growing a brand unevenly (but staying the course)

think you know

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“I am the sea and nobody owns me.”

Pippi Longstocking

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“In short, not only are things not what they seem, they are not even what they are called!”

Francisco de Quevedo

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Ok. So I just wrote about growing up evenly <http://brucemctague.com/growing-up-unevenly > and it made me think about the slightly absurd worldview of ‘building a brand’ & having a nice neat brand idea. Absurd? Yup. First & foremost because I don’t believe you can build a brand.

Well. I imagine you can certainly try. But a building suggests a solid unmoving construct kind of like maybe a shopping mall or a bank branch <oops … not particularly positive examples, huh?>. Therein lies the underlying absurdity. The construct. The unmoving unchanging body and a suggestion of ‘evenness.’ To be fair the foundational aim for any brand has been and remains the same as always — to consistently express singularities which consistently distinguish the offering of products and services. Within these singularities, or distinctness, people will seek values, leadership, assurance, clarity and personality <or character>. Maybe better said some promise a person can attach some value <not values> to which embodies the company who actually offers you the brand.

I say all that because you invariably need to grow your brand unevenly. Yup. Sorry. A brand isn’t, probably shouldn’t be and most likely cannot be <and be successful> ‘even.’ Smooth. Without any ragged edges. It needs to be grown unevenly <which is actually a natural growth rather than some manufactured growth>.

Uhm.

Just like a child. Your household has some values, attitudes & belief and you bring up the best kid you can within that framework. Build a strong character. Encourage them to embrace their potential. Put them in the best possible situations to succeed and you let go of them and let them go into the world. They’ll make their own friends <some you would not have chosen and some you would have> and they’ll do things that will make you want to tear your hair out over … and at other times they will make you beam with pride.

outcome controlBut unless you are some control freak nutcase you are not by their side telling them what to do and how to dress and what to not do every minute of the day. They assume a personality of their own doing what you hope is the right thing because you brought them up right.

This is just like growing a brand.

If you do it right people will gladly welcome you into their circle of acquaintances <and sometimes friends> and give you the prime brain space every marketer is so desperate to get hold of.

All that said. In theory, philosophically, a lot of marketing experts, or normal non expert people, will nod their heads when they read this and sigh <sagely of course> “that is so.” But. In practice? In practice they will freak out over this idea. Not control the brand? Not build it so perfectly and then protect the perfection that is the brand <on paper at least>? Bottom line. They will freak. And then they will become maniacal brand control freaks. They do so even though most marketing people know that a brand isn’t a package or a logo. They recognize it is more like a living breathing personality. But too often these same experts get trapped in the nice even edges found in a ‘brand symbol’ <think a logo or a package> and they want to try and control how the symbol connects to miscellaneous thoughts, emotions and information stored in the human brain.

uneven wonderUnfortunately … since everyone’s brain is wired differently … we see and feel different things. Someone may see a bottle of Coca-Cola and think of ‘the real thing’ and someone else may think ‘happiness’ and another may think empty calories <add in something else on this list>.

Look. We’re not sure exactly how or where the human brain makes the connections that make branding possible. We may never find out. But one thing we know is the brain craves simplicity … uhm … and also complexity.

Uh oh. Simplicity and complexity? That sounds so uneven. It is. Therein lies the beauty & power of unevenness.

Regardless. Before I get to the complex let’s talk the simplicity part of the equation. You do have to focus … and gain some simplicity in terms of a tight ‘core’ … from which the brand character resides on <some will call this the platform>. There are some basics to get the ball rolling on the uneven path to growing a great brand:

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Whatever one may wish to call the experience, there are certain basic concepts to take into consideration:

Two fundamental elements:

straightforward presentation of the experience

honesty of thought, word and deed as regards the company

Three keynotes:

corporate conscience,

shared story-building

participatory and open co-creation processes

Four roots in reality:

Although many people may be involved in what is a completely open process, it is the company which creates the intent and is in control.

Even when a story is built, we must at all times remember that success is always enjoyed by those who are backed by great products and/or services.

