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Part Two: Finding Your Voice

What’s your company about, and why should customers care? To answer that question we need to look at brands and what they mean to your company—from the basics to the cardinal rules. You’ll also learn how differentiation can help you uncover your “one thing,” and why high school gets in the way of marketing success. We’ll explore the amazing power of storytelling, and how you can craft ones that customers will love. Additionally, we’ll discuss the risks associated with losing your authenticity. (I’ll even tell you why McDonald’s couldn’t make pizza work.)


Chapter 7: What a Brand Is

Over the past decade, we’ve heard an awful lot about brands. In spite of how we’ve been inundated, the notion of a brand is important to contemplate, clarify, and revisit as you build your company and spread your message. Some equate brands with a sort of plot to manipulate people and do ill. Others see branding as just another business trend that will soon pass. I don’t blame anyone for such feelings; branding is such a broad topic that it leads to some confusion.

My problem with the term “brand” is that it’s often used quite differently from what it actually represents. All that really matters for now, is that we establish a straightforward and reasonable definition of what we’re talking about when we use the words brand and branding. Let’s start with this: branding is the process of understanding and articulating who you are—both for yourself and to the outside world. That’s it. Easy, right? I think Amazon’s Jeff Bezos describes the term “brand” best. He explains, “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.”31

The brand as a person

For years I’ve endeavored to write a particular blog article but have had little success in doing so. It starts as a great little metaphor, but along the way I find it ties me up in knots. Today I’ll play with the same notion yet again. My hope is that you’ll be lenient with me should the comparison not be entirely bulletproof.

I argue that we’ve all come to look upon businesses as something mystical. We abstract what business is with ideas like stocks, shareholders, boards, indexes, and other seemingly convoluted language. I think business is fundamentally simple and that brands are really an awful lot like people. Actually, in the eyes of the law, corporations are seen as individual entities. Companies, like people, need food (money and some other resources), shelter (a place to live, even if it’s on the web), security, community, purpose, and a raft of other things.

Thinking about companies like this makes them easier to understand. If a company doesn’t eat (make money), it will die, and without security (regular cash flow) it will struggle to act consistently; similarly, without purpose it will likely flounder. Each of us is unique; likewise, our companies are all one of a kind, even if only minutely so.

We should all have a reason for what we do

Most of us have dreams and a sense of purpose. For a company, we call that “vision.” Throughout our lives, our dreams and purpose sometimes change. In high school we want to look cool and go to fun parties; as young parents we want stability and safety for our kids. Similarly, a startup often moves recklessly, coming close to the edge as it works to gain footing and build awareness.

Once a company begins to grow, it often has to act more carefully. With a greater number of employees, the sales cycle needs to remain consistent, ensuring that cash flow and jobs aren’t compromised. Amidst such change, a sense of purpose is increasingly important. Without motivation, we turn into that 40 year old “man-boy” who laments “not knowing what to do with his life.” There are plenty of companies with workable storefronts, identity systems, advertising campaigns, and display signage. Yet those without a sense of purpose tend to make erratic moves. Sometimes these swings reflect the emotional state of the primary decision-maker: brave and adventurous on some days, reserved and seemingly pragmatic on others.

Companies that do this tend to feel a little “bipolar” to their clients: hot at times and cold at others. This leaves customers bewildered and unsure of how they can mentally classify these businesses. Every day for the past year, I have walked by a shop that lacks direction. For a while they were in the embroidery business; later, they added large format printing. They also sell team uniforms, signs, promotional products, vehicle lettering, screen printing, floor mats, and gifts. Yesterday I walked by to find that they now sell brand name clothing as well. What’s next? Tacos? Elevator supplies? Prophylactics?

While they stumble about without a clear sense of purpose, they lose the mindshare and momentum that would have been gained by maintaining focus. When it comes to brands and marketing, confusion is rarely an emotion one should seek to elicit. Although some companies may change course along the way, a clear and unified purpose is key to informing effective messages and actions.

How your company dresses

You might compare an identity system to one’s wardrobe. Although we can choose to wear anything, most of us dress to represent who we think we are or how we want to be perceived. This is why kids who skateboard choose street wear, and why it’s rare to find executives in such attire. Part of this comes down to identification: Most Goths want to get some attention and be perceived as standing apart from the mainstream. Most high-school teachers probably don’t want to be confused as students so they choose their dress accordingly. Uniforms are everywhere, regardless of whether we are cognizant of them.

