We are a society full of masks. Some masks are fun, some are for protection, while others are designed to help us hide. Some companies unwittingly mask their true brand. People do it too. The things is, valuable connections occur when we are true to both ourselves and others.
We are taught how to mask ourselves from an early age. Who teaches us how to remove the masks? For some, it’s a slow process of becoming comfortable with reality. For others – particularly those who see value in connection – short order wholesale change makes the most sense.
We wear masks all over our bodies (clothing, makeup, perfume). Masks are used under our arms (deodorant). They cover our mouths (protective masks), eyes (masquerade ball), or whole faces (Halloween), and even around our feet (shoes). Obviously, some masks are useful.
But some masks do us more harm than good. Some people use masks in speech, called half-truths and (gasp) lies. Remember when tobacco advertising said smoking was essential to social prominence? The path to romanticizing a product doesn’t need to include any deceit. There is almost always a real factor that contains appeal.
We all want to be excited by our advertising. We want our brands to outshine all competitors. All it takes is great creative people wrapping their imaginations around a compelling truth. Of course, they must be capable of finding that truth.
When creative professionals or companies start believing in promises made to manifest appeal through false hopes, that’s the top end of a downward slide. It’s when they add a mask into the mix. And it’s completely avoidable.
With a lifetime of masking ourselves, it is no wonder businesses often don’t know how to brand with any degree of integrity. Instead, companies often brand for who they want to be rather than who they are. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, unless (as is often the case) the presentation of who you want to be misrepresents who you are. That’s how empty promises are made.
The truth is, people want to know who you really are. They want to know what you believe in, what you care about, and how you will treat them. Being honest and up front about this – not hiding behind any masks – is the more likely path to connection and good relationships.
As you brand or advertise, think about how you would present yourself to a new friend or love interest. That kind of bold honesty is exactly what is needed in your brand.
How many great relationships are built on half-truths? How many solid foundations are built on trust and honesty? Which do you want your brand to embody?
My vote is on the latter, on articulating who you are with absolute integrity, so the people who you most stand to benefit can know you are being true, and can believe in your brand.
When I tell new acquaintances I do branding, they often think it means I make up fictional stories to bamboozle unsuspecting minds into falling for fake value, because somehow that is the reputation this industry has managed to build. We have never worked that way. Train of Thought is all about crafting real, compelling, true stories with which people relate because there is real alignment and harmony. That’s been our focus since day one, yet this approach is not universal in graphic design or advertising.
Ever hear of spin in PR and advertising? That’s most likely where design gets the reputation of faking fabulousness in the service of sales. I’d like to set the record straight. Thus, here is a list of 10 things great brands are not:
3. One-sided projection
Bonus Not: Lacking integrity.
If your brand is any of the above, it may not be performing to potential. If that’s the case, try shoring it up, or try something new.
A couple years ago, Alibris was pretty terrible. It made buying used books online into an ugly experience. Thankfully, they listened to customer feedback and made massive changes that completely transformed the experience into the single fastest way to order books online.
Before, Alibris ordering system was largely dysfunctional. Sure, you could place an order, but you often had no idea what you were paying for shipping until after the order was placed, when you might be surprised to learn that you had paid a premium for expedited shipping that you didn’t even know you had selected.
Fast forward to today. Now, Alibris has improved search function and ordering such that it is entirely possible to load their site, do a search, select and order a book, while knowing exactly what you are paying – all within about 1-2 minutes. That is amazing.
That’s smart proactive UX design that is in itself great marketing.
It’s listening to the people who matter internally and externally, serving both sides.
It’s transformative, excellent design that keeps the company relevant, and helps every one of their sellers and customers.
If you’re like me, everything you create, you try to make it great. You do original work, push boundaries, and you are always innovating.
One of the biggest problems entrepreneurs face is people not understanding them. That’s when you see lengthy descriptions of what, how, and why people ought to take notice. The problem itself, however, is often grossly misunderstood. The problem is not lack of understanding.
The problem is lack of attention.
When people are unable to quickly grasp a concept, they typically move on to something else. Once your audience has moved on, all the explaining and proof of concept in the world won’t reach them.
