Before I dive in to the Top 5 branding practices, let’s do a level-set on terminology. Just as societies update their language and tech companies update their products, the branding/marketing space needs some new definitions.
Here are ours:
Brand: How other people experience what you believe.
Branding: The process of making yourself available to those looking for you.
Marketing: Any activity that amplifies a mission and message – especially around relationships, experiences and content.
These changing definitions of traditional terms have also brought about a bevy of changes in the roles and definitions of a leader. Until about 2010, brand and branding were the responsibility of the marketing department. Because of hyper-connectivity, emphasis on culture and greater sensitivity to brand experiences, brand and branding are now the responsibility of every leader and the people they lead.
As these massive changes take hold in brands large and small, a new set of leadership behaviors and habits is emerging. I am simply calling them the 5 Branding Practices of Contemporary Leaders.
- Fire the a**holes. Every day there are new headlines about abusive, churlish behavior from people in places of authority and influence. When these type of people are allowed to entrench in a company culture, they will eventually (and sometimes quickly) damage your brand. Surly, crude people spread negative energy and toxicity within an organization – which shows up in the poor customer experiences, lack of innovation and a negative/damaged reputation.
- Be an Original Thinker. With the daily onslaught of information overload from articles, podcasts, books, videos, workshops, etc, it’s easy for a leader to become a karaoke singer for other people’s ideas and content. My great friend Brandon Wrightsays it best: “Listen to everyone but think for yourself”. This requires setting aside even a few minutes for inner work: contemplation, awareness, observation of thoughts. It means being a healthy skeptic and questioning everything. This practice prevents brand from becoming cliches – using the same language as everyone else.
- Be Different, Not Just Better. Everyone talks about disruption but there’s not a lot of disrupting going on in brands – especially in marketing and advertising. The authors of the book “Play Bigger” do an excellent job of making the case that you can’t be slightly better and build a great brand – that you need to be a “Category King”. This practice of being truly different requires a leader with high EQ (Emotional Intelligence), a deep sense of self-worth, an insatiable curiosity and the political juice to actually execute something different.
- Say No. One of our many mantras at Root + River is: “You build a business/career by saying yes. You build a brand by saying no.” Saying no is about setting standards and holding to them. This means saying no to tactics that are not aligned with a strategy. This means saying no to policies and processes that hurt people or manipulate them. It means saying no to scarcity thinking that so permeates many organizations. This practice requires a leader who is a clear thinker and doesn’t confuse action with activity.
- Be a Human. Perfection is a myth – a myth often supported by internal propaganda and external perception management. The truth is that we humans are messy. We make mistakes. We lead ideas that fail. We easily slip into ego-centric behavior. But its this messiness that grows cultures, influences outside perceptions and is the seedbed of improvement and innovation. This practice requires a leader that can deftly do two things: 1) Speak like a human. No corporate jargon, buzzwords, cliches. 2) See the humans in every decision. When you make people the center of your brand, every decision impacts them.
These five leadership practices emphasize the three core tenets of 21st century branding: Mission, Message and Machine. They reinforce and grow the individual missions that become the over-arching company mission. They become the language of the brand via message. Not rote, saturation or persuasion but a steady invitation to believe what you believe. They amplify and prove the value of a contemporary marketing machine – especially around relationships (employees, customers, influencers, communities), experiences and original, consistent content/stories.
These five practices can be adopted by everyone in an organization – but must first be modeled by senior leadership. Once adopted, these practices provide an organic source for brand growth, innovation, quality control, recruiting, customer retention, social reputation and much more.