Innovative thinking, practical tips and some crazy ideas

My Stupidly Simple Explanation of Branding


Branding is complicated. It’s time consuming. It can be damn expensive. So, selling your boss or your board on the idea of engaging in a branding project can be a monumental task.
But here’s what makes it even harder. Most people don’t know what a brand is. In part that’s because marketers create a whole language around branding that is totally unintelligible. It’s also a result of the way words get re-purposed and often misused – particularly in social media.
So, as a way of helping organizations, schools and businesses understand why branding is really important and with deference to the many, many marketing experts and authorities who know way more than me, I offer the following rather simple explanation of branding.
Have you ever had a conversation with a significant other that goes something like this?
“Do you love me?”
“Yes, I love you.”
“Why? Tell me why you love me.”
For most people that results in a big gulp and a desperate stalling tactic like, “What do you mean?”
But if you were able to provide an honest answer to that question, it would be complex and multi-layered. It would involve the way someone looks, thinks and acts, particularly when those acts are directed at you.  The answer would be revealed in your experience with that person or perhaps in what others have told you about him. It would also be based on how you imagine your loved one would react in certain circumstances – perhaps as a spouse or a parent.
Now, imagine you want to replicate that relationship many times over. Let’s say you want more people to love you, or those who already love you to love you more. You are going to need an accurate and effective answer to “Why do you love me?” – one that reflects the many ways in which many different people can love you.
And guess what? The answer to that question is your brand. So, based on all that, here’s my definition of a brand.
A brand is an expressive representation of the complex relationship that customers and other stakeholders have with an organization.
It’s a simple concept but I think that some of the words need explaning.
Expressive – Brands have to appeal to the head and the heart – and even more, they have to motivate, inspire and incite action. You want people to be excited about telling other people about you.
Representation – It can be words, photos, videos, graphics, events, and yes even a logo. A brand can be communicated in a myriad of ways.
Relationship – If it isn’t already obvious, just like relationships are two-way streets so is your brand. You can’t unilaterally decide what your brand is. In branding, perception is truly reality.
Customers – Many organizations don’t traditionally think about constituents as customers but the reality is that people have choices about whether they affiliate with your organization. For example, parents at independent schools pay a small fortune in tuition and deserve to be treated like customers. Fundraising organizations would also be wise to look at donors from a customer centric perspective.
Stakeholders – I know this one of those words that gets used too often but the point is that many people other than customers have important relationships with your business or organization. Think about previous buyers, suppliers, employees and alumni. All of those people have something to say about the nature of your brand.
By the way, I know the “love” thing is going to be a bit much for some people. If it makes you feel more comfortable you can substitute “respect” or “admire” for “love” and ask, “Why do you respect me?” I would argue however that the most passionate (and therefore successful) ambassadors for your organization are going to be those that can say, “Let me tell you why I love XYZ school.”
At a branding workshop for independent schools that I led early this year, the person opening the session said, “This morning we’re going to talk about the big, bad ‘B’ word.” One of the reasons that branding is a pain in the butt is that people don’t know what it is. Hopefully, my simple (some might say naïve or mushy) explanation is a step in the right direction.
What do you think?
Is a lack of understanding getting in the way of branding projects at your organization?
What definitions of branding have helped you?
How are you advancing branding projects in your organization?

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