Branding With Your Eyes Closed

Why Doing Is More Important Than Seeing

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OK, close your eyes and look at your brand. What do you see? Nothing, of course, even though perhaps in your mind's eye you see your logo or something memorable your marketing team created. But those graphics aren't really in front of you. Nothing is , and there's the rub. It's 2011, and I worry that many CMOs still rely on image to define their brands.

Bear with me, and think about how you think about your brand for a minute. You probably describe it in very particular words -- what your products or services mean and for which they stand -- and then translate them into illustrative ads, social-media campaigns or whatever. Have you ever wondered why you approach it this way? The very idea of brands being anything more than the hot prods applied to the backsides of cattle was a 20th century mass-media creation. In order to conduct commerce over vast, impersonal distances, the people who worked for businesses needed ersatz representations of themselves, not just their wares, and the one-way tools available to them broadcasted words, sounds and then images.

Brands were conceived through the graphic arts because that 's how you got messages into the pipelines of media. They were stand-ins for the immediate, tangible behaviors of employees and salespeople, and idealized stunt doubles for the real-time, hands-on experiences of consumers.

So however new it feels to create social programs or other interactive media content, you're really pursuing an old idea. You're describing your brand. Portraying it as something people see and hear. Envisioning it as a thing with which consumers communicate, and that stands between them and the people from whom they buy things. Great branding conversations deliver photos and illustrations, the right words on pages virtual or real, and entertaining video.

When you close your eyes, however, you shut off the graphic input devices upon which we've been taught a large component of those conversations rely. The truth is that conversation wasn't new with the invention of mass media, and its graphic artifacts were never the only or most important component. That's why I think it's an important exercise to close those ocular brand I/O ports and consider how you'd "see" the ways your brand communicates with your consumers somewhat differently. Here's what you might find:

It would change how you look at the internet. Try to describe your funny video clip or flashmob event without seeing it literally, and you'll realize how generic entertainment content can be. Describing connections to your product or service without showing your logo or tagline requires some verbal gymnastics that remain naggingly unconvincing and incomplete. With your eyes closed, you'd realize that the internet isn't a panoply of channels through which you can propagate your branding, but a peer-to-peer exchange within which people engage with one another about your brand. Then, you could examine how much useful, relevant, memorable information you're putting into those conversations.

You'd see your functional brand attributes differently. Robbed of the faux distinctions images supposedly make between one brand and another, you'd see that the world doesn't need new potato chips or insurance offerings as much as better ones. With your eyes closed, you'd have to give consumers meaningful content that enables them to swap stories about product excellence vs. excellent marketing. You couldn't promise your business that your crack staff could invent differences, or blow real ones out of proportion. Being functionally better -- as defined by using every operational tool at your disposal -- would define the topics upon which your brand was discussed.

You'd take action instead of describing it. With your eyes closed, describing actions would be far easier than describing jokes or abstract ideas: Consumers did this, and we did that . You'd find yourself focusing on behaviors that evidenced what you hoped they'd think or imagine, and you could build your branding on an ongoing series of real-time actions instead of inert positions of words and images. Any brand image would be an outcome of these behaviors, not their direct purpose; clicks and likes are not inherently meaningful behaviors. Your brand would result from how your actions mattered to consumer decisions and subsequent satisfaction, not on how you promised or described them.

I know there's lots of very learned and compelling theology to suggest that you should do the exact opposite -- create more detailed and complex equations to better create and frame your brand image and reputation -- and perhaps some advocates will weigh in below to profess their continued faith. But I maintain that if we weren't starting with the premise that brands are graphic words and images, we'd approach our planning and distribution strategies quite differently.

Interestingly, I think that 's how consumers are already approaching it, and how they define brands, in spite of all of our brilliant entertainment and manipulation. We just don't know it yet.

A good way to start seeing it their way would be to close your eyes.

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist, author and speaker. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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