Branding’s biggest challenge: “Branding” is over-used (and often misunderstood) by everyone from politicians to journalists to executives who don’t quite understand what true branding means or entails. Often, everyone seems to have their own conflicting definitions.
Last December, we prepared an extensive branding proposal for the U.S. Forest Service, which ultimately called off its branding RFP when it became clear they’d been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for a “branding campaign’’ that truly amounted to diversity seminars and brochures.
The Forest Service knew they had a popular name, shield and characters (like Smokey the Bear and Woodsy Owl) and their retirees successfully fought off an effort to roll them into a so-called “one brand’ rebranding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (mostly new logos and letterhead). Their predecessors had indeed built up a strong Forest Service brand thanks to multiple efforts including involvement with TV shows as well as the famous characters .
But the current team didn’t quite understand what branding and rebranding actually entails. Few do.
Basket of Brands vs. one True Brand. At the same time, we pulled together a big proposal for rebranding the State of Ohio, which rightly recognized that Ohio lacks any strong brand comparable to Michigan’s Pure Michigan brand. In reality, Ohio is “a basket of brands,’’ several well-known destinations like Cedar Point, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
How can the Forest Service have a strong brand identity while a state as large as Ohio lacks one strong brand? Because brands aren’t really about size. True brands are powerful stories that reveal who and what an organization/destination or individual brand are all about. Ohio is actually the crossroads of America (a bit of everything) but that’s made it harder for Ohio to come up with a unifying story (in contrast with states like Texas, California, Alaska, Florida and Hawaii).
What branding isn’t: Hype, logos and spin
1. Branding isn’t hype, spin or messaging as many journalists seem to think it is when they deride brand journalism or claim a candidate is “rebranding himself” or “reinventing his brand’’ with some subtle change of message or strategy.
2. Branding isn’t just a logo or slogan. Social media and journalists love to critique and debate the value of new logos but a logo is merely one small part of a brand identity.
Case in point: The “Riding with Biden’’ meme isn’t really a logo or a brand, it’s a cute, funny and effective meme. And while much has been written this year about presidential campaign logos, logos in and of themselves do not constitute branding.
3. Branding isn’t “just a name’’ because it’s actually about relationships between the brand and the customers or constituents of a brand. We have relationships with true brands (customers of brands truly love those brands including consumer brands and B2B brands) while there are a number of faceless organizations that spark little emotional connection with their constituents.
What true branding really is: The truth
1. True branding is the true, core essence of what a brand actually is. When a company ad campaign argues something that simply isn’t true, consumers quickly reject it as not fitting with the brand. When the message is true, support grows exponentially.
2. The public and customers ultimately define a brand. If the branding efforts feel real and true to the customers and stakeholders, they will work.
3. Rebranding is like dieting (replacing unhealthy or wasteful habits with good ones). Marketing is like exercise (moving forward). Most think about these changes, many try them briefly but few actually give these actions a sustained effort.
Let’s use this week’s McKinley-Denali debate to show how and why there’s more to rebranding than replacing one name with another name.
Rebranding Case Study: Mount McKinley vs. Denali
Until Sunday, Denali-McKinley was a story little known beyond Alaska and Ohio. By Monday, the story was going viral and the rest of the nation started to weigh in.
The McKinley-Denali debate echoes recent efforts to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill and Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill (most calling for famous women or minorities to replace them). Each of three changes seems to be an effort to restore fairness to one or another group that’s felt wronged.
While the proposed changes for U.S. currency have been debated publicly for months, most Americans didn’t know anything about the Denali-McKinley debate until after the change occurred.
Denali is actually a Koyukon word meaning “Tall’’ or “High,’’ according to linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska. It doesn’t mean “the Great One,” as is commonly believed (and as the Obama administration argued), Kari wrote in a book on the subject.
Koyukon natives of Alaska used the name “Denali” for the mountain (the tallest in North America) for centuries. But the United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 and it was named Mount McKinley 29 years later after President William McKinley. McKinley, an Ohio native elected to two terms as president, was assassinated in 1901.
Before the change was announced, the main backers of the Denali name were in Alaska while elected officials from Ohio fought (mostly quietly in Congress) to keep the mountain named after their favorite son from Ohio.
The most important step in true branding involves research and testing — and measuring emotional impact, symbolism and meanings. And yes, sometimes that includes some politics as well.
