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Chapter 8: Brand Commandments

There are a number of consistent traps that cause brands to fumble. Most of these are avoidable, and remaining mindful of the following cautions can help temper the pains faced in building a strong brand. Let us begin:

One: You shall be yourself.

Fools try to be something they are not, or to mask their true character. The best companies align their appearance, interactions, and voice with the values, motivations, and the spirit of their organizations. You shall do this as well. The key to your brand is in aligning how you present yourself with your passions. Done effectively, you can connect with those who are looking for a company just like yours.

Your voice may be defined by concentrating on something that’s already there and amplifying your passion for others to see. Or, it could be a simple matter of editing—you might just have to cut some of the “clutter” so that people can better understand who you are. Before you concern yourself with any marketing, you need to know exactly who you are and what you love doing. In doing exactly this, many brands have found a way to be unique. As a result, they stand out from their competitors.

Two: You shall not imitate a smorgasbord.

We commonly take on more than we should and this comes back to haunt us. Many reason that, “If we add another thing, we’ll do more business.” In actuality, each addition multiplies the complexity of their messaging and operations exponentially. Imagine being a veterinarian who also dabbles in civil engineering, product design, and international relations. In each area there is opportunity. Together they become a mess.

Instead of going all “smorgasbord” on us, refine your offering and elevate the level at which you operate. By doing so, you might pinpoint an opportunity that can make you truly spectacular. The band AC/DC ultimately performs the same song ad infinitum; they make lots of money for doing so. Subaru doesn’t offer a lot of cars, but if you want one with all-wheel drive, you’re likely to think of them. Sandra Wilson’s company Robeez, which started in her basement, only makes shoes for toddlers. (She sold her company for $27.5 million usd in September 2006.)39

All of these groups could do more, offering a greater number of products, variations, or features. This would likely be easy for them, and they’d probably have good reason to do so. Instead they’ve suppressed the desire to be all things. That’s why we know exactly who they are and don’t get confused when we encounter their brands.

Three: You shall not take your true value in vain.

Some companies look only to price as their key point of differentiation. I think this is a foolish misstep. Although you can buy an inexpensive knockoff, most would prefer an authentic Louis Vuitton handbag—even with a cost of many hundreds of dollars. Similarly, no-name pharmaceuticals (often materially identical to their branded counterparts) can be had for a fraction of the cost. Still, you probably buy NyQuil when you have a really bad cold.

It’s not that price is inconsequential, but it shouldn’t be the only consideration. While many say that price singularly informs their purchases, consumers actually tend to act quite differently. Sure, you can differentiate on price, but you might also create an idea or proposition that is more valuable and defensible. In these situations, a higher price can even become necessary.

Four: Remember your purpose, to keep it holy.

Plans are easily made but harder to stick with. Many seek to redefine their purpose at the first sign of hardship. I don’t propose maintaining a fruitless course of action, but I do believe that the impetus to change purpose should be contemplated carefully before acting upon. When you change direction, you lose momentum and have to rebuild it all over again. This is costly, and it can become a pattern. Those who hit “reset” every time the path gets rough find it awfully tempting to repeat this action indefinitely.

It tends to take time and careful contemplation to determine what it is that we want to do most. Some find their calling early, but such luck is hardly the rule. Often we find ourselves doing something out of happenstance and simply dealing with whatever circumstances come our way. Fledgling brands have limited resources and as such must be of clear mind in order to have a fighting chance. You can accomplish almost anything; you just can’t do everything.

If your purpose isn’t crystal clear, you need to stop immediately and determine what it is that matters to you—and where you’re going. This will be your rock when you’re bombarded with requests to do things outside of your capacity; similarly, when business is slow and you’re tempted by divergent opportunities, this purpose will help you concentrate on what really matters.

Five: Honor your brand.

I used to go to an upscale Italian restaurant with killer risotto. At around the same time, I would spend Friday nights with friends at nightclubs and bars. After one evening out, we decided to grab a slice of pizza at a generic franchise. While seated I noticed a familiar face; the maître d’ from that great eatery was ending his night here with some greasy low-grade pizza. Even with his access to great foods, he had opted for a fast food imitation. I was left to wonder why he would do so.

If you make cars, drive the ones you make. If you sell marketing services, you’d best market your company using the same methods you espouse. And if you sell fine Italian food, don’t be caught dead at the generic pizza shack. We all know people who sell one thing and buy another. This is a sure sign of a doomed company. If you won’t use it, why would anyone else? On the flip side, just because you do, doesn’t mean that others will. In any event, your “subscription” is the baseline. If you haven’t bought into what you’re offering, it’s time to reconsider your plan, and ask whether it’s worth continuing. If you don’t believe, no one else will.