Some people suffer as a result of their choices in clothing. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have the time or capacity to select something that accurately conveys who they are. This is understandable; most of us are busy and not interested in pondering what suits us best. Like it or not, customers make all kinds of decisions based on what their eyes tell them.

Unfortunate as it may be, we treat beautiful people better than those who are less attractive. Similarly, we spend more on products that are designed to seem of a higher quality, whether they actually are or are not. We place an undeserved amount of trust in the information our eyes feed us. Think about the language we employ: “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes!”—as though our eyes provide an indisputable measure of truth. Our eyes lie to us all the time. We’ve all seen optical illusions that show how inaccurate our visual judgments can be. Even when we know this to be the case, we still make countless choices using our eyes to determine what’s beautiful or ugly, good or bad, safe or dangerous.

The decision for companies then is whether they want to control (or influence) how they are perceived by their audience. This is why we have designers. The good ones can help style an identity around a company just as a tailor would fit a suit to one’s body. The great ones get to know you and what you’re about, subsequently suggesting things that match your personality and desires.

Some think of a brand identity as an unnecessary extravagance. Smart companies have learned that having a few core elements that “fit well” offer greater value than random impulse driven purchases. Crafting an identity is an investment that saves resources in the long-term. Not having a suitable identity is akin to wearing sweatpants and hoping that your date will look past them and see the “real you.”

Mutes, loudmouths, weirdos, and buddies

Advertising is the one marketing related pursuit that most managers seem comfortable with. It’s often misunderstood as a direct path to customers, which results in many shouting out whatever comes to mind. As with anything, it’s important to understand context, tone, and reputation when we start to speak with the people around us. In the “brand as a person” metaphor, advertising is your mouth.

All of us have mouths and each of us uses ours differently. Some don’t say too much, while others are always talking. Similarly, there are companies who never tell us anything about what they’re doing, while others bombard us with so many messages that we stop listening altogether. Most in the latter category have deep pockets and would argue that being ever-present affords them brand awareness.

We also know people who say things that are weird, boring, safe, funny, sensible, and pretty much everything in between. Each of these has an advertising equivalent: Ricola’s ads are weird, IBM’s are boring, Gap’s are safe, Budweiser’s are (sometimes) funny. We get to know about these companies because of what they say about themselves and how they speak to us.

An advertisement or ad campaign is in no way a brand. In fact, ads sometimes get in the way of brands. Just think of the odd Seinfeld/Gates campaign devised by the ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) for Microsoft. In the first of the two, they bump into one another at the mall, after which Seinfeld assists Gates in selecting shoes.32 The commercial is long, clocking in at a minute and a half. During the spot, they discuss showering while dressed, the fact that the Conquistador (some kind of a shoe) “runs tight,” and Shoe Circus Clown Club memberships. The ad was later followed by another spot (almost three times as long) in which the magnate and the comedian move in with a suburban family.

Although the ads resulted in a great deal of discussion, they seemed a bit out of character. CP+B is sort of the toast of the town in advertising, in part because of their clever and off-the-wall campaigns. Personally, I love some of the things they’ve come up with. That doesn’t mean these approaches always work for their clients.

Microsoft (like every other company) has a brand, but theirs isn’t one that most people fall in love with. They’re like a big utility provider. Many of us rely on their services, but we often feel as though we do so more out of necessity than choice. Plus, they’re so gargantuan and multifaceted that it’s really hard for them to focus on saying any single thing.

The Seinfeld/Gates ads grab our attention a little like a cracker-white middle-aged suburban dad dressing like Snoop Dogg. We’re left thinking, “OK… that’s weird, but why are you doing that?” Their ad agency created something memorable, but I have to wonder if they might have failed to address the most important question: Does the message spoken fit the entity it’s coming from? Microsoft is many things, but it doesn’t seem particularly quirky. It’s worth noting that these ads went away rather quickly. A few months later, that same “mouth” was saying quite different things.

As a result, we’re left with a number of questions: Who are you, Microsoft? What do you want us to know? Why should we love you? We don’t have to like what they’re saying, but these ads might do worse: they confuse us. We’re left to ask, “Why do you want to confuse us, Microsoft?”

