I was recently asked to explain what brand means to an industry association. So I shared some thinking and background on how to look at the importance of branding within the mix of a business or a nonprofit organization. My background includes a large non-profit organization (over $400 million a year) and many smaller associations and charities, where I found that branding was even more important in the growth of the organization.
A few high level thoughts:
1. Brand is not the logo (although the logo is a key brand element), the colors, the ads, or the website.
2. Brand is a promise. It is the outward meaning, understanding and value of the company (or product or service) being associated with that entity.
3. Brand must be aligned with the organization and what it represents.
4. Brand is the split second relationship feeling associated with an organization, its employees and the clients.
5. Brand is the spirit, the feel of an organization.
6. A powerful brand is 100% aligned with the value, the meaning, the movement forward of an organization/product/service. It is the most honest thinking and conversations you will ever have – if not, the brand promise is hollow.
So many people end up spending way too much time on colors, business card designs and web page images when they say brand, but they miss the underlying key thinking and drivers to a truly great brand. In technical environments this urge to jump into tactical stuff too soon is always prevalent. Branding should be the anchor point for the whole organization and the thinking from which other things flow – like design, message, actions within marketing, sales, etc.
Key: Brand allows for alignment of the whole organization. It brings the history and the future vision into the mix. It challenges us to ask, How is what we say we are demonstrated; how is it coming to life? Brand is the experience. It is the proof that what you say you are, you really are and it is demonstrated.
I use a slide when I get to this point of a picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger, all pumped up, with guns blazing and the wording “brand means you can say you are this….” But in realty you are this… and it is a picture of the Teletubbies. You know what I mean, we have all experienced it in our lives. A store that has a tagline, “friendliest store in town” and you never see a smiling face. Or an airline that says “on time and best in class awards for….” and they are hardest people to travel with, or the bank that says in their TV spots “you matter to us” and when you call them you never get a live person and it takes forever to push button your way to one.
I can fill up pages of examples like these. The fact is, the more aligned the brand is with the value you bring, and the people in the organization are living to that brand promise, the more successful you will be in growing and reaching more people. The more off you are, the less alignment there is – well the fact is you can actually create negative brand value and drive the business into the ground.
In the early 1980’s (yes, I am dating myself now) I had the grand privilege of working for Air Products & Chemicals. This was the time before“brand” was a fledgling thought in the eyes of the business world and lexicon, Air Products already understood how key this was to their future success. Not only did we have very well thought out brand standards (which I helped with) but we said across all 66,000 employees, the brand must be lived everyday in all we do.
We are about quality, safety, responsiveness and helping our clients improve results. Think about it, Air Products sold air. But how and what did the liquid nitrogen mean to that company, that hospital, that assembly line? Things like making sure the 3,000 tanker trucks and delivery trucks were designed and painted to match – to stand out. That we made sure the trucks were washed once a week (others in the industry never washed their trucks) or hand wiped every cylinder when it was delivered. To systems, we put in the first telephony system for the liquid cryogenics in the world so that the cryo tanks would call the customers and say (based on their desired refill points) “I am half empty do you want me to send a truck or do you want to talk to a live person?” To the training of employees, and to the safety truck rodeos we sponsored. Even the fact that we had research labs targeting the key markets that any client could use at no cost (food freezing, steel, semiconductor etching, etc.) These were all key to the brand meaning what it did/does.
In 2004 I joined another great company Centennial to help evolve their brand from stealth to the world class recognized industry leader that they really were and still are. I started at the brand development side. I questioned everything from the mission statement, the core values, the development of a value statement, etc. There were difficult sessions from the president on down. I even talked with the competition. I wanted to know the perceptions, the beauty, the soft and the hard spots. The process took about six months to bring to a point were we could craft a branding statement and move forward.
We realized that our brand was about people, solutions, and living up to our promises and that we are a different kind of company. So we made sure that we pulled this brand thinking into our themes, our designs, and our approach to all the marketing and sales. Once the brand platform is crafted and believed and understood, the communications and marketing development efforts flow from here. We realized that our key growth efforts were building brand awareness and building a body of knowledge around Job Order Contracting and Centennial. We also focused on the media and public relations side based on this brand thinking.
Brand is a challenge, because if left untended and cared for it can grow all weedy and diminish over time. People begin to change it, shape it to their view and next thing you know you are no longer aligned and it is hard to be honest with yourself and the organization all the time. Quickly the market feels the loss or shift and they say "hey these people are not what they say they are" and you begin to diminish over time. So every few years you need to stop, look outside yourself inwards (have clients, have industry partners, even the competition help you better align what you are vs what you think you are).