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Thursday, March 26, 2015

No More Jazz: From Branding to Being

In this article:

1. All That Jazz
2. Why Should You Even Care?
3. From Branding to Being: A Different Approach
4. Doing It Right
5. Mind the Gap

1. All That Jazz

What is branding? Ask 100 branding experts and you will get 1,000 different answers. Ask the clients they serve and you will get a myriad more.

I have had so many versions of the following conversation that it’s no longer cute: 

I say, smiling: “You know, whether you realize it or not, whether you like it or not, you have a brand. My job is to help you be deliberate in choosing it, effective in articulating it, and authentic and powerful in living it.”

They say, nodding: “Yeah, totally. Branding is so important. We just had our logo done. We love the new colors!” 

No—decidedly not cute. But who is to blame? What is a “brand”, really? Well, let’s first take a look at what it’s not.

We ask a lot of this little word which, in Middle English, simply meant to “mark permanently with a hot iron” (Rivkin 2004, 10). Despite marketers’ appropriation of the word for the hefty sub-discipline, “branding”, the idea of a “brand” as a mere—often physical—mark of ownership has persisted. And it’s no wonder.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary will tell you that a “brand” is a trademark…and a brand name...and a number of other things. Even well-trained marketers tend to use the term willy-nilly.

So, if you have ever been confused by what branding entails, here are a few home truths you will pick up in the field (and in very expensive business schools):

1.     Your brand is not (just) your name.
2.     Your brand is not (just) your logo.
3.     Your brand is not (just) your slogan or tagline.
4.     Your brand is not (just) your story.
5.     Your brand is not (just) your image.

2. Why Should You Even Care?

Bonus tip #6, on me:

Your brand is not (just) anything; 
but, when properly planned
and harmoniously executed,
it can take you just about anywhere.

Without a powerful brand—whether personal (for you, as a person), corporate (for your organization, as a product or service provider or as an employer), or destination (for your city, country, or region)—you get lost in the shuffle. 

Your target audiences miss out on what you uniquely can offer them (your unique selling proposition or USP) to help them achieve their goals. 

Generally speaking, an employer will hire you if they expect to recoup that investment through some improvement in their business, usually growth in their bottom line. Likewise, a customer will purchase your products or services if doing so will fulfill a physical or psychological need. Places function similarly—people choose to visit and invest in places that will confer certain benefits.

A deliberately chosen, effectively articulated, and authentically and powerfully lived brand clearly separates you from the competition and propels you to the next level.

3. From Branding to Being: A Different Approach

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” 

—Mahatma Gandhi

I propose that, when we reflect on our brands, we dispense altogether with the angst-inducing word “branding” (collective gasp) and replace it with a simpler, truer word: being. I propose a paradigm shift, from personal branding to personal being, from corporate branding to corporate being, from destination branding to destination being. 

Why? Because, as noted at the outset, branding is not just about your logos and colors and taglines, as some would have you believe. Nor is it simply about driving home your overarching narrative or story, as others more accurately argue. 

Much like happiness as defined by Gandhi, branding is about bringing what you think, what you say, and what you do into harmony. More than anything, it is about being. 

In her commentary for Inc. magazine’s April 2014 profile of Partners & Spade, Kelly O'Keefe, professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Brandcenter, points out that when “the company gets the behavior right, and the products themselves are beautiful, the ad role shifts from invention of story to, you put a camera on the behavior.” 

This is what it means to truly live a brand.

4. Doing It Right

The gerund “being”, as in “being yourself,” implies authenticity, consistency, a work in progress. Is that not, after all, what we all are? A work in progress doesn’t over-promise.

The tagline of my agency, RightlySaid, is “Perfecting Communication to Build Your Brand” because we regard the pursuit of perfection as a process, a work in progress, not a fait accompli.

When I managed public and media relations at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, my boss, someone whom I admire and from whom I learned a great deal, remarked that “Cheryl’s work is guaranteed perfect upon completion.” I was honored, but I tried not to take it to heart.

Even now, when RightlySaid clients honor us with such feedback, our response is the same. Why? Because the very notion of perfection as an achieved target can be limiting. Once you accept something as perfect, once you have closed your mind to the possibility of anything superior to it, how can you possibly improve upon it?

For the sake of sanity in day-to-day work, it can be a useful limitation to have. Or else, we would work our fingers to the bone and then continue to burnish them after that. But when we think of our personal, destination, and corporate brands, it is a limitation we must reject forthwith.

Let’s face it. You’re a human being (or your organization or country is made up of human beings—we hope!) and you will make mistakes (read: learn lessons) and fail (read: grow) at some things. That is part of your being and should be part of your brand, too.

I’m not saying advertise your cataclysmic capacity to fail. I’m just saying don’t go the way of Tiger Woods, for instance, whose fall from grace was that much harder not only because of his unprecedented skill as a golfer, but because he had come to embody overall perfection—and not only for Accenture.

5. Mind the Gap

For more than a decade now, I have been obsessed with studying what I call “brand identity-brand image gaps” and how to close them. Unless you are launching a new brand that harmonizes your thoughts, words, and actions, you likely have to deal with a brand identity-brand image gap of some size.

I am convinced that the best way to bridge the gap is to earnestly strive to be the brand you want to be and encourage your audiences to be patient with you in your “becoming”.

Again, make your humanity part of your brand. First examine who you are (that is, your brand identity), evaluate how you are seen (that is, your brand image), then figure out what you want to be and then work diligently toward becoming that. I bet you will find that people appreciate the honesty, warm to you, and are more forgiving of the occasional misstep.

A March 2015 Entrepreneur magazine editor’s note bears the title, “It’s Not You, It’s Your Story.” This is true, except when it’s not. I’m sorry, but sometimes it is you. And me. 

We—people, organizations, and destinations—are multifaceted. You may be one thing to one audience or target market, and something else to another. That flexibility is wonderful. The catch? You have still got to be authentic, coherent, and consistent, not only in what you say (the story you tell), but also in what you think and do. And your audiences must perceive you as such. 

Folks are smart. If you claim one thing and then do another, it won’t ring true and that could be it for you. 

In his analysis in Forbes magazine of Starbucks’ short-lived #RaceTogether initiative (March 2015), which he calls “bad marketing, but great branding,” Jonathan Salem Baskin highlights a common affliction of marketing: “Companies say what their marketers think consumers want to hear.” He then cites Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’ move as a refreshing exception. 

I would add that too many destination marketing organizations (DMOs) fall into that trap of regurgitating what they think their audiences want to hear. Job seekers and school applicants are as readily ensnared. And who can blame them? The pressure looms large and shiny temptation beckons. However, in business as in life, often that way lies danger. Mind the gap!


Agencies such as RightlySaid help you figure out and effectively articulate your brand across different contexts and media for maximal effect. But the daily branding—the daily being—is largely up to you. As @gapingvoid puts it in his illustration for Vocus’ Branding Rules, “Secret sauce isn’t much good without the burger.”

Remember: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” 

In my opinion, this is what it comes down to, and happiness is worth striving for.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree? Feel free to share any examples you may have—whether in support of this theory or to the contrary. Let me know in the comments below. 

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About the Author

As founder and director of RightlySaidCheryl N. Klufio, MBA, is a coach, author, and speaker who specializes in perfecting communication to build your personal, destination, or corporate brand. Drop her a line or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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