The Tough Work of Building an Authentic Brand

20 Jun

Let’s start with the bad news: if you have a crappy product or service, you’ll never be able to build a great brand.

In the modern era of personal recommendation, community, and engagement, the best brands are built from authenticity. They derive from purpose. They build customer passion by delivering on commitments that matter. They are an extension of meaningful customer relationships. They are built on trust and shared values.

Building an authentic brand isn’t easy, but there is a roadmap:

1. Start with purpose: The best brands take shape deep within the organization. Before you can talk about your external brand, you need to articulate your purpose. What are you trying to accomplish as a company? What customer problem are you trying to solve? What are you going to do that really matters? Building consensus around purpose can be an explosive, difficult process. But once you find agreement, your purpose will become your most important organizing principle.

2. Make customer commitments: While your purpose is an internal compass, it drives the promises that you will make to your customers. Whether you have articulated them or not, all of your customer relationships are built on implicit and explicit customer commitments. In the same way that Apple customers expect beautiful functional design and Southwest Airline customers expect cheap and efficient air transportation, your customers will evaluate your brand based on their perception of the commitments that you make. There are no exceptions: strong brands are built on strong, consistent customer commitments. If your purpose is your internal reason for being, your customer commitments should be the foundation of your external identity.

3. Invest first in your customer experience: Here is the thing about purpose and commitment: you can’t fake it. If you are just positioning, your brand will fail. So if you have work to do to deliver on your purpose and customer commitments, do that work before you spend time and money on building your brand. A smart marketer once wrote, “If the brand is a promise you make, then the customer experience is the fulfillment of that promise.”

4. Think of your brand as an extension of the customer relationship: A brand, in its simplest form, is what people collectively say, think, and feel about your company, product, or service. It is the relationship that you form through customer experience but also engagement and conversation and community.

5. Tell a great story: To build a great brand, you need to start with an emotional connection. Great brands require more than proof points and supporting data and practical problem solving: they require a human bond. There is no better way to build a human connection than to tell a human story. The best stories are personal, engaging, and honest. They paint a picture of how much better the world could be with your product or service. They speak to the mind and the heart and engage the senses.

6. Be consistent but not not overly simplistic: It is very difficult to build a coherent brand with inconsistent stories and messages. Yes, you need to make sure that everyone in your company understands your purpose and can tell your company’s story. But many companies go too far and restrict external communications to a narrow set of voices, stories, and messages. The most authentic brands have nuance, depth, and complexity while staying true to the company’s core purpose and commitments. Without these attributes, brands quickly become bland, boring and repetitive.

7. Engage your community and make room for your customers’ voices: Like real relationships, brand relationships require you to listen at least as much as you talk. The best brands facilitate interaction within their community, ideally mixing the voices of customers, employees, and other community constituents. In our current age of personal recommendations, great brands make it easy to participate, engage and share. They take risks and let customers speak on their behalf. And when the words aren’t what they want to hear, they learn from the experience and use the feedback to make their company stronger.

8. Don’t try to be all things to all people: The toughest thing about building a brand is often choosing the things that you don’t focus on. Apple products aren’t affordable. Southwest Airlines isn’t focused on comfort or amenities. When building an authentic brand, focus on audiences with a particular world view and build a relationship around shared beliefs and values. Be true to who you are and make sure that you are truly connecting with your core markets.

Today, many of the rules of branding go against the best practices developed by marketers a generation ago. There was once a time when brands were more centrally controlled: when mass media could be used to shape opinions and drive preferences. Today, trust in advertising is low, time is scarce, information flows like water, and customers often expect a deeper, more value-based relationship. For marketers tasked with building brands, the hard work starts long before the first marketing dollar is spent: today’s marketing leaders need to help build consensus around purpose and work with their peers to align product, service, and support capabilities to fully deliver on customer commitments.

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