The Art And Science of Building Great Brands: 6 Tips From The Trenches.

The Art And Science Of Building Great Brands: 6 Tips From The Trenches.

What you need for a successful brand strategy.

The Art And Science Of Building Great Brands: 6 Tips From The Trenches.

Imagine this: The branding agency just left. After months of internal analysis, customer research and a not insignificant amount of money, the creative hotshots finally came back in and wowed you with their ideas. Everyone on your team was nodding as they went through the deck. You even got goosebumps a couple of times because it was so on-target. Finally, you have something that truly represents the essence of your brand!

Now what?

The art and science of building a great brand are one of the most fun and creatively rewarding parts of growing a business. Done well, the process gets to the heart of what your company stands for. It captures the practical and emotional promises you make to your customers every day and it even defines how your employees (including your future hires) identify with your company. It’s heady stuff to be sure.

However, all too often the brand-building process starts and ends with that big strategic and creative unveil. However, the promise of that work is never fully realized on a companywide level. Sure, the marketing team has plenty to do. They have to update websites, apps and, other collateral, refine PR strategies and possibly charge ahead with the creation of new social media campaigns or ad campaigns that reflect your sparkling new brand image. But elsewhere in the organization, the energy dissipates and there is no clear plan on what to do next. You’ve got this new, potentially powerful competitive weapon, but you may only be using a small part of it.

After 25 years of building companies and brands, there’s a question I hear a lot from other CEOs and executives.  What is the process of building a great brand once you’ve defined it and how do you get started? There’s no silver bullet answer, but it’s almost never “go buy a Super Bowl ad!” or “Let’s make our social media campaign go really viral!” Great brands are built from the inside out, not the other way around. Every situation is unique but here are some common principles that can help get you started in the right direction.

Start by deeply examining why you believe brand building is important. Consider this within the context of your specific business and competitive environment. There are many ways a strong brand can provide a competitive advantage. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Your business is competing in a sea of sameness with little fundamental product differentiation.
  • Your product team is constantly struggling with prioritizing product enhancements and features. Moreover, they need a more consistent framework for making decisions and trade-offs than quantitative analysis alone.
  • You’re in a fast-growing new category, and you need to aggressively stake out and defend a valuable competitive position.
  • You have a content-heavy marketing strategy and establishing the right publishing cadence and consistency has been a challenging or inefficient process.
  • You are building a mission-driven business and capturing and projecting that core emotional essence is crucial for your customers and employees alike.

Brand building is not easy, so clearly knowing the answer to why and how it will help you competitively will help you stick with it long after the creative agency has left the building. In some cases, it’s pretty obvious. I cut my teeth in brand management working on bottled water for Cadbury Schweppes, and let’s face it, there isn’t much other than your brand to lean on for competitive advantage in that category. In most other businesses, the brand is just one component of gaining competitive advantage. You need to know how best to put it to work.

For example, the late nineties and 2000’s, I spent a decade building businesses named things like,, and All of those services dominated their categories at their peak, but the external projection of a brand image to consumers frankly wasn’t what won the day. The brand names themselves were pretty generic. Most of our external marketing efforts went to things like SEO, ASO, content virality, and all the other things we now call “growth hacking.”

However, internal brand strategy and brand discipline are vital to our success in each of those businesses.  We use brand positioning and brand values to define how we select, create and program content. We make product feature and design decisions through a consistent brand lens. Brand strategy drives our editorial voice. In short, strong brand values reduce internal uncertainty, provide our team with a strong sense of identity, and enable us to move faster. This allows for more focus than many of our competitors. In a world where virtually every brand has to be digital content brand the importance of this discipline continues to grow.

Once you know why you need a stronger brand you can turn to the even harder question. How do I do it?

The external marketing part of brand-building a pretty clear, well-defined discipline with an entire industry of talented experts and creators focuses on it.  It may really be the only thing you are thinking about when you first embark on a major branding project. It’s certainly crucial that you get this part right.  But truly great brands (and brand companies) become great because everything they do embraces, projects and reinforces that brand. The big successes are the blue-chip brand names we all know and love, but there are plenty of smaller businesses that also succeed at great brand-building, often with very small or even non-existent advertising budgets.  

One of my favorite men’s lifestyle brand right now is an e-commerce company called Huckberry. I first stumbled upon Huckberry because it curates a lot of quality, outdoorsy products. They perfectly fit with my personal interests and style. Once I started interacting with them, it was the consistency with which they do everything that won over my loyalty and admiration. The consistent attention to detail and quality in their product sourcing, the familiar voice in their CRM tactics and social media, how they ask for product feedback, and even their job postings all stay on-brand.  It’s clear that the entire company has embraced its brand ethos, and I’m certain that didn’t happen by accident.

The 6 Tips To Takeaway

There is no one-size-fits-all formula for doing this. But here are few common principles that have helped me over the years, across a lot of different product categories.