How do you command attention when you have created something so advanced that people don’t yet know they want it?
You go backward.
Getting people to change a behavior they don’t even know can be changed requires gap bridging. This is an incredibly hard step for visionaries because it requires you to create something less grand. Yet, doing just that may just be critical to the marketing of your big idea.
You may have to create an intermediary product, one that bridges the gap between your big idea (where you want people to go) and where they are. And make no mistake, the intermediary offering is itself marketing. It is physical marketing, or showing possibility by delivering a physical product that inspires your market to think well beyond their current habit.
While you are branding and marketing your intermediary product, you can keep the big idea in the back of your mind or in your long-term plans. Once your initial offering gains traction, you can study the numbers to determine when you can launch the big kahuna. The gap bridging you are doing will help people understand your idea much quicker. Then, you can command their attention right when you need to, at the launch of the big one.
Getting there requires the same tried and true marketing methods that have worked wonders for decades. It’s all about visibility and credibility.
1. Float – Gain visibility
2. Swim – Gain visibility
3. Compete – Gain credibility
4. Win – Gain visibility and credibility
Let’s expand that:
Float your intermediary idea as though it is the big one. Get it out there, talk about it, write about it. Connecting with people will help you understand and speak to their needs and concerns. For many people, your intermediary product will seem like a huge step forward. Why is the intermediary offering important? This is all about seeing if people respond and connect with you and your concept. If they do, you are literally inspiring their steps that lead to your grand vision.
Swim with your would-be competition. Brand your company and product so that your marketing can do its job with maximum effectiveness. Identify which marketing methods will most likely yield success, and hatch the simplest plan possible to implement them. Why simple? It keeps your marketing do-able.
Compete for your would-be customers’ attention. Implement your marketing with amazing consistency. Rock it, every week. Stay true to your mission, brand, and vision, and see if people respond to it.
Win by staying true to your market. If your offering really is a game-changer, even the intermediary product will turn heads and manifest the behavior change you seek.
Every step of your marketing is trained on building visibility and credibility. If you do it with consistency, people will take notice and trust you. This is how you become an authority, a market leader.
When you have done the work to become a leader; when you have bridged the gap; when you have gained an audience that knows and trusts you — that is when your big idea can successfully be launched.
People love the idea of a stock logo design or an instant logo generator, a point-and-click logo-making dream solution. The problem is, the very nature of a logo is personal, which is inherently not point-and-click, not instant. An effective logo is all about personal investment in deep-rooted meaning.
Oh sure, eyes are rolling, because I am, after all, a logo designer. Surely I am biased, right? Not so, friend. I love making connections, and as you can see in perusing our portfolio, logo design is but one of our many ways of making connections for clients. Thing is, the logo in particular is the single most effective way of connecting. But only when it embodies deep, thought-provoking meaning.
If your logo has no unique character, it is an inert non-factor. If you have no personal thought or emotional investment in it, you won’t relate to it. And if you don’t, few others will either.
Selecting items from a pool of existing art is inherently not personal. Although you can apply meaning to nearly anything, if it’s not original, the application is not universal. In other words, people won’t be able to relate to it in precisely the way you need them to.
Logos designed to embody specific meaning help people connect just as you need them to, and just as they need in order to forge valuable connection. Your logo is the hub connecting you and your customers.
How do we instill unique character into a logo design?
It’s different for each client, for each logo. Why? Because each company, each product, each person, is different. Each has their own ideas about which parts of their character are valuable and meaningful. And meaning is personal, developed on a one-by-one basis, just like in life.
We all search for meaning during our lives. Imagine your logo design as a mini version of the search for life’s meaning. That is literally what a logo design is.
A good logo design explores your innermost dreams, beliefs, passions, and desires. It runs naked through the obscure, the rich, the powerful, and the past and present, to find and express the deepest meaning that exists about any one entity.
The ownable idiosyncrasies and personal traits designed into the logo make it yours. Those traits also make it theirs—your customers, clients, [fans]. Without those aspects, the logo fails to do its job.
