"Born to brand" is an understatement when it comes to Deb Gabor. Tune in for the story on the "Building America" segment of The Morning Blaze with Doc Thompson on how Sol's founder and CEO became an "accidental entrepreneur" with her unique branding philosophy. So, what IS Deb's approach to branding, you might ask? You absolutely, positively MUST understand your customers to establish your brand! And always remember -- Brand or be branded!
It might be difficult for some people to see the overlap between political consulting and branding, but as we experienced in the last election cycle, branding is playing a larger role in campaigning than ever before. These emerging market trends line up perfectly with our brand philosophies at Sol Marketing. Here are some lessons we learned this past January: 1. Before anything else, make sure your political party is in alignment. This will allow you to communicate with your target audience in a deliberate and effective way.
2. It's not what you do, it's how you do it!
3. Don't try to be something you're not - authenticity is key.
4. With all types of distractions floating around these days, it can be hard to keep anyone's attention. Candidates have to be creative in how they stand out; the more eyeballs that are on you, the better.
Read on for a better understanding of political consulting trends and how they relate to branding: https://www.campaignsandelections.com/campaign-insider/10-trends-in-political-consulting-the-trendsetters-that-made-them-cool
The brands of both major US political parties are broken. Both parties crafted brands that have revealed that they're out of alignment with their constituents. The fact that so many pollsters and pundits were wrong reveals that voters hid their true intentions. Democrats made too many assumptions and suffered. Many Republicans disavowed a candidate whose brand eventually won anyhow. My personal observations while on my morning commute this election season reinforced significant branding problems for both parties. Gone were the bumper stickers and magnetic car signs common on my route back in 2008 and 2012. And where were all the yard signs advertising my neighbors’ support for their preferred candidates? I observed a totally different kind of water cooler conversation this time around too, in which my colleagues talked in generalities about campaign shenanigans and the media, but rarely stated strong opinions about any party’s candidate for fear others would judge them harshly. Myself, I was downright embarrassed to admit my political leanings to anyone. I still am.
Let’s dissect some specifics a bit further through the lens of branding. If you’ve been following along at home, you now know that a brand’s role is to answer these three important questions for its customers:
- What does it say about a person that they use/wear/drive/eat/drink/support this brand?
The number of Republicans who went on record saying they wouldn't support Trump was well over 100. It shook many Republican voters' confidence in their party's candidate. After all, the ultimate in brand embarrassment is when the "company" doesn't eat its own dog food.
- What is the singular thing a person gets from this brand they can’t get anywhere else?
Jayson Demers, CEO of AudienceBloom, wrote an article on the Entrepreneur website on this very topic. Trump gave his audience a niche-focused message to white working class males. He was extreme and polarizing, which his audience valued. He was anti-establishment, which played into the general dissatisfaction Americans felt. Trump was also nostalgic. He consistently reminded his audience of a time when they believed America was better. Trump’s Facebook and Twitter numbers certainly proved that he had struck a nerve, doubling Hillary Clinton's followers in both channels.
- How does this brand make a person the hero in his/her own story?
Hillary made her brand about her. This hurt her with minorities. Many couldn’t see the Clinton brand making them the hero. The facts show that her campaign failed to activate the minority coalition that supported Obama in previous elections. According to Pew Research, “Hillary Clinton did not run as strongly among these core Democratic groups as Obama did in 2012. Clinton held an 80-point advantage among blacks (88% to 8%,) compared with Obama’s 87-point edge four years ago (93% to 6%). In 2008, Obama had a 91-point advantage among blacks.” Back in 2012, voters clearly saw how they could be a hero in the Obama narrative.
Bottom line: brands exist to elevate their customers’ self-concepts. Customers align themselves with brands because they like what those brands say about them. The brands they love make them feel proud, give them that feeling they have the world on a string, like they can accomplish anything, like they’ll reach self-actualization and achieve their full potential as humans.
Check out this throwback from February 2014. Well before Deb decided to write her book, Branding Is Sex: Get Your Customers Laid and Sell The Hell Out of Anything. Did we see the future?http://blog.solmarketing.com/
Branding is, in a lot of ways, the act of creating expectations for how you will interact with your customers. Like an individual’s personality can give you clues into what interacting with him or her will be like, a brand’s personality sets the expectation for what you’ll experience as a customer of a particular brand.