Your Brand Is Everything

1. Embrace the idea that Brands are to companies what character is to an individual.  Review and rewrite your company’s core values to make sure they are in line with your brand’s ethos and vice versa. Your brand should be your company’s internal north star and should influence virtually every decision you and your employees make. Strong brand values, like character, are especially valuable for decisions that have to be made in the face uncertainty or conflicting information. Use your brand to help streamline otherwise subjective decisions, build internal consensus, and head off bad decisions before they happen. Pay very close attention when something you are considering feels off-band. It’s far easier to dilute or permanently damage your brand than it is to build it in the first place.

Sidebar: Beware of going off-brand:

When I was running online games for a division of Viacom we came under pressure from our corporate HQ in NY to rebrand the then-booming website as a sub-property of the kid’s brand, Nickelodeon. This was both to “expand the edges” of Nickelodeon’s brand (which was trending ever younger) and make it easier to package AG in ad sales deals within Nickelodeon’s other properties.

Both were logical business goals on the face of it. But until then, we’d run AddictingGames a bit like the “Reddit” of online games. There were over 1,000 independent developers from all over the world making games for the site. These games were always fun, sometimes edgy, and could occasionally be offensive or off-color. We made no bones about that, and in fact, we celebrated the edginess as a core brand value. That’s what made AddictingGames stand out versus so many other perfectly curated, vanilla-toast games sites of the time.

So we resisted the pressure to rebrand for over two years after the Viacom acquisition happened. With this, the site just kept on growing and growing. AddictingGames eventually became bigger than all of Viacom’s other digital properties combined! When the fateful decision finally came down that the rebranding finally had to happen to meet “broader strategic goals”, many of those edgy and racy games had to be purged from the site. Reason being to protect the Nickelodeon parent brand, which was irreverent but most definitely kid-friendly.

Predictably, the move irrevocably damaged AGs brand essence. Both by the presence of Nickelodeon branding on the site itself and the substantial shift in content strategy. Combined with a broader shift from web games to mobile games around the same time, this spelled the beginning of the end of the valuable brand ecosystem we had built so carefully. Then the reversal happened far more quickly.

Your Brand Should Be Part of Your Culture

2. Personify your brand and encourage your employees to do the same in every company function. Brands play a bigger part of company culture over time through hundreds of tiny actions and decisions all across the business. Each time you or an employee makes a decision that adheres to your brand ethos, it will reinforce and magnify the strength and resilience of your brand.

For example, when we were building the online music service Rhapsody (now sadly rebranded as Napster), our core brand values revolved around music discovery. It became our mission to introduce people to great new music. We designed the whole Rhapsody user experience around the central idea of music discovery. But it didn’t end there.

We also lived that brand ethos inside the company. For example, if one employee took two or more other employees to a favorite local music show, we would reimburse the cover charges. No questions asked. We’d also ask for volunteers to periodically go down to Amoeba records to hunt for unique or out of print CDs. This was so that we could add to our music streaming catalog – it was a lot of fun. The absolute cost to the business was small. But it sent a powerful message to our team about our brand and company values.

Let Your Brand Inspire Your Goals

3. Set top-level business goals that specifically reinforce your brand values. Brands, like company culture, are driven primarily by what you do, not what you say. How your product performs or how a customer perceives its performance has more impact on brand image than what’s on the package or said in the ad. How you handle customer service will affect brand perception more than the friendly face in your ad campaigns, etc. While this may all sound pretty straightforward (even obvious) on paper, it’s amazing at how many businesses fail at this most basic brand-building discipline.

Higher-Ups Need to Back the Brand Strategy

4. If you’re not the CEO, get CEO buy-in on the importance of brand building before you start. Ideally, the CEO is the biggest brand champion in the building. But even if that’s not the case, commitment to the importance of brand building (and brand ethos) has to start at the top. Otherwise, it’s never going to stick. I’ve had my fair share of successes but I can also tell you some horror stories from situations where a CEO gave only lip-service to the importance of brand building.

Be Prepared to Rebuild Everything

5. Plan for brand implementation before the strategic and creative process starts and include every key function of the business. What will have to be changed, modified or replaced if the brand strategy and corporate identity changes? Try to think of every detail from your external marketing down to the invoices you send your customers. Even your customer service knowledge base, and your HR policies. Then make sure the leaders of all the affected functions are committed to the work that may be involved before the process begins.

Assign Team Members to Focus on Your Brand

6. Name departmental brand champions and have them meet regularly during the development process. Especially after it’s completed, make sure it’s implemented consistently over time by said people. This is especially important in larger organizations. It’s a long process so if you are thinking only in terms like “we’ll do the branding project in Q1”, chances are that it isn’t going to stick for very long.

Finally, always remember that once you get that goose-bump creative presentation and gorgeous looking “brand book” from the agency, you still don’t have a brand. You have a pretty, very expensive paperweight. It’s what you do next that creates the brand.

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