Building Brands From The Inside Out
Imagine this: The branding agency just left. After months of internal analysis, customer research and a not insignificant amount of money, the creative hotshots finally came back in and wowed your leadership team with their ideas. Everyone on the team was nodding as they went through the deck and you even got goosebumps a couple of times because it was so on-target. Finally, you have something that truly represents the essence of your brand - and your company!
The art and science of building a great brand is one of the most fun and creatively rewarding part of growing a business. Done well, the process gets to the heart of what your company stands for, captures the practical and emotional promises you make to your customers every day and even defines how your employees (including your future hires) identify with your company. It’s heady stuff to be sure.
However, all too often the brand-building process starts and ends with that big strategic and creative unveil, and the promise of the work is never fully realized on a companywide level. Sure, the marketing team has plenty to do: update websites, apps and other collateral, refine PR strategies, and possibly charge ahead with the creation of new social media campaigns or ad campaigns that reflect your sparkling new brand image. But elsewhere in the organization, the energy quickly dissipates and there is no clear plan on what to do next. You’ve got this new, potentially powerful competitive weapon, but you may only be using a small part of it. After 25 years of building companies and brands, this is a question I hear a lot from other CEOs and executives: What is the process of building a great brand once you’ve defined it, and how do you get started? There’s no silver bullet answer, but it’s almost never “go buy a Super Bowl ad!” or “Let’s make our social media campaign go really viral!” Great brands are built from the inside out, not the other way around.
Every situation is unique, so start by deeply examining why you believe brand building is important, within the context of your specific business and competitive environment. There are any number of ways a strong brand can provide competitive advantage, and here are few of the most common:
Your business is competing in a sea of sameness with little fundamental product differentiation
Your product team is constantly struggling with prioritizing product enhancements and features, and needs a more consistent framework for making decisions and trade-offs than quantitative analysis alone.
You are in a rapidly growing new category, and you need to aggressively stakeout and and defend a valuable competitive position
You have a content-heavy marketing strategy and establishing the right publishing cadence and consistency has been a challenging or inefficient process
You are building a mission-driven business and capturing and projecting that core emotional essence is crucial for your customers and employees alike
Knowing the specific answer to why and how your brand will help you competitively will help you stick with it long after the creative agency has left the building. In some cases it’s pretty obvious: I cut my teeth in brand management working on bottled water for Cadbury Schweppes, and let’s face it, there isn’t much other than your brand to lean on for competitive advantage in that category. In most other businesses, brand is just one component of gaining competitive advantage, and you need to know how best to put it to work. I spent the first decade or so of the internet boom building businesses like Listen.com, CitySearch.com and AddictingGames.com. All of those services dominated their categories at their peak, but external projection of a brand image to consumers frankly wasn’t what won the day. The brand names themselves were pretty generic and most of our external marketing efforts went to things like SEO, content virality, and all the other things we now often call growth hacking.
However, internal brand strategy and brand discipline were vital to our success in each of those businesses. We used brand positioning and brand values to define how we selected, created and programmed content. We made product feature and design decisions through a consistent brand lens. Brand strategy drove our editorial voice. In short, strong brand values reduced internal uncertainty, provided our team with a strong sense of identity, and enabled us to move faster and with more focus than many of our competitors. And speed matters more than ever in today's hyper-accelerated business environment.
Once you know why you need a stronger brand you can turn to the even harder question: how do I build it?