Most Americans weren’t aware of the debate before Sunday. Before the name change was announced, McKinley (overshadowed historically by his bold successor Theodore Roosevelt) was seldom discussed nationally and Denali was most widely known as the name of a GMC truck.
Alaskans seem to know and appreciate the Denali name more (a former Alaska governor had requested the restoration of the Denali name in 1975 but Ohioans protect the legacy of former President McKinley, an Ohio native). The Carter administration opted for a compromise: to keep the former president’s name on the mountain while naming the national park around it Denali.
The Obama administration announced it would rename the mountain Denali on Sunday as President Obama headed to Alaska for a visit.
But within hours of the announcement, Americans were being reminded of McKinley’s record and 19o1 assassination while Obama backers extolled the Denali name coined by Native Americans centuries ago.
The backlash was especially strong from electorally crucial Ohio, which prides itself as being the home state of eight presidents, including McKinnley. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, now running for president, immediately began defending Mount McKinley and other presidential candidates including GOP frontrunner Donald Trump followed suit.
The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is similarly from Ohio and he became especially vocal against the change. Ohio has also proven to be the most important or second most important state for the Electoral College vote in the past four presidential elections.
Ohio awards 18 electoral votes while Alaska awards three electoral votes so Ohio is a “must win’’ state in presidential races (no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio) while Alaska is seldom visited by candidates.
What about Mount Kennedy and JFK Airport?
Imagine a similar debate 50 years from now with a future Republican President replacing JFK’s name (which was added to numerous U.S. landmarks after his 1963 assassination) with their previous names including airports, libraries, museums, coins and a Yukon mountain in Canada. It seems like something no politician would even think about.
Will JFK, who served as president for 1,00o days, be better remembered than the two-term McKinley is today in the 22nd century? Will future generations fight to keep his name on landmarks? It seems unlikely that anyone would remove the name of a revered president who died in the line of duty — yet that is exactly what happened on Sunday.
And so the name change has invited a flood of opposition with presidential candidates already going on record saying they will change the name back to McKinley.
This happens with businesses too: General Motors and DTE, each attempted to rename famous landmarks they purchased (Detroit’s Renaissance Center and Pine Knob) and encountered fierce push-backs.
The most famous rebranding ever was Coca Cola’s infamous 1985 decision to replace Coke with a re-formulated “New Coke.’’ The company almost immediately encountered a major backlash and had to restore the original, beloved brand.
In the case of McKinley-Denali, one name is connected to a historic figure with an influential following while Denali is a beautiful older name but not connected to any one person. Denali is literally a word meaning “High.’’
Because so little was known about the change up front, the social media memes (including a false one claiming Denali was an African word for “Black power’’) have gone viral and the name has turned into a presidential campaign issue. Presidential candidates who want to win electorally crucial Ohio in 2016 are already promising to change the name back.
Rebranding done right: How to name your brand?
How do you name a brand? It’s like naming your baby: the name will shape your offspring’s personality and set the stage for everything that follows.
People will embrace a great name — or laugh at a dumb one. And fight a name they don’t like.
Just as parents pour through “baby name’’ books, the founders of would-be brands should begin branding research: at minimum, see who else is using a similar name.
Then test the idea — and whether there are alternative meanings — with trusted advisers, friends, families and experts.
At each step of the brand naming process, keep asking the essential question of marketing: Why? Why did you pick this name and what does it mean?
Another great test: find the story. Lynn Wooten, clinical associate professor of strategy, management and organizations at the University of Michigan, is a mentor and former colleague who immediately energizes what might have otherwise been an ordinary meeting.
Wooten asked all our colleagues sitting around a block of tables to “Tell us your name and the story of how you got that name.’’
Wooten’s single question made everyone light up and told everyone in the room important details about colleagues they would otherwise never know. The stories made us understand each person as a human being. It’s the same with brands.
In each case, the name tells the story of the organization but also fuels your curiosity, making you want to learn more. Each includes what we call the Beautiful, the Good and the True, starting with something that captures our attention, moving us emotionally then making us eager to hear the rest of the story.
Fantastic names are, of course, exceptions to the rule that every name and every brand has its own unique challenges. That includes organizations ultimately needing to ask “What’s the best way to re-brand” or solve some similar problem.
Step 1: Great names start with a story that changes conversations
The best brand names tell stories, telling you what the company does and stands for quickly and easily.