Whether that’s the expectation that you’ll be relieved when you call Zappos customer service, excited by the kindness of the team at Passion Planners, delighted by the fun emails from Kettle and Fire, or hysterically laughing at any interaction with Cards Against Humanity, brands have a personality, and it dictates what we expect from them.
The brand personality can help bring your brand into clearer focus. It provides you with clues to how you want customers to experience your brand—the feeling you want to give them when they interact with you through your marketing, customer service, and even your products.
What’s my brand’s personality?
To understand your brand’s personality, think of your brand as if it were a human being. Create a comprehensive list of personality traits by detailing as many characteristics of that person as you can.
If you’re having trouble getting started, begin by considering how old your brand is. Is it ten years old? Is it twenty years old? Is it forty years old? Is it sixty-five years old?
Is your brand a man or a woman? Is it friendly or slightly more aggressive? Is it a lone wolf? Is it funny? Is it maybe a little bit irreverent? Does it like to shock people?
One of my favorite travel brands is Virgin America. I will happily fly at odd times of the day or on different days of the week in order to take a Virgin flight instead of a flight on one of the usual suspects like United, American, or Delta, just because I love the Virgin brand.
Most of our domestic airlines have really dry, authoritarian personalities (with the exception of Southwest Airlines). Aside from going “off book” as an outlaw brand, the Virgin brand personality is distinctly different from other airlines. It’s upbeat. It’s funny. It’s uplifting. It’s irreverent. It doesn’t feel oppressive and rigid like the other airlines.
Most travel days, I show up at the airport thinking, “How am I going to get screwed today?” When I fly Virgin, I don’t have that feeling, and I actually look forward to flying. I feel the brand’s warmth. It’s welcoming. It’s modern. It’s hip. It’s lighthearted.
In contrast, I recently took a trip to New York on Delta, another brand that offers a product that is exactly the same as what Virgin America provides. Yet Delta’s personality feels completely different than Virgin’s. Everything on Delta was totally buttoned up, all the way down to the uniforms that the flight attendants wore—pressed blouses buttoned all the way up to the top, suit jackets and vests, and black stockings. To Delta’s credit, they had an entertaining in-flight safety video featuring a host of visual gags to keep passengers’ attention. But the whole experience of watching that video fell flat because it didn’t align with the rest of Delta’s more serious brand personality.
Brand personality is so important for defining the way people experience the brand. The brand personality informs everything from the way the brand looks, the way it sounds, the voice and music it uses in its commercials, the actual words it always says, and words it would never say.
Brand personality is another way to ensure your brand carries the right tone and character to deliver on your brand promise to your customer.
When I consult with clients and they struggle with the story their brand tells about their customer, my favorite shortcut is to ask, “How does your product or service get your customer laid?” I literally ask my clients this very question. At first, they’re shocked. But it works.
Strong brands help their customers solve problems, present a positive image to the world, feel empowered, feel accomplished, and feel like the hero in their own personal stories.
Think about what happens when you’re feeling like you’re on top of the world, feeling heroic, and feeling that everything is working out the way you hoped it would.
No matter which cliché you use—the feeling of having wind in your sails, the world on a string, or holding life by the balls—that feeling puts you in the mood for sex.
When I say having sex, it may mean literally jumping into bed naked with your partner. But it may also have a more figurative meaning: experiencing the exhilaration of neighbors or other moms in the carpool complimenting, fawning over, and praising you, as well as having your ego stroked and being appreciated your husband and children. All of these things feel great, too.
Branding is about making people feel so good that they want to take a roll in the hay. That’s it.
The IT manager as hero
The most successful and profitable brands in the world are created around people. Sure, some brands are naturally sexier than others, but why should a purchasing manager have less of an emotional connection to their microprocessors than I do to my shoes?
Let me give you an example.
My company works extensively with Dell Corporation on the enterprise side of their business, the part of their company that sells systems and solutions to the IT managers of other businesses. Traditionally, Dell treated enterprise IT managers as if they were robots—completely devoid of feelings and abstract thoughts.
What we know here at Sol Marketing is that each of those IT managers has a story they are writing for their own lives. That story involves them, eventually, getting laid.
If your brand can help that happen, you’ll have a loyal customer.
When I am working with Dell or with any other company that sells technology products and services to IT purchase influencers, I want the company to step outside of itself as a brand and step into the hearts and minds of its IT manager customer. That IT manager is a human being who has wants and needs and desires.