I should note that the Seinfeld/Gates ads were highly amusing, and that I have blogged from a very different standpoint in the past, emphatically calling the campaign a success. My argument here isn’t focused on the campaign in isolation, but instead, how it relates to the brand and the larger picture.

I do ____________, for ____________, in ____________

The larger the organization, the harder it is to be just one thing; and, when you’re many “things” it’s particularly challenging to say anything clearly. (In advertising it’s generally good to say one thing and then repeat it.) The challenge for companies like Microsoft is that they do so many things, it’s hard for them to know what to even say any longer. Should they market software, music players, game machines, multi-touch technologies, online portals, advertising services, search, or one of the other things they do? Microsoft’s size and success is a bit of an Achilles heel: it keeps them from positioning effectively.

Positioning for a company is a little like specialization in one’s career. It allows you to get really good at something and as a result, thin the competition. As of September 2009, there were an estimated 6,790,062,216 people on the planet; there are also many different and highly complex disciplines and careers.33 Certain factors beyond our control determine the opportunities that are available to us, and which opportunities we’re able to pursue.

Being one of 6.79 billion people can make anyone feel a little insignificant. How do you stand out amongst all of those people? How do you earn a living? Odds are that you can’t be as good as everyone else at absolutely everything, so most tend to specialize in one way or another. Let’s take the case of Susan: earth resident number 6,790,062,217.

Being born to a middle class family in the First World narrows the field for her substantially. Displaying an early proficiency in certain subjects leads her to go to university, which narrows the field yet again. She majors in Philosophy; field narrows. From there she attends law school; field narrows. After a few years of practicing law, she decides that intellectual property really interests her, so she learns more about this specific practice and starts to specialize in it. She then decides to focus specifically on IP law as it relates to the internet. She gets particularly interested in issues related to traditional books being showcased online without the authors’ consent. While there may be a few other people interested in this area of law, Susan has certainly has cut her competition drastically from the 6.79 billion people who were at the starting line with her.

It stands to reason that certain opportunities will be available to her that wouldn’t be to others just because she’s positioned so specifically. If Google, for example, need an attorney to represent their Books division, Susan’s going to look like a solid choice. (We can also surmise that she’d command a premium salary, given her knowledge in this highly specialized area.) This is positioning.34

As a small company, positioning is critical. It allows you to occupy a unique space and gain specific expertise and knowledge in that particular area. You often—but not always—limit your serviceable client base, but that isn’t necessarily a problem. You simply need to choose a position that is lucrative enough to sustain your company. A restaurant in Albuquerque that specializes in organic vegan food for albino schnauzers weighing between 26 and 28.5 pounds is a clear position, but there may not be a sufficient number of those socially conscious little doggies to keep that business profitable.

On the other end of the spectrum, choosing to start a general design business today can be pretty harrowing. Everyone with a computer thinks they are a designer, which makes it a tough racket if you aren’t willing to differentiate. A friend of mine runs a studio that concentrates on creative services for law firms. As an ex-lawyer, he’s well suited for this kind of work. Additionally, most law firms need help with their marketing and design, even though some aren’t that excited to take on such work. Doug and his company are, so they’ve established a name for themselves in this sector.

Are they the best creative services company in the world? Not even close—but that doesn’t matter. They offer a reliable service and have an intimate understanding of their clients’ businesses. There are plenty of law firms who need marketing help, have sufficient funds to invest, and aren’t all that attractive to Doug’s competitors. My bet is that this position pays off well for Doug and his colleagues in a few years time.

As you get more focused, it’s typically easier to spread your message and make decisions on how to do so. This isn’t easy, and a lot of us dance around such discussions for years. Choosing a sound career/position early on and sticking to it can help you springboard past those who dabble in a little of this and a little of that.

A brief tangent…

Do you know the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard? Multiply that by 10, and you’ll have an idea of what designers experience when a client asks them to “make the logo bigger.” It’s actually a not-so-secret in-joke amongst designers that has resulted in a satirical song by the fictitious band “Burnback.”35 There are many other playful takes on this request, including a site that allows clients to buy “Make My Logo Bigger!!!” Cream, which removes pesky whitespace and promises to provide full value from that logo you paid so much for.36

Objections to increasing a logo’s size can sometimes be plain silliness on behalf of the designer. Young ones sometimes have a tendency to make logos microscopic, which can be a problem. Still, most designers have faced this request more times than they care to recount. I’ve put some thought into why “logo bigger” syndrome seems so universal. Mostly I wonder if logos are simply the most misunderstood elements in marketing.

