Brand is a complicated word.

It’s become so popular and commonly referenced in conversation that it carries the assumption of shared understanding, of an accepted definition. I mean, everyone knows what brand is, right? 

 

In my experience, this isn’t always the case. 

 

Brand is a word used a lot in my work as a marketing specialist. I’m asked to assess a firm’s brand, to position it among other brands, to help refresh the brand, and to find the right words to express the brand. 

 

I’ve found that the biggest initial challenge to any brand effort is the variant ideas that are held, not just about a company’s specific brand, but about the ideas attached to “brand” in general.

 

I hear things like…

Brand is the logo, typeface, and colors of our firm. Oh, and the website. 

Brand is how we present ourselves to the marketplace, how we look, and what we say.  

Brand is the experience we offer our clients.

Brand is a reflection of our values, our services, what we do. 

Brand is a marketing thing. They make sure everything matches.

Brand is a buzzword; I don’t really know…or care…what it means. 

 

This lack of agreement around what “brand” really means is often a hidden challenge. We think we’re all talking about the same thing but often we aren’t. This makes it rather difficult to have productive discussions aimed at bringing unity, consistency, and alignment around a brand. 

 

Whether creating a brand, assessing it, or updating it, a critical first step is to establish a collective understanding that everyone involved can accept. 

 

One useful way to frame a discussion of brand is to talk about “reputation.” 

 

Reputation is an established, almost “old school,” kind of word with a widely accepted definition.

 

A dictionary defines reputation this way: “the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something.” 

 

What is most helpful in framing “brand” through the lens of “reputation” is this: they are both determined by those outside of the owner. 

 

We do not define our own reputation. It is determined by those around us based on their indirect impressions and their direct experience of us. 

 

For example, I can tell people that I am punctual and collaborative, but my actual behavior is to show up late, keep to myself and shun teaming opportunities. My reputation, as determined by my colleagues, becomes that I am unreliable and reserved…not to mention a little deceptive. In fact, it doesn’t matter how I characterize myself; it is how I behave and how others experience me that dictates my reputation. 

 

It is the same with a brand. 

 

A firm can market itself as an innovative, boundary-pushing service provider, but if clients experience them as highly reliable and effective but not especially creative or experimental, the brand is perceived as not just inconsistent but potentially unstable and unsure. 

 

Consistency in branding is critical, much as it is with our personal reputations. What we say and what we do need to be in alignment. 

 

If the true character of a company is to provide highly reliable, accurate, and efficient work, it’s better to own this and market the company as such rather than generate a largely fictional brand mask as an innovator. 

 

Why risk the firm being deemed an imposter that lacks self-awareness? What’s more, this false brand completely misses the opportunity to attract and satisfy potential clients who desire highly reliable, accurate, and efficient work. 

 

Viewing brand through the lens of reputation also helps to break down the silos typical in many companies, relegating “brand” activities to marketing and sales departments exclusively. Brand, like reputation, is the responsibility of everyone in the firm, from leadership to marketing, project manager to receptionist, anyone who influences the experience of the firm. 

 

Consistent branding isn’t simply about repetition, about making sure your website and collateral pieces all carry the same message (though this is super important!). It’s about understanding and embracing the defining characteristics of your firm and leveraging these authentic attributes to set you apart.   

 

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