Category

Branding

Is Your Brand Doing These Two Things?

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As I/we have often written about, brand and branding is not what it used to be. It is no longer an external construct based on perception and image. It’s not about demographics, campaigns, ad spend.

So what is it?

We say that a brand is how other people experience what you believe.

This means that your brand must successfully and consistently do two things:

Emit Love

Create Trust

Love is the ultimate “bacon” aroma that a brand can generate. It literally means triggering oxytocin in the people that touch the brand. But it’s so much bigger than that. Love makes your brand un-copyable, unbreakable, timeless. Love turns your employees into ambassadors and your customers into your shareholders. Love makes your competitors shrink – or rise to the occasion. Love can’t be bought with Taco Tuesday’s nor with discounts. Love is earned through the daily habits of an organization – starting with its top leaders. One of these habits is self-care – leaders that invest in the holistic well-being of themselves and the people they lead.

Trust is what happens when you consistently emit love. Trust allows you to fail, make mistakes and otherwise be a human. Trust shows up in a thousand ways – from empowering your employees to truly help your customers to proactively listening to the needs of your customers. Trust means using branding and marketing language and tools that encourage, invite, inspire and saying no to manipulation, persuasion and saturation. Trust means building your brand as a word-of-mouth machine – knowing that the more trust you generate, the more your brand will grow. Trust means always seeing the humanity in your decisions.

My question to all leaders is this …

If your brand doesn’t emit love and create trust, what are you asking your marketing team to do?

The Top 5 Branding Practices of Contemporary Leaders

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Annoyance-Inspired Innovation

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Innovation is a fickle and sporadic muse. A strange blend of research, failure, awareness and sometimes divine inspiration. Like all creative endeavors, there is no set formula. But there are patterns for innovation.

One such pattern is the removal of annoyances.

We tend to think of innovation as solving huge problems or creating a must-have product or inventing an entirely new category. But sometimes innovation is in the small things.

In our over-saturated, over-booked, over-whelmed lives, annoyances become the mosquito in the tent. Not really a threat but certainly damned distracting. In brands, these annoyances create friction points that competitors can later use to differentiate. Think Blockbuster’s late fees vs Netflix.

With some awareness, we can see thousands of these annoyances – each of which are someone’s business opportunity and/or differentiator. A few examples …

Southwest Airlines – They are brilliant at removing annoyances that are SOP for other airlines. Most famously, their bags-fly-free policy. This also includes their innovative on-boarding process, their flexibility with changing flights and using rewards and their entertaining safety briefings. Southwest didn’t invent a different kind of air travel nor did they create a new travel industry. They simply built a brand with smart business decisions, having fun and making the customer experience as annoyance-free as possible.

Amazon – As Amazon came on to the scene, they knew they had to remove as much friction as possible from the search-and-buy process. Any friction points would amplify the highly conditioned bias to “go the store” vs “buy on-line”. There are many ways that Amazon has mitigated annoyance but the best example is one of their most simplest: Amazon Prime. By eliminating shipping and handling fees, Amazon created instance viscosity. They made the value proposition and promise very clear: being a Prime member is a great deal. Now we click-and-buy with ease. Sometimes too easily!

Zoom – Having suffered through the experience of being a GoToMeeting user as well as dabbling in other virtual platforms, I learned about Zoom. Zoom appears to have reverse engineered all of the annoying things about GoToMeeting. You can easily talk to a person. It’s less expensive and has more features. The UI on both the backend and the participant sides is supremely better. And the biggest annoyance of all – minimal to zero tech issues (I’ve had a Zoom session 20+ times and have never had an issue connecting to audio or video).

As mentioned, the opportunities to build a brand around removing annoyances are everywhere. Look in every sector and segment of life and you will find annoyances – the friction points and burs of poor design, dumb policies, missing features. You don’t have to create gold from thin air. It’s in the seams and cracks of modern life.

Becoming a Producer Brand

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For the sake of a unified definition, a Producer is anyone that makes a living primarily off commissions and fees. This would include commissioned sales people, financial planners, realtors, CPAs, attorneys – to name a few.

If you are a Producer, you have a brand. Its a combination of the energy you bring into the room, the compiled experiences your clients have with you and the way you interact with others on-line and off-line.

