The term “brand” has become simultaneously too big and too small. It can be up on a pedestal, out of reach if you don’t have deep pockets.
Conversely, it’s often relegated to the most superficial and tactical initiatives. Some leaders get so frustrated or confused that they dismiss brand as not relevant to their business at all. Their response is, “If I can’t grasp it and relate to it, I’m not going to think about it.” Unfortunately, that’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Although the concept of brand may feel elusive at first, it can be your most powerful tool as a leader. Don’t bypass it just because of this initial elusiveness. Brand is a layered concept, but that’s what makes it strong. Let’s demystify this thing, so you can use brand to grow your business with intention, clarity and focus.
Brand is what you stand for in the mind of your customer.
The word has become shorthand for something complex, both overarching and detailed. Professor Tim Calkins of the Kellogg School of Management told me that he and his colleagues consider brand “a set of associations” around a thing, service, person, company, product or offering. It represents what a person can expect to get as a result of becoming a customer. And a good brand is also a promise delivered. It is not merely what you say you do — it is what you actually do, how you do it, and why.
In other words, brand really is both big and small, difficult and easy, complex and simple. It may feel slippery at first, but with some intention, you can harness it, turn it into something concrete, and make it your beacon.
A brand strategy is the deliberate articulation of what you are going to stand for, so that you can make choices across your business that make your promise ever more true.
Brand is what you stand for in your customer’s mind, so a brand strategy is the highly intentional exercise of identifying that meaning. It allows what you stand for to be your competitive advantage. Your brand strategy is your way to capture the power of brand as a leader, magnifying your leadership, your spending, your decisions, your innovations, your people and your meaning.
A brand promise is the benefit you pledge to your customers, and deliver on when your customers choose to engage with your offering. Your brand promise is the very crux of your brand strategy. By creating a promise that is meaningful to your customer and distinctive to your business, and then by delivering on that promise consistently and robustly, you earn loyal customers.
Outside the context of brand strategy, your brand promise is synonymous with your value proposition — literally (from the Latin roots), what is the thing of worth (“val”) that you are putting forth (“proponere”). Your brand promise might also be called your core benefit, your raison d'être, your “special sauce” or your “biggest yes.”
Brand positioning is the placement of your business in your customers’ minds. If you do this well, you’ve placed your brand’s meaning in a way that makes it easier for your customer to see you, consider you, and buy your offering. When you define your brand positioning through a brand strategy exercise, you are identifying the doorway into a customer’s world that makes your offering viable and compelling for her. You are articulating for yourself and for your customer what you mean, what you own, and what space you are claiming.
Brand positioning happens whether you do it yourself or not. Position, or be positioned. If you don’t intentionally position your business, the marketplace will do so for you, and you likely won’t approve of the result. Not all positions are created equal, and if you don’t take an active role in claiming your position, you could wind up with one that’s not optimal.
Branding is what you do to develop your brand. It is all the choices you make that affect your customer’s experience of your business.
Brand strategist Debbie Millman, author of Brand Thinking and podcast host for Design Matters, relayed to me, “There is really no such thing as branding as a separate thing. It’s a collection of disciplines that result in the development of a brand.”
The bad news is that because branding is everything that you do and every choice that you make, you cannot tidily relegate branding to your marketing department. Just like it is myopic to consider “healthy business” the domain of only the finance team, branding is not the domain of only the marketing team.
The good news is that because branding is everything that you do and every choice that you make, your brand strategy can be the beacon and guiding force for your whole organization. World-class businesses use their brands as complete strategic platforms to guide growth, including innovation and expansion, pricing, sales, promotion and partnering. A brand strategy guides decisions in each aspect of the business. Brand strategy becomes a force multiplier: a tool to help you efficiently, effectively amplify your efforts throughout your business.
Branding encompasses the big things you do (your most prized product offering) and the small things you do (your email signature, the way you answer your phone). Branding is the obviously “brand-like” things that you do, like naming and messaging. Branding also comprises things that might not feel like brand, such as pricing, channel development and product improvements. The person evaluating whether to buy your brand is taking into consideration all the things she sees – all the choices you have made that affect her experience of your offering.
Starbucks’ chosen brand meaning is a warm, consistent, premium coffee drinking and social experience — a “third place” (after home and work) to reconnect and recharge. Howard Schultz of Starbucks instills throughout the company that “Everything Matters,” that everything is an opportunity to enhance the customer’s experience of the Starbucks brand. All the following are choices that bring the Starbucks brand to life:
Brand is your business’s meaning. When it is compelling to your customer and ownable by you, brand is your sustainable, growth-driving, competitive advantage. So, make it compelling! Make it ownable by you! This means taking a moment before you start branding to create a powerful brand strategy – to discern the meaning that is genuinely relevant to your customer, and genuinely yours to bring to her. Before you start shouting, figure out what you have to say that is worth saying.
Lindsay is a Brand Strategist and Founder of Ironclad Brand Strategy, which builds brands using an exacting and analytic method. Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered a deep appreciation for the executive charge: to create sustainable value. Ironclad advises companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, IMDb, T-Mobile and Starbucks. Lindsay holds an MBA in Business from the University of California Berkeley, Haas School of Business.