Thursday, July 29, 2010

Branding is not a religion. But you can go to Hell for it.

I was once part of an organization that undertook a national branding exercise.

The first problem was the selection. The communications director just picked a branding agency she knew and liked from her days as being a political hack (I don’t think there was a agency competition).

The company was a national firm, and their branding guru came to a meeting of volunteers and staff from across the country to talk to us about branding. The man’s message was very seductive. Branding, he said, was not just a form of identity, it was a mantra for the entire soul of the organization and all its people. In short, branding would change the way people inside and outside of the organization feel. The line that stuck with me was that “staff will come to work with a new spirit, a new attitude, a new way of feeling.” Branding was more than renewal, it was an opportunity for rebirth.

When it came time to make the brand, an agency person called each board member on the phone to interview. They didn’t call the organization’s clients, they didn’t interview random frontline staff members or volunteers. The nice lady who called wanted to know what the board members thought about the organization, but also all about their childhood and their favourite colours (I think it was colours, might have been favourite numbers...I’m not sure anymore). The actual “branding” consisted of having a single group discussion with the board and some senior staff members. Someone came up with a rather snazzy line and that was what the agency used. As far as I know, they didn’t test it to see what the rest of humanity thought.

The brand that the organization came up with amounted to a very nice logo and a tag line. You will be shocked to know that it didn’t transform the organization. People didn’t come to work feeling transformed and full of positive energy, they still were worried about the direction the organization was headed in and they still griped about it. The entire world didn’t start thinking about this organization in a new way – they still pretty much ignored them. In fact, at roughly the same time the organization went through a radical re-organization that almost split it apart. The brand simply made the internal memos and the low-traffic website look better.

Papa Smurf -- The ultimate brander
The lesson here is that branding is not a religion. It does not have magical powers to transform an entire organization and paint everything with a brush of happiness and positive energy (the one exception being the Smurfs). Branding is important, because any organization needs some kind of identity. But it is vastly overrated. Most branding in itself doesn’t do much of anything.

The reason is the assumption that branding can change the way people think or feel. It just doesn’t work that way. Yes, it can evoke thoughts and feelings, but it is actions that an organization wants. At the end of the day, you want your customers or clients to do something, not just think or feel it. You want them to send in a donation or become a volunteer or write their local politician asking for your funding to be restored. Thoughts and feelings are transitory, but actions are not. Organizations change, making the idea of creating a single, all-powerful, never-changing brand hard to swallow. And you can measure actions, but thoughts and feelings are hard to quantify.

So, what do you want your brand to do? You want it to evoke an action or behaviour. You want it to start a conversation or create an interaction. And if it can’t do that, don’t worry. If all you get at the end of the day from your branding exercise is just a fancy new logo and a slogan, that’s an accomplishment. Don’t expect your brand to carry the weight of the world and judge your investment of time, resources and human capital in it accordingly.

Ultimately, it is what your organization does, not what it says, that will make the real impact on your target audiences.

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