5 Steps to Understanding Your Brand’s DNA
Your brand is not your logo. Repeat: YOUR BRAND IS NOT YOUR LOGO.
This isn’t a revelation. A quick Google search on that proclamation will return loads of results. Yet so many people continue to use the two terms synonymously, even within the advertising and marketing worlds. That may not be an accident.
A brand is such a big thing, that it’s just easier — way easier — to reduce it down to just a logo, name, or tagline. But a brand is so much more than that. It’s a concept; it’s your quintessence; it’s the embodiment of what your company stands for, and, ultimately, it’s the lens through which your customers view you.
Here’s a thought exercise to separate the two things:
Think of your best friend. Picture her face, how she dresses, her hairstyle. That is what you can think of as her logo. Now, think about what kind of person she is: her personality, and how you would describe her to someone who doesn’t know her. That is her brand. The two are far from mutually exclusive; the former is an extension of the latter. The way you look is not you; it’s merely an outward expression of who you are. Without the personality of your friend to support her appearance, she remains a flat character, lacking depth and warmth.
Why is this distinction important? Because, a business also needs to have a personality in order to be meaningful to customers. When done properly, a well-considered brand in action can help you connect with your customers on a deeper level and foster long-lasting relationships. And that’s important, because in the world of ubiquitous social media, customers can become proxy brand ambassadors — oftentimes, the most prolific ones. A recent study by Simply Measured found that content posted by customers about a product or brand drives 3.8 times more traffic than content created by brands themselves.
Bottom line: Organizations that don’t invest in their brands risk stunting their own growth potential.
As Jeff Bezos famously said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” It’s critical that your branding efforts don’t stop with a logo. Great brands flow through great companies like lifeblood, where everyone lives and breathes your organization’s core values and personality. As Molly DeWolf Swenson wrote earlier this week: “Brands must truly understand their DNA to make sure the content they are supporting aligns with their deepest values and their mission.”
This is no small task, to be sure. But here are 5 things you can do to make sure you understand your brand’s DNA, and that is has the genetic code for greatness:
1. Find, and define, your unique voice
Every good brand has three core traits: It’s compelling; it’s credible; and, it’s different. If any of the three is missing, your connection to your audience might suffer.
The Starbucks brand ensures a high-quality customer experience at any location.
Take Starbucks. It has a well-defined brand story, personality, and voice. This is clear to every employee at every Starbucks, from the corporate level, to retail stores, to online — and because their brand guidelines are so defined, the customer rarely feels a breakdown in experience. (Even when that does happen, Starbucks has a backup plan: The Starbucks Satisfaction Guarantee.)
Without explicitly saying it, we all know that Starbucks is synonymous with great customer service, high quality products, environmental consciousness, and a general sense of paying it forward. These truths converge to form an idea in the customer’s mind — one that makes it completely reasonable to spend more on a latte and a sandwich than they might elsewhere. That idea is compelling, credible, and different.
These elements, these general feelings, that surround our understanding of Starbucks, are not happenstance; they are all deliberate, and stated clearly in the Starbucks Brand Guide. Your own brand guide should be just as thoughtful and clear.
2. Know Thyself
While it may seem counterintuitive, your brand’s personality is an important tool for determining who your best customers are.
Remember your best friend from the fifth paragraph of this piece? The chemistry you have with her comes partially from you and partially from her. Before you can reach out and “make new friends” (i.e., customers), you need to know what you bring to the relationship table. Once you do, you can find those with whom you can create the tightest bonds.
Most of us start the other way: marketing research, audience personas, and questions like: What are my audience’s wants and needs? What are their pain points? How can we, as a business, address those wants and needs in a way that will be best heard and understood? All important things to know. But the last question should transcend pragmatism. Attracting customers is rarely as simple as communicating how Product X can solve Problem Y. As Dale Carnegie once wrote, “People are not creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” And research shows that even the most seemingly rational decisions we make are driven by gut feelings.
So, even if you know the demographics and the psychographics of your audience, you still have to figure out who YOU are.
