Street-Smart Branding: 3 Secrets You Need to Know

Have you camouflaged your own brand?

It’s a great irony that companies invest untold amounts of money to build up their brand equity, but they rarely do anything to stop its dilution. Quite the opposite: they accelerate it. There’s plenty of theory but often not a lot of practicality or follow-through. Even if the theory’s right, nothing happens without sharp, street-smart execution. Here’s how to make that happen.

#1: Brand-vet ALL your communications.

McDonald’s infamous tweet aimed at children: “Say hello to our newest friend, Happy!” Most children screamed. Maybe because they hadn’t watched Scarface.

The problem.

All communications: newsletters, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, sales decks, sales pitches, interviews, white papers, etc. When you read, hear or review anything, ask yourself what the key impressions and takeaways are. If those takeaways don’t precisely align with your brand messaging, then at best, you’re not helping your brand and at worst, you’re seriously harming it.

Remember that salespeople are trying to sell, not worry about messaging consistency. Writers are trying to meet a deadline and reach an audience, not asking themselves if the incisive points they’re making align with your brand. Social media agencies and internal posters are often inexperienced people who don’t even understand branding. As for agencies, well, they’re not all created equal.

The solution.

  • Create a brand-definition document. This must include at a minimum: what you are; what you are not; words/phrases/attributes that perfectly fit your brand (and ones that should never be used to describe it); and what your voice is (academic, professional, casual, edgy, safe, conservative, liberal, serious, fun, etc.). It must explain how to use this information and it should include examples that everyone can understand.
Make sure your corporate training includes brand training. This is not Field of Dreams: if you build your brand, they won’t come [to understand it]. You have to teach why it’s important and what you stand for. And memorizing a mission or vision statement won’t do the trick.
  • Have a team of people who are subject-matter experts in your brand (small companies need only one person). Large companies: as you spend hundreds of millions on marketing, this is not an extra expense; it’s about increasing the ROI on your existing expenses and minimizing dilutive damage. Put new people on probationary periods where you vet everything they write. Have enough people on your team to ensure everything gets vetted quickly. Perhaps two hours for a social media post, perhaps one week for a long white paper. Incorporate compliance into performance reviews. This isn’t about restricting creativity, by the way: it’s about ensuring a consistent voice and stand.

But even if you get these stakeholders into a perfect syzygy, that’s strategy, not execution. Which leads us to the next branding execution point.

#2: Align every element of your brand: visual, auditory, tactile, gustatory and olfactory.

Clinica Dental’s logo. Apparently, cleaning your teeth is just the beginning of your experience.

The problem.

You’re about to buy your next Lamborghini, but you want to think over those tough philosophical questions: Fully automatic gull-wings or semi-automatic? So the sales manager gives you her business card. It’s taupe, thin, in a state of perpetual crinkle and her name is printed in 14 pt. Courier. This is about as persuasive as Pee-Wee Herman’s headlining an MMA event.

So the sale’s lost and you might just be heading over to Ferrari. Of course this would never happen in real life and, when it comes to Italian racing and sports cars, that’s certainly true. But when it comes to start-ups and sometimes even larger companies on a CFO-imposed diet, it happens more often than you’d think.

The Compassion Foundation “helps those in need.” Unfortunately for them, this is not a need that has widespread appeal.

  • It’s having the coolest, hottest (wannabe) social media app and not having your own social media links working.
It’s saying you’re the best SEO company in the world and then finding you on the 35th page of Google’s search results.
It’s having bleeding-edge technology and using a globe as your logo.
It’s writing in the King’s English and dressing like you’re on the playa at Burning Man
  • It’s being on the wrong panel in the right conference.
  • It’s developing a new flexible polymer and giving out business cards that seem to be forged out of steel.
  • It’s inventing a cure for Ebola and packaging the serum in bright red..
  • It’s claiming you’re unique and looking just like 100 other companies.

The solution.

  • Identify Points of Interaction. Where will your targeted constituencies interact with any aspect of your brand? Private meetings? Digital banners at the airport? Webinars? Roundtable discussions? Trade shows? Social media? In each interaction, what will the targeted constituency be able to perceive? Is what they’re perceiving consistent with your brand?
  • Hire a Creative Director — they aren’t just for ad agencies. This is someone who understands human interaction, who understands the power of words, the importance of voice, the relevance of image, the essence of sensation, someone who gets your brand’s gestalt. They don’t need to have talent in all of these areas. They need to recognize skill and talent and use it to deliver a unified impression. Equally important, they need the authority and the personal cojones to lead.
  • Don’t low-ball your brand by low-balling real talent. Great designers, great writers, great U/X engineers — they’re in short supply. There are no free lunches. There are only discombobulated brands. Don’t let yours be one of them.
What do you think the odds are that Fiverr hired someone for $5 to design its own logo — or to write its own copy?

#3. Be authentic.

Banana Republic got kudos for #HotDudesReading. But sales dropped 10%. Millennials didn’t shop at Banana Republic, because that’s not their demo. Their demo got turned off by this.

The problem.

Now, suppose I told you there was no #3, that I lied, that I made up the title because “3” sounds much better than “2.” You’d understand my reasoning but you still wouldn’t trust me.

We’ve seen that you must consider every way your brand evokes a response among your multiple target audiences — not just words, but sounds, designs, the tactile appearance of promotional materials and the like. On the last leg of our brand dilution triumvirate stands lack of brand truth.

Imagine being born a dwarf, never growing to even 3 feet tall, being abandoned at birth and then raised by foster parents, who respectively died when you were in the 8th and 10th grade. Perhaps you’d be too embarrassed to speak to others, let alone to try anything other than a menial job. John and Greg Rice, identical twins, didn’t think that way.