None of that is new information. Most Producers have been avid consumers of books and tips on how to work a room, how to create influence, how to nurture a reputation. What may be new for you if you are a Producer is that you have so much more potential within your brand.

Here are 4 simple but effective ways to boost your brand as a Producer:

  1. Start Speaking. Not about your success as a Producer or about your area of expertise, but your experience as a human being. Each of us have overcome a lot to get where we are at. Within this overcoming is likely your mission – and a series of stories that the world needs to hear. Most audiences have plenty of information. What they need is inspiration. By sharing your sorrows and triumphant, you are showing the world your true self – not a construct designed to just hit your numbers.
  2. Take a Stand. Most Producers have learned that doing good in the community is good for their brand. Most are quite generous with time, money and energy with causes they want to get behind. What if you took it up a notch? What if you took a stand for an idea or purpose that’s intrinsically important to you. We Producers have been taught to fit in, don’t rock the boat, don’t be controversial. This leads to sameness. Instead, find that thing that sets your soul on fire and get behind it.
  3. Write. And Write Some More. The most untapped area of a Producer’s brand is around consistently crafting content in order to become a thought-leader. Whether you use LinkedIn, Medium or some other platform, writing original, thoughtful content about your industry, your area of expertise, your mission, your story are all force multipliers that contribute to your brand as a thought-leader.
  4. Invest in You. The Producer’s life is intense and high pressure. We pour out ourselves to our clients, to prospects, to partners, to family. We don’t live in the magical world of getting a salary every two weeks. This leaves very little left for yourself. When a Producer gets emptied out, they lose their passion and drive. This is when depression, anxiety, addiction sneak in and start running your life. Taking a pause – even if just a day – to re-connect to yourself, examine your thoughts and feelings, to think about the future will make you a better, more reliable Producer.

If you are a Producer, I’m very curious to hear from you about what you do to work on your brand. Reply below or drop me a note at justin at rootandriver dot com.

5 Ways Thought-Leaders Hurt Their Brands

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We are all thought-leaders at something. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a buzz word, but it’s still true. If you are a corporate leader, you are also a thought-leader on your areas of expertise in the business. If you are a small business owner, you are a thought-leader in your industry and/or community. If you are a solo entrepreneur, you are most definitely a thought-leader. In fact, a good portion of the clients we serve at Root + River are solo coaches and consultants with thought-leadership as a business model.

Regardless of which bucket you might fit best in, there are a number of ways you can inadvertently hurt your brand as a thought-leader.

Here are five to consider:

  1. Poor Visuals. This is rampant in thought-leadership – especially with solo brands. Just take a scan through Twitter headers and web sites and you will see a torrent of bad design, stock photos, low resolution graphics. Just to name a few! How does this happen? It’s an ego blindspot. Many people believe their expertise is enough to trigger attraction and how they look doesn’t matter. But poor visuals instantly trigger resistance and suspicion – causing you to immediately fail what we call the Brand Test.
  2. Split Lives. Many of us who started our careers in the 20th century adopted the practice of living split lives. We had a work version of us and a home version of us. While this practice may have been a necessity in the industrial age, it is a brand diluter in the Human Age that we are in now. By building your brand around a construct rather than your true self, you are maintaining a movie set rather than inviting people to your real story – which is much more interesting!
  3. Mis-Use of Social. Like the community pool, gyms and other ways of life, social media has its own set of rules. In attempt to get attention, earn business and other wise stand out, many thought leaders hurt their brands by repeatedly breaking these rules. Examples: over-promoting your offerings, pitching strangers with direct messages, canned content, poor visuals (see #1). All of these are a steady erosion of your credibility and believability.
  4. Being a Cliche Machine. If you don’t know what I mean, follow this guy on Twitter. Or use this handy tool to listen to yourself as you have conversations and give presentations. The use of cliches, buzzwords, acronyms is a blend of insecurity and efficiency. When are you are not confident in your original ideas, your mind will trigger you to fill in the blank with a known term in order to be accepted. We all do this now and again, but when you do it repeatedly, you turn your brand from thought-leader to karaoke singer.
  5. Unresolved Emotional Wounds. We often say at Root + River, we don’t actually work on your brand. We work on you … and you work on your brand. This is because who we are as a human has a huge influence on how we are perceived as a brand. Our brands essentially become projections of our beliefs, habits, world views – and, yes, our emotional wounds. Untreated emotional trauma can create a fog of delusion or despair that erodes your confidence and self-worth.

