Brand Mapping or Bust
How a Brutally Honest Brand Map Can Get Your New Independent Venture Humming
After more than 20 years of running my professional services firm, I am convinced that for those of us in the GDI (Gosh Darn Independent) space, Brand Mapping is a critical first step in planning (or replanning) our ventures.
Brand Mapping is a concept I’ve synthesized from various sources (Alan Weiss’s work on How to Establish a Unique Brand in the Consulting Profession probably has had the most significant influence on my development of the concept), including from my own learning path as an experienced consultant hailing from the ranks of well known firms, who, in the year 2000, joined the ranks of thousands of fairly anonymous independent consultants, contractors, and other freelancers.
This GDI world suffers massively from undifferentiated market and brand strategies, and this was the impetus to drove me to develop Brand Mapping.
What’s Brand Mapping and Why Should I Care about it?
Brand Mapping is an iterative process you can use to document and model a specific, individualized mapping from your unique personal strengths, past client experiences, and track record to a program of brand development that speaks to the value you already provide, and the authentic narrative you can develop for a future that you define. Brand Mapping begins with your realistic and honest understanding of the value you provide through the eyes of your existing clients and formal and informal business partners.
Brand Mapping is good at converting pie-in-the-sky ventures into tangible pathways to the business you’ve always wanted to start-up, but it depends principally on you, the entrepreneur, and your discipline. You have to be disciplined enough to take in both the good and bad of what your reputation — i.e., brand — currently is and what it is not.
In addition, for Brand Mapping to be effective, you have to be extremely honest with yourself about far you can stretch the brand (or brands) moving forward. As I’ll discuss in more detail below, this is why you might want to have a trusted advisor (or two) with you to make sure you don’t delude yourself.
So what exactly is the magic that we call Brand Mapping? Well, it’s not really magic, it is simply the very logical stringing together of key brand elements across Brand Mapping Categories (See Figure 1, below):
- Your Competencies (as described by clients)
- The Market Need for Your Competencies
- The Candidate Brands that will serve these Market Needs
- The Brand Marketing tactics that will pull prospects to your Brands
Before you Start Your Brand Map, Check Your Hedgehog Concept
Before you begin your Brand Map you need to do a sanity check. You need to verify that your venture (the venture that is either currently just a gleam in your eye or the venture that you’re already running; sometimes you end up being in the wrong business, as the saying goes) matches your Personal Hedgehog Concept.
What is a Personal Hedgehog Concept you might ask? In response, I ask: have you not read Good to Great by Jim Collins?
As Collins explains, the Hedgehog Concept stems from Collins analogy of hedgehog behavior, as summarized in his website’s Hedgehog Concept summary, and its inclusion of a simple but powerful Venn Diagram (see Figure 2, below):
In his famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
Every company would like to be the best at something, but few actually understand — with piercing insight and egoless clarity — what they actually have the potential to be the best at and, just as important, what they cannot be the best at….
So if you’re going to start this new venture does it fit into the Venn Diagram, above, that is “your personal hedgehog concept”? Can you answer yes to each of these questions:
- Are you passionate about this venture, and the work you’ll have to do to make it successful?
- Can you be the best in the world with this venture? In other words, does the work involved come naturally to you, like it was in your DNA all along?
- Does the venture “drive your economic engine? i.e., does it at least pay you what you what you need (not necessarily what you want)?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to stop, and re-think the basic structure of your venture until you get three yeses.
Starting Your Brand Map
Assuming your Hedgehog Concept checked out, it’s time to get into the details of your Brand Map. Here is how to start:
- Preparation: Consider how you’ll start to build your Brand Map. Brand Mapping is best done as a brainstorming exercise, but, as mentioned previously, it is not pie-in-the-sky brainstorming. It will require a lot of what Collins calls “piercing insight and egoless clarity.” So, consider bringing your trusted advisor(s) into this exercise, but make sure (1) they really know you, including the good, the bad, and the ugly; and (2) they’ll be brutally honest with you, especially when it comes to competencies.
- Pick your Mind Mapping Tool: Decide whether you want to use a White Board with Sticky Notes or a Mind Mapping tool. There are many good mind mapping tools out there that may make the iterative cycles with your Brand Map a bit easier. You can even use Microsoft Visio, if you must, although that would not be my choice. My favorite tool for this kind of work is LucidChart, since it also includes the ability to collaborate with others well constructing Mind Maps. In addition, it provides a primer for each of its chart templates, which will be helpful if you have not done a lot of Mind Mapping.
- Begin with Competencies: Start by building the highest level Brand Map Categories as the root main topics, as shown in Figure 1, above, and then just start on the Competencies (See Figure 3, below). This is where you must be honest with yourself, and ask: “What are my clients calling back about? What would my most consistent internal client (at my day job), Ruth, say I am known for?” You can also add those things you believe you have a competency in, but you are not yet known for; be sure to mark these as a lower priority with chart (or sticky note) coloring, since these may be part of your business, but they are not part of your current brand.
- Flesh out Market Need: For each Competency that you’ve defined, ask yourself: is there a specific Market Need that would seek out this Competency (See Figure 4, below)? Right now just brainstorm, but before you can call this Brand Map complete, you’ll want to do some level of validation (and ideally even quantification) of the Market Needs you’ve identified.
- Propose Candidate Brands that meet Market Needs: These can be existing or envisioned product lines, or just ideas. But every Market Need should be served by at least one Candidate Brand. (See Figure 5, below).
- Develop Marketing Tactics that build awareness of Brands: As Alan Weiss puts in his work on building unique brands, these marketing tactics should build a kind of “gravity,” so that prospects are drawn to Brands in multiple ways. A key factor here is ensuring that the marketing tactics continue to build upon your expert level status, which is what echos and validates the brand that is based on the market need for a perceived competency. (See Figure 6, below)
Completing Your Brand Map
Once you’ve gone through a few iterations of the map — including moving certain topics around, combining topics, cleaning up and sometimes redrawing the arrows for the mapping of topics from one category to another — you should have a first cut map (see Figure 7, below for a snippet of a completed Brand Map).
Now is the time to revisit a few things:
- Do the mappings all make sense between the topics in the Brand Mapping Categories?
- Are you confident in your assertions of Market Need? Can you validate them?
- For the Competencies you’ve defined, can you think of an example of each client or informal contact who has articulated that competency? Which competency comes up the most? Consider marking these in some way. These will be on the top of your list, since you’ll want to start your venture with existing brand strengths. Also, at the bottom of the map, consider listing those Competencies you know you possess, but you are not known for them yet. These will be areas to potentially stretch your brand (or brands) toward in the future.
What to do With Your Brand Mapping Output
So now that you have completed this Brand Map, what do you do with it? Well, it becomes one of the most critical components of your business plan, of course. You might consider building a table (see Figure 8, below) of your Key Market Needs and Candidate Brands. This can potentially got slotted into to your formal business plan in some form, or it just becomes a key, informal, reference point.
You also now have a tremendous start on your overall Marketing Plan, which can be built by leveraging the Brand “Gravity” Marketing components that you’ve defined.
More than anything, you’ve just validated your venture’s ability to successfully get off the ground. Brand Mapping gives you a process to kick-off your venture by beginning with your existing strengths.