Tag: "branding"

Industry specialization: Great! Until maybe it isn’t.

When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.
–Eric Hoffer 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

We’re frequently asked by prospective clients whether or not we’re specialists in particular industries such as healthcare or technology. The answer is that we’re not. And we don’t ever intend to be. While this sort of specialization was intriguing to us in the early days at Stokefire’s, we ultimately decided it would be better for our clients (and thus our long-term success) to go in a different direction.

I acknowledge that this decision seems to run counter to the traditional wisdom given to businesses of all types. And I’m good with that.

I can’t argue that industry specialization is universally bad. Far from it. It’s a critical ingredient in successful financially oriented businesses, such as auditing and investment banking. Even if the entire organization doesn’t specialize, employers retain industry experts that lend credence to an organization’s findings. Similarly, Stokefire employs or contracts with specialists to handle behind-the-scenes jobs that require specific training and experience, such as certain illustration styles, animation, or programming. Each of these is an industry of sorts. (No one, least of all me, wants to see what would happen if I tried to do this stuff by myself.)

I’ll also grant that, for the vast majority of organizations, industry specialization may actually be a good plan. But my reasons are something you probably won’t like.

As Jean Marie Caragher suggests in her article for AICPA, industry specialization includes benefits like high profitability, economical marketing, easily identified prospects and competition, fewer geographical barriers, prestige, increased knowledge of clients, and more. Studies (including this one by Craswell, Francis, and Taylor in 1995) find a link between industry specialization and the ability to charge more for the same services.

With a list like that, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t jump on board.

Put yourself in a client’s shoes for a moment and reread the list from their perspective. How many of the benefits help them? One could argue that industry experience helps projects run more smoothly, allows for common tasks to be done very quickly, and increases confidence that the work will meet industry standards. For accounting or other services that aren’t traditionally visible to the client’s target market it makes a lot of sense.

But what happens when the industry specialist’s work is front-and-center rather than hidden under layers of organizational process? What happens when it’s a branding, marketing, or advertising organization that decides to focus on a single industry? What happens when it’s the essence of who you are and what makes you the best in your industry that is crafted by an industry specialist?

Put on the client’s shoes again, if you would (this time as a client of an agency.) All the stuff that was desirable in the back-office is now questionable at best. Sure, the agency knows your competition, and may have even worked for them. But what does it say about the quality and importance of that work (or the ethics of the organization’s leaders) that they’re willing to immediately sell the same services to you? How could they avoid contaminating the guidance they give you with information gained from private meetings with your competitors? And if they share this information with you (overtly or not,) what would stop them from sharing your secrets?

Regardless of how they may position themselves, industry specialists serving most audiences are limited in the concepts that they can bring to you, since if they were to propose a concept that actually pulled market share from another client they might be liable for damages. An agency that gets a reputation for selling out its clients is an agency that won’t have that problem for long.

So, to my way of thinking, a creative agency that farms a single industry either doesn’t believe their work has the ability to materially change the fortunes of its clients (and thus can sell to direct competitors without worrying about conflicts of interest), or they don’t care that each new contract they get in their industry is likely to devalue the work they’ve done for others.

That’s why Stokefire doesn’t go in for industry specialization. When given the freedom to do great work for our clients we’ve enabled new industries and reshuffled old ones. To then go back to all the competitors our work has marginalized or impeded and say, “See what we did for XYZ Co? If you want to stand a chance against them then you’d better hire us.” is lacking in scruples even if it might make short-term business sense. (It’s not all about morality, though. Another reason we don’t do it is that many of our larger or more strategically-minded clients pay a premium to ensure we won’t work in their field for a period of time following our project on their behalf.)

I’ll again grant you that industry specialists may work faster or more efficiently, and that these qualities have the potential to result in lower over-all costs since they’re not billing as many research and administrative hours. I’ll even grant you that it’s a helluva lot easier to run a profitable agency that specializes in one industry. But I can’t seem to connect either of these with the sorts of outcomes creative work is capable of achieving or that clients actually need.

To those consultants who espouse industry specialization for creative agencies, and to those agencies that farm single industries for profit, I ask you this: How does your industry focus tangibly improve outcomes for your stable of competitive clients?