Conjure up an image of that person in your mind. Ask yourself, “What does success look like for that person? What does getting laid look like for him or her?” Then ask yourself, “How does my product/brand/service do that for them?”
Dell sells a lot of servers. The servers Dell sells go into racks that live in computer rooms and data centers all over the world. Servers don’t feel cool when you hold them in your hand. To the unindoctrinated, run-of-the-mill human, a server probably looks like a mess of metal and plastic and wires.
On the surface, a server just isn’t that sexy, nor is the Dell brand. A server is not like a bottle of perfume, a designer leather jacket, or a Ferrari.
So let’s do an exercise for illustration’s sake. For purposes of this exercise, take a walk in an IT manager customer’s shoes. Let’s say this particular customer is a forty-seven-year-old man. He works at a nationwide furniture retailer with stores in twenty-two states.
He has a need to put together an IT program in which all of the remote stores can send their transaction and inventory data to a central location at night. That requires a lot of computing power, remote access capabilities, and powerful servers and software—none of which are very sexy. All of those things must work together flawlessly.
If you think about what is unsexy about this IT manager’s job, it is a phone call from a store manager in the middle of the night. Also unsexy is when the chief information officer comes down on him hard and says, “We did not pull data last night, and we don’t have the store-by-store results. My boss is up my ass for sales results, and because of an IT infrastructure issue and a network failure, we cannot do that.”
These are terribly unsexy things that can happen to this guy, and they absolutely can prevent him from getting laid.
The essence of brand strategy is to take that unsexiness and turn it around. To do that, you should ask, “How do we actually get that guy laid?”
How we get our IT manager laid
Dell does that by offering reliable products that they stand behind and develop with IT purchase influencers’ needs in mind. Dell is trying to give that IT manager the world-on-a-string feeling we described earlier in this chapter by delivering on its promises to him.
Dell’s goal is to make that IT manager the hero in his own story. It’s right there in their current brand manifesto: “The Power to Do More.”
Dell gives an IT manager the power to do more, not only with IT but in his life. Dell gets him home for dinner on time and inspires him with the confidence that everything back at work is functioning flawlessly, even when he’s not there.
Dell’s industry-leading uptime and reliability get him laid by preventing phone calls in the middle of the night when stores cannot send their data to the home office.
Dell makes sure the boss is not standing in the IT manager’s office at 8:00 a.m. the next morning growling, “Where have you been? The network crashed.”
These are the things Dell does to help him become the hero in the story of his life. Sure, Dell products are reliable, scalable, flexible, durable, innovative, and a good value. But it’s the way they make, sell, deliver, and support those products that enable their customers to “do more.”
How can you get your customer laid?
Take a moment to answer this same question for your own brand.
What does your customer need? What gets them love, attention, and affection? What could go wrong with your brand that would ruin their chances at sex?
By understanding the story behind your customer’s purchase, you’ll be better suited to ensure you are getting your customer laid. That’s the whole game.
As we discussed in Your Brand Comes From Your Customers, Not You, branding isn’t about your color scheme, or the clever tagline you come up with from the confines of your office. Branding is about how your customer actually perceives you.
If your customer perceives you as filling a need (tangible or psychological) they have, that’s the essence of good branding.
With this perspective in mind, it becomes clear that the first step to successful branding is understanding your customers and their needs.
We’ve talked about the three questions, the brand values pyramid, and the ideal customer profile—all great tools to dive into your customer's’ needs and psychology—but the next question most marketers ask is always...
How do I learn about my customers?
So how do you learn everything about your customers?
Three words: talk to them.
There are many different ways to talk to your customers. On the super-low-budget end of the spectrum, you can just hang around in a Starbucks and ask people to try your product or service and then ask them for their opinions.
Be sure to ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you like about this brand?” Or, “How do you see this fitting into your life?” Or, “What would you change about this?” Actually talking to customers face-to-face is one of the most valuable things you can do to understand your brand.
Another easy way for marketing managers and executives to interact with customers is by fielding customer service calls or inbound sales calls. Even at the CEO level, if you take customer service calls for a few hours every month, it might just be the most valuable time you ever spend. The callers won’t have any idea you’re the CEO, so they won’t sugarcoat how they feel about your brand. And you can ask them almost anything you want and they’ll answer honestly.
