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An Understanding Of All Things Brand: The 10K Foot View

You have to understand that a brand is way beyond a logo now. You do understand that, because the Mad Men paradigm where we cook up Frankenstein in the lab and serve it up to you has been destroyed.

In its place is an open kitchen where you can see me cooking, and if I put sulfuric acid in the chocolate pudding you’ll know right away, you’ll Tweet it and Instagram it and my restaurant will close before the first menu ever gets printed.
If we begin with this “first principle” or common assumption then the rest of the major questions about branding, the tired debates we’ve been engaging in for more than a decade now, have been resolved.
And while scientific studies about which tactical approach are useful for marketing journals, it is the unresolved theoretical issues that have screwed the profession up badly. To the point where the word “branding” in some circles has become a kind of poison, a valid and critical discipline that cannot be uttered in name lest everybody in the room get kind of nauseous and walk out of the conference room, agreeing to disagree.
We can finally agree to agree (get ready for some upper-case shouting) that:
It is a product of the COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUSNESS that only has meaning insofar as we all agree to agree on what it means.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then think about your top five Hollywood portrayals of romance. They aren’t X-rated, nor NC-17, nor R. Frequently there is no sex in them! Maybe we see a passionate kiss. Do you want to know why? Because passion is created IN THE MIND. A moviemaker that has to resort to porn is like a host that serves you Twinkies for dinner and thinks your sugar high is an appreciation for the quality of the cuisine.
Brands are in the mind. So for the logo to work (it’s not “logo or operations,” it’s both), the logo has to evoke something. When I see the American flag I feel all sorts of emotions welling up in me. Pride. Gratitude. Anger at the sins committed in the name of patriotism. Oneness with other Americans. Freedom. Love.
The American flag is a great brand, but it’s not a great brand because someone had a good idea to put red, white and blue together with stars and stripes. It’s a great brand because of action on the ground, the discussion of that action and the ensuing collective belief that what we have is something worth fighting for.
I don’t advocate for using other words to replace the correct one. Your brand is your brand. It is a verb (the act of branding) and a noun (your ensuing image in the collective consciousness). Your brand is associated with your reputation, but your reputation does not encompass all of the factors that go into the brand.
You can’t reduce your brand to a set of activities nor do the collection of activities you do create the brand in and of themselves. Your brand is intentionally built by advertising, marketing, communications, PR, social media, sales, customer service, knowledge management, collaboration tools, internal communications, HR, training, organizational development, IT, and even facilities. Every person associated with your company, and every structure and process you’ve set up to represent you, represents your brand.
You can’t control the brand. You can partially engineer it. The way you do that is by having a sense of the process by which brands are built. Roughly, loosely, based on the lived experience I’ve had in my professional life, these are the stages. The sequence of events may differ or overlap.
  1. Recognition – the brand becomes “a problem” or “an issue” or “something we need to deal with.”
  2. Research – formal or informal, paid or unpaid, short-term or long-term, qualitative or quantitative, based on experience and “gut feel,” conversations and anecdotal feedback over time. Some form of data collection.
  3. Discussion – there is a conversation or a series of conversations about what to do about “the problem.”
  4. Decision – someone takes action, either formally and with the blessing of others involved or informally and working around them. They move to implementation and the implementation affects other decisions, conversations, research and perhaps generates additional recognition that “something needs to be done.”
  5. Implementation – this is the normal range of brand implementation activities, the ones you think of when you think of classic Madison Avenue branding.
  6. Revision – these are the things you do when your brand begins to be the subject of the news media, social media, stakeholder discussion, etc. Or when others start to copy it.
  7. Co-creation – these are the range of activities associated with enabling your stakeholders/audience to involve themselves in the evolution of your brand.
This model is about to be upended.
Why? You only have a very short period of time within which you “control” your branding efforts.
It is as if your brand is a child. In the olden days of branding you could hold the child within your grasp practically forever, and only “unleash,” release or leak the parts you wanted to, to gain the equity you needed while also revitalizing and rebranding so that you could outrun the competition.
Like Madonna. She is the quintessential model of “old branding,” and to an extent that model remains. It is impossible for anyone to copy her, because she’s…Madonna.
In the new days of branding, you basically have six weeks of maternity leave to give the infant some basic milk and cuddling. After that, if it has any value, the world descends on it and everybody wants a piece.
Bill Cosby’s brand was once like Madonna’s and it is now destroyed, because we know why. It’s not about a trial in a court of law, it is about the impact of social media and the news media and the women who have come forward to say that he is not what he presented himself to be.
As the technical subject matter expert on branding what you want to do is be in front of the up-ended model we now face. You want to establish that you are in fact, so to speak, pregnant with a very valuable baby and you want to sell that kid very well before it ever sees daylight. Celebrities know this well and that’s why they market the hell out of their kids while they are still, literally, infants.
Then you shorten the cycle time on 1-6, because you have to go out with something and iterate.
You involve the public in #7, co-creating, much earlier rather than later – you don’t wait until you’ve marketed something for them to react and “help.”
If Starbucks were to use co-creation I can assure you they would stop showing a display of dead pastries basically ASAP, as it really ruins the quality image of the rest of the organization.
Waze, the travel app is the epitome of the co-created brand. I love this little app and if I had money to invest, I would invest the kitchen sink in this thing. Useful, social, nobody is falsely engineering it, and it actually helps people. It has an identity over and above that, but the identity is very close to a meaning we all, literally, create.
I am a “Wazer” now.
Think about your role as a formal or informal communicator. What brand are you building? How are you involving other people? How are you taking in feedback? How are you turning that feedback into activity that changes the way the brand displays itself? Is there a core set of values, beliefs, mission requirements that cannot change regardless of the feedback you get?
These are the things you need to be thinking about. And because brand-building is resource-intensive, it’s critical to leverage all available resources who can help. You don’t have to be a technical expert, but you do have to understand what you’re doing, and be able to explain it to others.
All opinions my own. Photo by Chris Goldberg via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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