Drop the Word Brand From Your Vocabulary

The Best We Can Do Is Position a Product to Really Take Off

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I'm sick and tired of the "B" word. Branding.

It has to be the most misused -- and least understood -- word in the business of . . . well, branding.

Let's start from the top: Unless you're a cattle rancher, there's no such thing as "branding." If you are a marketing professional, you are dealing with a noun, not a verb, a consequence, not an action. Simply put: You can't brand something. You earn your brand. A brand is a prize, an award -- one that can only be bestowed upon your company by the marketplace.

If I sound grumpy, it's because the B word, never precisely defined in the first place, has become such a nebulous, fit-everything term that it now essentially has no meaning. Worse, it is regularly abused by marketing people as a means of extracting money from clients and bullying skeptics into silence.

Let's stop blindly worshipping the B word. The sooner we marketers demystify this single word, the sooner our business partners will trust us with the car keys.

So what is a brand in the first place? I can't even get my colleagues to agree, but here's a definition I like: A brand is present when the value of what something means to its audience is greater than the value of what it does for that audience.

You have a thing -- a product, service, idea, person (including yourself), place, etc. This something can have an image, a reputation and/or a track record. But it can be a brand only once it reaches a particular destination, and not a minute before. The most interesting feature of that destination is that you don't know where it is until you get there. No one can give you a schedule, or an estimated time of arrival. You arrive when your audience tells you that you have arrived, when your audience tells you that you have indeed built a brand.

No matter what we so-called "branding" professionals may say, there's no magic line to cross. There is no line in the sand with "product" written on one side and "brand" on the other. It would be convenient if there were -- but real marketing is anything and everything but convenient.

Pick your own definition of brand. Whatever you choose, the important thing is that you treat that term as a noun, and that you never use it as a verb. From now on, you will look upon brand as the prize at the end of a long road.

But if brand is forever the noun, what then is the verb? What is the work of marketing? Positioning.

Salespeople know that if you can't position something, you have no hope of selling it. Since salespeople are all about selling, they'll shift the position in five minutes if it helps to close the sale. They are masters of in-the-moment positioning. In contrast, marketers need to be masters of positions that can hold up over time, which is a different task altogether.

The real challenge is not building a brand, but rather defining, clarifying, targeting, capturing and holding your position. Think of your position as the front door to your house. Inside that house is everything you do, and you're justifiably proud of it, but you must get me inside your front door to appreciate it. What's the one idea that will pull me through your front door and not the doors on the other houses? What's the one idea for which you will become famous?

It's not enough to be clever or insightful. A successful position must be built on what you do, not what you say. Unless you can be it, don't say it -- especially in this age of digital transparency. Ducks that talk like swans are nothing more than well-spoken ducks.

If the defined position can't guide and inspire your entire organization, it has no hope of guiding and inspiring the customer. As Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Positioning is the attainable change you plan to bring about. A strong brand is the prize.

I'll keep using the word brand, because that prize is an incredibly valuable asset. But I solemnly swear to never utter the B word again as a verb -- unless I'm still ranting against it.

Austin McGhie is the author of "Brand is a Four Letter Word" and president of Sterling Brands' Strategy Group.
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