Jonathan Salem Baskin
I think I've finally got the answer, and I can thank two smart CMOs for coming up with it independently of one another (you know who you are): Your brand is what's going on when you and your customers aren't looking. That means that branding is how, when and why you and your consumers choose to see and talk about it.
It's an elegant Occam's razor definition, so I apologize to all the brand gurus who make a living producing 100-slide presentations full of DNA bubbles or thought pyramids or whatever. My three simple "uh-ohs" trump even the most beautiful artistic metaphors:
Operational substance. Your brand is defined by how every department in your company operates; the brand isn't something to which they comply, but rather it's what emerges from what they do.
Objective reality. Your brand isn't something to interpret; it's the outcome and impacts of those operational behaviors, which means it exists in reality, you can point to it, and you can change it.
Originality. Your brand is fact, not fiction, and it's uniquely yours because it's what your business does. If your operational reality is utterly identical to your competition, no miracle of marketing will fix it.
Even simpler: Better brands do a better job of communicating reality with their consumers. This is a powerful idea that I really didn't grasp until my second friend shared it with me: CMOs shouldn't spin or parse the truth. Be funny or sexy, but tell the truth, and be authentic and real. Perhaps CMOs would get a better seat at the executive table if they stood up for doing the right thing when nobody was looking. One must stop looking at creative marketing and start to looking at the operations of the entire business as your brand, and get involved in changing them when they're wrong (and encouraging them when they're right). It would constitute a big-time promotion.
It's also far from ever happening, because the definition blows up much of the theology behind social engagement. So many CMOs have been deluded into believing they can change the substance of their corporate behavior by manipulating how consumers react to it, however briefly or fleetingly. It's like a chef thinking that letting his patrons choose their plate designs determines the flavor of his dishes, and raising false expectations hasn't been an effective marketing strategy since the early 1970s when Hai Karate men's cologne failed to drive women mad with desire.
If my definition of brand is correct, every minute you (or your department) spends trying to repurpose news tidbits for tweets or content updates on your brand's Facebook page is wasted. You're totally missing the boat, or train, or whatever cliche best describes the trend you think you're riding, and you need to consider closing your eyes to all that marvelous chatter. Your company is doing stuff this very instant that will matter to your customers, but you're not even paying attention to it. You need to find a disconnect before anybody else does, and you need to make sure that your brilliant marketing doesn't make it worse.
What would closing our eyes tell us about some popular brands? Consider these examples:
BP. Terrible brand because if you weren't aware of all that glorious "beyond petroleum" nonsense you'd be aware of all the safety violations. Most of the oil companies don't fare much better with their "let's have a conversation" branding that has nothing to do with operational reality.
Walmart. Without its Everyday Low Prices it's still a great brand that does lots of "right" things and doesn't bother to tell anybody about it. Dow qualifies for the same reasons.
McDonald's. So-so brand, as its massive Olympics spend indirectly tells consumers that it's embarrassed by its zillion-calorie Value Menu. It's better than Burger King, which runs a chain of run-down outlets and hopes you'll watch its silly viral videos instead.
Try it yourself: Close your eyes and contemplate what you know about a brand as fact, not what it looks like or says. Then compare it to what the brand chooses to tell you, and how it spends its money to do so. Bigger gap means worse, less sustainable, less valuable brand. Perhaps an opportunity to change your approach? It might be easier than telling the entire business to change its processes and rules so you can do more of what you think you should be doing.
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