We routinely talk about the importance of branding. But how do we push this understanding deeper? Maybe even deep enough to make it practical and clear in your specific business? Understanding comes from allowing the biggest arguments against your position to land with full force, separating logic from emotion and then dealing with them in a reasoned fashion. This, not emotion, is what makes sophisticated marketing people.
So let’s deal with some of those objections. Let’s start with the people who make the objections and see if we can understand how to make ourselves more sophisticated marketers.
We believe branding is essential because it tells people who they’re doing business with. Generally, people do business with those they like and trust. We argue that the same principle holds for brands. There’s been a lot of research that shows that people look at brands in the same way they look at other people. Some people even give personalities to their car or some other inanimate object. We’re just built to relate to things that way.
“Nothing Kills a Bad Product Faster Than Good Advertising”
You hear this repeated in ad school, and it’s true. It’s how free markets work. If you’re a company spending money to make a promise to the world, you’re betting that the product will catch on by keeping its promises. And if you don’t, you just spent a whole lot of money on a bald-faced lie. And the speed with which the early customers will inform the rest of the market about how your product is a waste of money will make you dizzy.
It works the same for products and for brands.
Brands create accountability. If you’re a company that never really makes a promise, nobody will know if you violate your values. That’s why brands are good for free markets. Because if your brand seems to make a promise, but then seems to violate that promise, it costs you. So when brands make a claim about who to trust, they’re rewarded or penalized for keeping that promise or breaking it.
Who Would Object to That?
So who would object to companies being rewarded for making and keeping promises? It’s people who only trust numbers, who don’t think a company can have values or just find it intimidating because they don’t understand the process.
Normally, you hear the objections from marketing people who favor a pet tactic or a specialized marketing practice, such as SEO or direct-response marketing, and they see branding as competition for their clients.
At their best, these people don’t quite understand branding and are just trying to lead their clients in the right direction, toward transactions that will build their sales. Even for those with the best intentions, these consultants can turn a product and brand with real meaning and value into a commodity.
Other objections come from people who are just a little cynical and they don’t think companies really follow any of the principles that they espouse. In other words, big companies come up with all these values and missions and manifestos, but they don’t really stand behind them. They’ve seen enough of this to believe that branding is just a sales effort.
And You Know What? Sometimes They’re Right.
As cynical as people can be, they’re sometimes right. Some brands can’t maintain meaningful values, either because of poor leadership or because they’re going too many directions. It’s not always the right time, either. And not every company can benefit from the same level of branding; the mix is almost always different for each company. Brand advertising needs to have its place, and it’s not always a big place.
So yeah. They can be right. The job for us, then, is to put branding in its place for my/your company, today. And we can do that by properly understanding how it works, and therefore, how it fits a particular situation.
“A Good Name is Better than Riches”
Sometimes these objections can discourage us. After all, if branding doesn’t matter, there’s no point in standing for anything. There’s no point in being against something. And where’s the joy in running a company that matters; a company that has a real thought leadership and has a real comparative advantage in that tracks back to its values?
Nobody wants to be a sleazy used-car salesman who just wants to peddle metal. They want to feel proud of the service they provide and the relationships they create. They want to be proud to work for that company. They want to feel that they’re doing excellent work, for people who appreciate it, not just make sales.
The bottom line, and this is hard to argue against, is that people do business with people they like and trust.
So let’s talk about the key objections, the ones we find most compelling, to branding. In many cases, there’s some truth to what they’re saying. Maybe this will help us to know exactly where and how much to apply branding to our own companies and products.
Objection 1: Brand Marketing is Overrated
Remember that group of people we talked about before, that’s hyper-focused on sales? Those people, when they’re good, are worth their weight in gold. They can help with direct-response marketing that’s highly measurable and directly attributable to a sale. And when they talk about how brand marketing is overrated, there’s a big extent to which we agree with them.
Brand marketing is bad when you spend too much money on telling people about your brand and what you’re about. People want to know you, but in small bits and over time. You don’t want to be the opening band at the concert that spends 10 minutes telling you who they are and what they believe in.
This kind of marketing works better for lifestyle brands. Lifestyle brands give people a chance to show the world who they are by the kinds of clothes they wear (for instance). It’s the same thing with pretty much any lifestyle brand. A lot of people who grew up in the 90s or from Generation X still wear skate shoes. They don’t skate, but they wear the shoes. Everyone’s showing each other who they are and expressing themselves. They’re proud of having a specific look and feel.
What About B2B?
So much for lifestyle brands, but what about business-to-business brands? While a lot of business-to-business brands lack a rationale for connecting with people based on lifestyle, some still do. In the construction industry, there are some brands that people are proud to own. You’re proud to have a Milwaukee tool or Snap-on tools. It shows your quality because of the tools you use.
So is Branding Overrated?
Just like anything, branding can be overrated or underrated. The real question is: how would we know? When do dollars spent on branding start to diminish?
You’re a commodity. You shouldn’t brand a commodity. In other words, if you’re in a market where people buy solely on price, or how fast you can deliver, or how easy it is to get, those things can be so easily measured against each other that the brand just doesn’t need to fit into the equation. That said, even gas stations that compete on price still have logos, and brands didn’t matter nearly as much in the shoe or coffee industries before Nike and Starbucks came along.
When sales or business development carry more of the load. Brands that rest on business development need branding, but then hand the relationship off to a salesperson. In other words, since the client interacts with just one person they really trust, the salesperson’s brand becomes as important as the company’s, often even more important.
The problem with this is that your salesperson owns the relationship. That’s not always good. Because if the salesperson moves to another company, your business often follows that person.
In other words, if you haven’t provided enough value through your brand and everything that it does, it’s easier for clients to follow salespeople.
