Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Authenticity Myths

Authenticity is a pretty big buzz word in brand strategy today. If you’ve read any of my posts, you know I am a huge proponent of ensuring that Authenticity is at the root of your strategy—it’s at the very heart of transparency and accountability. Buzz-worthiness aside, everyone agrees; when you act authentically, you set up your brand for success. It’s hard to argue with the logic.

The concept of Authenticity gets pushed into almost every conversation on brand strategy, and I won’t deny it’s important. But it’s also misunderstood.

Myth #1
Authenticity isn’t walking your talk. It’s talking your walk.
Semantics? Maybe. But know this; it’s far easier to speak to your natural, instinctual actions than it is to act with integrity upon the things you’ve said.

Talk is easy. Talk is cheap. Talk is emotional. It’s much more difficult to figure out how to model the expectations in your messages than it is to understand and promote your culture and true capacity in the work you do.

Actions are all that matter. Actions are the only things people have to judge you on, because actions are the only thing that have value. Words—the promises you make—are worthless until you act.

Your strategy shouldn’t be about walking your talk; it can only be about talking your walk.

Myth #2
Self discovery—an assessment of your skills, capacity and natural instincts—is important. In the Authenticity push, there are people who declare that is important to reflect your true, full self in your actions and your messages. Your entire brand promise must capture your authentic self. If you are clear on who you are and what you do, you (or your organization) will be a success.

However, authenticity is not it’s own reward.  Authenticity is only one factor in brand success, and it does not create brand equity by itself.

Yes, your authentic self matters. But just because you’re authentic doesn’t mean other people want what you offer. Your authentic self—as a model for your organization—must also be compelling to enough people to make it valuable. People must desire what you promise. It can be a few people, or whole bunch of people, or practically all people, but it must be enough people to reward your effort.

It takes more than authenticity. Your brand must be authentic, compelling, and a competitive advantage.

Leverage your Authenticity
Authenticity is a reflection of how your organization behaves—the choices you make that are important and natural. Develop a Brand Strategy anchored by your business model—your model of success—and defined by authentic behaviour.

Challenge yourself and your team. Do some deep soul-searching to discove values that are important, and characteristics that define your culture. Don’t pick popular words and try to make them fit. Reveal authenticity and celebrate it.

More importantly, identify any behaviours or commitments that will contradict your brand strategy. Here you face a tough decision; change the behaviour (hard-to-do) or change the brand story (compromises your competitive advantage). Because if you don’t change your behaviour, there will be a moment—probably not a moment you plan for—when no one will believe your brand story.

A great Brand Strategy will leverage natural, comfortable and defendable behaviours that reinforce the goals of the organization, defining the culture and standards that are celebrated, supported and rewarded.

Note: Read Authenticity is and True values are a choice for more.

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Customer Service. A Relationship Strategy.

There is no other element of your brand strategy that will have as much impact on people’s perception of your brand as your attention to customer service. Having an relationship-centric Customer Service Strategy—preparing for the human experience you share with everyone—is where the companies that understand relationships will far exceed those who think success in their business is based only on good products at a fair price.

Customer Service is not about simply moving a product from your hands into your customers’. It’s not about bending to a person’s every whim in some misguided belief that they are “always right.” It’s certainly not about rigourously maximizing the value out of every person.

Customer Service is about being actively responsible for the experience your brand promises. It’s a human connection that moves the experience from a transaction to a relationship. Customer Service—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—is the last great differentiator.

Strong brands define their version of customer service well beyond kind and helpful. They have a service culture that is integral to their strategy.

The attitude and language chosen; the speed and customization offered; the luxury or automation desired—there are plenty of choices made by leaders. There is no right or wrong, just traits and tactics that must be consistent with the brand. However, there are three factors to Customer Service that are non-negotiable, and these are at the root of your strategy.

1. Acknowledgement: When someone decides that they want to be your customer, they need to be confident that you are aware of their desire. No one should ever feel unwelcome or ignored.

An empty reception desk; an unresponsive email system; a locked door; distracted staff; faded signs; broken instructions; quiet social media; …these are all indications that you simply don’t care about the customer standing right in front of you, ready to engage. Every customer must feel that you are interested in their business, and you believe the relationship is important.  How are you ensuring every customer knows that they are welcome and valued?

2. Communicate: It is your responsibility to guide your customers through the experience you’ve promised, anticipating their needs to their advantage and in your favour. Prepare your customers for their own success all along the journey.

Clear signs are helpful. Smart staff who understand the whole process and the customer mindset are critical. Milestone markers, easy options and ‘goal-post’ reminders reinforce to everyone that you are paying attention, and you care about the outcome. Systems that move their experience forward—not just the transaction or data collection—are the secret. How are you sharing your expectations and recommendations of the brand experience?

