The Truth about Branding
By Pete Meacham, Director of Marketing
“Branding” is one of those words that we all use on a regular basis but can’t seem to come to a consensus about what it means. To some, “branding” means a mark or a visual representation of a company…a logo. To others, “branding” is that ineffable feeling that you get when you come into contact with a company or organization: a “brand” is what we feel. Other folks see “branding” as something that has to do with building awareness or recognition of a product or organization. And for those who hanker for the good ol’ days of the Wild West, a “brand” is one of those flamin’ hot symbols at the end of an iron rod that you use to mark the hindquarters of your livestock. Yeee haw!
The reality is that none of these are quite right (except the red-hot rod crispin’ the tail ends of range cattle). “Branding” isn’t something you just do on a whim: it’s a comprehensive process that demands insight, research, consensus building, good relationships with customers, and killer products. Just take a look at Harvard or Apple. Both are killer brands, but they’ve both gotten there by providing great products and engaging with their clients to build loyalty and trust over the long term.
Easy to say. Much harder to do. And while we all can’t be Apple or Harvard (or would necessarily want to be), if you can’t inspire your customers, create trust through engagement and follow-through, and consistently provide people with solutions to the problems that your products or services solve, your “brand” isn’t going to be worth more than the aforementioned hot poker in a cow’s hindquarters.
You can’t fake it: first and foremost your brand needs to align with the reality of your experience and the perceptions of your audiences. Branding is not about altering reality, it’s about owning it. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done. You may have to air some dirty laundry. You might have to manage some egos, and you’ll definitely have to do a lot of listening. Scarier still, you might have to actually invite your customers into the conversation and engage their concerns (and, hopefully, kudos) head-on in the public cage match that is social media. But while that might frighten you, think about it this way: wouldn't you rather engage them yourself than find out about it later when you Google your brand?
I thought so.
Today, more than ever before, brands are collaborations. They’re the sum total of the “official” story you put out through your marketing and communications combined with what your customers and prospects are saying about you online. The key to great brands these days isn’t to spin the truth or hide from the criticism. Instead, we suggest you work to “SNAG” your customers and prospects:
Surprise: One of the most difficult things to do is to break through firmly-held preconceptions, especially when it comes to preconceptions formed by the ever-powerful medium we like to call “word of mouth.” In order to blast through the preconceptions your customers and prospects might harbor, it’s important to present a bold, truthful image that challenges the “conventional wisdom” by showing things how they really are. Specs, marketing and spin are one thing: what really jolts people into a new mindset are the surprising truths they may never have considered.
Nurture: Even just encouraging people to learn more about you is asking them to make a commitment. And people are naturally reluctant to embark on a decision path they know will lead to larger commitments. Don’t come on too strong. Guide and nurture your audiences through small “nudges,” (well timed) assistance with logistics, and persuasive content that allows them to see themselves as having made the decision on their own.
Action: We all know that people (present company excluded, of course) are resistant to change and don’t welcome the opportunity to take action unless the outcome is assured. Without a clear and present directive, people tend to procrastinate and choose inaction over action…no matter how interested they might be in taking advantage of the value of what’s staring them in the face. In order to move your customers and prospects from initial interest to action, you need to engage them first and then present them with clear “next steps” to move them forward so they can achieve the outcome they really desire.
Grasp: It's tough for anyone to overcome long-held beliefs and patterns of behavior. We get it. But if you’re going to move your customers and prospects forward, you have to make it easy for them to acquire new behaviors and grab hold of new beliefs. Keeping your messaging simple, respecting the time, demands, and attention of your audiences, and positioning your messaging so that it appeals to what they need (not just what you want them to know) are all important ways to influence your target audiences and help them to grasp the reality of your brand.
Bottom line; when it comes to branding, you have to understand your value to your customers, state it clearly so they understand what you have to offer, and then get going and SNAG ’em!