It is about values and the consistency with which the promise made by the company is built.

Cristian Saracco

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Please note the simplicity begins with the organization itself <whew … and when is that ever simple?>. Beyond the actual product & service, the organization has to be the natural <please note the word natural> origin for the products & services <some misguided people call his “authentic’>. What do I mean? Well. The product or service has to ‘look right’ coming from the organization. Maybe call it the ‘eye test’ <boy … that sounds non-technical and uncomplicated doesn’t it?>. Getting this part of the brand right matters. It matters because frankly … it needs to stand out <please note that I suggested the brand stand out … not the marketing or advertising>.

uncertainty 3This part of the brand needs to be distinct because in a complex sometimes overwhelming abundance of choices available to us 24/7 … some simpleness will stand out. Well. Maybe not simpleness … but the consistency of character <combined with function of course>.

<note: and maybe one of the issues in discussing brands and branding these days is that we confuse simplicity & consistency? … just a thought>

Look. Consistency matters because the world has become more, well, less consistent. In 1998 the average U.S. office worker received more than 160 messages a day via e-mail, fax, voice mail and conventional mail. Today the number has almost quadrupled. Enter a supermarket and you are most often faced with over 37,000 different products with distinct SKU’s <stock-keeping units> compared to 8,000 in 1970. Orange juice choices have gone from 20 to 70 in the past 30 years. Coke 6 to 25. Even Philadelphia Cream Cheese has gone from 3 to 30.

Choices abound. And some good choices I may add.

Anyway. Growing a brand means it has to fulfill a clear promise. Promises are simple and complex, but suffice it to say, in this case, you make a promise and deliver upon it. Simple as that <and as complex as that>. Here are some basic steps simplify <or at least clarify> some things that make up the foundation blocks for growing the brand unevenly: 

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– company assessment 

The first step in growing a brand is to assess the brand ‘parent.’ There are several methods for obtaining this information from the end-users but suffice it to say that if you don’t know your company <culture, belief system, aspirations> you will never rear your brand properly. 

– research

Whether you think you need it … do some research. Research will not only provide qualitative information from key stakeholders, including internal and external customers and influencers, but also flesh out the raw concept that resides in the vision.  The number of interviews <participants in research> will vary according to the typical number of end-users that would have an opinion about your company’s image. 

The total number of potential end-users may be very small in b2b compared to a consumer product such as toothpaste. 

Regardless.  You are seeking some consistent feedback … you hear the same feedback over and over. The information collected from the survey is the foundation on which your brand platform will be established. You may find that once all the results are summarized, the information is very much in-sync with your organization’s internal perception of itself.

<note: don’t fool yourself into believing the exercise was a waste of time or a worthwhile effort in this situation … it is not only a sanity check but it also alleviates a lot of second guessing at a later date and plays a significant role in aligning everyone on what matters>

Research can be used for a variety objectives <value of offering, validation of offerings, etc.> but at minimum use research to best articulate your ‘reason for being’ as a business. this information is like placing the pebble in your hand so that you can drop the right pebble into the middle of the pond. The wrong pebble in the wrong dropping zone and … well … you get the picture.

– competitive audit

You are going to be who, and whatever, you are. Studying the competition shouldn’t change that.  However … by auditing and assessing the competition you can better asses how to best articulate who you are and what you are in ways that insure some distinctness. It is essential to provide a clear differentiated <or distinct> message.  And any value in efforts to growing a strong brand will be lost if you haven’t given people a compelling reason to buy the product.

– identifying the key brand elements

There are several elements that need to be defined in the branding process.  This is the process of establishing both the tangible and intangible attributes to make the brand distinct. Think of the most basic platform elements as:

wonderland tunnel

1. Vision or Mission Statement

The vision statement may be called the core belief while the brand promise may be entitled the brand essence. The vision expresses the philosophy driving the organization. It unites the internal team to a common path. It is a clear sense of destination.