Anyone willing to venture in and share their contrasting views?

No Consensus on Thatcher

 

Posted by:
Tate Linden

Back in 2011, while railing against the tendency to settle for ‘non-objectionable’ over ‘highly effective’ brands, I cited a portion of this quote from the (then living) Prime Minister:

To me consensus seems to be —the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no-one believes, but to which no-one objects. —the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead.

What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner “I stand for consensus”?

Those are some exceptionally important words to me, and to the organization I’ve built. I reference them at nearly every speaking engagement and each new client briefing because they’re equally applicable to the fields of branding and design.

And today they seem even more relevant and true. Today there’s a new lack of consensus. Thatcher’s passing earlier this week has been simultaneously marked by loyal praise and passionate derision from those impacted by her efforts. She is now either loved or reviled by the masses for the things she held most dear and the controversial steps she took to effectively defend those things.

I can’t imagine that she would find this particularly upsetting. Thatcher didn’t stand for consensus; she stood for her convictions. And the United Kingdom as a whole and the world at large are stronger for it.

The lesson? As goes politics, so goes branding. Address the issues, don’t avoid them. Or do. After all, it’s only the wellbeing of your organization and its people at stake.

The Thingnamer Sleeps With Clients?

No. I don’t.

But I’ve been asked if I do with some regularity, and while it’s all in fun (I hope,) I find that when I ask other creatives if they get similar lines of questioning their answer has always been something like, “No. But I gotta ask, dude…  ARE you?”

During the unveiling of a new ID kit for a husband and wife business team just this week I was again asked if I’d gotten a concept by sleeping with a spouse. And it was the wife asking if I was sleeping with her husband.

So, I’ve got that going for me.

Two things seem to consistently precipitate the question. First, we have a stable of improbably big clients that no one can figure out how we land. And second, our work tends to communicate an intimate understanding of our clients – as though we might’ve gotten the idea from pillow-talk.

Regarding our ability to land clients, I’m not sure exactly what Stokefire’s success rate is on pitches now, but I’m guessing it hovers around 80%. A couple years ago we were over 90%. But, as fun as sleeping my way to profits might be, I’m pretty sure I’d be a lot less successful using any organ other than my brain to close deals. Our secret is that we only go after projects and clients that we know (and can prove) we’re ideally suited for. Sure, we might win more business overall if we went after everything put in front of us, but the wasted strategic effort and insight is something that I can’t stomach. We put a huge amount of effort into our proposals, so I don’t like to see them go to waste.

As for sleeping with clients to get better creative concepts? I’ve never tried it. I get results by putting the client under seriously uncomfortable pressure while I’m building their brand. I challenge their stated beliefs and test their commitment to their principles. It’s like Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded said, “You do not truly know someone until you fight them.”  Every one of our break-out successes on behalf of clients has come from pushing past what they said they wanted to expose a deeper truth that they couldn’t previously express or were perhaps even trying to hide. We build the brand on that newly exposed, raw, and unchanging truth so that regardless of what challenges lay ahead for our clients, the brand’s foundation will remain strong and stable enough to surpass them.

Great branding work does require intimacy, but only in a pants-on kind of way.

So, no, I did not have sexual relations with that client.

No.

Dearest potential applicant:

In our eight year history we’ve never brought on a single intern nor employee who started their cover letter with “Dear Sirs” or “To Whom it May Concern,” and then perhaps followed it with body copy that could just as well introduce someone trying to break into the laundromat business, or maybe rocket science.

The unofficial policy doesn’t hit home for you? Consider what it would be like if a purportedly reputable organization was staffed by people so lazy that instead of taking the time to understand and address each applicant individually, they just posted a blanket rejection statement on their blog and left it at that.

No, You May Not Have This Tasty, Tasty Apple.

I understand that everyone loves the Apple brand for its vibrancy, simplicity, and power. I really do. It’s a kickass brand, so it’s not surprising. But… Please don’t ask me to build you a brand ‘just like Apple’ unless Steve Jobs’ ghost is already on board to lead it. Because that’s what it’d take to make it work.