3. Respect: All relationships are built on respect for each other. A customer must always feel they are trusted, safe, and that their side of the value equation is important.

Neither the routine and familiarity of your efforts, nor the excuse of a broken system, diminishes your commitment to an experience. Safety isn’t an option, nor should it be treated with anything less than diligence. Respect for rules, respect for details your customers are willing to share, and respect for your commitment to value is vital. How are you demonstrating respect for the relationship you share with your customers?

A great product is important—no amount of pleasant customer service is going to make up poor value—but it’s the relationship that is front and centre with an amazing brand experience.

These three elements are so vital to customer service—acknowledge your customers, communicate with your customers, respect your customers—that it almost seems silly to need to mention them. But we can trace most customer service issues back to a breakdown in one of these roots. It’s not enough that you intend to be kind and helpful; customer service must be rooted in a strategy that supports your brand.

With customer service, the relationship is the brand experience.

Understanding Vision, Mission and Values.

The best vision, mission or values statements are the ones that work for you. The best ones answer the right questions, without confusing anyone.

Many branding experts are happy to share a ‘best practice’ format—a template for crafting the perfect Vision, Mission and Values statements. (No more than eight words; keep it to three sentences; must include “To be the…” and then list an audience and region; narrow it to only three values; one single phrase to capture your essence; etc…)

Style doesn’t lead to substance, nor does a focus on style inspire real meaning. Instead of trying to fit into a predetermined format, I suggest the only requirement for your statements is that they work for you and the people who share your passion.

That’s not to say the meaning of these statements isn’t important to your organization. Each one serves a critical function of your strategy, anchoring your brand and framing a community of support. But instead of a preferred style, let’s understand why each one works, why they work together, and what you need to know before you wordsmith your way into success.

Vision—This is your purpose beyond profit. It’s a simple statement that describes a better world as you want to see it. The best ones are something that you can achieve today, and continue to aspire towards tomorrow—both attainable and aspirational every day. Your vision is why you exist.

Your vision statement captures the deeper human motivation—the reason you get out of bed every day—and it inspires people to act. Let your vision be unreasonable but not unrealistic. Let the competition be intimidated by your authentic ambition. Let people dream.  

Mission—This is the plan for how you will achieve your vision. Your mission is a call to action. Some reference to a business model would be appropriate. You need not include every detail—it will only handcuff you later—but it’s through your mission statement that people will be able to understand how they are going to share your vision with you.

Be bold and be a leader. Make no compromises in your conviction to your cause, and your belief that this is how you will achieve your vision. Be clear with you plan and your actions. Don’t hide behind ambiguity or catch phrases—this is where people are going to decide if they share your passions and support your cause.

Values—These are the benchmarks of behaviour that will guide your decisions. The best ones are options—behaviours that have an acceptable alternative—so that people can understand their choice to align with your brand vs your competition. Your values should inspire pride, conviction and confidence.

Your values are non-negotiable. Your values are characteristics that you will defend, even when it might be to your competitive disadvantage, because to compromise your values would be a contradiction to everything you believe is important. (I need you to really think about that, because the values that you claim to hold true may come under fire—from shareholders, customers, or the community—and you will have to defend your beliefs. If you give in, even once, it’s not really a value, and they will question everything you stand for.)

Your vision motivates people involved; it’s why you exist. Your mission is the activity people share; it’s how you promise to pursue your vision. Your values guide your behaviour and the behaviour of those who share your mission;  it’s a commitment to stakeholders.

With these statements you’ve answered everything; why; what & where; and how. (‘Who” and “when”—you and now—should be implied. If they aren’t, these statements are not your biggest worry.)

How you choose to articulate these is entirely up to you. You’re the one who needs to connect your organization with your stakeholders. It doesn’t matter if it takes a single sentence mission statement that is clear and bold, or if you need a couple of sentences to effectively make your point.

Like any strategist, I have style preferences for statements that work for me. But if your version breaks from conventional standards yet honestly inspires, motivates and guides your stakeholders—all your stakeholders—you’re on the right track.

If you want to add a brand mantra and a brand essence and a brand statement, or any other ‘theme-du-jour’—and it makes sense to you—have fun with it. Sometimes these are helpful in communicating with different audiences. These tactics aren’t wrong if they add value; but just be sure of the value they add.

Vision Mission and Values are at the foundation of your Brand Strategy. You may notice that nowhere in this list is a reference to your competitors. Do not build your brand story in the context of competition. Build it for your own success, answering only to your passion and your vision, and leave the competitive points for messaging later on.

Update: Read more at “Are you on a Mission Statement”.