Here are three great brand names where the name itself tells the organizational story:
While many struggle with do-it-yourself dating, looking online or in bars for someone, San Diego-based IJL is like a great recruiter, doing all the hard work for its clients: finding good prospects and even doing all the logistics of setting up lunch meeting.
All the clients have to do is show up at a restaurant selected by IJL, talk to the other person and see if it’s a potential relationship that “clicks.’’ Whenever it doesn’t feel like the best possible fit, IJL leverages the feedback from each meeting to literally find the better and better matches by seeing what people like and what they don’t.
The brand name sounds like something you’d say to someone nervous about dating or anything “serious’’ — “It’s just lunch.’’ If it’s magic, great. But if it’s not, then no big deal. We learned something from someone else over lunch and keep getting better and better at finding the right match. In fact, finding out what doesn’t fit helps you narrow and refine each search.
The name works for IJL’s high-level matchmaking but it works to describe any enterprise focused on improving all sorts of relationships. One of the best business books ever is called “Never Eat Lunch Alone,’’ arguing that every lunch meeting helps you grow and widen your network. IJL is a fantastic brand name.
Not for Sale. You hear that name and ask “what do you mean? What wouldn’t be for sale?’’ That question about a counterintuitve name, piques curiosity. The answer of what should never be for sale: another human being. Not For Sale battles human trafficking and has returned this issue to the frontburner of major issues.
Firehouse Subs. The first time I saw that name from a distance I immediately imagined this firehouse where a bunch of great fire fighters have been sitting around for long periods (waiting for the next fire) and instead put their talents toward making the world’s best sandwich ever. Can’t you picture that?
Contrast that with the image painted by the now embarrassed “Subway Subs,’’ Most subways are dark and unfriendly — would you really want to have your food prepared in a subway?
Seems kind of dark and dirty in most subways doesn’t it” But a sub made at the fire house? Totally different. The name tells the story.
Step 2: Defining a brand includes testing and enriching: Do they “get” your name? Is your brand easily Googled? Are you too cute?
The first time you come up with a brand name idea, please Google it — a lot.
Search online for that term. Search for that term with the name of your state. See what comes up: that’s the competition for that name. Also try spelling it the way someone who knows little about your idea would search.
Pure Michigan was originally supposed to be True North but state pols worried that “North’’ would be associated with “Up North’’ and somehow alienate people in the southern part of the state. After a great deal of brainstorming, people agreed on Pure Michigan, one of the most successful statewide branding campaigns ever.
And yet, when I served on Global Michigan, a state task force charged with encouraging more immigrants to move to Michigan, I’d hear how many immigrants questioned what “Pure’’ meant. Did that mean someone who wasn’t purely Michigan was less welcome?
Don’t get too clever: We once saw a very unmemorable, hard-to-spell name proposed by a client. What does this mean? It was another word spelled backwards. The problem with that is people searching online don’t spell words backwards.
Similarly, when someone chooses to mix uppercase and lowercase letters in a word or decides to spell a word differently than everyone else? People don’t search like that either.
Step 3: A brand named ISIS — how events can change everything
Remember that the meanings of words and names can change in an instant.
Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile were all promoting a mobile payment app they branded ISIS — and over the summer of 2014, the terrorist organization ISIS took over the headline as they began murdering Christians in the Middle East. Suddenly, every perception of the name ISIS was changed.
So the mobile payment ISIS rebranded last year, changing its name to Softcard. It’s a reminder that brand perceptions can change almost over night prompting the need to re-brand.
Step 4: Activate your brand
Activating a brand means rolling it out publicly. This includes public relations, content marketing, social media and a retooling of owned media (the media you control like your web and digital offerings), paid media (advertising) and earned media (good old PR).
Step 5: Keep Optimizing and growing the brand
Your brand name is as good as your own name. It takes years to build a reputation but only a short time to ruin it.
The more people learn good things about you and your brand, the more your reputation grows. That means “getting the word out’’ in the marketplace and every time you create or share content online, you’re adding more words to get out.
So once you’ve properly defined your brand (the hardest part) get out there, spread the word and have fun.
Learn more: Social Media: Little things, beautiful, good and trueWhy we buy brands we don’t needWhy we’re remembered for 1 thingHow social media moves relationships from like to loveOwn your media: True thought leadership secrets endure centuries’The Grandma Test’ and four other ways to gauge your content Social Media GuidelinesJoseph Serwach is a contributing author to The Book of Social Media Strategies & Tactics Volume 1.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.