Another free method is hosting a pizza and beer party (or pizza and wine party, depending upon your target demographic). Invite friends and friends of friends to visit your office or your home and try your product. Tell them you’ll provide take-out food and beverages in exchange for their time. The key here is to make sure you’re getting honest feedback. Friends and family usually will try to tell you they love it, even if they don’t. So offer them the booze in exchange for brutal, unvarnished honesty.
Those three ways of talking to customers are free. Even if you’re an entrepreneur on a shoestring budget, you have no excuse not to do them. As we discussed in When You’re Ready, It’s Too Late, the sooner you can start doing exercises like this to understand your customer, the better.
On the opposite end of the cost spectrum is formal market research, such as in-depth interviews, ethnographies, focus groups, and surveys. Professional focus groups can yield a tremendous amount of data, but they’re costly. Many books discuss techniques in market research. If you’re on a budget, or you have no budget, you may want to check out the book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, which suggests many methods for obtaining customer feedback throughout the development and growth process.
Don’t overcomplicate things. If you are having trouble answering the question, “What does it say about a person that they use your brand?”, just go out and ask them.
“What do you think it says about you that you use this brand?”
It’s as basic as that. Start there and then you can expand your customer research to learn other important things about your products, services, and brand.
The bullshit test
Understanding what your customers need and marketing to that isn’t enough. You need to walk the walk.
Once you understand your customers, ask yourself, “Do we have places where it’s an incomplete experience? Are our customer service representatives embodying what we say our brand stands for? Does our product or service really do what we say it does? Do customers experience the essence of our brand in a way that adds value to their lives?”
It’s important to know the answers to these questions so you can assess how well you and the rest of your organization are aligned on delivering a brand experience.
Zappos.com is known for its excellent customer service. That’s their brand promise. But what if a customer called and had a problem with a pair of shoes and wanted some resolution but the customer service rep was snotty to her on the phone?
Their marketing materials wouldn’t matter, because the customer’s experience wouldn’t be living up to the brand promise. They wouldn’t be fulfilling the need that the customer had, and therefore wouldn’t be living their brand.
When to hire outside help
One reason you may need professional help is that sometimes your boss or your team or your CEO is so in love with the brand that they can’t see its flaws. Sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective.
I look at my daughter and I am just in love with her. I think she is amazing, incredibly beautiful, smart, and talented, but I probably overlook a lot of flaws because she is mine. I made her. She came from my genes and my loins. A brand can be like that, too. It’s easy not to see the flaws, especially for founders and long-time team members.
Bringing in an outside brand consultant might make sense for you, but it’s getting ahead of ourselves.
- Speak to your customers. Try to really understand their wants, needs, and motivations.
- Read Branding is Sex. Use the tools discussed earlier in this post to gain clarity on who your customers are and how your brand needs to serve them.
- If you’re still struggling to get your branding right, or if it just isn’t clicking with your customers, think about hiring an outside brand strategist.
We all want a loyal following. We’re constantly looking for that magical marketing plan that will connect us to our audience and make our product an irreplaceable part of their life. What we don’t often realize is that connections are relationships. If we aren’t clear about who we are, no one is going to be interested in dating us.
In my book Branding Is Sex, I’ve devoted an entire chapter to understanding who your brand is, and how you should be starting a relationship with your customers.
The short version is this: There are 12 basic identities—or archetypes—a brand can assume. Below I’ve broken down all 12 in extreme detail to help you understand where you belong.
1. The magician makes dreams come true
The magician archetype is all about vision. Magician brands don’t build you a better toothbrush or help you keep your house clean, they bring your wildest dreams to life.
What they offer is a grand experience no one else could achieve. A magician is so in tune with the fundamentals of the universe that they can create the impossible.
Disney is the perfect magician. Disney is fundamentally a media company, but they are unlike any other.
Quick—think of the books and videos that have helped you in your career. You’re probably thinking of titles targeted to your industry, full of actionable advice and guidance.
Disney doesn’t do any of that. What they offer is a transformative experience.
They are in a category of their own because of the grandness of their vision. Imagine another brand that could build a “Magic Kingdom” or a “Disney World.”
2. The sage is always seeking the truth
To a sage, wisdom is the key to success. Everything else is secondary to the pursuit of knowledge.
A sage brand might not feel warm and cuddly. They don’t enrapture you in a fantastic world like Disney. Instead, a sage commands your respect by showing their brilliance.