This applies to corporate and personal brands alike. It applies to product and service brands. If your logo is generic, people will decide your company is generic, that it is not important or noteworthy. If your logo has deep meaning, people will connect with what is important about you.
Leaving the most powerful brand component in your marketing arsenal – your logo – to an algorithm or point-and-click tool is well and truly the best way to shoot your company in its proverbial foot.
It’s also a poor way to start for several reasons. Notably, the ability to form meaningful connections is reduced both internally and externally. Also, every other marketing effort will be less effective because the primary takeaway, the goal, in many marketing initiatives is the viewer remembering your logo. From your website and identity to advertising, direct mail, and social media, if your logo isn’t memorable, all of those efforts will yield lesser returns.
Designing a custom logo, on the other hand, will ensure you have a long-lasting, personal, meaningful, thought-provoking, connection-making core identity element. All in one compact icon. Imagine that. Now connect with it.
Starting a business is almost always a good idea, but succeeding is increasingly harder. A strong foundation increases your chances of succeeding exponentially, yet foundations require planning, and in spite of how truly quick and easy planning can be, people regularly skip it, leaving their startup business success to rely on a foundation made of lofty clouds and shifting sands.
The good news is, there are people like me pushing you to do it better, define it now, and help you create the strong foundation that will help your efforts turn into the long-term business you desire. It all starts with questions and answers.
If you haven’t time for answering questions, you may not have the time needed to succeed, but if you take the time to really consider some important answers, your business foundation can carry you to the heights you seek.
Keep in mind that one-word answers are usually not helpful, so write (or type) detailed answers. Remember, you are exploring and expressing your innermost thoughts here, so make them count.
Below are some basic insights and questions. More specific questions around target market come into play further into the planning process.
The questions are numbered because answering them sequentially will help make this easier for you. That means no skipping questions!
It’s no secret that the secret of business success is doing something extraordinary, it’s just that people conveniently “forget” to acknowledge this hard fact. In a fast-paced online business landscape, the fact of this is even more critical.
1. How is your offering extraordinary?
Whether affluent or struggling, it’s a fact that, unless you are Donald Trump, people do not want to throw away their money. People want value, so your job as a business owner is to provide just that.
2. How is your product or service valuable?
Being a pain reliever
People often describe their offerings as filling a need, but unfortunately, filling a need is rarely enough. The more likely path to success is forged by relieving figurative pain. You create something that makes people’s lives theoretically easier. Then you make it as easy as humanly possible for them to give you their money.
3. How will your brand relieve people’s pain?
4. How will your company make people’s lives easier?
Having the time and budget
The myth is that you can start a business with no money. Well, you can start up a business with no money, but you cannot succeed in a reasonable amount of time without a startup budget. How do you figure out the required budget?
You have to look at the numbers: the hard costs of doing business, which includes employees and subcontractors, branding, marketing, manufacturing and/or purchasing, rent, equipment, supplies, accounting, and so on. All of these must be figured in. Use a business plan template to make sure you consider and document all costs.
You also must align your budget and goals, and scale each according to the reality of your situation.
The success of nearly any business ultimately comes down to the numbers (unless you are independently wealthy and do not care about making a profit). One of the most significant numbers is time. If you have the time to dedicate, great. If not, you must have people you trust working for you with their time, which means getting into the financial numbers of hiring.
5. How much time will you dedicate each day, week, and year to this business?
6. What is your required startup budget?
7. Will this be self-funded, or do you need investors?
8. Are your budget and goals in alignment?
Knowing your success factors
Some people want to make piles of money, while others just want to ply their trade of choice and earn a decent living, and either objective can lead to respective success. If you look at your business from a purely monetary standpoint, chances are it will not completely fulfill your desires. Consider looking at the romance side of your business, the part of it that will bring you personal satisfaction or a legacy. If you do not define your success factors, how will you know when you are succeeding?
9. By which factors will you define success?
10. What will success look like?
11. How will you reward yourself and your team for succeeding?
Being suitable to online sales
Not all products are conducive to online selling. The shipping time, lack of person-to-person interaction, and lack of ability around acting solely on immediate need or impulse changes the sales equation. If connection is critical to making the sale, you have to find other ways of forging those connections. Maybe you will create something innovative that makes this easier.
