Principles of Branding for a Post-Branding World

Mark Zuckerberg's hoodies and sweatjackets exemplify branding in the post-branding world. Photo via Wikipedia.

The following are notes from a teleseminar I gave for the Federal Communicator's Network, May 21, 2012. (I am currently the chair of FCN.) All opinions are of course my own.

Thanks to Melanie Solomon for providing notes and to Paul McKim and others who contributed questions, comments and feedback. Also thanks to Ellen Crown for “live-tweeting” the event.

I. Notes – Melanie Solomon

1.       What is "branding in a post-branding era?"Branding world = under control, no hair out of place. Post-branding world = inauthenticity challenged by social media. How to achieve balance between coordinating what you say while seeming authentic and accessible.

2.       Culture first. Put internal communication first and let that be the driver. Get your people on board—not just with a training manual, but rather the whole gamut of your “corporate” culture.

3.       Start at the top. In post-branded, the leader is the brand, not just endorsing the brand.

4.       Everyone builds it. The frontline employees who deal with the public every day own the brand—not just Public Affairs. Post-branding employee treats you like a human being; no “canned” statements such as “have we me all your needs today?” Live the brand as if it was your neighbor.

5.       "Say it plain." KISS! Avoid bad branded writing! Un-writing the over-communicated message. Keep it in everyday, normal English. It’s fine to say what you want to say, but say it plainly. Strip away the phony baloney, but you still have a sense of coordination and shared view of the world.

6.       Nobody likes a robot. Nothing more annoying than reading robot language. The skill is to say it in a way that people respect you, even if you have to say that you don’t know all the answers. It is not easy to do. And not everyone can do it well. Don’t publish BS!

7.       A time for outreach, a time for content. NEVER do propaganda. But there is a place for marketing campaigns where you need to do more than just give people a phone number. Play with the brand; you don’t have to just mirror it for a campaign. When are we doing outreach; when are we doing content?

8.       About those logos. It’s very hard to do well. A bad logo is distracting to the public. Pay a professional to do this! Needs to be coordinated: monolithic, endorsed, or standalone (DB). Brand architecture: think about on a business level what your objective is, and how your logo reflects that. Need a strategy. Trademark the brand if you need to to prevent fraud.

9.       Dealing with dissension. Key in a branding effort, there will normally be a lot of fighting and dissension. People feel like they’re being forced into a mold and dehumanized. So...don’t call it “branding.” Call it “renewal” or something else (“reputation” – DB). In post-branded world, let people express their dissent in an adult way, to vent. Builds buy-in. Doesn’t always work in a closed culture because of reprisals. Get the decision-makers on board and in touch.

10.    Social media and the web. Become fluent with social media. You have to recognize that the younger generation especially lives in the social media world. The way they interact with the government is the way they deal with each other. Let them be ambassadors without so much mediation, while holding them to a reasonable standard. Support the conversation. Begin by using internal communications tools. Start people talking in groups—a positive step.

II. Tweets (Short Takes) – Ellen Crown, FCN Board of Directors:

1.       Training and employee buy-in are critical to creating authentic voices within an organization.
2.       How do you keep your brand from burning out? You need to look at your organization from the outside and constantly evolve.
3.       There is nothing that will destroy your communication faster than a crappy logo strategy.
4.       Nobody likes a robot.
5.       In a post-branded organization, the leader is the brand. They don't just endorse it.
6.       Focus on internal communication. "Culture is the neglected step-child of communication." (via a colleague – DB)
7.       The key distinction between the branding world and the post-branding world is that people are looking for authenticity.
8.       History lesson: for government, this (branding) started because we wanted to keep the messages and language consistent. (Also – there was a perceived need for greater familiarity between the public and the agency in the aftermath of organizational change - DB.)