Look… Contrary to what most of the branding and advertising industry shouts at customers, the job of a great branding team is not to give you the brand that you want. Our job is to give you a brand with which you can succeed. Asking for a brand that looks like Apple may be an effective short-hand way to convey an aesthetic that you find appealing, but the whole underlying structure from which brands are actually built is overlooked in the process. Worse, the chances that what you and your staff find aesthetically appealing and what will bring a positive change in the behavior of your intended audience being the same are nearly nil.

What made Apple… well, Apple… was the insight, effort, and execution of Jobs, Wozniak, and their team. The name and logo they chose didn’t cause their success; the verbal and visible brand was a direct result of the unique qualities of the organization’s leadership expressed nearly to perfection. They changed the behavior of hundreds of millions of consumers around the globe by genuinely understanding who Apple was, delivering a product that could only come from such people, and communicating both their thinking and performance in a way that seemed to both illuminate and prove their difference. Or as I would normally put it, they used something very like Gandhi’s Pyramid. If you want to honor their brand or have similar successes then I’d advise you stop trying to copy the result of their efforts or the current state of their brand and start duplicating the effort and unique insights that led to it.

Making you look like Apple isn’t that hard. (Just ask Samsung.) But creating a lasting and valuable brand as unique and genuine as Apple from your own values and actions should actually result in a brand that in the end isn’t much like Apple at all.

 

The Painful Truth about Working With Stokefire, And How To Fail While Doing It.

Posted by Tate Linden

Arthritis Campaign by The Classic Partnership Advertising

Arthritis Campaign by The Classic Partnership Advertising

The truth about working with Stokefire? It often sucks.

I mean it.

Working with Stokefire is frequently extremely painful. Intentionally so. There’s a core belief at this firm that we can’t ensure a brand’s greatness until we have proven that it can withstand immense pressure. As our regular readers might recall, the philosophy supporting our work is structured around a quote from Gandhi, and though he may never have directly said as much, I personally believe that if Gandhi hadn’t gone through the painful challenges that he did he wouldn’t have made such an impact on the world. His philosophies would never have been tested and found to be powerful and effective. While we’re not known for putting our clients under the sorts of extreme pressures over which Gandhi triumphed, we are pretty damn good at making clients uncomfortable and even angry when it’s called for. And, for what it’s worth, it’s almost always called for.

A brand built by staying in your happy place may be fun, but it won’t help get you through the challenges that real organizations face during a crisis. My firm has had great success earning accounts that a little shop like ours “had no right to even pitch” (as one of our competitors put it) by going after that pain, and warning our prospective clients in advance that we’re here to cause harm but that the end result will be a battle tested brand that will get them where they want to go. We’ve had clients Google, Motorola, Charles Schwab, Heinz, the US Department of Defense, and the entirety of the US concrete industry. C’mon people; you must admit that our little shop in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia doesn’t seem like it should be able to even get business cards from the people that work at the agencies that land clients like those. (And candidly, we tend not to get those business cards. The people who work in the big agencies are not my biggest fans, from what I can tell.)

We don’t surprise clients with the bad stuff after they sign. No. We tell ‘em the first time we see them. Pretty much open the door and say, “You know, working with us is pretty much going to suck for you, right?” And then we tell them all the stuff they’re going to hate about working with us.

Among the things we cover are all the decisions and actions that they’ll want to make or take that we tell them in advance are off the table if they want to have a chance at a successful project. That list is about a dozen items long – and every one of the items has at some point caused more than one of our projects to end up less effective than it should have been. Clients are still able to go against the advice, but must acknowledge that in so doing our team is entitled to make changes to timeline, budget, and/or scope, or goals to compensate.

For the first time – that I can remember, anyhow – I’m sharing about half of this this list with the world, reworded in such a way that it might be Internet-ably digestible.

SIX EASY WAYS TO FAIL AT BRANDING:

Method 1: Avoid Risk, (Because Not Doing So Is So Gosh Darn Risky.)

Without risk you won’t get noticed. Without notice you can’t engage. Without engagement you can’t achieve any meaningful organizational goals, except perhaps downsizing, which you really don’t need our help with.