12. If you are selling tactile equipment or a physical impulse item, can you make it suitable to online sales? If so, how? What will the experience feel like?
13. How can you put the item in people’s hands?
14. How will you communicate the urgency to buy?
15. How will you make it as easy as possible for people to give you their money?
Solo or team
Some businesses are one-person operations, while others require a team. Which is yours? You can answer this easier by first answering the insightful questions above. Having a team can help you move faster, but it costs more. Going solo can keep you more agile, yet may impose limitations.
16. Is this a solo effort, or will you need a team?
17. Which roles can you fill yourself? For which roles will you need others?
18. What budget will you need for each team member?
19. How will you find key team members?
20. Do you have a team of influential people to rely on for feedback?
I would enjoy reading your answers if you feel inclined to sending them, or to having a conversation about your impending startup business success.
If you work at a large company with strong brands or a startup with no brand, to create a successful brand, you have to be capable of being a champion. To do that, you need smart brand positioning.
What if you have a great idea, but no authority on the topic? You must go get informed in a manner that helps you embody the most informed person in your brand’s area. There are no two ways about this, no shortcuts. You need the credentials and experience. If you can’t get those, you will need endorsements of those in authority. In order to get their attention, you will need some credibility of your own. If you’re doubting this, think about when you were a kid, when a classmate made some outrageous claim. What was our unfailing reply? Prove it.
Positioning Dilemma 1
Say you want to position yourself as an expert in women’s nutrition championing a new brand of foods aimed squarely at women. Sure, it’s a noble and worthy cause, but you lack relevant experience. Guess what happens when you start raising awareness? You will have potential opposition from doctors, dietitians, nutrition counselors, and anyone else with a strong opinion.
Granted, your experience may be unique and valuable, but will it be enough for you to speak with authority to the needs of your market? It might be, particularly if your unique experience relates directly to what you want to do. At some critical point, however, you will be asked to prove it.
Positioning Dilemma 2
Let’s think about it another way. Imagine you want to model for running shoe manufacturers. They want top runners, and fit average joes. And let’s say that you, in fact, are not fit and are not even a runner.
What would you be then? You would be a poser and an outsider, the antithesis of the proof people need to see in order to believe. You would lack the credibility needed to get any manufacturer’s attention, much less their ad agency, and you wouldn’t be able to relate to the market. In order to reach your goal, you would have to become a runner and get fit, which could take years. (Of course, you might be up for it.)
Brand Positioning Oversimplified
If you are like many entrepreneurs, you want to start a company or brand because you have something unique to bring to market. All you have to do for good brand positioning is make a sandwich.
The top slice of bread is what the market wants and needs, and the bottom slice, the foundation, is what you know. Your product is the middle, the heart of the sandwich (your brand), the reason people choose it and eat it up. And the condiments, lettuce, and cheese? Oh, that’s pure marketing.
Positioning around what you know will make your job easier. If you have credentials and relevant experience, you have a huge head start. Figure out what people want, match it up with what you can offer, and put in the hard work to make it reality.
Good brand positioning makes the difference between failure or success. Positioning around what you know is a critical step towards the latter.
Brand Positioning is one of the most misunderstood aspects of brand development. The purpose of a brand positioning statement, surprisingly, is not about staking a claim of the position you wish to occupy in your chosen market. That approach misguides people because where you aspire to be is generally not where you are, setting up the basis for failure when you could instead set a foundation for success.
A strong brand position states an accurate and succinct position of where you stand in the market. It is where you are now or where you intend to be based on real world aspects of your business today.
The problems with many positioning statements range from boastful ambition, to lack of realism, and inflexibility. Not coincidentally, the key to a strong positioning statement is balancing ambition with realism, and keeping a healthy degree of flexibility.
As your business changes, grows, innovates, and reaches a new position, you can update your positioning statement. That’s one reason flexibility is so important. Another reason is simply because you don’t know what you don’t know. A peer may somehow gain a stronger foothold or out-innovate you.