III. Additional Notes and Comments – Dannielle Blumenthal

1.       Initially branding was restricted to products, then it was expanded to services, companies, and people.
2.       A serious initial problem of branding for agencies was that people were saying different things in different places and not coordinating – leading to confusion among the public about how to perceive the agency. However, now things have swung the other way and the discourse seems overly controlled with “messaging.”
3.       Branding and propaganda are not the same thing, but they can be.
4.       Everybody talks the language of branding now, but due to the explosion of social media it seems phony and forced. The trick is to sound natural while still coordinating and thinking through in advance the things you say.
5.       Mark Zuckerberg’s “hoodie everywhere” strategy is the epitome of post-branding.
6.       In a post-branded world, culture and internal communication are more important than external communication because there is the assumption that employees will speak spontaneously about the organization and that it will not be possible to control that.
7.       When the culture is strong employees automatically know what to do.
8.       What happens inside the organization, will ultimately be seen on the outside.
9.       Most branding is done by employees, not public affairs specialists.
10.    You have to be passionate about good writing – it is a cause.
11.    “Have I provided good service today?” is the kind of annoying brand talk that turns people off.
12.    Outreach is necessary sometimes to explain new rules, laws, etc. to the public. Branding can be useful to make it clear which agency communications are authentic.
13.    Must divide between branding, marketing, and information strategy. These are not one and the same.
14.    Public affairs and IT should work together – not just as partners but in a fused office.
15.    Use fewer logos, more strategically. There is a tendency to generate new brands and new logos like trophies.
16.    Reduce acronyms as much as possible.
17.    Don’t pick a fight with people who are wedded to a logo or what they think of as “brand.” To influence leaders, form an alternative group with a common vision, then work to engage the dominant group with the alternative group – create a new conversation that incorporates both. Read Art Kleiner’s book, Who Really Matters.
18.    The longer the timeframe, the more collaborative you can be – but when time is short sometimes you have to go in and be a dictator about content.
19.    Keep social media as loose as possible, but enforce existing policy stringently. Treat people like adults, and that includes making them accountable for using good judgment.

IV. Responses To Questions From The Audience – Thanks to Paul Kim and All Those Who Contributed To This Section

1.       If there is one aspect of the agency that differs strongly from the rest in terms of stakeholder relationships and services offered, this should be reflected in the brand strategy (logo, colors, etc.)
2.       Finding and engaging your audience is a marketing issue – do the research to find out where they are (often it’s offline), and get to the influencers because they will reach out to the others you need.
3.       Take the time to engage with the people who represent your brand. It’s a matter of training but also buy-in. Buy-in is achieved through conversation, and through providing a context around what you want them to say. The longer the time horizon, the more collaborating you can do – but if time is short sometimes you have to jump in and dictate.
4.       Subject matter experts should not be treated as writers. People cannot necessarily write from templates – these are only guides to set expectations as to what will happen to an end product
5.       You achieve branded communication without formulas by emphasizing the culture. Think about Google, Apple, Facebook, Starbucks, Microsoft – you can recognize what kind of communication would come from each of these companies without thinking too much about it.
6.       When developing a brand strategy think about your business objective and work backward to communication.
7.       To engage the public, find out what they want and give it to them – don’t start with your predetermined message.
8.       Brands burn out when they don’t evolve. It is important to have at least one person on the team who refuses to “drink the Kool-Aid” and is allowed to tell it like it is.
9.       Branding is not a tool to create publicity – marketing and PR do that. Rather, branding is a long-term communication strategy that sets the foundation for marketing and PR to work, by establishing a desirable image. Read Positioningby Al Ries.
10.    Can you destroy a brand by putting it on everything? No. You have to put the brand on everything if you want people to remember and trust it. You can tell you’re doing a good job when you get absolutely sick of looking at the logo.
11.    Use “line extensions” sparingly. You have to know your stakeholders well and be sure you’re not diluting the original message. Every time you split the brand into different directions, you’re splitting your energy. Only do this when the stakeholder groups are so different that they can’t be included in the same conversation.
12.    Avoid the B-word if possible. People innately dislike being branded.
13.    Focus on success in terms of what executive want. Listen carefully to what they say, how they define the problem, the communication style they prefer.
14.    In defining brand objectives, talk to employees informally about what the pain points are. Strategies that incorporate pain points stand a much greater likelihood of success than “nice-to-haves.”
15.    Often communication experts focus on pie-in-the-sky ideals when basic factors are a problem (like people don’t know where to find the information they need)
16.    Fix problems one at a time; start with low-hanging fruit. Don’t wait for the big plan to hatch – there is none.
17.    Don’t be excessive about asking for permission. Find out what leadership wants to approve and focus on that; for the rest you will have to do the best you can, exercise good judgment, etc. If you are constantly asking for permission you are asking to be told “no.”
18.    It is not self-promotional to highlight success. That is what executives want.
19.    Don’t be the lone ranger. Form a network of people internally who are engaged in helping you to fix the problems that have been identified.
20.    Everybody thinks they’re a writer and that technical skills are the only “real” ones. You can’t fix that. All you can do is gain people’s trust by showing your expertise.