Earlier this year, I was a guest at a gathering of young entrepreneurs. My role was to help them think about the messaging and branding of their startups. At one point during the two days we were together, I was interviewed in front of the group about my experience. The interviewer’s first question: “What is a brand?”
With that question, the interviewer was making the point that a brand is much bigger than a logo and colors. So what is it?
This is not an unusual question, and most of the time I give a stock answer by quoting Scott Bedbury. Bedbury is an author and the brand strategist behind such iconic brands as Nike and Starbucks. He once defined a brand as “a collection of perceptions in a consumer’s mind¹.” I still think this is a great way to think about brand. However, the way those perceptions are formed changes with time, and I would argue that those points of perception are more sophisticated than in years past.
We have a consumer that is far more cynical and way more savvy about their brands than ever before. This leads to existing companies examining their values and startups choosing to wear their values on their sleeves. An informed consumer and a thoughtful company are great all the way around.
Today when we think about a brand, what are the perceptions that form a consumer’s attitude? During the interview, I outlined four areas that work together to create a brand’s perception in the customer’s mind: bias, model, product, and behavior.
It’s almost impossible to unravel a company from its brand. I’ve been in meetings with executives where the word “brand” was used almost synonymously with “the organization.” Right or wrong, this thinking shows the conflated nature of brand in relation to the organization. The two are directly connected.
At the heart of every organization are a set of spoken or unspoken biases. They exist from the time the organization was founded and are reinforced and added to over time through the leadership of the organization. Uber and Lyft demonstrate this well. One of Uber’s underlying biases is to win at all costs. This aggressive nature led to some nefarious competitive behavior as well as a sexist internal culture. Lyft, on the other hand, has a bias toward being yourself, uplifting others, creating fearlessly, and participating. For Lyft, these biases led to a brand that’s known for giving back and having fun with their customers.
From TOMs to Everlane, more and more companies are using their model as a way to distinguish themselves — and it’s resonating. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need a unique model.
Andrew Chen, founder of 3sixteen denim, has an underlying bias to treat people well. This led him to create a business that, on the outside, might not look much different from any other fashion brand. However, on the inside, his biases shaped how he made certain decisions about his business model. He pays his people well, doesn’t change out his fashion line so much so that people feel like the clothes they just bought are going out of style, and uses quality materials at a decent price point for what he makes. And even though his business model, in the strictest sense, isn’t innovative or unique, the way he operates within his model profoundly impacts how consumers perceive his brand.
I once sat in on a conversation with a wildly successful CEO. His company created wonderful policies for their employees. The CEO was thoughtful about how his philosophies drove all that his organization did — except when it came to their products.
Yes, their products were thoughtful, inasmuch as the company didn’t make obscene things, but there was no philosophy of aesthetic or consumption or even obsolescence. No one asked, “Is this product too kitsch?” or “Should this product even exist?” or “Will it last?” They just made things they knew people would buy.
As hard as it may be to unravel the business from the brand, it’s equally impossible to separate the product from the brand (and from the biases). Your product is a reflection of your model and biases, and so it’s the primary way in which the audience understands your brand. If you haven’t been thoughtful about your product, then you are signaling something to your customer.
Just as the product reflects the underlying biases of the organization, so does the behavior of the brand and its leadership — and they are likely connected. To pick on Uber again, their founders’ biases led to actions that dinged their brand. From the way they treated their employees and drivers to their pricing model (and lots of stuff in between), people noticed and reacted with #deleteuber.
Your behavior also shows up in the more literal aspects of the brand’s expression: colors, tone of voice, emotions, advertising channels, advertising methods, etc. Consumers are savvy. To some degree, they understand what you’re doing to them and how you’re tracking their online behavior. The line between what a customer finds acceptable and helpful versus what they find intrusive is a thin one that needs cautious navigation. Just because something works doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
As you think about your brand’s perception, here are a few questions to consider:
What are some stated biases of your company? Unstated?
What are the unintentional consequences of your model?
What is the philosophy of your product team?
Do the brand’s actions reflect what it stands for in as many ways as possible?
¹ This quote from Bedbury was taken from a VHS recording (yes, VHS) I saw of him speaking many years ago. I wrote the quote down but no longer have access to the tape to properly document the quote.