The most common way to avoid risk is to look at the industry and figure out what everyone else is saying and doing, and then find a designer who can mash it all together into something resembling a brand image. No need to hire a strategist because the work is already done! Go to the website of any competitor, then just cut, paste, and BAM! You just saved all sorts of time, effort, and money. Go ask for a raise.

Method 2: Insist on Consensus for the Wrong Things.

It’s critical to come to consensus about the goals for the organization and the brand, but when it comes to whether or not people like the resulting work we actually find positive consensus to be an indicator that the work isn’t as powerful as it needs to be. One thing that every great brand has in common? Someone out there absolutely hates it. We’re actually pretty pleased that most of the time there’s someone out there that truly despises our work, though often as not it’s the competition that screams the loudest.

Method 3: Keep the Decision Makers Out of the Process.

Keeping the decision makers out of the creative and strategic process is like making a baker’s favorite cake without access to the baker, and without access to the baker’s closet of ingredients or recipes. No matter what you come up with there’s little chance that that the baker will approve it because the result won’t match the recipe to which you never had access in the first place. If a decision maker is too busy or important to participate then they should delegate authority to someone who has the time and interest required to get it right.

Method 4: Demand that the Purpose of the Organization or Brand Include the Word, “AND.”

“And” is the bane of singularly effective brands and strategies. The moment you require a proverbial bullet to hit both the primary target and a second (or third, or twelfth) one you’ve made what should’ve been a relatively straight-forward shot into one that is effectively impossible. This is not to say you can’t hit all the targets, but the chances are better that you’ll end up winging them rather than nailing the center of any.

Method 5: Change Requirements or Assumptions Upon Which Work Was Based But Leave The Resulting Work Unchanged.

It’s like telling that aforementioned cook to prepare a meal for a meat-lover, then upon delivery of the delectable meat-infused foods being told that they made a typo and meant to say that the eater was vegan. There is no option except to restart from the step right before the assumption was made. The moment the assumptions in place are changed the work that resulted from the old ones either must be thrown out, or used for some other purpose. No matter how delicious that TurDuckEn may be, the first instinct should never be, “Well, maybe we can still use it if we just add more vegetables.”

Method 6: Keep the Project Hidden from Staff, Clients, and Stakeholders Until It’s Done.

Done right, the result of a strategic rebranding process should seem like you’ve scraped off a battered (or poorly chosen) coat of paint to reveal the beautifully crafted bones of the original structure that had been hidden before. That’s very hard to do if you don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the people who helped to build it in the first place, and those that live there now. Imagine coming home and finding someone you don’t know has repainted and repositioned everything in your home without asking for your permission or input, and then stuck you with the bill. Oh. And they appear to reeeeealy like pink. It’s likely you’ll find that the work covered up everything you loved about your home. That’s what happens when an employee comes in one day with new logos and mottos spread all over the office. It’s seen as “just another marketing thing” instead of what should be a powerful tool for helping the organization get where it needs to go.

No matter how risky you might think trying to engage existing staff or clients in the process might be, that’s nothing compared to the backlash that can occur when you try to sneak one over on them, or aren’t completely transparent with the reason for a change.

You may notice that almost all of these methods that lead to failure involve some sort of attempt to overtly or covertly avoid risk. Having leadership stay out of the process means that they’re not to be blamed for the direction the project has taken, requiring consensus spreads blame so that individuals can duck risk, having multiple goals means there’s no risk of alienating anyone, allowing assumptions to change without consequence means no one will have to risk their employment by asking for more funding, and keeping stakeholders in the dark means that we don’t risk blowing the project schedule by letting in rabble that could turn the whole thing to a muddled mess.

We’re not unique when it comes to recognizing that risk is a critical ingredient in a successful brand. Most agencies acknowledge this now – but I think the extent to which we’ve codified the ways risk avoidance can creep back into a supposedly risky position is less common. If you’ve got stories to share on risk avoidance or acceptance gone wrong I’d love to hear about ‘em.

When it comes to branding and strategy choices, I’m finding that almost every time the right choice for the client is the one that makes them the most nervous. Not in an “anyone who would do this is an idiot” way, but in a “can we really do that? Because no one in our industry would ever in a million years try something like it” sense. Which is kind of the point. Any retrenching towards what’s comfortable and familiar results in an avalanche of undone decisions that turn brand positioning and strategy into a mishmash of platitudes that no one finds objectionable and never gets mentioned outside of annual executive strategy sessions.

