Branding for Action-Biased Leaders

For many companies, it’s not that they don’t control their brand; it’s that they can’t. We lie to ourselves and say that we just don’t have time to think about branding. We say we don’t have budget right now. But those can be lies we tell ourselves so we don’t have to think about our brand. Because in reality, the act of creating a brand is a test of character.

Still, some of us don’t have that problem at all. We honestly value action over strategy, and we don’t see a clear path to a strong brand…at least not one we can act on.

So how do you know which one is you? Are you avoiding the decisions, or are you just more action-oriented? The real test is our ability to adopt a working tempo that allows us to slow down and think about our plan for success. The first topic? Your brand.

And it might be the hardest test, since branding is leadership. It gets you out of the day-to-day, and asks “who are we, where are we leading people, and why does it matter?” But there are three parts of brand leadership: poise, strategy and personality. Strategy pulls you out of the day-to-day, personality makes you interesting and poise instills confidence. But not everyone has all those skills right out of the box. This is for those leaders out there with an action bias, who move fast and can’t seem to slow down. Here’s a way to make it all work.

Branding is Leadership

Your brand reflects your internal leadership. In fact, maybe thats why branding works; because the people who don’t have the ability to fulfill a brand promise aren’t likely to be able to execute the process of branding. Branding is leadership, and leadership encompasses 4 things in various combinations and levels: vision, strategy, personality and poise.

Vision

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
– Jonathan Swift

The ability to see what the world—or your corner of it—could be like. By itself, it’s not much of a gift, because there are lots of dreamers, and there are lots of doers, but there are few who can put them together. Brands are the same way.

Vision helps you see the destination, in all its beauty.

Walt Disney believed in magic, and he wanted to share his vision with the world. But fear kills vision and causes it to come closer and closer until it turns from hope to stimulus-response. When you’re trying to control your situation and are overly obsessed with doing what you know for certain will work, you often lose your ability to see.

And nobody follows a brand without magic.

Strategy

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.
– Michael Porter

Sometimes called “systems thinking,” strategy is the ability to get beyond today and see how things will play out in the future. Strategic ability is a relative thing, since everyone can do strategy. The real test is: do you see farther than others?

Strategy moves you to your vision by helping you make beneficial tradeoffs.

And it’s not just about seeing the logical conclusion of actions. There’s also experience bound up in the strategist that gives a gut feeling. He doesn’t always know why…but it’s there. And he has to learn to trust it.

Strategy is how you decide where to lead people.

Poise

The challenge is to stay cool enough to handle the pressure in the moment so that you can succeed in the future.
– Jurgen Klopp

When you have poise, you refuse to let circumstances or people rush you. You know when to let go. This is the one nobody talks about, but when you think about the mature leader, you often see controlled passion. Leaders use passion as the fire, but can bring it under their control. For example, picture the military general, sitting on his horse on a hill overlooking the battlefield. He’s not rushing into action, even when the situation seems to demand action. You might even call this “self control,” or “grace under fire.”

If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him. -Sun Tzu

Sun Tzu suggests attacking a general who is irritable, because you can manipulate him through his frustration. Another reason the best leaders control their emotions.

You might wonder about the outraged union leader or the emotional political crusader, and think they’re out of control of their emotions. But notice how they control emotions, while being a cool operator when it comes to strategy.

Poise gives you the patience to find the right strategy and stick to it, regardless of temporary situations.

Personality

Technique is really personality. That is the reason why the artist cannot teach it, why the pupil cannot learn it, and why the aesthetic critic can understand it.
– Oscar Wilde

Your personality demonstrates that you’re unique and interesting. Your ability to show texture in your brand gives people a sense that you’re “real.” Nobody expects a brand to be perfect, just like they don’t expect people to be perfect. They want to hear your sense of humor and your way of looking at things. Some people won’t resonate, but others will…strongly.

Personality is how you earn a following to begin with.

The Limiting Effect of the Action Bias

If leadership requires the above attributes, then so does branding. Without defining a strong brand, companies can’t show that they can lead people consistently, and in a clear direction, with a clear promise. Many fast-moving, go-getters are too focused on today’s activities to build leadership. This often comes with the following beliefs:

  • Focusing on today will get us where we need to go. We don’t need to think about strategy.
  • Leadership is great, but it doesn’t apply in our industry: business best-practices are enough.
  • Our ability to react emotionally to changes on the day-to-day level makes us nimble and flexible. We don’t need to control our emotions; they’re natural.

The problem: these leaders trust motion, they understand it, and they respect it.

Brand Leadership Requires Poise, Discipline and the Ability to Grasp a System

The truth is, speed and action are crucial. But if you don’t have poise, discipline and the ability to understand a system, you incur a cost.