The external (marketing) part of brand-building is a well defined discipline with an entire industry of talented experts and creators focused on it. It may really be the only thing you are thinking about when you first embark on a major branding project, and it’s certainly crucial that you get this part right. But truly great brands (and brand companies) become great because everything they do embraces, projects and reinforces that brand. The big successes are the blue-chip brand names we all know and love, but there are plenty of smaller businesses that also succeed at great brand-building, often with very small or even non-existent advertising budgets. One of my favorite men’s lifestyle brand right now is an ecommerce company called Huckberry. I first stumbled upon Huckberry because it curates a lot of quality, outdoorsy products that are a fit with my personal interests and style. Once I started interacting with them, it was the consistency with which they do everything that won over my loyalty and admiration: the consistent attention to detail and quality in their product sourcing, the familiar voice in their CRM tactics and social media, even how they ask for product feedback stays on-brand. It’s clear that the entire company has embraced their brand ethos, and I’m certain that didn’t happen by accident.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula for doing this, but here are few common principles that have helped me over the years, across a lot of different product categories.
Embrace the idea that Brands are to companies what character is to an individual. Review and rewrite your company’s core values to make sure they are inline with your brand’s ethos and vice versa. Your brand should be your company’s internal north star and should influence virtually every decision you and your employees make. Strong brand values, like character, are especially valuable for decisions that have to be made in the face uncertainty or conflicting information. Use your brand to help streamline otherwise subjective decisions, build internal consensus, and just as importantly, head off bad decisions before they happen. Side note: pay very close attention when something you are considering feels off-brand at a gut level. It’s far easier to dilute or permanently damage your brand than it is to build it in the first place.
Personify your brand and encourage your employees to do the same in every company function. Strong brands get woven into company culture over time through hundreds of tiny actions and decisions all across the business. Each time you or an employee makes a decision that adheres to your brand ethos, it will reinforce and magnify the strength and resilience of your brand. For example, when we were building the online music service Rhapsody (now sadly rebranded as Napster), our core brand values revolved around music discovery. It became our mission to introduce people to great new music and we designed the whole Rhapsody user experience around the central idea of music discovery. But it didn’t end there. We also lived that brand ethos inside the company. If one employee took two or more other employees to a favorite local music show, we would reimburse the cover charges, no questions asked. Rhapsody was a pioneer in streaming music services and we had to rip all our own CDs to produce the digital files. So it became a fun ritual for groups of volunteers to regularly to go down to Amoeba records to hunt for unique or out of print CDs. The absolute cost to the business was small, and it sent a powerful message to our team about our brand and company values.
Set top-level business goals that specifically reinforce your brand values. Brands, like company culture, are driven primarily by what you do, not what you say. How your product performs or how a customer perceives its performance has more impact on brand image than what’s on the package or said in the ad. How you handle customer service will affect brand perception more than the friendly face you put in your ad campaigns, and so on. While this may all sound pretty straightforward (even obvious) on paper, you’d be amazed at how many businesses fail at this most basic brand-building discipline.
If you’re not the CEO, get CEO buy-in on the importance of brand building before you start. Ideally, the CEO is the biggest brand champion in the building, but even if that’s not the case, commitment to the importance of brand building (and brand ethos) has to start at the top or it’s never going to stick. I’ve had my fair share of successes but I can also tell you some horror stories from situations where a CEO gave only lip-service to the importance of brand values. This is especially true in tech companies where quantitative data alone often reigns supreme, yet is rarely complete or fully contextualized.
Plan for brand implementation before the strategic and creative process starts and include every key function of the business. What will have to be changed, modified or replaced if the brand strategy and corporate identity changes? Try to think of every detail from your external marketing down to the invoices you send your customers or your customer service knowledge base, and even your HR policies. Then make sure the leaders of all the affected functions are committed to the work that may be involved before the process begins.
Name departmental brand champions and have them meet regularly during the development process and especially after it’s completed to make sure it’s implemented consistently over time. This is especially important in larger organizations. It’s a long process so if you are thinking only in terms like “we’ll do the branding project in Q1”, chances are that it isn’t going to stick for very long.
Finally, always remember that once you get that goose-bump creative presentation and gorgeous looking “brand book” from the agency, you still don’t have a brand. You have a pretty, very expensive paperweight. It’s what you do next that creates the brand.
Note: this post originally appeared on Dave Williams' LinkedIn profile in 2019