An out of balance brand positioning statement sets you up to fail because it gives people a false sense of who the company is and what it is achieving. It also misinforms key personnel, the brand itself, and marketing elements such as customer service, strategy, messaging, and advertising.
In order to craft a strong brand position statement, you need to have done your homework. You have to know more than just what you are doing. You need to know what the market wants and what the market already has. Moreover, you need to understand the importance of clearly defining your brand in writing right from the outset.
Your brand positioning statement needs to go well beyond stating the basics of who you are. A good statement is brief and concise so that it is actionable and achievable, yet it must be realistic.
A strong brand positioning statement uses inspiring terminology, yet the phraseology must also appeal directly to your target market because one constantly informs the other. You must consider words that might offend the sensibilities or sensitivities of your market. For instance, you would not use the term ‘earth-shattering’ if you are an environmental group. Focusing on inspiring words will—guess what—inspire people to share your vision and spread your word.
There are two types of brand romantics in the working world, the believers and the paycheckers, and most every organization has both in their ranks, playing the role of inherent marketer.
The good romantics, those who help companies make millions and feel good about it, know how to craft reality into compelling stories people can connect with. The poor ones on the other hand, are romantics who know how to sell themselves in the course of crafting average actions and stories that average people may or may not connect with. The poor ones place emphasis more on making their sale, less on yours.
Internally, every employee is a marketer in one way or another. Employees are either believers or paycheckers. They are working for you because they believe in the company vision and its products, or they are there simply to collect a paycheck. Paycheckers are masters of disguise, while believers are masters of truth. Paycheckers get things done because it’s their job, while believers get things done and constantly strive for improvement because they believe in your brand.
How Paycheckers Drag You Down
The world is full of paycheckers because there are not many truly necessary and compelling products relative to how many workers there are. Paycheckers do what you tell them. They can say that they believe if you tell them to believe, but true belief is in the blood and the bones, and it can’t be acquired with mere telling or employee handbooks.
Paycheckers drag your brand and company down because their dialog is rarely as convincing as it must be, taking an often invisible toll on everyone’s efforts and projecting that outward like a toxic gas.
What people often do not realize about brands is that they are as much related to subtlety as they are about the overt, as much about the verbal as they are about the visual, and as much about the interactions as they are about the buying action. That means everything they do is a reflection of you.
Paycheckers rarely understand the deep significance of this fundamental difference because they are there first to collect a paycheck and second to represent. They’ve got it backwards, and while the difference is subtle, getting it turned the other way round often requires changing their personal core needs, which can be next to impossible without good psychological work (which you rarely can ask people to undertake) and particularly without leading by example, which I will explain further below.
Of course, everyone needs to be paid, but as a core part of their belief in you, believers understand that nudging brand representation in front of personal needs will yield greater brand value and, as a direct result, greater job security and personal well-being. There is a leap in that equation that requires faith in you. Some paycheckers can acquire it and some can not.
How True Believers Support Success
If your product and vision are among the relatively few great, you already have a head start, and if you already have a staff full of true believers, your head start is massive in nature. Not only can you attract talented people who will believe in you, but your people will give you their best efforts every day, always keeping your brand’s value in mind as a priority in everything they do.
Each person on your team will have the capacity to talk about your brand with a convincing tone, and to act as an ambassador for incoming employees, customers, vendors, partners, and anyone else. They are true believers who understand and believe in your vision and products, and they work every day to help you maintain and improve it by being true.
Believers can’t be caught out because they show their belief in every effort, every communication, every interaction, whether or not the effort is a success, a failure, or somewhere in between. Everything they do and say reflects the romantic side of their personality, literally that professional ethic inside of them, the feeling they have for their own motivation and actions, and how they communicate with the rest of the world about your brand.
How to Convert Paycheckers into True Believers
You might have some paycheckers on staff who you really like, you want to see them succeed, and you believe in their ability to help you succeed. They have done some good work, but you feel like you’re not getting the fullness of their capability. That can mean they have a doubt that needs to be fixed by a better experience, something they need to see and feel in order to develop that critical intrinsic belief about you.