_____

That’s it…I’m out of practice on this whole blogging thing, but I’ve got some more stuff I’d like to share in the coming days and weeks, so here’s to hoping I can continue to bring it back to life.  Thanks to my Twitter followers who helped nudge me back on the hamster wheel. You can find me being my own bad self at @Thingnamer or tune into to the business-esque chatterings of the team (and me) at @Stokefire.

 

FAIL: PETCO Thinks We’re Idiots? Yes. Yes they do.

 

Well, PETCO certainly doesn’t win any points for the creativity of their product name, but when it comes to the art of needlessly clarifying proper use of the product I think I’ve just witnessed perfection.

This, folks, is why I don’t hire lawyers to write copy.

 

A peek at Stokefire’s latest brand identity work:

One of DARPA’s [Ed: a client] strategic thinkers started up her own firm called Foxfire. We’ll post detailed information and back-story about the project another time – but we figured that given our recent silence we owed you a quick peek at the recently approved ID Kit! Til then… Enjoy!

(And if you’re a senior business executive or retired general or admiral looking for one of the best advisors and speech writers in the world? Get in touch with Courtney at Foxfire Strategies ASAP.)

An Open Letter to the Stewards of the Progressive & Democratic Brands

Hello Stewards,

You may not realize it yet, but you need help.

I’ve been told by many in politics that there are no well-known (or even proven-effective) brand strategists focused on helping Progressive causes. (There are an astounding number of political strategists but that’s a different animal.) This may be due to the common belief that Democrats won’t pay for core brands to be developed. Dems spend a fortune on polling, message crafting, and message testing, but when it comes time to actually develop the unchanging core of progressivism or the Democratic party there’s no one willing to buy more than a quick logo invariably containing some combination of red, white and blue. And perhaps this would be fine if this were universally true across the political spectrum…

But it isn’t. Conservative leadership has long understood that without a deep and powerful identity they’re lost. The world’s greatest branding minds are regularly paid immense sums to work for Conservative initiatives. These strategists have worked hard to develop, execute and maintain a consistent Conservative brand that appeals to a broad spectrum of Americans from every economic class.

Think it’s a coincidence that every conservative issue comes down to just two things? Every thing is about either Liberty (or it’s cousin “freedom”) or faith (in our founding fathers, our business leaders, our capitalism, or our God). I have yet to find a conservative cause that couldn’t be summed up by some combination of the two ideas. And they’re a brilliant combination. The freedom and liberty to do whatever is in your best interests, backed by faith in whatever it is that you believe? That means that so long as you maintain belief in whatever floats your boat the details on any particular issue are irrelevant. It’s true because of our belief system, not because of the intricate details of an issue.

It’s one of the most impressive feats of branding I’ve ever seen.

But it’s beatable. Just not by progressives as they’re branding themselves now. Progressives (and their current host, the Democrats) we put all their eggs in the fairness basket. This is fine when our country is stable and the masses believe we are well served, but when the system is rigged to consistently sacrifice the ability of one group of our citizens to survive in order to benefit another it seems to me that “fairness” is a bad fit.

Think about the rulings and legislation passed recently. Conservatives have successfully argued that corporations are people. Money is speech. Unlimited anonymous donations can be made from individuals and organizations to any candidate through Super PACs, arguably protecting and legalizing the buying of favorable treatment from our government.

The only reason Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” has not “perished from this earth” is that corporations are now people. Astonishingly powerful people.

This isn’t an issue of fairness anymore in much the same way that it wasn’t about fairness when we abolished slavery, gave women the right to vote, or allowed workers to protect themselves from doing crazy things like, say, becoming an ingredient in the sausage they made.

I’ve recited the Pledge of Allegiance countless times in my life and I’m pretty sure that there’s no mention of fairness there. It’s not in the Constitution either. Nor the Bill of Rights. We have no right to fairness other than perhaps the right to attempt to achieve it in our pursuit of happiness. The pursuit of fairness seems better suited to squabbles involving siblings and nannies in modern vernacular.

