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Branding in the real world: 20 lessons learned

In my experience as a brand specialist, I've learned many lessons. Some of them I've often seen in print; others, never. Here are a few.

1.      Some people think they need to make a "big splash" out of a branding initiative. I disagree: Until you're absolutely ready to launch (and that means you have buy-in across the board), making a lot of noise only provokes cynicism and opposition.

2.      What should you do while you're keeping quiet? First, gather as much information as you can about the culture, context, and interests of key stakeholders. Second, lobby for support among management opinion leaders and key influencers in the employee community.

3.      When you absolutely have to announce the branding initiative, limit the scope of the message to naming the new brand director and explaining the scope of his or her authority. Similarly, do not unveil a new logo or tagline until you've sold it, very thoroughly, internally, and tested it among external stakeholders. If the initiative is successful, you can brag about the results later.

4.      Sell branding as a solution to a business need (increased market share, enhanced customer loyalty, higher employee retention rates, etc.) rather than as a solution in and of itself. Long-term, nobody can stand the discipline associated with genuine (as opposed to  cosmetic—logo/tagline only) branding unless they can see a tangible benefit.

5.      Expect resistance. No matter how well you prove your case from a cost-benefit perspective, the group has to be emotionally ready to change the way it does things.

6.      Be prepared: Some projects are called "branding" but really have nothing to do with branding at all. (Other times the opposite is true.) When to make an issue out of these things depends on your unique organizational culture and political climate. Tread carefully.

7.      Know that branding removes power from certain people in the organization, who will fight tooth and nail to keep that power. That is why 1) CEOs are the best brand champions 2) brand people have to be people-smart—because branding always divides people before it unifies them.

8.      There will always be people who hate the brand. Instead of wasting energy fighting them, invite them to the table to complain. You may or may not learn anything useful, but simply giving them a voice will neutralize some of the negative energy they create.

9.      Branding is not an endeavor for "lone geniuses"—you will have to assemble a "coalition of the willing" in order to get it done right.

10.  Remember: No trust = no brand. Similarly, no heart = no brand; no leadership = no brand; no sincerity = no brand; and so on. Branding is ultimately a people business, not an arid intellectual program.

11.  You may think that there is no hope. You may endure long periods of silence, punctuated by ups and downs. Nevertheless, keep talking about the importance of branding; keep trying to find ways to make it serve a business need. Eventually someone will pick up the thread and run with it. Brand thinking is contagious.

12.  Don't be afraid to draw on industry best practices in order to build your brand. At the same time, remember: Real-world branding can't be found in any book. Nobody is going to write a case study about how they actually got their brand to work, because often, the dynamics involved are not a pretty sight.

13.  On the one hand, "those who fail to plan, plan to fail." But on the other, it's an unpredictable world. Be strategic about your brand initiative, but be willing and able to change course rapidly if you need to.

14.  Start small, and celebrate small successes. Admit your failures publicly, too—preferably on an "our brand in progress" webpage where you invite comments from all interested stakeholders. (Depending on your organization, you may want to limit these stakeholders to employees.)

15.  Choose something to measure as an indicator of your success—preferably a metric that is aligned with the business results you are trying to achieve. Then, measure it consistently and report on the results.

16.  The two most important internal partners for brand professionals, aside from other marketing/communications/PR people in the organization, are Human Resources and Information Technology. There is no way around it; you will need their support in order to succeed.

17.  When you mess up with a brand-related initiative, don't dwell on it. Discuss what went wrong, and then move on.

18.  Remember that everything contributes to the brand, but that doesn't mean the brand is everything. Learn to see the brand from the perspective of those who either don't know what branding is, or don't care. Speak to such people accordingly, in business terms—for the more brand jargon you spout, the less seriously they will take you.

19.  Read, read, read. Even if you think you know all there is to know about branding, you don't—the field is ever-evolving. You can also gain education and inspiration from myriad sources that have nothing at all to do with branding.

20.  Never give up. Branding can be a tough job, but it is ultimately a worthwhile and rewarding one.


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