The Art of Branding

In the real world, you don’t have infinite resources; you don’t have a perfect product; and you don’t sell to a growing market without competition. You’re also not omnipotent, so you cannot enforce what people think your brand represents. Under these assumptions, most companies need all the help they can get with branding.

This is my advice to help you.

  • Seize the high ground. Establish your brand on positive conditions like “making meaning,” “doing good,” “changing the world,” and “making people happy” —not doing in your competition. Think about it: when is the last time you bought a product to hurt a company’s competition? (Other than maybe Macintosh users.) If you want to beat your competition, establish an uplifting brand, but don’t try to establish a brand based on your silly desire to beat your competition.
  • Create one message. It’s hard enough to create and communicate one branding message; however, many companies try to establish more than one because they are afraid of being niched and want the “entire” market. “Our computer is for Fortune 500 companies. And, oh yes, it’s also for consumers to use a home.” Face it, Volvo can’t equal safety (not rolling over) and sexiness, and Toyota can’t equal economical and lexuriousness {sic}. You pick one message, stick with it for at least a year if it appears promising, and then try another. But you can’t try several at once or switch every few months.
  • Speak English. Not necessarily “English,” but speak in non-jargonese. If your positioning statement uses any acronyms, the odds are that (a) most people won’t understand your branding, and (b) your branding won’t last very long. For example, “best MP3decoder” presumes that people understand what “MP3” and “decoder” mean. Ten years from now, who knows if MP3 matters anymore. Not to be an ageist, but a good test is to ask your parents if they understand what your positioning means—assuming your parents aren’t computer science professors.
  • Take the opposite test. How many times have you read a product description like this? “Our software is scalable, secure, easy-to-use, and fast?” Companies use these adjectives as if no other company claims its product is scalable, secure, easy-to-use, and fast. See if your competition uses the antonyms of the adjectives that you use. If it doesn’t, your description is useless. For example, I’ve never seen a company say that its product was limited, full of leaks, hard-to-use, and slow.
  • Cascade the message. Let’s say that you craft the perfect branding message. As the Jewish say, “Mazel tov.” Now cascade your message up and down your organization. The marketing departments of many companies assume that once they’ve put out the press release or run the ad, the entire world understands the message. It’s unlikely that even the entire company does. Start with your board of directors and work down to Trixie and Biff at the front desk and make sure every employee understands the branding.
  • Examine the bounce back. You know what messages you send, but you really don’t know what messages people receive. Here’s a concept: You should ask them to bounce back the message that you sent so that you can learn how your message is truly interpreted. In the end, it’s not so much what you say as much as what people hear.
  • Focus on PR, not advertising. Many companies waste away millions of dollars trying to establish brands with advertising. Too much money is worse than too little because when you have a lot of money, you spend a lot of money on stupid things like Super Bowl commercials. Brands are built on what people are saying about you, not what you’re saying about yourself. People say good things about you when (a) you have a great product and (b) you get people to spread the word about it.
  • Strive for humanness. Great brands achieve a high level of humanness.{click to tweet} They speak to you as an individual, not as part of a market. It’s “my iPod.” “My Macintosh.” “My Harley Davidson.” “My bottle of Coke.” By contrast, you never think, “My Vista,” or “My Microsoft Office,” so I wouldn’t label Microsoft as a great brand although kids think of “My xBox.” Unfortunately for Microsoft, “xBox” and “Microsoft” are not closely linked to each other.

Now step back and ask yourself the $64,000 question: “If we don’t spend a dime on marketing, will people be aware of our brand and understand what it stands for?” Because the real world of marketing is this: you don’t have a big marketing budget so you have to depend on people “creating” your brand for you.

For decades Apple has tried to make the Macintosh brand stand for power with all its money. For decades consumers believed the Macintosh brand stood for easy of use. Ultimately, you flow with what’s going, and you are thankful that anything is flowing at all.

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