This list is reflective of what we call “Intrinsic Branding” – the inner work necessary to create a vibrant, awake brand. For business owners and leaders, this inner work includes the culture, customer experience, innovation, differentiation. When you are striving to be a thought-leader, this inner work means working on you – inside and out.

How to Kill Your Culture

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Call it a buzzword if you want,”culture” is still the hottest topic in organizations. Senior leaders of global companies talk about it. Small business owners talk about it. Start-up founders talk about it. Employees talk about it. Vendors talk about. And customers talk about it.

There is a plethora of writing on creating/growing/preserving a culture. I am going to take a different tact of reverse engineering cultural decay. In short, I am going to teach you how to kill your culture.

  1. Stop Telling the Truth. Make sure that you spin everything to be perfect and neat. Encourage feedback but don’t do anything about it. Punish or suppress those who point out problems. Manage the narrative. Make sure that truth is pushed into whispered hallway conversations, over beers afterwork or anonymously shared on social media. When you receive data that you don’t like, be sure to twist it to fit your world view.
  2. Pretend There’s No Hierarchy. Talk about creating a flatter, more nimble organization. Get rid of org charts, traditional reporting structures and performance reviews. But don’t change any of the managers who have their position because of hierarchy. Be sure to promote people into leadership positions who know how to talk about modern business practices but are immersed in 20th century thinking. Pretend that all opinions and views are equal. Most of all, talk about “servant leadership” without ever actually serving anyone.
  3. Practice False Enthusiasm. There are no problems. Everything is great! Sure, we have somethings to work on but all is wonderful. Gather your teams and lead them on cheer sessions with repetitious sayings. Bring in motivational speakers to motivate everyone because you don’t know how to do that. Be sure to label people who point out problems as “not team players.” When facing employees, the media, shareholders or customers, paste on a big smile and use folksy terminology.
  4. Preach Diversity; Practice Tyranny. Talk about how everyone should be free to be themselves. Heck, get rid of strict dress code policies. Even have a Hawaiian shirt day! Get everyone to start expressing their true selves and then … monitor cubicle displays for anything that might be consider offensive. Tell people to cover up their tattoos. Make sure everyone speaks the same language and uses the same lexicon.
  5. Properly Allocate Resources. Use HR as an internal affairs department to root out any problem employees. Use your Marketing team to create rosy narratives and snappy ad campaigns. Use your Dev/Research team to create products that hurt the planet and rob consumers of their identities. Use your Customer Service team to manage complaints. Use your Finance experts to keep the funding flowing for your self-made problems.

Oh, and one more thing …

Spend plenty of time for yourself in retreats, spa days, golf excursions. After all, managing the process of killing your culture can be draining.

Or …

Be an awake leader and do the opposite of all these and build something amazing that produces happiness, value and meaning for all involved.

Build Trust, Build Your Brand

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“Trust” is a term that is oft abused and diluted by advertising, sales people and political candidates – usually with some sort of phrase that begins with “Trust me …” or “Believe you me …”. Yet despite its over-use, “trust” is still a powerful word. Why?

Because people do inherently want to trust.

Herein lies a great branding opportunity: if you are truly trustworthy, your brand will grow faster than any other form of brand building or marketing. Trust is viral. Trust is an attractant. Trust is memorable. And trust never becomes obsolete.

Branding begins with leadership. Ergo, instilling trust begins with the leader(s) of an organization. Steven M.R. Covey says it best in his book “Speed of Trust”:

“The first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust. It’s to bring out the best in people by entrusting them with meaningful stewardships, and to create an environment in which high-trust interaction inspires creativity and possibility.”

The top indicator for a trustworthy leader is emotional intelligence (EQ). High EQ leaders are humble, self-and others-aware and open for feedback – all traits of trust building. This trust then begins to become part of the culture of a team or organization. It is self-policed – not through policies or procedures but by conversations and accountability.

Trust then begins to appear in the products and/or services produced by a brand. High standards, attention to detail and quality assurance are all factors in building trust into your offerings. Again, the “right way to do things” is a cultural standard not a manual. Trust also become an integral part of all human experiences. From new employee on-boarding to internal communications. To create creating consistent customer delight for current and new customers. It also extends out into the community with donations, service projects and more.  All of which reinforces and amplifies trust.

