and color conversations.
We often forget that brands exist as guests of culture. And culture—who we are, what we do, our quirks and our considerations—is restless and fickle. Culture begs for ideas, new and renewed, to capture its imagination, pique its interest, and move it forward. Now consider this: Commerce is as much a member of culture as is any individual, and we all bear similar traits. We want the same things. And we want to be unique.
It’s a paradox. One can say that her new black suede Kate Spade bag will set her apart; at the same time, she will have conformed. And since commerce holds the same tenet, it mass-produces that same bag. A well-considered brand embraces the inconsistencies inherent in human behaviors: the paradoxical pairings of singularity and commonality, individuality and conformity, the simple desire to be unique and at the same time to fit in.
Building your brand starts with a dialogue. By composing a shared vocabulary comprising symbols, intonations, and associations, you and your audience will, in due time and after much stumbling, achieve mutual understanding. Understanding requires agility as you negotiate expressions and interpretations, perceptions and expectations, inferences and intentions. If it sounds like you’re evolving a language, that’s because, in effect, you are. The idea is that this exchange brings about accord—the sweet spot where everyone is on the same page. Commonality brings with it a strong competitive advantage, a kind of kinsmanship, a handshake and a promise; this is your brand.
Dialogues aren’t always about agreement, nor are they counter; they are mostly about getting to know one another and establishing trust. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of public relations firm Edelman, has a hell of an opener: “We have moved beyond the point of trust being simply a key factor in product purchase or selection of employment opportunity; it is now the deciding factor in whether a society can function. As trust in institutions erodes, the basic assumptions of fairness, shared values and equal opportunity traditionally upheld by ‘the system’ are no longer taken for granted,” he says in the 2017 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer.
Yet there is a slightly glinty, almost silver-lined cloud for commerce: it leads the pack in public confidence. In the same publication, Ben Boyd, president and CEO of Edelman Canada, writes that “among those who are uncertain about whether the system is working for them, it is businesses that they trust most.” Boyd says the three most important factors that contribute to building that trust are “treating employees well, oﬀering high quality products and services, and listening to customers.”
Corporations and branding experts alike have tendencies to take words like dialogue and listening and jump from the first date into “relationships” with customers. Individuals, however, are both confused by and skeptical of companies that want to get up close and personal.
Harvard Business Review brought together 7,000 consumers to find out how companies might best engage their customers and found that building relationships was very unpopular among consumers. Only 23 percent of the sample expressed interest or are currently in a relationship with one or more brands; 77 percent responded nay variously. What’s clear is that the company at the end of the proverbial bar should stop sending martinis to the guy drinking the Budweiser. Forcing a relationship isn’t going to turn out well for you.
But dialogue can take different forms. Whether on an intimate level or, more likely (as is statistically preferred), in the public forum, vendors can cede the greater part of the discussion to the customer and listen. On a personal level, the deft conversationalist knows how to maintain a comfortable distance while remaining engaged, what to listen for, and how to make remediations. In either case, at a concert sponsored by your favorite cola or at the checkout counter at your local retailer, what you want to remember is to stick to the truth. Because most of us inherently know how we want to be treated, for most of us the lines aren’t blurry; they are crisp and in focus, and we know better than to cross them. We know that lending a hand is worth more than giving a coupon. We know that topping off a pint beer doesn’t amount to a 1 cent loss; it amounts to a second pint. We know instinctively when we should not ask someone to sign up for a loyalty program, we know when it’s appropriate and we know when it is only going to drive them away. And all that we don’t know, we can be taught.
Still, the primary fundament to building trust into your brand consistently goes unmentioned, and I fear it is not taken as granted. None of us likes to be lied to. And because we all lie as a matter of course each day—small lies uttered almost habitually, often wondering why we just lied, possibly because it is in our makeup—we know when others are lying to us. And that is why truths, no matter how seemingly insignificant, are the foundation of the brands that inspire loyalty in me.
If you take away one thing and incorporate it into your way of thinking about brands, it is this: Understand that inasmuch as each of us cultivates a unique presence, we are essentially the same. Your own mirror is a great place to start looking for truths. Before you bring the outside in, let the inside out. Explore, discover, think for yourself, and draw your own conclusions.
 Richard Edelman, “An Implosion of Trust,” Edelman Trust Barometer, Edelman, http://www.edelman.com/executive-summary.  Ben Boyd, “Business: The Last Retaining Wall,” Edelman Trust Barometer, Edelman, http://www.edelman.com/executive-summary.  Karen Freeman, Patrick Spenner, and Anna Bird, “Three Myths about What Customers Want,” Harvard Business Review, May 2012, https://hbr.org/2012/05/three-myths-about-customer-eng. Parts of this article appear in “It’s Not a Brand Until Someone Else Says It Is,” West Coast Industries Brand Book, elsewhere on this website.Back