Six: You shall be honest.

Every day we find countless opportunities to embellish, misrepresent, or entirely fake what we do. As we all know, such a charade becomes difficult to maintain, and a single disgruntled customer can quickly pop our little bubble.

We have to build trust with our patrons. The only way to do so with lasting effect is to behave in an ethical and transparent manner at all times. While some truths may not always endear us to others, speaking mistruths can prove doubly damaging. It’s easier to just tell it like it is, particularly as your organization grows and you need to ask others to speak for your company. It’s hard to get one message across effectively; it’s made infinitely more so when you have to keep all of your corporate lies straight.

This honesty should move beyond your marketing and become a core element of how you operate. Slogans are easy to write, but rarely mean much to anyone. To achieve meaningful communication we have to get the mess out of the way and face brutal facts. If you’re bullshitting your clients, you’re clouding your own vision too.

Seven: You shall not confuse a logo for brand.

The lines between design, brands, and marketing are fuzzy, so it’s understandable that we sometimes get confused. A logo is not and never will be a brand. It is simply an icon. An identity is just a system used to lend a clear and consistent voice for your organization. It doesn’t change who you are; it just augments how you are perceived by others.

A brand is a bigger and vaguer sort of thing. Largely, it’s the overall perception of your company. Some refer to it as being what others feel or say about your organization, which is partially accurate. It’s a number of other things as well. I like to think that it ties into the soul of your company. What’s most important to remember about a brand is that although you can shape it, you can’t entirely control it. You can only control your half of the equation; the audience will determine the rest.

Brands and identities are not specifically “marketing” but that doesn’t make them any less necessary. Your identity and brand help people understand who you are and what you offer. When you market, you’re creating awareness by spreading your message. I’m of the mind that your marketing is found in every interaction you have with others. I also like to think that it has as much to do with how you deal with customer complaints as it does your ad campaigns.

Eight: You shall not overuse superlatives.

Adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive terms flow freely when we market our companies. It’s all too easy to casually toss superlatives around and feel like we’ve clarified our position. Descriptive terms don’t necessarily change how you are perceived; just like a new paint job on an old El Camino won’t turn it into a BMW.

Ask for a stout and I think Guinness. Say “vacation” and I think Hawaii. Mention heavy metal and my brain goes to Metallica. Safe car? I’ll think you’re talking about a Volvo. All of these brands have had competitors and new challenges to contend with. Somehow, they tend to occupy space in our minds without saying things like, “the loudest, heaviest, coolest heavy metal band” or “the warmest, nicest, friendliest, tropical islands.” Superlatives are hard to remember but positions are hard to shake.

The thing is, if you don’t position you’re left to play the superlative game. Think: “We weren’t the first ones to build a brand around it, but you know Jerry, maybe we should market ours as the tastiest stout!” In actuality the only word we hear in all of that is “stout” and that just makes us think Guinness. You can add all the superlatives you’d like in such a case; it will still be an ad for your competitor.

Nine: You shall not make it unnecessarily complicated.

Don’t expect your audience to give your product even a moment of thought. We’re all too busy for that. Instead, go the other way: limit what you say to one spectacular thing about what you offer. (This of course, necessitates doing something spectacularly.) If you need more than a sentence to do this, you might be in trouble. Smart people can make complex things seem simple—it goes the other way too.

When you make things complicated, you scare people away. The best plans and brands can be explained quickly without added verbiage, complexity, or defense.

Ten: You shall not covet your neighbor’s brand, nor his ox, nor his donkey.

We humans are predisposed to following. Even when given the choice between a busy lane of traffic and an empty one, we tend to choose the more congested option, reasoning that there must be a cause for the increased activity. In wanting to learn how to ski, most of us don’t just start skiing. We take lessons and mimic someone who’s more skilled than we are. In a room full of strangers, we survey the situation and try to match the tone and subject matter of conversations in progress.

In part, this is just sensible behavior. We seek out functioning models and mimic them in order to benefit from others’ experience. Why invent something when the knowledge, skills, and habits have already been established?

Brands that follow others start to look like copycats and most people would rather have an original than a fake. In branding, imitation rarely brings any good with it. This doesn’t preclude you from learning from others’ brands. Perhaps you’ll look at a popular category or brand, assess what they are doing, and ask, “what could we do to be the exact opposite of everyone else here?” This might lead to some keen insight or discovery.

Be mindful: anything you learn from this should solely inform your research process, and not become a template to follow. Besides, they might be operating in fruitless territory. You’ll probably do better by moving someplace altogether your own.


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Next chapter: Focus and Differentiation




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