2. Core Identity Concepts <character>

The organization’s core identity … the company character statement.  The core identity captures the set of association, and values, the organization wants to create and maintain. The core identity should be easy to communicate and consistent for all products.  The core identity, while very personal, should take into consideration:

– Understanding of customer needs

– Integrity and honesty in doing business

– Passion to meet and exceed standards and expectations

3. Brand Promise

Simply stated it is what the customer gets from your brand. The promise distills the broad ideas of the platform without losing meaning. The promise drives the value proposition and provides differentiation that can last. The brand promise is sometimes also referred to as the brand essence.

4. Value Proposition

This represents the functional and emotional benefits customers expect to receive by working with the branded company. The proposition reflects a balance between the aspirations and reality of what the brand is able to deliver.

The functional benefit is the real world outcome of choosing and using the brand.

The emotional benefit is the ability of a brand to make a user feel something.

5. The Truth line

This is a line, or phrase, which can be used in all marketing and promotion materials.

It should clearly describe “the business” that the brand is in. It is a descriptor of the brand. This may be one of the most difficult elements of the platform to identify. The effort to try to “boil down” all aspects of your company’s product or service offerings into a simple phrase is not easy.

6. Brand Story

An organization doesn’t have to be famous to have an interesting brand story.  This legend of how the brand got started is used to preserve and enhance a brand’s heritage. It can provide inspiration and motivation for customers, employees and stakeholders. This story can be used anywhere at any time because … well … it is a story. And people like good stories. I say that because this isn’t a technical manual but rather a personal story of the brand.

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Ok. Those are the basics with regard to the simplicity aspect of growing an uneven brand.

By the way. Please note that all brand platforms begin internally. Not externally. Call it ‘inside out thinking to insure success.’ I am not suggesting completely ignoring the external <market opportunities, customers, attitudes & perceptions> but I am suggesting that a brand exists in the soul of the company <just as in the desires and souls of parents with a child> … and not in the soul of some external constituent. The outside constituent may define the value of your soul or assess whether it has some meaning, but a brand platform is YOUR platform.

A foundation from which your brand <in people’s minds> needs to inherently, truthfully, connect with the organization inner mind. Something steadier than some whims of a moving mass of irrational people.

Ok. That was the simple part of a brand.

Which leads me to the close … which is about unevenness and the fact a great brand grows unevenly.

Just like people. And then there is the complex side of what a human brain likes. Complex? The unevenness that makes brand interesting and human. Even imperfect in some ways. I will admit. I cannot write a lot about the uneven complex dynamics of growing a brand because its unplanned.

It just happens.

As this brand you have nurtured is allowed to leave its home and go out into the world it begins interacting with different brands, different people and different situations. Each of those interactions creates some context in which the brand evolves and adapts. As it happens you can choose to adapt or not adapt. All I can tell you for sure is that the brand you envisioned will grow up to be something not exactly what you envisioned.

That is a truth <that not many branding experts will tell you>. But you know what? I am not the same person I was when my ‘brand’ first stepped out of the home. I would like to believe that I some ways I am now a better ‘brand’ for all the experiences and Life I have encountered. A business should take the same view with regard to brands.

Anyway. Suffice it to say the the power of letting a brand grow unevenly is that it makes the brand ‘human’ <not authentic> and interesting. This matters because the challenge is that minds are like real estate in that space is limited and we can’t let every brand have a place to stay. Unevenness improves chances of gaining brain space and making a connection – a brain and brand connection – that will truly inspire something other than a ‘price’ relationship.

Growing a brand unevenly. Not for the faint of heart. But certainly has its rewards. It must relate in human terms to human beings and relate evenly between who & what the company is, and inherently promises, day in and day out.

If a brand that doesn’t appeal on basic human levels, it really has no hope of success in today’s marketplace. Don’t expect this journey to be easy.

Just as rearing a child with its slight haphazardness, a brand takes some discipline, a strategy that moves from simple to complex and a combination of rational and emotional. But, in the end, if you grow it right you will have reared a simple human with character & truth and the power to touch people and some unevenness. An uneven brand is interesting. It has some character. And it will be stronger in adulthood after running the gauntlet of growing pain youth.

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originally posted July 2014

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Written by Bruce