  • You lose your sense of timing: you’re prone to act rashly and too quickly, before the time is right.
  • You lose your influence: you simply react coldly and rationally when things go bad, even if the situation calls for bravery and generosity.
  • You remain immature in culture and leadership, which limits your ability to grow.

How the Action Bias Hurts the Branding Process

The branding process is a chance to slow down and regain control of your future. It examines your culture, strategy and your customers. But if you remain in tactical mode when you’re in a strategic process, you’re likely to make mistakes in management of the process.

Leaders sabotage the process:

  • When they can’t make meetings they’ve committed to
  • When they can’t let the business run itself, but instead have to take phone calls during the branding process.
  • When they pull back funding and resources from the parts of the process that question the existing assumptions of the brand.

The Incremental Approach

After all that, I’m about to make an excuse for action-biased leaders. I can sympathize. A long, tedious, abstracted process probably won’t work for you. You need something faster and a little more iterative. But you still need to execute.

Going through the branding process is an exercise in leadership development for both the leaders and the company itself.

For you, the goal of the branding process is to take the direct-action, “warrior” mentality and add a little poetry. The good news: the direct-action mentality is a part of this process.

The Branding Process and How to Use It

The branding process often involves a lengthy exploration of three main areas: who are you, who are you trying to sell to, and why do you matter to them? If it’s done comprehensively, it takes months of research and collaboration, including exploration of new creative.

At Resound, we have a vastly accelerated process that doesn’t answer all the questions as completely, but is really made for the action-oriented CEO who understands the need to have a brand that can grow, but can’t do all of the research and make all of the decisions immediately.

Both processes result in some insights. The shorter process is more likely to simply organize the staff’s hypotheses, rather than generate research; but it’s a starting point. Usually, the following result:

  • A brand guide, either comprehensive or bare-bones. Includes colors, typefaces, logo guidelines and sometimes acceptable design elements, layouts, photography treatments and other, more-detailed editorial guides.
  • Brand promise: tagline, mission, vision, values, etc.
  • This usually accompanies a website redesign, based on the new brand.
  • New signage, stickers, etc.
  • An implementation plan that covers this and everything else the agency suggests you do to get the biggest bang for your branding buck.

And all this stuff is great. But it’s only theoretical if it doesn’t get executed. So the question for the action-oriented leader is really “can we do the simple things well?”

Execution: Get Hands-on

Now that you’ve made some branding decisions, it’s time to own your strategy. This isn’t something you read through. It’s something to pick up, look at from all angles, stress test it, drop it a couple of times. Find out what it’s made of. Make adjustments. Beat the hell out of it. You and your whole staff. Put it through a gang-style initiation when it has to walk through a line of you, and you just beat the hell out of it.

Because that’s how you make it your own. That’s how you find out if your company can execute.

So Question the Plan

This may sound weird to question the plan, but that’s precisely how you put any kind of consulting reports to work; you make your team interpret them. Find areas of disagreement with the plan and explore what might be missing or what can be removed.

Hold the Team Accountable for Execution

Once your team has had a chance to beat up the brand, let your team interpret goals in line with it. What will they do to live out the brand?

Your team, on their own, will execute the plan to various degrees. But if you can ask them for a SMART goal that they can accomplish in service to the plan, they’re more likely to execute.

Think about things like having your COO find 3 ways his team can mold operations to meet the brand promise and 3 things that the organization doesn’t need to spend so much money on. Then ask him/her for execution steps and timeline that can be measured.

Hold Yourself Accountable

Your biggest ally in this will be your own desire to grow and an adviser who will both guide you and ask you the hard questions through the process. When you want to skip a meeting or let an accountability slide on your team, your adviser should have the ability to call you up and make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

If you’re looking for help, we know a guy. But the important thing is making sure you respect the person enough that they have an influence on your life.

Gather Insights

There’s gonna be some time between now and your next rebrand. Now is the time to measure. And a good, regular strategic meeting tempo with your team, where they each report progress is a great way to get data, hypothesize as to why the data are the way they are, and then make smart tests and interviews to get to the bottom of things. If you can do this, and be objective about it, you’ll surprise yourself and give yourself an advantage over your competition.

Branding is Leadership. And this is the Starting Line.

Brands don’t make themselves. The branding process requires character and decision. This is why most companies don’t have a meaningful face-to-face, just them and the mirror. But the ones who do can really take a stand that people believe.

Remember that no brand is fully developed. We’re all somewhere along the journey. The good news is that, no matter your leadership tendencies, you can begin to embrace the poetry, elevate your brand and give a deeper meaning to employees and clients through your brand. You don’t need to change to enter the process; you just have to be willing to let the process change you.

And who knows? You may create a brand that’s mature, charming, capable and ready to grow.