So what might be a better fit? When we look at the pledge most of us recited daily as school children there’s a phrase that may be key. The Progressive Promise of “Fairness for All” isn’t there, but “and justice for all” is. Justice is a focal point of the first sentence of our Constitution, and makes a repeat appearance in Article 4 section 2, ensuring that not only will there be justice, but that within the borders of our nation one cannot escape it.

The recent Occupy movement isn’t just demanding fairness. They’re demanding justice. And it’s when that level of emotion and passion is stirred that progressives become effective agents of change. It’s a shift from “we need to adjust things” to “this is criminally unjust” that seems to help America make progressive leaps forward.

Progressivism’s biggest weakness is that it must necessarily ebb and flow as the perception of our government’s ability or willingness to provide equal justice under the law shifts. When the government leans toward treating everyone equally progressivism has trouble gaining a foothold. When it is perceived as oppressive to the common man progressivism inexorably rises up to rebalance or rebuild the system. Once fixed the progressive movement fades until the oppression becomes visible again. If the oppression isn’t fixed it gradually becomes the accepted way of life and we move on.

What does this mean? Well, it means that progressives have a very limited window of time in which to rebalance the system now that oppression is perceived. If progressives can’t unite their distinct voices into a single call for change that is connected to the core of their cause they will fail to have an impact in our era. And it’ll be because they couldn’t simply and powerfully define themselves.

As for who the progressives area at their core? I’m pretty sure they’ve never been able to powerfully describe it. The progressive promise shouldn’t be “Fairness for All” or even “Justice for All”. It’s should be about the willingness and responsibility to defend the rights of every American, not just the ones with money or power.

I’ll take a shot at defining the progressive core. How about:

No American Stands Alone.

I’m pretty damn sure that this is the sentiment behind every great step forward that America has taken since the time of Lincoln. It all fits. And it seems to align with almost everything that progressives are aiming to achieve today.

But time is short, the election is coming, and the Democratic brand and message is a horribly confused mess.

It’s fixable. And the election is winnable. And change can happen in this era. If only progressives would invest and believe in who they are instead solely on what they say.

If you’re not one of the stewards of the Democratic brand and think there’s merit in this idea then perhaps you can forward this letter or link to someone who is. Your Democratic Congressman, someone in the DCCC, or the White House would be a good start.

If you are one of the stewards? Don’t be shy. Comment, call, or write.  Mostly because I haven’t a clue who you are. Unless you’re President Obama, of course. (And if that’s you, Mr. President, please do reach out because as I understand it you’re not yet taking my calls.)

And in the unlikely case that there isn’t a steward for the brand, I humbly throw my hat into the ring. Or I would if someone could tell me where the ring is.

Yours,

Tate Linden
(A proven brand strategist.)

 

Three Steps to an Irresistible Brand

I know you may not think of Gandhi as irresistible, but bear with me. It’ll become clear shortly.

Irresistible… It may sound impossible, or at least too good to be true. And you’re not alone in thinking that, but the great brands do achieve the impossible. They get people to change behavior in much the same way that Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln put themselves on the line to create monumental societal change. If you want to create  real change there’s no more consistent way to get there.

And here are the basic steps you can follow to get there yourself:

Step One: Become Self Aware
Know your unwavering core motivation then unquestionably prove its truth.

Brand-building without understanding why your organization exists is pointless. Without self-awareness your time, money and energy spent on brand is just as likely to hurt as to help reach your goals. But you need to do more than just know what makes you different and communicate it. An irresistible brand proves that you’re different. To do that you must be able to communicate your difference in a way that lines up with your real-world performance – and sheds light on the fact that your organization ‘gets it’.

In Stokefire’s world of Gandhian brands, becoming self aware is the beginning of your Gandhian pyramid development. We’re looking to bring what you think, say and do (or in brand-speak, “what motivates you, what you communicate, and how you perform”) into harmony. Any brand that has a disconnect between those three elements is a brand that capable competition can destroy – even if the competition doesn’t have a strong brand.