Take this video for example. It’s not about success in life or fantasy, it’s about the power of knowledge. The video says the secrets of the universe hide in books, and that Harvard is where they are studied.
3. The innocent just wants to be happy
The innocent belongs in paradise. Everyone is free, virtuous, and happy in an innocent’s world.
An innocent brand will never guilt you with an ad or go over the top to convince you. Instead, an innocent brand will charm you with something much more powerful: Nostalgia.
Orville Redenbacher is the prototypical innocent archetype.
[source: Hammer and Rails]
What adult do you know who is that happy about their suspenders? What adult do you know that even owns suspenders?
But that’s Orville’s appeal. They sell you a childhood treat, popcorn, and their mascot is a grandpa who hasn’t stopped having fun since bowties were a thing unironically.
Nothing heavy-handed, just happiness.
4. The outlaw wants revolution
The outlaw isn’t afraid. Outlaw brands control their own life without regard for the status quo.
Where the innocent archetype touches the part of you that loved snack time in kindergarten, the outlaw archetype appeals to the part of you that cut classes in high school.
Building a cult following like Apple is the ultimate goal of an outlaw brand.
Remember those old iPod commercials where monochrome people had the best times of their lives dancing?
[source: Cult of Macs]
That ad doesn’t tell you to stand in a crowd or go to a concert. It tells you to be yourself, to dance whenever you like, and to do it with Apple.
If you think Apple doesn’t have a cult following, consider this. Did people wait in line for hours when the Galaxy S7 was released? No, is the answer.
5. The jester lives in the moment
The jester is all about having fun. Jester brands might not be curing illnesses, but they’re making your day better.
Humor, silliness, even nonsense are all in a jester’s toolkit. The goal of a jester brand is to make you smile with light-hearted fun.
The Old Spice Man is one of our all-time favorite ad campaigns, and the perfect example of a jester archetype.
Some guys react well to hyper-masculine branding. Other guys don’t. By making a joke out of these super manly brands, Old Spice gets to appeal to both sides.
Guys who are into overly masculine brands get to be in on the joke. Guys who aren’t into macho brands get to laugh at them.
Everybody laughs, and everybody likes Old Spice as a result.
6. The lover wants to make you theirs
Passion, pleasure, and sensuality are the lover’s keywords. A lover brand wants you to associate them with intimate moments in your life.
What do you buy to celebrate? What do you buy your significant other for birthdays and anniversaries? Chances are, you’re buying from a lover brand.
Think of Godiva Chocolate ads. Do they ever make you think about your health, your finances, or your future?
No. Godiva seduces you. It shows off its richness and creaminess. It invites you to take part in life’s greatest indulgence: Chocolate.
7. The explorer wants to break free
Freedom is all an explorer cares about. Where other brands might try to help you build a home, explorer brands want to get you outside.
With this in mind, it makes sense that many outdoor brands are natural fits for the explorer archetype.
Subaru is the classic explorer brand. They don’t sell their cars based on luxury or comfort, they stress the freedom a Subaru provides.
Blizzard? No problem. Subaru lets you decide where you’re going, no matter the circumstance. You’re free.
8. The ruler wants absolute power
Luxury and exclusivity are what the ruler is all about. A ruler brand is a gatekeeper. If a customer buys from them, they get to belong to the elite.
Being perceived as high-quality and expensive is critical for a ruler brand. Jewelry and high-end vehicles are natural fits for the ruler archetype.
Do you buy a Mercedes Benz because of its crash test rating? What about its gas mileage? Its heated seats?
No. You buy a Mercedes Benz because you can afford to, and most other people can’t. Whenever you park your car, people will understand your status without you saying a word.
That quietly understood value is what a ruler brand sells.
9. The caregiver wants to nurture you
The caregiver is benevolent. They want to be there for you and the people you love.
Caregiver brands are all about warmth and trust. You can depend on them when it comes to your children. It’s rare to see a caregiver brand run an ad that takes a shot at their competition. They are the opposite of confrontational.
Johnson & Johnson’s tagline line is “Johnson & Johnson: A Family Company.” You can’t get more committed to families than that.
[source: Johnson & Johnson]
A Johnson & Johnson ad always focuses on how their products help you take care of your children. How their products build families. This is bread-and-butter for the caregiver archetype.