Finally we get to marketing. Let’s pause and consider this. Marketing used to be the main instrument for creating a perception of trust. It was the first thing you did as a brand.  Now marketing is the last thing you do if you are a trust-driven organization. So how does trust get translated into marketing? Here are few tips:

  1. Speak to the heart.  Everyone’s minds are full, so provide a message to their hearts. Plus, trust begins in the heart, not the mind.
  2. Use simple, declarative statements. People don’t have time for squishiness or messages of low nutritional value. Trust comes from speaking plainly and clearly.
  3. Tell stories. Not the stories of your organization, but stories of your employees, customers and influencers. These stories contain all of the ingredients to build trust.

Simply put, if you want to be a trustworthy brand, be a trustworthy person. Hire trustworthy people. Give your customers trustworthy value. And be a trustworthy neighbor in your community. The combination of these things – all built on trust – is like a perpetual motion machine for your brand. Producing value, innovation and relevance.

And trust me. I’m a branding guy. 🙂

 

“How to Create a Focused Brand” – The Complete Leader Podcast

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As usual, I had a blast sharing my thoughts and ideas on “How to Create a Focused Brand” with Dale Dixon on The Complete Leader podcast.

Here’s the link to listen:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/how-to-create-a-focused-brand/id1089354333?i=1000374437942&mt=2

If you are not already, I highly recommend subscribing to this podcast for additional insights and thought-provoking ideas from other Complete Leaders.

Reverse-Reverse Engineering Your Brand

By | Branding | One Comment

Reverse engineering someone else’s success has been around since humans started making stuff – and other humans wanted to hack how said stuff was made. It is fairly tempting and simple to apply this same approach to successful brands. There are many lessons to be learned from Apple, Tesla, UnderArmour, Zappos and the like – but I propose an even more effective way to test your brand:reverse-reverse engineering.

With this methodology, you begin by deciding what you DO NOT want the end result of your brand to be. Then you take appropriate steps to prevent that from happening. And lucky you – there are many brands who do a terrible job to help you create your DO NOT list. Similar to the parenting skills of the dad in the Bernstein Bears children’s books.

Here are four key brand fail points to help kickstart your DO NOT list:

1) DO NOT HAVE AN IDENTITY CRISIS.  Not being connected to the core of your brand produces a ripple effective of insecurity and cognitive dissonance. This establishes a foundation of false truth – propped up by command-and-control thinking. It creates a squishy message (see #2). It puts way too much emphasis on “magic wand marketing” – the delusional belief that marketing fixes an identity crisis.  The bottom-line: if you don’t know you (beliefs, talents, differentiators et al ) the marketplace won’t tell you.

2) DO NOT HAVE A SQUISHY MESSAGE. If your message doesn’t make your heart leap; if you don’t wake up in the morning excited to share your it with the world; if it doesn’t light other people’s hearts on fire, you don’t have a message. You have a slogan, a tag line, a one-liner. And nobody cares. Your audience will respond with a “grawn” – a combination of a grimace and a yawn.

3) DO NOT HAVE UGLY VISUALS. No idea is so awesome, so amazing that it can withstand hideous and/or dated visuals. Sure, there are exceptions – but why risk that? In fact, if your idea is awesome, if your product or service is amazing, does it not deserve to look its best? This applies to all areas of first impressions but especially logo, digital (web and social) and marketing materials. Don’t beat people with your brand’s ugly stick and expect them to respond positively.

4) DO NOT EXPECT BAD MARKETING TO PRODUCE POSITIVE RESULTS. Branding has a certain magical alchemy to it. Marketing does not. It produces the direct results of your composite efforts or lack thereof. If you are doing 1, 2 and/or 3 on this list, you will experience the results of those DO NOTs. And louder, more frantic marketing efforts will just produce more non-results.

There are also many reverse-reverse engineering DO NOTs that apply to you as a leader and as a human – all of which manifest in your brand. Examples: DO NOT be a scatological reference to a lower body part to the people around you, DO NOT forget to love and invest in yourself,  DO NOT forget that branding is first a spiritual exercise about what you believe in.

If so inspired, please DO share your DO NOT lists in the comments.