Character-Driven Branding

November 14, 2007 § Leave a comment

Steve Jobs once famously claimed that Apple’s Executive Team spent “zero” time focused on branding; instead, they worry a lot about “who they are”, and ensuring that their actions are consistent with that.

While that may reflect the luxury Apple has as one of the world’s best-known brands, it raises a crucial point. In today’s Web 2.0 world, many organizations (and individuals!) obsess about branding — but typically in an image-driven sense, starting from how they want to be perceived.

In this post, I want to present an alternative process, which I call “Character-Driven Branding.” In this view, the key is (as Steve Jobs said) having a deep understanding of “who you are” — and who you want to become — then learning how to progressively articulate that. The advantage of this approach is that — when done correctly — ultimately everything one does becomes part of the brand.

Using the four “M”s of Marketing, we can break this down into four phases:

  1. Mission
  2. Markets
  3. Message
  4. Media

1. Mission

Here, mission is used the broad sense of “what are you all about”, which is roughly synonymous with the idea of character. The goal for this phase is to come up with a small set of carefully articulated statements:

a. Identity

First, you have to know who you are. What is the scope, and what are the boundaries? Whom are you empowered to speak for and represent? What components will be represented by this brand, vs. a sub-brand, super-brand, or a peer-brand?

b. Purpose

Next, you need a clear understanding of your purpose, what researcher Jim Collins calls a hedgehog: the intersection of passion, proficiency, and profit.

c. Vision

Out of that should come a clear articulation of who you want to become — i.e., a vision statement. This needs to be owned by the leadership team, as they are the ones responsible for moving your organization from present reality to a future vision.

d. Mission

In contrast to the forward-looking vision, the mission statement per se should capture what your organization is currently doing. It needs to be comprehensive enough that every employee can visualize how they fit in, but concise enough to be easily remembered; keeping things appropriately vague is key to balancing those two goals!

e. Values

A useful complement to the task-oriented vision and mission statements is a values statement, capturing both the ethics and the aesthetics that motivate your organization. The challenge — as with the other two — is to ensure this is a realistic assessment of the true character of the organization, not merely a nice-sounding sound-bite.

2. Markets

Once you know who you are, the next step is understanding to whom you are communicating. Specifically, you need to identify:

  • who your markets are
  • how they will experience the Mission
  • likely positive and negative reactions
  • key influencers and thought leaders within each segment

Note that you may need to revise the Mission based on feedback from key representatives of different Market segments. Typical segments include:

a. Shareholders

These usually represented by a Board of Directors (or Trustees, for a non-profit). The key challenge is to simultaneously stretch the Board’s understanding of what the organization can become, while at the same time reassuring them that this vision is both achievable and consistent with the organization’s historic strengths.
Importantly, the vision should not be focused on satisfying shareholders directly, but fulfilling a larger mission which as a side effect enriches shareholders.

b. Management

Since the Mission is typically developed by senior leadership, the first major communication challenge is usually getting middle management on board. The key is continuously motivating and educating them about how to align their group’s activities with the overall Mission of the organization. This is especially challenging in education and R&D institutions, where this role is typically filled by independent researchers and scientists.

c. Employees

Individual employees typically experience the Mission more as an aspect of culture and shared pride than an actionable statement. The key is to ensure that the way employees are treated and managed is consistent with the professed values and goals of the organization, lest it lead to disillusionment and cynicism.

d. Customers

The #1 way customers experience your brand is through your products. Advertising and PR can reinforce and articulate that experience, but can never compensate for product that fails to align with your Mission. Note that in education, students act as both Customers and Employees, which complicates the messaging challenge.

e. Channel

One of the most difficult aspects of communication is when people who do not work for you are responsible for telling your message. This includes sales channels, the press, analysts, recruiters, and alumni. Here, the key challenge is expressing your Mission in a way that helps them better understand and fulfill their own.

f. Partners & Competitors

In today’s markets, partners and competitors are often the same entities. The most authentic way to manage those relationships is to give them a clear understanding of who you truly are, so they can make rational decisions about how best to work with (or avoid) you.

g. Community

No organization exists in a vacuum. There is always some broader community of stakeholders who care about the your activities and existence, whether they be local neighbors or government regulators. An effective branding strategy will give them a better understanding of your overall contribution to society, and thus more likely to view any potential conflicts in a more positive light.

3. Media

Based on the Markets identified above, the next step is to identify the Media needed to communicate the Mission. This usually means some combination of:

  • Personal meetings (town halls, 1-1)
  • Web presence (web site, forums)
  • Print (brochures, flyers)
  • Press (journalists, bloggers)
  • Advertising (online, print, radio, TV)

The key is to pick only those Media that provide a strong payback within your key Markets, and focus your effort and resources on those. A simple message repeated consistently in one or two channels is far more effective that sporadic blasts across multiple channels.

4. Messages

Having done the hard work of identifying Mission, Markets and Media, developing specific Messaging is a relatively straightforward creative process. The creative team needs to develop a family of branding resources, which typically include:

  • Official name (how to refer to the entity)
  • Logo (in multiple resolutions and layouts)
  • Typeface
  • Visual style (cf. Apple’s iPod ads)
  • Top-level messaging or “tagline”
  • Market-specific messaging
  • Guidelines for how to customize/repurpose provided resources

Note that this is an ongoing process, as all aspects of Branding need to be updated periodically as the organization (and its self-understanding) continue to evolve, and Markets become more sophisticated and knowledgeable.

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