Proving your brand true involves communicating your unique commitment or understanding of your industry or the change you represent in a way that cannot be easily undermined. A few examples of this that we can attest to include our work for an HR firm showing that it understands the core issue in human resources, a campaign for concrete that made people care about what roads are made of, and identity work for the US Department of Defense that enabled them to be perceived differently by our allies and enemies.

The result of those campaigns? The HR firm became one of the fastest growing firms in its industry and region; the concrete industry’s single-market test campaign earned over $57 million in new transportation project, and DARPA reclaimed its rightful place at the head of military technology.

Step Two: Gain Perspective
Understand how your motivation relates to the core motivation of your competitors and of your target audience.

Perspective doesn’t come easy to people passionate about their cause. You do what you do because you’re invested in it and believe in it, so putting that aside and seeing where you’re weak and where your competitors are strong isn’t comfortable and can makes you feel fragile. The key is to understand and address the weaknesses before a brand launches and harden your identity against competitive threats or alternative solutions your audience may consider.

The perspective you need is that of your target audience, competitors and a sense of the environment at large. While you can begin to define your core identity in a vacuum, in order to refine it you’ll have to see how what you think, say, and do relates to what your customers and competitors are saying and doing – and what that might indicate about their motivations.

A brand can become a powerful tool that helps people rediscover their own core motivations and can create a wedge between their past and future actions. Those actions can relate to which products are bought or whether we believe (for instance) that slavery or oppression is just. It can even become a part of how an individual, competitor or era defines itself. In our own era we’ve seen technology brands uncover truths about thinking differently and coffee stores that can enhance one’s perceived station in life.

But these brands and those movements behind the ending of oppression didn’t just have a spiffy logo and slogan. They had enormous requirements in terms of infrastructure to create a lasting identity with consistent performance. They needed execution.

Step Three: Deliver Consistently
Deliver messaging and infrastructure that uses your proven identity as a lever to change the behavior of your target audience and competitors.

Even with an apparently compelling brand identity, if the mechanism to keep all the parts of the brand (messaging, performance, intent) doesn’t run consistently then the brand falls apart. This is why BP’s brand is so reviled – because they chose to brand themselves as “beyond petroleum” when they were still 95% invested in oil, and for the discord evident in the company’s response to their environmental disaster and their supposed commitment to being green. Any perceived disconnect between intent, message, and performance is an opening for your competition.

Infrastructure can be comprised of anything from consistently materials in support of your cause, or the people, processes and relationships that enable you to get your message out through every channel quickly and effectively. For every situation the infrastructure is going to be different, though you may find it helpful to look at the top players in your industry to see what they’re doing to stay at the top. Your infrastructure must work at least as well as theirs – and in some cases your infrastructure might be called upon to tear theirs down.

An excellent example of this in practice is Newt Gingrich’s disbanding of both the congressional Republican Study Committee and its counterpart on the Democratic side as unnecessary after ensuring that non-profit entities had been established to provide the needed research for the Republicans. The Democratic Party’s lack of external infrastructure to develop and communicate the brand and platform has been seen by many inside and outside the Party as a major weakness, and has allowed Republicans to pick off candidates one by one rather than having to take on a unified movement.

And A Warning: It’s Not For Everyone
It’s for the greatest of challenges.

At the start of this post I mentioned three great leaders. While they all to a large extent had their goals realized, none of them lived to enjoy the world that this enabled the rest of us to experience. Creating a truly irresistible brand takes courage. You must take big risks to achieve the biggest rewards.

Apple didn’t become the most prosperous technology firm in history by following the path of others. It did it by staying true to its core, understanding the motivation (rather than opinions) of its audience and consistently delivering products and services that connect the two over time.

Brand irresistibility takes more than courage. It takes a worthy cause – and people who are willing to take risks to move the cause forward.  Looking at America today there are dozens of movements that could benefit from taking these steps, but few that are going to do it. The Occupy movement has such potential, but without a core identity (other than “we’re not going to take it anymore!”) and without an understanding of how they are perceived from the outside (as extremists and anarchists rather than those that have had their jobs and homes taken from them) there’s no chance for infrastructure and consistency to develop and move the cause forward.

If you have any ideas about what brands or causes are likely to be taking the three steps to irresistibility in 2012 let me know. I’d love to look into them or discuss them in a post.



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