Branding is an Overrated Buzzword
21 January 2009
(Image credit: Hugh MacLeod)
“Branding” is, by far, the single most over-used and over-hyped business-related concept. I don’t say this lightly – my previous day job was marketing measurement for Procter & Gamble, the company that invented the term.
To be frank, after six years of working in the marketing world, I’m tired of hearing the word “branding” used by otherwise intelligent people as some sort of mystical business incantation that will somehow guarantee business (and personal) success. There’s absolutely nothing magical about branding: the word “brand” is really just a sloppy conflation of three related but distinct concepts: reputation, connotation, and consistency.
When people say they want to “enhance their brand” or “build brand equity,” they usually mean “improve their reputation”: what people generally think about them or their company. Some examples of good reputations:
- Moleskine notebooks have great paper.
- Getting Things Done is the best book about productivity that has ever been written.
- Derek Punsalan is the best blog designer I know.
It’s important to note that your reputation is not directly under your control – it’s the sum total of what others think about what you do. You can’t “manage” your reputation – you can only try to improve it over time.
Here are a few things you can do to improve your reputation:
- Create / discuss / do something other people find interesting or useful.
- Improve your business process and systems to ensure people always have a positive experience with you or your company.
- Share what you’re genuinely excited about with others who may benefit.
- Always treat others with appreciation, courtesy, and respect (the “Golden Trifecta”).
These recommendations should sound familiar – they’ve been around in some form or another for hundreds of years. In essence, they’re a combination of Seth Godin’s modern-day marketing advice and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
When you build a great reputation, your customers will refer new business to you because they genuinely think highly of you. It takes time and effort, but it always works.
Connotation is the message you or your business is actively trying to present to others: it’s the story you’re telling to the world. Think classic business school positioning: “Volvo = Safety”, “Apple = Cool”, “Victoria’s Secret = Sexy”, etc.
Big companies spend a lot of time connoting – that’s what mass-market advertising essentially does. Most mass-market advertising attempts to (a) make you aware that a product / company exists, and (b) encourage you to associate that product / company with something positive. The hope is that, when you’re in the market for what the company offers, you’ll remember them in a positive way and ultimately purchase their products.
Most people assume connotation is the most important part of branding. It’s not – reputation is far more important, due to the fact that people tend to automatically discount things you say about yourself. For example, which are you more likely to believe:
Dell Advertisement: “We make the best notebook computers in the world!”
Your best friend Sally: “My Dell laptop is a piece of junk.”
Big companies throw hundreds of millions of dollars at mass-market connotation because it works – advertising does make people more receptive to your services when purchased in large enough quantities and delivered over long enough periods of time. That’s why big companies like Coca-Cola and P&G still spend billions of dollars every year on mass-market advertising.
Unless you have a seven-figure bank account, skip mass-market advertising and related big-company tactics: it’s a waste of time unless you’re able to blanket your target audience with messaging over a significant period of time, which is typically expensive. Present yourself professionally, but don’t overdo it – focus your time and energy on doing things that will improve your reputation instead.
Consistency means acting and presenting yourself in the same way over time. Consistency is important because it prevents confusion:
- If you’re nice to your customers only half the time, what experiences will they remember?
- If you say you’re “trend-setting” one moment and “traditional” the next – what will your customers think?
- If you’re changing the face you present to the world every few months, what will people believe about you?
Consistency is what makes reputation and connotation stick. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind or present a new message – if a change is warranted, don’t be afraid to make it. Keep in mind, however, that it’ll take time for your reputation and connotation to actually change with you.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve your reputation or present yourself in a positive manner – it’s a good idea to be aware of how others perceive you and what you offer. “Personal branding,” however, misses the mark, since it typically teaches / connotes that the best way to personal and professional success is to focus on “managing your message” like a big company. In my opinion, it’s far better to focus on improving your reputation by consistently doing good work and making it available to others: that’s where the benefits actually come from.
Ignore your “brand” – focus on your building your reputation instead.
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