You don’t own that
A lot of brand experts talk about “owning” words. Tony Robbins, for example, owns “motivation”; Apple owns “innovations”; and President Obama owns “hope.” Experts propose exercises such as, “if you looked up the word ________ in the dictionary, you’d find a photo of our company.”
At Bidwell ID, we do similar exercises to identify clearly and prioritize an organization’s key ideas and themes. That is an important part of brand development, but actually owning a word—having a word powerfully associated with you—is more difficult than exercises lead you to believe. There are two fundamental reasons for this: too many companies want to be known for the same things, and companies have a hard time seeing the world from their prospective customers’ perspective.
We all want the same thing.
We had a client who, despite our recommendations, ran a campaign using the headline “simply the best.” That may be true, but Google “simply the best” and you’ll see how overused it is. Does “simply the best” mean anything to you? Do you think of a specific business?
Everybody wants to “own” the same words, words such as: strategic, collaborative, transparent, integrity, cutting edge, excellence, and best. But they’re so overused that brand commentators talk about the banality of these popular words. I take a different tack about these powerful words. Even though you can never claim them as solely your own, they should serve as a baseline. They represent ideas that we all take for granted in professional business dealings, so make sure they reflect how your company operates.
We listen to insiders too often.
The first phase of branding is research and discovery. That includes gathering as much information as possible from sources both internal (leadership, employees, partners) and external (customers, clients, tire-kickers, and people who considered your company/product but decided against it). Most companies and organizations tell us they want to concentrate on reaching external audiences better.
That’s great, but getting information from external sources takes more work. So in the end, many decide to concentrate on internal sources, reasoning that they know all the issues.
Even if this is true, we find that internal audiences easily get caught up in minutia and debates that—though meaningful to internal audiences—have little relevance for external audiences. This is why external research is so valuable: it gets us out of our own heads.
Here’s an example. There is a lot of discussion within the deaf and hard-of-hearing community concerning “speaking” (using voices) vs. “talking” (using sign language). It’s a huge question for the internal audience. But our research showed that a critical external audience—parents wrestling with this issue for the first time—had a different concern: caring for their child. Messages based only on information from an internal audience would not have addressed the concerns of parents, an external audience.
• Ignore internal controversy when reaching out to prospective clients and customers. Do whatever you must to get out of your shoes, and into your customers’.
• Keep messaging simple. Complex brand messaging schemes are usually an indicator that you are trying too hard to appease too many internal audiences.
• Use simple words, but avoid the overused ones. That is what made President Obama’s message of hope so powerful (well, until he overused it). Other examples are Coke’s “drink Coca-Cola” and Nike’s “Just Do it.”
• Combine simple words in unique ways to make them your own, especially words that can seem at odds, but that actually point to a bigger idea. A colleague and marketing consultant Martha Stiglin introduced us to the unique and memorable term “flexible backbone” to describe a working partner who is collaborative yet not afraid to push back.
• If you use a common term such as strategic, make sure you show how it’s relevant to your particular firm and audience. You can use them (sparingly), but never depend on ubiquitous words to differentiate you from your competition.