Is yours a company like Patagonia, that’s known for eco-consciousness and social responsibility? Or are you more like Levi’s, a brand that has so embraced its authentic and rugged personality, that since 1853 it continues to expand its customer loyalists — from coal miners, to hippies, to (most recently) trendy hipsters? Knowing who you are will help you evolve over time, and attract valuable customers in any era or context.
The Levi’s brand keeps it relevant from era to era, generation to generation.
The better you know your brand personality, the better you’ll be able to speak with a unique and authentic brand voice. And that makes you better equipped to communicate consistently and honestly with your customers across all media — to build trust and maintain a true human connection.
As Bill Bernbach said, “You can say the right thing about a product and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.” To do that, you need to know yourself as well as you know your customers.
3. Know when, and how, to break your own rules
A good brand can’t succeed if the people working on its behalf don’t follow the rules. Consistency is key when it comes to delivering a strong and reliable customer experience.
Now, this is not to say that creative detours can’t be worked into a brand. It’s just that those detours must work toward the greater mission. You can be as crazy, out there, and creative as you want to be … as long as you measure that creativity against your brand’s identity.
Your brand’s personality will begin to self-define those parameters. And a well-crafted, consistently implemented brand identity will infuse itself into customer interactions, sales, etc. At that point, shifts in tone and messaging become a matter of good judgement by those who represent the brand.
For example, if a financial institution wants to set itself apart from its competitors by showing a sense of humor, that could be a strong brand move. But if it gets too silly, those messages could potentially damage the institution’s credibility. After all, these are people asking you to entrust them with your financial investments; a person’s life savings in not something to be taken lightly. Truly knowing your brand will give a strong indicator of how far your boundaries can successfully be pushed.
4. Establish your brand’s voice through content
Many so-called “brand guides” or “brand books” are really just design guides. They give rules for logo usage, list the approved fonts, show the full color palate, etc. But what about content? How are your brand ambassadors — which includes everyone from executives, to social media pros, to in-store employees, to the people who answer the phones — supposed to share a singular brand voice, if you haven’t given them any direction?
Including clear content guidelines in your brand guide is crucial to maintaining consistency and continuity of messaging across all platforms. And messaging — content — is central to customer experience.
A good brand guide provides rules about tone of voice, word choice, specific turns of phrase, personality of the brand — as well as breakdowns of different audience personas, what their pain points are, what matters most to them, and how your brand can help. This is key for your staff to know. It will set their brains before they speak or write to your customers.
And when we say “content,” we’re talking about all branded communications. It’s the interplay of your design rules, copy tone, brand essence, etc. The old “logo = brand” misconception can lead people to believe that maintaining a consistent “look and feel” across all media is all you need.
This is not correct. In fact, it’s all content.
From video spots to billboards; articles to white papers; case studies to infographics; social media posts to mobile ads; a well-defined and easy-to-use brand guide is the blueprint that keeps everyone on the same page and working toward the same goals.
5. Don’t chase clicks
A strong digital marketing effort is important to any great brand campaign. And one of the big promises of digital has always been its ability to measure and optimize.
Analytic tools can help you do just that: measuring and optimizing your performance across the web, and, over time, providing crucial data to help you see where your marketing efforts are working, and where changes are needed. However, this should not be reduced to clicks.
Even in 2017, many organizations use clicks as their most reliable tracking metric. And yes, a click shows an interest in your product or service. But the lure of big engagement numbers can turn a strategic branding effort in to a wag-the-dog situation.
With a strong brand guide in place, however, it’s much easier and more intuitive to decide which topics suit your business and which should be passed over. It gives you a place from which to ask and answer questions like: Is this something we should be talking about? Do we have any authority to have an opinion on this topic? And if so, at a gut/DNA level, how do we feel about it, and what do we want to say?
If your marketing efforts get too focused on getting clicks, your branding can become watered down and unfocused. In the long run, this can affect how customers perceive your brand. It’s better to turn away from some (perceived) opportunities if they aren’t in line with your brand, and instead focus on efforts that really matter to your customers. The human element of marketing must never be ignored or its importance underestimated.
Because, in the end, it’s not really the brand that has the voice, it’s the human beings who communicate on behalf of the brand. And remember, communication is a two-way street. Just as important are the customers on the other end who hear that voice, react to it, and add or take away from what you put out there.
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