A caregiver is all about instilling trust between in the customer that for the rest of their life, the brand will be there for them.
10. The hero wants to prove himself
The hero makes the world better by being the best. A hero brand isn’t concerned with nurturing you, they’re interested in challenging you.
If you want to rise to the occasion, you’re going to need a hero’s help.
The U.S. Army is the ultimate example of a hero archetype.
Think of the recruitment commercials you’ve seen with troops jumping out of helicopters, running through training courses, and protecting the country. Any of that resemble your day-to-day?
Of course not. It’s not supposed to. It’s designed to compel you to “answer the call” and rise to the occasion by joining with a hero brand: The U.S. Army.
11. The regular guy/girl wants to belong
No glitz or glamour, just a reliable product that gets the job done. That’s what regular guy/girl brands are selling.
The archetype is focused on providing something so far removed from pretentiousness that it can appeal to everyone. It is the hardest archetype to pull off, because you have to have a product that actually appeals across demographics.
Everyone drinks coffee. Not every individual person, but every major demographic with the possible exception of infants. That’s what makes Folgers a great every guy/girl brand.
Folgers doesn’t market to a hip crowd. They don’t brag about their high quality, all-organic coffee. They keep it simple: “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.”
Everyone wakes up. Everyone drinks Folgers.
12. The creator craves perfection
A creator isn’t worried about the cost of production or making things at scale. They care about one thing: building the perfect product.
While the magician also stresses vision and imagination, creators are different in that they don’t unlock the world’s magic and create the impossible. They create the perfect product.
Lego is a great example of a creator archetype. Take a look at this ad for Lego Vision:
[source: Ads of the World]
Lego recreated in stunning detail the most famous sights of the world. They didn’t build new sites, and they didn’t create some new technology that put the sites in your home.
Lego used the simplest technology possible: blocks. They took this simplicity and pushed it to its most perfectionist extreme. That’s what being a creator is all about.
What archetype is your brand?
This is one of the key questions we help clients answer at Sol Marketing. Almost every client comes to the table assuming they are the every guy/girl, but in 99% of cases, they aren’t.
Drilling down into what makes your brand special and how your customers best connect with your products isn’t easy, but it’s the most important thing you can do to understand what archetype you should be using.
The ideas in this post were inspired byCarol Pearson’s The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes.
Ah, startups. The land where branding is everything, yet most companies ignore it. For a branding geek like me, startups are incredibly fun and rewarding to work with. In addition to Sol Marketing, I also run another business called InvestorPitches.com, where we work with early stage companies to help them tell their stories effectively.
In my work with startups, the same theme comes up over and over again:
- Is it too early to start branding?
- Is branding a worthwhile investment at this phase?
- Can’t we just focus on having a great product?
Of course, having a great product is important. But it’s not a trade-off where you can choose one or the other. For an early stage company nobody has heard of, branding is absolutely essential.
It’s Never Too Early
I always say, “Brand early, often, and always.”
Startups often fall into the trap of thinking they need to grow and be established players before branding matters. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The truth is, whether you work on it or not, you will have a brand. There will be a set of emotions, expectations, and feelings around your brand in the minds of customers. And if you don’t intentionally decide what that brand should be, your customers will decide it for you.
For an unfunded startup, it may be too early to invest significantly in ad spend and building a visual brand. But it’s never too early to understand your brand strategy from your customers’ point of view.
Minimum Viable Brand
Branding doesn’t need to be a big ordeal. New companies without much money to spend don’t need to hire expensive outside consultants, or run costly research studies, in order to understand their brand. But they do need to think about it.
At the very least, I encourage startups in their very early phase to understand the answers to the three fundamental questions of branding:
1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?
2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?
3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?
These questions are simple, but they aren’t always easy to answer. Don’t think of this as a one-time, thirty-minute exercise. Instead, think of the process of answering of these questions as an ongoing discussion that unfolds as you find product-market fit.
I spend three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, explaining how best to understand and answer these questions. If you implement this process early, your branding is well taken care of. Like I said, branding doesn’t need to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. The book only costs $8.99!
As a start-up, if you do nothing else, dedicate time each month to discussing these three questions. This process gives you your brand’s North Star, which gives you direction and points you toward where you’re going.
Benefits Beyond Branding
The best thing about branding at the early stage isn’t just that it will impact how customers see you. It’ll also impact how you see yourself.
