There are three questions you have to answer to be a good brander. Who are we? What do we do? And, why does it matter? So if you can answer those three in a compelling, clear way, you’re well on the way to having a brand.
How can a brand tell its customers who it is & what it stands for?
Branding is very complicated. It’s difficult to control because a lot of it is controlled by people outside the company. Mostly what a brand is, is the stories people tell about you, behind your back. You can’t control those, but you can shape them a little bit by your behaviour, by the framework of messaging you give them to get them started. And telling these stories in a way that flatters you and improves your reputation. But you can’t control them entirely. It really pays to have a sort of a system of understanding who you are so when you talk about yourself, you’re just consistent all the time with that. So I use this thing called the Brand Commitment Matrix, that’s six boxes that you fill in and if you get those right, and they work for you, you can use that as a filter for all your decisions going forward.
If brands are like people, how do you craft & establish a brand’s character?
Well you know, a lot of companies do start out with a person, they start out with the Founder. And often, the Founder has the personality that the company needs to be successful because, he’s … He or she is building the company on those … On that personality. It gets more difficult when you start hiring people, and you hope that they act in the same way and use the same principals, behaviours and so forth.
Let’s say you come into a company that you didn’t found, you know, and you’re the CEO or the CMO, what do you do then? Well, you need to kind of analyse the existing personality of the company. Find out what’s working, discard what’s not working and start to build that in a cultural way. So you describe the way the company behaves in terms of values and behaviours, processes, things like that. But you do have to have a very simple understanding of who you are to begin with because, the biggest problem in branding is getting a complex organisation to express a simple idea. So either, idea isn’t simple enough or you’re not able to express it and both are bad. You need a … You do need a simple governing principle for your company and then, you need to express it consistently across all touch points.
When entering new markets, how can a brand align to fit local culture while maintaining its meaning & purpose?
There’s an assumption that you need to tailor your brand for local communities, but I’m not sure that applies to all brands across all categories. For example, Proctor and Gamble makes soap and a lot of people use their soap. I don’t know if they need to have a different personality in each location. But, other brands might. So the main thing is to have this matrix of messaging that is universal to build off of. You can just tailor the brand a little bit for each community, and let people have the freedom to express it in their own way, in their own place and time.
What are some rapid prototypes for branding that companies can do?
So there are a couple of prototyping approaches you can use in branding. Two of the most important ones are, to test the name of the company because that’s where you can make some big mistakes early on that you have to live with for the rest of the brands life. The other one is the value proposition or what I call ‘onliness’ of a company. You can test both of those pretty easily with customers. So, let’s take the naming thing. Names should be four syllables or less, and I think that should be a strict rule. Because, if they’re more than four syllables, this is what I’ve noticed, I’m just observing. People will abbreviate it, they’ll do it for you, and you may not like the way it comes out. So, example International Business Machines. 10 syllables, but people are just going to go, IBM. What does IBM mean? Well, I don’t know, International Business Machines, but nobody remembers that, they just know IBM. Okay, it worked out. They existed, they lived, they didn’t die from it. But, it’s a good example of how the name got distorted by the audience.
Federal Express. Fed-er-al Ex-press. So, five syllables, that’s one syllable over only, people would not call it “Federal Express”, they called it “FedEx”. Is that bad? No, it’s not bad. It worked out okay, you couldn’t have planned it better than that, but that was a lucky one. You don’t want your business to be changed into initials unless the initials are very cool or maybe they’re an acronym for something, then maybe that’s what you want. But I would say four syllables or less. So that’s just one simple rule that you don’t want to break.
So, let’s say you follow all the rules and you’ve got a pretty good name that seems to feel right for the company. How do you know it’s the best one? Well if you have three names, and you’re not sure which is the best one. Easy to test those, so you just put those names on individual slides, let’s say. You call up people and you say, “Can I … I’d like your advice on a naming project.” They say, “Yes.” You have them … You send them the slides and you have them look at each one and you say things like, “I’ve got three companies here. Which name, just as a name, attracts you?” “Well okay, I think number two is really interesting.” “Well, what do you think that company might do? What does it do?” And the person will take a guess, it’ll be wrong, probably. Or maybe it’ll be right but, probably wrong. And then you say, “Well actually, the company doesn’t do that. It does X.” And you explain that. “And now, which of these names seems to express that best?” “Oh well, number three, definitely.” Okay, and you keep asking those kind of questions, you never ask. “Which one do you like?” That is not a valuable question. But, “Which one is interesting? Which one do you think you could spell if you didn’t see it spelled out already?”
Those kinds of things. Then you’re testing for flavour. So that’s a simple one, and if you do that well, you’ll save yourself millions of dollars if your company grows in trying to work around those names that are hard to remember, to spell, to understand, pronounce. The other thing is kind of your tag line or your value proposition, why you matter to the world. So, test that and test that against … Maybe you have two good ideas or one you think is really good, one’s not so good. You might throw in one that really represents a competitor, just as a you know … Just to test against that. And you ask people, “Which one of these do you … Would you find most valuable? Why? What kind of company would do this? How much would you pay for this product?” Those kinds of questions. Just be like a detective, asking questions. It’s all about the … It’s qualitative answers, it’s not numerical. You’re not going to say, “1,000 out of 1,500 people preferred this name.” No, that’s not going to help you. It’s the reasons why they prefer it.
And, you may find that none of your value propositions is making much sense or it’s not important to them. So that’s good information. So you haven’t spent anything, really. You go back and you rework that and you try it again. So those are the kinds of tests you can do. A very high level of branding, because if you can’t make it work at that level, why spend money trying to fix it later? It just doesn’t make sense.
What are some of your biggest successes & failures?
I have had some failures and a few successes, and I do count the failures as probably the more important of the two. I would say, my biggest success, or the one I had most fun with, was doing all the software packaging for Apple. And it lead to all the white packaging that you see now, because they hadn’t been doing packaging with white backgrounds and … So, that was really fun. Soon after that, I got into some big trouble with the magazine that I started “Critique”. I learned a lot of lessons from that. It was a very expensive thing to do, it was probably a million dollars a year in putting that thing out. It made less than a million dollars a year, not much but you know, we lost money every year for five years.
And, it really made me think about how that could happen, it was a beautiful magazine. It won all these awards, everybody loved it. But there weren’t enough people that loved it, and they didn’t love it to the tune of $18.00 an issue, which was what we were charging. Because, we felt it was a book. It was a magazine, it was beautiful book with no advertising. I couldn’t even tell you how many mistakes there were in that project but probably, 100 at least and some of them were fatal. I did what I wanted to do, and I think that’s what a lot of entrepreneurs do. They do it the way they want to do it, and if they can afford to do it themselves, that’s what they’re going to do.
And in doing that, I learned that well, you gotta be a little humble about some things, just because you want to do it that way doesn’t mean the audience wants you to do it that way. And so, that lead to really thinking about branding because, it was a branding problem. It was a little bit off, just a tiny bit off and I thought, “What could I do about that that would have saved it?” And, in thinking about that and reading and researching everything, I realised. “Well, nobody knows this stuff, that’s why they keep making these mistakes. These kind of, egotistical mistakes really. Or mistakes based on tradition.” You know, “this is the way people do it in my industry so I’m going to do it like that.” Then it lead to thinking about the usefulness of being different, and having a purpose and all these things. And so, in studying all that I realised there was something I could give to the world and that was … I did that through my books and Neutron and now, Liquid Agency.