The good news is that some paycheckers can be converted over to true believers. All they really need is to have those parts of their psyche that contain fears and doubts born of interactions reinforced with new interactions that overwrite current beliefs. For some it will be a quick conversion, born of one or two small changes. For others who possess more doubts, it may take time.
Converting paycheckers into true believers is all about making sure everyone around them is leading by example, representing your brand in the truest manner and with complete consistency.
Why You Must Lead Believers by Example
People believe in brands when they believe in the people who create and run them. That means you have to be at your best whenever possible, and you have to be real. You have to embody the positive qualities that people hold dear to their own happiness and well-being. You have to possess an understanding of those factors within your company, manufacturers, distributors, and customers, and you have to be able to represent them in a way that is true to your beliefs. You get out what you put in. You have to trust people, and when you do, they will trust you. Two-way trust results in people giving the best parts of themselves to their work, which shows they love what they are doing in helping your brand succeed.
This is where objective introspection becomes paramount. If you are a leader who is lacking in some subtle way, you may be unaware of how your smaller actions and words effect others. For instance, if you lack trust, or have a habit of utilizing belittling words, or over-share your personal problems, that can have a direct effect on people’s confidence in you and your organization. And maybe it’s not you, but rather your brand’s lack of outward character that is undermining their belief in you. Remember, your brand is a direct reflection of you.
A strong brand starts at the core, from within you, then extends to your organization or team, and radiates outward to consumers. It is critical to start at the center and build out belief in a radiating manner. When you do that, you can see the brand grow organically, which in turn infuses your marketing with a healthy core, keeping it true and believable, which helps people easily connect with your products.
Here is an example that many business owners overlook: As inconsequential as it may seem, if you have a dirty office, that internally reflects on your brand because it subconsciously speaks to how you regard the people who work for you. It gives people a degree of doubt right at home, at the core, something extra to think about (in a negative way). A quick daily cleaning shows people that you keep a clean house. A clean house equals a clear mind. Brands have a tendency to grow when everything radiating from the core is clean, clear, and overtly positive.
More obvious places where your brand can inspire confidence include your product quality, brand identity, marketing communications, social media interactions, and customer service. All of these are directly influenced by you and your team.
When you bring the same awareness to the all aspects of your brand, from the smallest through to the most visible, people notice it, and it comes through in everything they do, talk about, and buy.
We are all romantics, all marketing to ourselves. When you give people every reason to believe, you appeal to their romantic side, and it will come as a welcome reward that they place their belief in you.
Is it possible to guarantee brand success? Yes and No. Our branding process works. When we are hired to brand a company, service, or product, we know that the process we use has yielded a whole lot of success and happiness. But we can’t control factors outside of our process. All we can realistically do is follow our process and encourage sound business practices for the rest.
Lately, I’ve been rewriting business letters for some clients to help improve one of the factors typically out of our control, and it’s working. They are getting results. (Over time, my hope is that osmosis will occur, and their written communications will improve. When your writing improves, verbal communication often follows suit.)
My approach to successful branding is a simple process:
1) Plan as much as possible, making sure you get all of the basics down on paper.
2) Design the brand to inspire and connect, while adhering to the plan.
3) Market with integrity, staying true to market needs and brand characteristics.
Does this formula guarantee success? Nope, however, I guarantee that if you don’t do these things, your chances of failure will exponentially increase.
People ask for guaranteed brand success, but a guarantee of success is impossible because there are factors outside our direct influence. For instance, we can’t control how a company does business, how they follow up with customers, or product quality, yet all of those and more factor into overall success of a brand.
The big surprise is that many companies fail to do all three of the above critical steps as described.
• They may do some planning, but not all of it, or they may skip a critical step of planning such as brand positioning.
• They may steer the design towards personal preference rather than strategically connecting it to the market. Of course, we have ways of steering it back on course.
• Companies often market without integrity, creating fictional (let’s say ‘hopeful’ or ‘wishful’) stories rather than compelling truths. This is why people are now suspicious of advertisements.
One truth that reigns supreme in branding and marketing is that repeating what has previously failed will yield failure, but following a proven process that works stands a great chance of manifesting brand success.