Our motto here at Boardwalk is “A brand is a promise kept.” Meaning, first, you have to know your optimum brand promise. Second, you need to make your brand promise to your market. And, finally, you have to keep that brand promise; you have to deliver as expected. If you do these three things, you will be rewarded with brand loyalty. Sussing out your optimum brand promise requires you to don your strategic thinking cap. Making the brand promise is marketing communications. And delivering on it is operations. Strategy, marketing, operations – it takes the whole company to build the brand. This blog post is going to focus on the marketing communications, the making of the promise. It’s a common mistake to conflate communication with advertising. But advertising is only one form of communication, a one-way, one-to-many format. Today, we know that true communication is a two-way conversation that can be personalized. We see how, through interactive, online channels, markets can influence the behavior of business. But even those who have mastered every form of external communication sometimes forget that brand promises need to be communicated internally as well.
Regular Brandtalk readers know that I sometimes refer to something I call the Branding-Marketing-Sales Continuum. These are three disciplines that operate one after the other, resulting, finally, in a sale. Because, at the end of the day, someone has to sell something to someone. That’s what commerce is all about. The delivery of a good or service in exchange for legal tender. It starts with branding, which leads into marketing, which leads into sales. You can imagine the flow going from left to right, terminating with a sale at the far right end of the line. These are three distinct disciplines that have somewhat fuzzy borders. Here at Boardwalk, we’ve never seen a branding project that didn’t end up with us doing a little bit of marketing too. And everybody knows how porous the boundary between marketing and sales is. When I speak to groups about this, I can tell people understand me but I never quite feel they’re really getting it. So I’ve been searching for a good metaphor that people would really feel. And here on Veterans’s Day, I think I’ve found one. It’s imperfect, to be sure, and a little more militaristic than I’d like. But I guess I’m just thinking about our fighting men and women. With respect, I’d like to share it with you. It sprang from a discussion about how the US flag is displayed on our soldiers’ uniforms.
When children are first enrolled in kindergarten, they are tested so teachers can find out what each child does and doesn’t already know. Can they tell a circle from a square? Do they know their colors? The vast majority of them do already know these visual stimuli. Not so many, however, already know their numbers 0-9 or the entire alphabet A-Z. Visual literacy comes before reading or math skills. When you think about it, it’s pretty impressive, the degree of visual literacy we’ve mastered by age five. Not only do we have shapes and colors down cold but, even as kids, we can read facial expressions and body language with remarkable accuracy. By the time kids are twelve, they can read the room in an instant. They can tell what experiences seem attractive and what should be avoided, who seems nice and who’s probably a jerk. What’s amazing is that it all happens in the background, without us even having to really think about it. Marketers rely on our visual literacy every day. They tell us about their brands using visual clues, counting on our sophisticated “inner language” to add in meaning and read the story. It’s called semiotics: the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. Marketers may straight-up tell us their advertising message. But, mostly, they use semiotics to get the brand story across. Here’s why.
Almost two weeks ago, something remarkable happened on Wall Street. I’ve been trying to collect my thoughts on the subject before writing about it. But the story starts, actually, back in January 2018 when BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, in his annual letter to CEOs of corporate America, caused a buzz that was the talk of Davos. I wrote about it here. In his letter, Mr. Fink, who represents billions of investor dollars, called for a new definition of the corporation. He stressed that the corporation of the future would no longer resemble today’s corporation that values quarterly profits above all else. He envisioned a corporation that generated profits, yes, but not at the expense of workers, their families or the environment. He called for a corporation that valued long-term thinking and civic engagement even if it meant profits would not be maximized. Then, last week, the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs, mostly from Wall Street, announced that they, too, are endorsing this new paradigm of corporate responsibility. There is no reason to think that Mr. Fink’s original letter was anything but honest and heartfelt. But what are we to make of this latest news from Wall Street? Authentic or fake news?
I have two friends, let’s call them M&M, who run a public relations agency that specializes in crisis management. They keep corporate and celebrity mishaps and misdeeds out of the news. Or, if they do hit the news, they work to get them out of the news as soon as possible. At the very least, they make sure their clients’ sides of the story get told. They mitigate any ill effects of the story – like businesses collapsing and innocent people losing their jobs. It’s a fascinating line of work and they have many colorful tales to tell – not that they’ve ever shared them with anyone. M&M are consummate professionals. Public relations is all about reputation management and that’s a big part of branding. Amazon chief, Jeff Bezos famously said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.” That’s not the whole story on branding, of course, but there is a lot of truth to what he says. So you need to think about public relations, whether you handle those duties in-house or retain an agency to drive your brand. But, if you don’t have a brand strategy in place, your PR people are driving without a road map.
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