A fish isn’t free in the sky or on the ground. A fish isn’t free on a mountain or in the desert. A fish is only free within certain environments. Oceans, rivers, streams and ponds are the places in which fish can flourish and be free. But even then, not every fish is free in every kind of water. Specific fish need specific water. In the same way, specific companies need specific environments and constraints to really thrive. Without constraints, a company’s brand is indistinguishable from any other bland brand out there. But given the right constraints, your brand can have direction, build trust and provide a clear path forward. Let’s dig into this idea further.
What Sort of Constraints Should a Brand Have?
Before we get too far along, we should define our terms. When we’re talking about constraints, we mean limitations or boundaries. Fish lack legs or wings so they are severely limited in their ability to travel by land or sky. And while fish do need oxygen to survive, they don’t have lungs like we do. They have gills, which capture the oxygen within the water and bring it into their bloodstream to keep their bodies oxygenated. Gills don’t function well outside of the water. These things constrain a fish. But they’re also the things which make a fish fare so well within its intended environment. What things constrain a brand and how does that lead to flourishing?
Typically, a brand is constrained by its mission or purpose, as well as its identity, personality and values. These things should be specified and designed for thriving in a specific way and in a specific environment. Generalities aren’t helpful here. The more specific you can be, the better. Don’t think aquatic animal, think middle-sized, saltwater carnivorous fish in the central Pacific Ocean. Your purpose, identity, personality and values are those things that communicate internally and externally exactly who you are, where and how you will thrive and why. Because these should be highly specified, this means you’ll be constraining yourself to a subset of the broader market. That’s the point. Specificity creates depth, direction and clarity. This is especially true when it comes to what you make or do and who and how you serve.
Doubling Down on the Importance of Constraints for a Brand
What problems do you solve? For whom? In what ways? And why should someone choose you over a competitor? Why should they trust you? How do they hear about you and what do they hear? What won’t you do? Why?
These are the kinds of questions everyone in business is trying to answer. Without constraints, it’s hard to be specific and clear. When you’re scattered and unclear, you appear unprofessional and untrustworthy. If no one trusts you, no one will do business with you — even if your offer is unbelievably good. Trust, not money, is the primary currency in business. Trust always precedes any financial transaction. So it’s crucial to be clear about who you are, what you’re uniquely doing and why you’re doing it. And it’s even more important that your actions align with your words. Your products and services must align with your specific mission, identity, personality and values consistently.
When your offered goods or services are consistent, you build up the confidence of your intended audience — your market. Your consistency demonstrates that you are who you say you are. It shows customers what you really do and, just as importantly, what you really won’t do. And it helps you attract the kind of customer who is looking for specific solutions to specific problems. In other words, your consistency builds trust.
Brand Consistency and Reliability Build Trust
When a brand is clear about who they are, what they will and won’t offer, and who they’ll offer it to consistently, people will begin to feel like they know your brand. They will know what to expect from you. And once they get to know you, they will begin to trust you. Every strong, long-term relationship in business is founded on trust.
That trust is built through clear communication about who you are, but it’s sustained by consistent actions. It’s not enough for you to claim to be about solving specific problems, because of specific values. You actually need to live out those statements. People need to see you stay within the constraints of your brand over time. These constraints are the means by which people will continue to evaluate your brand.
The customer is watching closely and waiting. Are you consistent? Are you reliable? Do you really understand their needs and values or were you just trying to make a sale? Show them. Show them again. And continue to show them, even if it hurts a little in the short term.
Remember, trust is the real currency of business.
Constraints Take Some Things Off the Table
This means there are certain things that are off the table for your business. In other words, there are things your customers don’t want to see from you. These are things that violate your constraints. Things that go against your values, vision, personality and communication about who you are.
For example, let’s suppose one of your brand values is to promote conservation efforts. You state that you value the environment and take seriously the responsibility to care for the planet. For this example, let’s also suppose you make a product and you’ve found a steal of a deal on manufacturing and production, but the business is known for its terrible environmental practices. You can’t work with this business and still claim to uphold your brand value. One of them has to go.
That’s an example of staying true to your values at a cost — but there’s freedom in the flip side of establishing and staying within your constraints as well.
When you know who you are, what your mission is and why you do what you do, it empowers you to know when to say yes and when to say no. It gives you boundaries so that you can focus on improving the specific things you’re focused on providing. And it frees you from paralysis caused by too many choices. In other words, constraints actually keep you from stagnating and fading into the background. Clear boundaries help set the path, keep it clutter-free and help you maintain forward momentum.
The Right Constraints Lead to Freedom
Constraints aren’t things to avoid. Defining and embracing the right constraints is exactly what will help set your brand apart from the competition. Abiding by those constraints is what will garner trust with your customer base and, in the long run, create sustained growth.
This idea is one of many to be found in our upcoming book — the fruit of more than a decade of leadership and work with brands. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of branding, you’ll want to check it out! Sign up for our book-specific newsletter and receive exclusive recordings we used to jumpstart our writing process.