They went on to become door-to-door salesmen, real estate moguls, pest-control-service advertising personalities, motivational speakers, and multi-millionaires. How? By embracing who they were, never hiding their diminutiveness but never using it as an excuse, either. They were authentic.

Yet so many people try to be what they are not and never could be, rather than being proud of who they are. Brands are the same way. Consider:

  • A great value, very inexpensive, yet advertised as the “highest quality.” (This is why Walmart is never going to use a tagline like Bespoke for everyone.)
  • Sears’ website used to say: “Shop your way.” (How? What?). Currently, it says: “Your one-stop savings spot.” When you think of Sears, are “savings” the first thing that comes to mind? How about “one-stop”? No, that sounds more like amazon.com.
  • A political candidate with a checkered past whose slogan is Honest as Abe Lincoln.
A patriotic event with Rosanne Barr singing The Star-Spangled Banner while sounding more like a banshee in heat.
A counterculture event headlined by Donnie Osmond.
A “We put America to work” company that outsources 90% of its products to China.
  • Volvo, known for its safety, announcing a sports coupe.
  • Mercedes, known for its engineering and elitism, announcing a $25,000 car.
  • An athlete taking a hometown contract that pays $50 million more than any other one offered because he “loves the fans.”

In corporate America, this happens because there’s too much of a desire to keep up with the competition. Your competitor does “X,” so have to do “X+.” And in doing so, you lose your soul.

Entrepreneurs fall prey to this form of dilution because they wish their product did what they’re claiming, even though it doesn’t. So instead of focusing on meaningful differentiation, they lose their authenticity — and when the customers and analysts find out, it backfires, because their product/service can never be what it isn’t.

Individuals looking for jobs have this problem too. Do you claim you’re first and foremost a “people person” when you hate speaking, hate meetings and hate sales? Do you claim that you “love detailed analyses” when you failed 1st grade math? Do you trumpet that you’re the perfect “team player” when you have the personality of Steve Jobs?

But does authenticity really matter?

Hypocrite or not?

Some say authenticity is irrelevant, especially to Millennials. Douglas Brundage, writing in Advertising Age, cited Vice and Kanye West to support this case:

“Vice has built a powerful brand rooted in counter-culture and anti-establishment mentalities despite quite literally “selling out” to conservative entities — first in 2013 when it sold a stake to Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, then again in 2014 when it sold a stake to Disney and Hearst’s A&E Networks. It even shut down an iconic Brooklyn music venue in order to gulp up more real estate.

“Kanye West is not authentic, yet he’s the most influential celebrity alive. He preaches accessibility in fashion, then turns around to create hyper-limited, $200 to $525 runs of sneakers, or charges $55 for $4 Gildan tees in his promotional pop-ups.

“Vice and Kanye are hypocrites. But aren’t we all? It’s what makes us human. They may not be authentic, but the way they talk to people is.”

But are they really hypocrites? Not to my mind, because I would say they are selling vicarious experiences. And they are authentically vicarious.
  • Vice does promote the counterculture, certainly not aligned with conservative Fox, but perhaps more aligned with liberal Disney and Hearst than Brundage thinks. Still, neither of those is counterculture, either: they certainly don’t represent modern-day Kerouacs, Ginsbergs or Hunter S. Thompsons. But Vice isn’t selling the counterculture itself, but rather the ability to feel that you, the reader, are participating in it. It doesn’t matter how many iconic venues Vice corporate shuts down so long as their articles keep enabling vicarious participation. That’s what Vice stands for.
  • Kanye is similar. He does promote fashion accessibility, but that’s not his brand at all. His brand is success, seeming iconoclasm and bling. He isn’t selling accessibility but vicarious participation.
Kanye is saying “You can get a taste of my incredible lifestyle in an accessible way. Wear what I recommend and you will be a part of the Kanye experience.”

The solution.

  • Identify Who and What You Really, Truly Are. Be brutally honest, with yourself, with your team, your investors, your Board. Because guess what? If you aren’t, they know the truth, too, even if they’re all smiles.
Deliver a shock to the system by finding your real strengths. Also make sure they’re not platitudes or banalities. The Rice twins were short. Shorter than almost anyone else on the planet. They didn’t buy stilts and neither should you.
  • Identify who and what you really, truly are not. This means calling it out. If your quality is mediocre, acknowledge that. If your shipping costs are higher, then unless you can lower them, it’s still a fact.
If you want to be a construction mogul, do you think that looking like Brad Pitt is going to help you?
  • Know what’s important. Beauty and ugliness, abilities and disabilities, strengths and weaknesses are important only insofar as knowing them makes you true to yourself.
  • Remember the first challenge: brand-vetting. Now that you know what constitutes authenticity or lack of it, ensure that every single part of your brand, every representation of your company (or your service or yourself) focuses on your authenticity or leverages it. Make equally sure that absolutely nothing you say or do contradicts or casts doubt upon that authenticity.
When you give customers reasons not to believe in your brand, you also give them reasons to believe in someone else’s.

To summarize:

  • Brand vet all your communications
  • Align every element of your brand
  • Be authentic (even if your value is vicarious)

Image credits: Muddy truck: prenetic via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND; Kanye West: Mathieu Lebreton via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Steven Mason is the Founder of The Brand Mason, the Co-Founder of Liquid Patents. Focusing on strategy for startups and stalled companies/brands, I can help you fix, align and refocus your brand; find your authentic voice; or even name your startup, products or services. Connect with Steven on LinkedIn, Twitter and Medium. Need help instantly? Book a problem-solving session with me on Clarity. Or email me: steven “at” thebrandmason “dot” com.