lowercase branding

There’s a lot of talk these days about branding (then again, when isn’t there?). There are branding consultants, how-to books and home-study courses, etc. Branding is big business. Brands themselves are big business. Which is why everyone wants to “get it right.” Play this card right, they say, and my company will experience success like never before.

Let me get this out of the way: there is nothing wrong with branding. You absolutely should have a strong brand. In fact, you’re creating a brand whether you know it or not. You might as well be intentional about it and make a good one.

What’s A Brand, Really?

A brand is simply the identity of a company, product or service as perceived by consumers. As we noted, every company has a brand. There are powerful brands like Nike. People around the world instantly recognize their logo. They know their slogan by heart. And their products are held as valuable everywhere. In fact, it is the brand that gives the product it’s heightened perceived value. Having shoes is nice; having Nikes is something special.

Then there are the weaker brands. Sometimes we call them generic. We compare them with “name brands,” as if they don’t have a name. Regardless of their quality or usefulness, we pay less for them and usually want them less. Remember when it was common to hear about children having their shoes stolen right off of their feet? I don’t remember Payless brand shoes ever being on the list of the items taken.

Don’t You HAVE to Capitalize That?

How do you think that the big brands got to be big?

Why is Coca-Cola so popular? How can Starbucks charge so much more for coffee than the competition and still have “enthusiastically satisfied” (that’s Starbucks’ own verbiage) customers during hard economic times?

And more importantly, how can YOU start to do the same thing?

Branding Rule #1: It’s not about you.
Sales and Marketing 101 teaches us that customers don’t want to buy drills, they want holes. Elmer Wheeler says “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

The same is true about building a brand. You don’t create a world-class identity by trying to create a world-class identity. Don’t focus on yourself or your business. Concentrate on the people you’re trying to influence. What do people desperately want? How can you give it to them? Can you associate your product with something that people already go crazy for?

Branding Rule #2: Don’t underpromise.
This cliché might be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. I get where people are coming from when they say it, but I’m telling you, it’s dead wrong.

Make the strongest statements you can about the benefits that your audience will get from your buying from you. Why would you under-sell yourself? Why would you water down the truth about your awesomeness? If you follow Branding Rule #1, you have a product or service that genuinely improves people’s lives. You have to get them to buy it for them to experience the improvement, though. You’re doing your prospects a serious disservice by downplaying the good you can do for them.

Never promise more than you can deliver, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot by underpromising either.

If you don’t stand out as the best, the only provider of what you sell, your customers might overlook you and buy from someone less committed to meeting their needs. Don’t let that happen. It’s up to you to make the big promise.

Branding Rule #3: Do overdeliver.
Surprise your customers with how awesome their experience with your company, product or service is. If you promise that they’ll double their Mandarin vocabulary in 30 days by taking your course, delight your patrons by tripling it.

That’s where the magic happens. When people get more than they ask for, they can’t wait to tell someone about their experience. And you quest for world-renown for your brand really takes off.

Commit to making a great product or giving a great service. Don’t focus on getting what you can from your customers. If you want to be the next Mercedes-Benz brand, give ten times more value than you plan to get back from your clients.

You could probably make some good money really quickly by short-changing everyone, cutting corners on quality to maximize profits. But you will never build a sustainable, respectable brand by doing business like that. And you will have traded in your integrity and good name for a quick buck. Sound like a good deal?

Branding Rule #4: Make purposeful statements about who you are as a company.
Your brand is as much about how people identify with you as it is about who you actually are. Maybe more.

Roy Williams wrote in one of his Monday Morning Memos:

“Brands are identity reinforcement, just like art and architecture and music. Brands are a way of shouting ‘This is me!’”

Remember that your brand is only as good as the perception you create.

In most cases, people will not come to the correct conclusions about who you are as a company if you never tell them what to think. Plus, there will never be one coherent brand identity. Everyone will have their own interpretations of your brand.

Here are some thoughts to consider when drafting your brand messaging:

  • Always be truthful
  • You’re talking about yourself, but you still should identify with the customer
  • Tell them who you are and WHY IT MATTERS TO THEM
  • Have one overall message: one thing you stand for, oppose, believe in, or are working toward
  • Encourage interaction. Make your customers part of your “movement”
  • Never be boring. Be bold, be unique
  • Find something only you can say, and say it

Branding Rule #5: Participate in your communities in ways that are aligned to your corporate personality.

That can include everything from throwing concerts or events to feeding the homeless and sponsoring little league teams.

NBA Cares is an outstanding example of getting involved and making a compelling brand statement.

In the online world, you could give away free information or put on special webinars for noteworthy occasions.

This doesn’t have to be charitable giving. Getting involved with people outside of them handing you money is a great way to prove who you are and what you care about.

About the “lowercase” Thing

Did I confuse anyone with the lowercase branding headline?

The point is this. Branding is such a hot topic, and there are so many conversations going on around the subject. Rightly so. My concern is that we’ll begin to focus on creating brands and messages rather than on doing great business.

The customer should be “uppercase,” since they are what really matters. The business should be built around taking care of them. The brand is “lowercase.” The brand doesn’t exist for it’s own pleasure; the brand is about the customer.

Major brands are not formed by putting energy into making a brand, but by companies and individuals that provide outstanding products or services. The brand identity is a gift wrapping of sorts. The gift inside is what deserves more attention. That would be your business.

I’m not saying don’t build your brand. Just don’t put the cart in front of the proverbial horse.