By going through this exercise, you’ll identify not only what you’re going to do but also, and more importantly, what you’re not going to do. It’s really easy as a startup to be opportunistic and to try to be all things to all customers.
But we all know that doesn’t work long term.
When you start to understand your branding and know directionally where you’re going, you can make more strategic, thoughtful, and deliberate decisions about your business.
We all know that many companies have a hard time getting their branding right. They have rebrand after rebrand, but their message never seems to hit home with customers. It seems helpless. After working with hundreds of companies in this exact situation, I’m confident to say that it isn’t helpless. They’re just making one fatal mistake:
These companies are focusing on the output of branding before adequately understanding their customers.
Many companies see branding as writing the perfect copy, choosing the perfect color scheme, and writing up a perfect brand message. This isn’t the case. These things might be the output of branding, but branding is one thing: understanding your customer.
This is a challenge. There are thousands of ways you can understand your customers, and many companies are paralyzed with understanding where to start.
From my experience helping companies understand their customers, there are three core questions that really get to the root of how the brand and customer interact. If you can answer these three questions, you’ll be in a much better place to start your branding process.
1) What does your brand say about your customers?
The first question for brands to answer is what it says about a person that he or she uses this brand. What does it communicate both to the outside world and to the customer him or herself?
This is important because, at its core, this is what a brand is. It’s a statement about the customer, and it’s crucial that, as a business, you know what that statement is.
Answering this question requires you to really get inside your customers’ heads and understand what they want to achieve in their lives, how they measure their success in achieving those goals, what they care most deeply about, and, ultimately, how the brand must deliver.
2) What is the singular thing your brand delivers that customers can’t get from anyone else?
The second question to understand is what the singular thing is that a person using this brand gets from it that they can’t get from any other brand.
In other words, what makes your brand singular and indispensable. What you’ll find, as you dig into this question, is that most of the answers aren’t tangible. It’s unlikely that your product has a feature that no competitors can provide. Instead, what commonly comes up are intangible benefits, like the ways the company makes them feel or the story it tells them about themselves.
3) How do you make your customer a hero in the story of his or her own life?
The third question requires an understanding of how your brand makes the customer a hero in his or her own life story.
Everybody wants to be the hero in his or her own story. Everybody wants to be the protagonist. Some brands may achieve that in an obvious way (like a fashion brand making the customer stand out from the crowd), whereas others might be more subtle (like an IT brand making the purchasing manager look good in front of their colleagues). No matter what the case, if you can answer this question, you’ll have loyal customers for life.
At a very high level, everything we do in branding is about answering those three questions.
Before you do any copywriting, design, or other branding outputs, take some time to answer those three questions. If you have trouble getting to the bottom of them, don’t worry. Ask your customers for help, and keep digging until you really understand them.
With this newfound understanding of who your customers are and how they want to interact with your brand, you’ll be on the path to defining a powerful brand strategy.
Branding is a funny thing. It’s often a part of marketing, but requires different skillsets than the marketing team has. It comes from the customer experience, but customer service reps aren’t able to set the strategy. It requires design, but it starts long before design. So the question is: Who is responsible for branding?
This question is one of the main issues that stands between a company and a powerful brand.
So who should be responsible for the brand strategy at your company? It doesn’t matter if you are a small business owner with five employees, or you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar company, the answer is the same...
Branding is everybody’s responsibility.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs, branding is not the responsibility of some marketing manager or the person in charge of campaigns or the person with brand in his or her title.
Organizations that benefit most from branding are the ones where everyone in the company is a steward of their brand.
The companies that do the best are the ones in which the people at the top of the organization lead the charge for branding. In those companies, it’s often the CEO, but it’s also the COO and the CFO and the CTO and basically anybody with a “C” in their title who takes up the cause and drives the strategy through the entire organization.
In order for branding to work, every single person must feel ownership and responsibility for the brand. And the leadership must drive that into every nook and cranny of the organization so that people are walking the brand talk.
How do you do that? It starts by answering the three most important brand questions for your business:
- What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?
- What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?
- How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?
These are big questions. Branding is Sex spends three full chapters diving into how to best answer each of them. But once these questions are answered, you have the foundation to allow your entire team to take responsibility for branding.
Your answers to these questions, as well as your understanding of what’s at the top of your Brand Values Pyramid, need to become gospel within your company. Every employee should know the answers and, more importantly, should embody them in their day to day actions.
