Mistaking messaging for brand is like mistaking a house for its paint color. Your brand positioning is the real estate – the “position” – you own in the mind of your customer. When chosen deliberately and honestly, that position is both meaningful to your customer and unique to your business.
It is an articulation of why your business deserves to exist and deserves to have a relationship with your customer. This articulation is your brand strategy. You imbue everything in your business with this thing you have chosen that gives you a right to a relationship with your customer. The idea comes through in every single thing that you do – everything, not just messaging.
I often lead an exercise when working with businesses on developing their brand strategy. To get myself and my clients out of our own heads, out of their business, and out of our own way for a minute, we try to get an embodied feeling about brand from the perspective of the customer.
I ask the team the following question: “What is a brand that you personally love, that is important to you, that you are loyal to, or that you have a warm, fuzzy feeling about? The only rule is that it cannot be something close to your business where your knowledge about it can lead you astray, and it cannot be Apple.” (That last rule is selfish – I just get bored of hearing about Apple, as much as I happen to admire it.)
Everyone has a brand that they admire, and most of us have brands that we adore. As these business leaders become customers, I hear things like:
Look at that list. From only a handful of examples, patterns emerge: reinforcing the customer’s identity, feeling that she is part of the solution, an awe of heritage and transcendence, giving her a break or a pick-me-up, making her feel understood.
Want to know what I practically never hear?
Customers experience brands holistically. They don’t experience a brand as a mere message. They experience it as a promise a business makes and delivers. A message that expresses that promise in a resonant way can indeed enhance a brand, but that same message will never be the brand itself.
One way to think of brand positioning is through the lens of the four Ps: product, price, place, and promotion. Because messaging is only one of those four (promotion), the four Ps framework expands your brand expression beyond the coat of paint.
Let’s consider this through two examples: Volvo and BMW. They are both high-end, world-class car brands, yet they stand for very different things in the minds of customers. Volvo stands for safety, and BMW stands for driving performance. But I don’t know that just because of what they say. I know that because of what they do and how they do it. Messaging is merely the outer expression of the deeply entrenched core of each brand.
No matter where in the world I go, when I say “Volvo,” people complete the thought with “is safe.” This is not because Volvo shouts safety overtly in messaging in the hopes that everyone will recall that when they go car shopping. Volvo is safe all the way to its fibers. Volvo manifests safety with everything it does as a business, including, but not especially, messaging.
Volvo strives for safety in several factors of its brand, the most important of which are not messaging. Although I know a lot about the Volvo brand, it took some digging to learn some of the following – these points are not something they message.
Consider that: all these things big and small coalesce to reinforce safety – not just the message of safety but the actual honest-to-goodness safety. The customer’s entire experience of the Volvo adds up to safety.
Volvo’s messaging also communicates safety in ways both explicit and implicit. The company’s tagline is “For Life.” The web site and advertising imagery depicts Volvo cars unscathed after intense crashes. The company’s tone is nurturing and caring. But because Volvo is safety through and through, tirelessly infusing safety into every aspect of the business, the messaging does not have to do all the work for the brand. The company’s messaging is free to be frosting on the cake, not the cake itself.
Now let’s talk about another excellent car brand, BMW, which owns driving performance. BMW represents “Ultimate Driving Machine” with all parts of its brand, including but not limited to messaging.
This is all before messaging. The messaging always pays off and emphasizes the driving experience. Images in ads are of the driver experiencing the drive – not of the passenger, not of the kids in the backseat. The company’s tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” is not carrying all the weight to express the brand positioning. Instead, it merely puts words to something already built.
Brand is a relationship between a business and its audience. It has a specific place in the mind of the customer, and that place, that set of associations, elicits a feeling every time the customer thinks of the brand. This might include messaging, but it is certainly bigger and harder to get right, as well as more rewarding, than messaging alone.
To create excellent messaging – messaging that moves people, that motivates them to engage further with your business – first define what you want to feel like to customers, what you want your customers to think of when they encounter your brand. This precise definition will help you develop messaging that works cohesively with everything else your customer experiences. Within that cohesion is power – the power of a meaningful, memorable, sustainable, successful brand.
Ironclad Brand Strategy principal Lindsay Pedersen is a brand strategist whose clients include Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar and IMDb. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an Ironclad Brand Positioning so they can grow their business with intention, clarity and focus.
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Originally published at ironcladbrandstrategy.com/ask-lindsay
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.