Objection 2: “I can’t name a single customer that’s come in as the direct result of branding.”
This is a rather cynical comment that misunderstands the purpose of branding. Basically, the argument goes like this. Since you can’t measure how much a brand affects sales, then branding is overrated.
To put it another way, if branding can’t be easily measured, then it doesn’t matter. This is just a little irrational.
But anybody who has any exposure to research knows that there are some very important things that can’t be measured. There are some things that require different measurement tools. That’s why we have different research approaches to deal with different kinds of questions (e.g. qualitative and quantitative methods).
Quantitative and Qualitative Measurements
Quantitative is a lot more what direct-response marketing companies focus on. They have somewhat predictable results that essentially promise that if you send out “x” number of mailers, you will receive “y” number of inquiries. I still think this is a very powerful way to market when used correctly. But it’s not a silver bullet.
Think about Groupon. For a short time, they were all the rage. That is until restaurants began realizing that Groupon was attracting a segment of people who weren’t looking to find a new good restaurant to enjoy for the long term, but we’re just looking for deals.
So as long as you were doing Groupon, you were gaining traffic. The moment you stopped, traffic went back to exactly the way it was before. Too many people were burned by this, and the industry learned an important lesson: you sell Groupon to increase trial (some products are so good that increasing the number of people who try it will make fans for life) as long as you can afford to take the loss. You hope to cover the costs of increased traffic, and then hope that you’d occasionally get lucky with long-term customers.
The warning here is that marketing makes it easy to attract the wrong customers, and a lot of these bulk marketing companies don’t care whether you’re getting the right customers or not. That’s just not how they measure success.
Qualitative measures tell you more about who the right person is who matches your company’s way of doing business. How do you want to do business, and who fits that?
The Right Mixture Matters
So you can see how a proper mix between quantitative and qualitative can build your customer base with quality and quantity.
Remember, people do business with those they like and trust. If you’re a commodity, it might not matter so much. But if you expect people to become loyal customers and enter a relationship with you, then branding, whether that happens of the business development level, or the company level, or usually somewhere in between, matters immensely. It will make all the difference.
If there’s no difference between you and another seller, then don’t brand. But if there is, then use branding to point out that difference to the world.
So just because you can’t name a single customer that came in as the direct result of branding, doesn’t mean that people aren’t coming in as an indirect result of branding. It also doesn’t mean that people don’t care about your reputation. Because it’s likely that they heard about your brand, gained trust in your brand, showed up and saw you living out and working out your brand in everything you do, saw that consistency and realized that you are the real deal. And once they do that, they tell others.
Objection 3: “It’s not the time to do branding.”
This is a final objection, and it is probably applicable. On one extreme, it’s possible to spend so much money on branding that you never make a product. We don’t recommend that. It’s also possible that you wait so long to brand that employees and customers still don’t know what you stand for. Therefore you end up giving up accountability and meaning that could be shared with the people around you and that leadership that can be shared by your customers as well. This impacts how people see you.
Your company is like a band. Remember discovering a band on their 4th or 5th album? Then you found their first album and it wasn’t nearly as unified. They were a bit all over the place. They hadn’t quite found themselves as a band yet. That’s because it takes time.
If you’re just forming your company today selling an amazing B2B app, you may not want to put a gazillion dollars in the branding. You might wait and allow your audience to present itself a bit. You might also realize that your company has certain values related to quality that you’ve been expressing without knowing it in how you do your work and how you run your company.
Discover how your values go into your product.
Is your company a great place to work? There’s probably a reason for that. And you might need to figure that out and make it one of your values. In other words, what about your company do you believe and execute on that makes working there a great experience?
- Reliability. Does your company make reliable products? Maybe there’s something in your beliefs that have made it a reliable product? Maybe you want to be proud of the products that you create. And now this reputation gets out into the world and also contributes to how you hire your employees.
- Service. And maybe your service is amazing because you hate the idea that you’re leaving people who use your product hanging. That value of never wanting to leave people hanging or abandoned shows itself in your service.
- Look and feel. And then what about your personality? What do your company events feel like? How do people dress at your office? All those things, including how people communicate, the workspace that you’ve chosen and the kinds of conversations that happen at work go into your brand’s personality traits. These things show up in how your company expresses itself in the world.
Hipster or Military Veteran?
Are you a bunch of hipsters? Or are you a veteran-operated company that intentionally hires veterans? The inward perception of your company will be vastly different between these two groups. One may be very patriotic, disciplined and focused, with its own sense of humor that borders on the politically incorrect, while the other one might ride around the office on skateboards and listen to some lofi hip-hop really loud in the workspace.
The point is, that not all of those things are obvious at the very beginning. This is especially true when you don’t know who you’re talking to. It is important to understand who you’re serving to really understand your values and how they come across, your personality traits and what people like about you.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. We would never tell you to start with what your audience wants and then try to morph and change into who they want you to be. This would be grossly inauthentic. And we want your authenticity maintained and preserved. This is why we always start with branding the company based on its own ‘why’, its own values, its own traits and how it chooses to serve other people. Only then do we really look at how brands express themselves to others. Because the audience can change, but the brand doesn’t.
Branding Isn’t a Panacea. It Works Hand-in-hand with Marketing.
Branding is a crucial piece of the puzzle for companies who want to stand out in their industries. But it’s not the whole thing. A coherent marketing plan rests on a solid brand and uses that brand’s reputation to create interest, desire, and action in marketing.
The real question is not which is better: branding or direct-response. It’s “where do they fit in a complete strategy?”
And we reach that conclusion from embracing the arguments of those who disagree with us. This is the straightest path to really understanding how things work, making you a more-sophisticated marketing strategist.
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