It should be clear to everyone in your company that every single thing that any person in the company does must align with delivering on those promises.
When you have that, the question is no longer “Who is responsible for branding?” Instead, it becomes “Who isn’t responsible for branding?”
Branding on a Shoestring General Assembly 600 Congress, 14th Floor Monday, August 8
- Basics of branding -- what it is and what it isn't
- Why and when to brand your early stage company
- Using DIY techniques to define your brand's core DNA and story
- Building a visual and verbal identity on the cheap
- Growth hacking your go-to-market strategy
- Getting in market without going out of business
- Using your resources wisely
By Deb Gabor I hear one question from business owners all the time: “When should we brand?”
My answer is always the same: “Early, often, and always.”
Branding is not optional, and the risks of not taking it seriously are very real. Your customers might lose touch with your brand and leave you. A competitor with a strong commitment to branding might overtake you. Or, perhaps worst of all, the market might define your brand for you.
Brand yourself, or someone else will brand you. It’s very dangerous to let your customers, or the news media, or bloggers, or social media, or your competitors define your brand for you.
If you don’t intentionally control your brand yourself, it will take on a life of its own.
Brand or be branded For decades, cable television companies had no competition. They owned a local franchise, which allowed them to do business in a particular geographic area, and that was that. The regional cable companies had mini-monopolies because their customers had few options for home entertainment.
Hence, they often didn’t treat their customers well.
The cable companies knew their customers weren’t going to leave and, as a result, poor customer service became an ingrained way of doing business.
I don’t know if you’ve ever personally had the experience of being a customer of any of the big cable TV companies. If you have, then you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming sense of dread that comes whenever you have to call a cable company about anything. Dealing with cable companies is not a pleasant experience.
Invariably, you’ll start by waiting on hold for 30 minutes. When you do get a customer service rep on the line, you have to repeat all your account information that you’ve already entered. Then the rep will ask you a bunch of stupid questions you already answered for the person you spoke with previously. When you do schedule your appointment, customer service provides you a four-hour window of time when you need to be home. The technician shows up either early or late, or not at all. Finally, you get your cable bill, which is already too high to begin with, and discover that the company charged you way more than you expected for the service call.
When it comes to customer satisfaction—or the lack of it—it doesn’t get much worse than this.
With that atrocious level of customer service, pretty soon some of the big cable companies earned a dismal reputation among customers. You can go into a party and overhear people talking about how frustrated they are with their cable provider. “Oh gosh, I had to call the cable company the other day. What a nightmare. I’m still upset!” Everybody in the room utters a sigh of disgust because they’ve experienced the same thing.
Pretty soon, Consumer Reports or Temkin Group releases a survey and finds that the cable industry has the lowest customer satisfaction scores of any industry. Then the news media picks up the story. The bloggers start ranting. Twitter goes crazy.
Before you know it, the cable industry has been branded as an awful industry that abuses its customers. It can be very difficult to shed that reputation, and it can take years.
The cable industry lost control of its brand and let someone else—in this case, customers—own the brand. When you don’t take control of your brand’s image, and you don’t properly manage the relationship you have with your customers, the results can be devastating. And they show up on the bottom line.
What to do instead Branding doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t need to have a major branding agency on retainer or go on weeklong branding retreats.
By answering three major questions, you can take control of your brand and understand who you are and how you fit in the market.
These are deep questions, and three full chapters in my book, Branding is Sex, are dedicated to understanding them and how best to answer them.
1) What does it say about the customer that they choose your brand?
2) What is the singular thing that only your brand can deliver to your customer?
3) How does your brand make the customer the hero in their own story?
By understanding the answers to these three questions, companies can ensure that they are sending the right message, and that their customers’ experiences are aligning with their messaging.
Branding is not a step-by-step process I want to be clear: Companies cannot just answer those three questions once and then hang up their branding hat. Answering the above questions is an ongoing exercise that should happen throughout the life of the brand. Branding is not something that takes place at a single point in time.
The answers to these questions will always be evolving and, even more importantly, living your brand and ensuring that customers experience your values is a constantly ongoing process.
You are in a competitive environment with changing customer needs and market forces that are beyond your control. Your brand needs to be constantly evolving to meet these challenges. You have to be in constant touch with your customers and your customers’ needs or subject yourself to the risk of becoming irrelevant.