Brandon on Branding #1

Over the past five years, I’ve consulted for ad agencies, brands like Verizon, and spoke at the United Nations. My travels have taken me from Omaha to Moscow, and I’ve found these two things to be universally true when it comes to marketing.

The first is that we’re lacking vision. Instead, companies I’ve consulted with ranging from tiny startups just trying to get to their Series A to large international automobile manufacturers are only focused on the next shiny object. “What moves the needle now?” Not next week. Not three months from now. Not twelve to eighteen months — which is how long it takes for you to typically see results with your marketing if you don’t want to spend any god damned money — right now. And most marketers worth a damn know they can’t get anything done if the company has no goals, no plan — God forbid either of which are documented somewhere to ensure clear communication among all the key stakeholders — and no answer to the question of “Who’s your audience?” Shit, any marketer good at what they do knows they should be doing an extensive amount of audience research — at the very least, once a quarter. But who has time for that when you’re running from one thing to the next just trying to scramble and please your short-term thinking overlords and provide them with (usually) suspect metrics like page views and Facebook shares?

The second problem is that complete and total lack of emphasis on branding. I think these two truths have a lot in common. If you’re too busy chasing your tail and pleasing your idiot boss with an Ivy league MBA, then you don’t have time to think about the big picture. And you especially don’t have time to work on your brand and what it means to your customer. This, my strange and interesting friends is the height of insanity. I’m not going to bore you with how powerful word of mouth is when it comes to sales, marketing, and pretty much every other facet of your life (including dating), but to say that word of mouth is critical is a funny understatement to put up there next to “Abraham Lincoln once owned a general store before going on to do other things with his life.” And what might be the key driver for word of mouth marketing as it relates to you? If you guessed it was your brand, you would have guessed correctly.

There isn’t much I can do about the wave of short-term thinking that’s gripped corporate America and other walks of life in our world. Some of it is because we have so many useless people with MBAs running around and calling the shots, only looking at the world through what they can see on a spreadsheet, and some of it is because we live in an on-demand world, and people want what they want as soon as they know they want it. I’m no exception to this. I bought an iPad just so I can download comic books upon their release without having to drive to the local comic book store. I know. That makes me a fucking monster, but still! And you don’t need me to tell you that we see this short-term thinking crisis infect other parts of our life like dating. I’ve been burned more than a few times by women who only liked me or loved me with conditions. You have probably experienced the same thing with former partners in your own life. If we can’t have what we want, we drop what we’re doing and go and find someone else who can give it to us. I can’t change this either.

What I can change; however, is our lack of emphasis on branding. Look, I know, branding has gotten a bad name. More than a few of you were probably burned by some personal branding, rah-rah, you can do it type asshole during The Great Recession. Or maybe even just recently upon graduating from college, all pumped up on that asshole’s advice and finding nothing worked the way they said it would.

Branding also doesn’t get a lot of respect because it’s easy to dismiss. If you’re a How-To website, you may dismiss the importance of building a brand around your company because Google is giving you a lot of love and attention right now. But anyone who has built a business on SEO alone can tell you Google gives as well as it takes, and the SEO audience (in most cases) is not at all loyal to you or your website. If someone else can better solve their problem faster, INCLUDING GOOGLE ITSELF, they’re going to go there. That audience doesn’t care at all about you and whatever else you have going on. Unless you capture that audience in some other way, like with a newsletter, or a clear call to action on a landing page that mirrors their search query, forget it. The same can be said for most customers today when it comes to price. Nobody owes you anything. They’re looking for the best possible deal at the best possible price, and if Best Buy has it over Amazon, people are going to get in their car and go to Best Buy.

The only way to acquire potential customers, activate them as customers, retain them, profit from them, and have them do the marketing for you through word of mouth all comes down to branding. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you used Bing or Duckduckgo over Google? Google is a hell of a brand.

But don’t take my word for it. How many of you reading this go to Starbucks instead of the deli next door that sells coffee that’s just as good and a few dollars less? I’m not a betting man, but I think it’s safe to say, almost all of you. Doesn’t that contradict what I just said above about people having no loyalty and going with whoever has the best price? YES! It does. You know why? Because in select cases, good branding has overwritten our basic instinct of trying to get the best possible deal at the lowest price. That’s how powerful a brand can be. You see it every day. Your boss probably sees it every day, but because of this wave of short-term thinking, we’re just ignoring this daily truth. It’s maddening.

If you went to college, have kids who went to college, or are currently looking at college, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I have a degree from SUNY Potsdam. Did I want to go to Potsdam? Not at all. I wanted to go to NYU. You know why? Because the name meant something. Do you really think it’s called THE Ohio State University because people in Ohio can’t read? No! It’s called The Ohio State University to better brand and position the university against other similar initialed universities like Oregon State University and Oklahoma State University, as well as other schools in the state.

One more example. How many of you drink bottled water? Some of us might not have a choice. If you live in a place like Flint, Michigan, no one would fault you for drinking bottled water, so we’re not talking about an extreme case here. I’m talking about the rest of you who may or may not have just downed a bottle of Aquafina. It’s a cliche at this point, so I’m also not going to waste any time telling you there’s little difference between tap water and bottled water in the United States, and up to 47% of bottled water is just purified tap water. The rest of the differences are minimal at best. But here you have a multibillion-dollar industry that’s entirely driven by branding. Blue skies. Tall mountains. Forests. It’s all placed right there on the label to entice you into choosing one bottle of (almost) the same thing over another. That’s the power of branding. And if you find yourself working in a crowded field with a ton of competitors, that’s a lesson to take to heart. More often than not, there’s not much difference between you and your competitors beyond the sales proposition. The brand is how you stand out from the crowd.

So, what are you waiting for? Start figuring this shit out. And if you need help, email me at bj@bjmendelson.com because I’m going to start writing about branding pretty regularly on here. If you have a question or a problem I can answer on the branding front, let me know, and I (maybe) have a good answer for you.

Photo Credit: Brett Weinstein/Wikimedia Commons