This realization finally came to me when we worked on a specific website project. The client is a good one and they gave us plenty of latitude in the strategy and resulting design solution. All went swimmingly until we unveiled the finished site to the board of directors. One of the board members wanted to… wait for it… make the logo bigger. At this point, the logo already occupied a larger than average area in the top left quadrant of the website. Still, it wasn’t enough… he wanted bigger! He thought it would be great if the logo took up the entire width of the screen. The committee started to rumble, with another noting, “I’d like that too! You know, the logo really needs to be focal!”

I treat such situations with care, as they can backfire if not addressed delicately. I explained that although a 25 percent increase in size could be accommodated, more than that would be problematic. This logo appeared on every page of the website. Enlarging it as much as they wanted would result in the logo taking up half of the monitor for some visitors. Still, their position was set. The fellow vying for the change noted, “We need to build our brand!” “Ah-ha!” I thought, “We’ve found the culprit!” The logo was being confused for a brand. It’s not like everything was easy from that point on, but at least I could understand why he wanted to see the logo bigger. He thought that the logo was what the site’s visitors would build a relationship with; this never happens.

Think of the Nike swoosh: in itself this shape says and does very little. Actually, it’s really just a rounded check mark. It strikes an emotional chord as it has been built into a powerful symbol, but that one word is pivotal: built. The Nike swoosh was not inherently more beautiful, sporty, fast, or “Nike-esque” form than the many other ones out there; no, it was built to represent all of those things.

Nike’s ubiquitous swoosh is the “Paris Hilton” of logos: the lucky winner of the genetic lottery, beneficiary of billions,37 but otherwise unremarkable. Decades of investment in persistent and well executed advertising, brand building, and marketing efforts are why we see so much in the Nike logo. It’s that collective set of marketing efforts and engineered touchpoints that inform how we see the logo. I argue that all of these references associated with a logo can result in a conditional reflex. After seeing thousands of sporty images next to the logo, we imbue certain characteristics on that brand identifier.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have the swastika. Although identified by most as a symbol of genocide and Nazi brutality, the symbol has a history much further reaching than most are aware. The form is one of the earliest known symbols and was long used as a decorative pattern and religious symbol.38 The hideous acts of the Nazis burdened this symbol with a legacy that has little to do with those two squiggly lines.

A logo or mark of some sort is typically necessary, but we tend to overvalue its actual carrying capacity. It simply identifies and represents a group; and that’s all. The company and its marketing inform the logo—not the other way around. Few like to believe this but your logo has more in common with a name tag than your actual brand. If you don’t have few hundred million to invest in associated marketing efforts, you’ll probably never get to where the Nike swoosh is. (The nice part is that it doesn’t really matter that much.)

Are you your hat, hair, shoes, or cell phone?

When considering elements in isolation, it’s easy to become confused about what a brand is. Because people know logos and see them everywhere, they start to think that logos are brands. This is a little like thinking that a hood ornament is a car. Some get past this and decide that the collection of visual treatments around a company make the brand. This is also incorrect—like thinking that a paint job is a car. A brand is all of these things and more. If it were one single part of a person, I’d like to think of it as a soul, but I think there’s even more to it than that. A brand is all aspects of the organization; it’s the body, mind, spirit, character, sounds, smells, and feelings we have for them. A lot, right? No wonder we have such a hard time wrapping our minds around what a brand is.

My business partner is a great guy. I’ve known him for years, and I trust him implicitly. My sense of him isn’t solely based on what he wears, says, does, or believes; yet, all of those (and many other) things make up the whole: the “brand.” In the same sense, my perception of the Coca-Cola brand isn’t limited to a wordmark, Pantone color, or ad campaign. It’s also not their tagline, the crisp “snap” upon cracking a can open, the bubbly carbonated dance on my tongue, or the caramel aftertaste. It’s all of these things and more. It’s an idea, a belief, and a feeling. It is organic and transforms daily. It is a part of our individual personal histories whether we like it or not.


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Next chapter: Brand Commandments



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