Category Archives: Brand Experience

You own your brand’s experience.

I get frustrated when people, especially those involved with social media, claim that the consumer owns the brand. For those making this statement, the logic says that because people are talking about your brand—especially on social media—and because they are sharing the story of your brand—perhaps even without you—that somehow your customers own the brand.

There is a nuance to this belief that compromises your success: If you ignore the brand strategy because you believe you no longer own the brand, your organization is doomed.

Yes, each customer holds their own perception of the brand. In fact, every stakeholder has their own version of the brand story in their head. And when they share the story with other people, they may or may not be sharing it in a way that will make you happy. It’s called word-of-mouth, and you don’t get to own it.

People hold the conversations about the brand. They don’t own the brand experience.

We’ve always had word-of-mouth. In fact, the world had word-of-mouth before any other form of marketing. The speed of conversations in social media is unprecedented, but it doesn’t make the conversations something new. Word-of-mouth is just different stakeholders sharing stories about their perception of the experience.

But those are just their stories; you still control the experience they are talking about. You still brew the coffee or fly the airplanes or teach the students or feed the hungry or organize the masses or fight the oppressors. Your organization still acts in accordance with your brand story, and delivers an experience.

Tom Asacker said in a tweet to me, “The experience shapes the story, and the story shapes the experience. The key is to be strategic with both.” There has to be a balance between the two—both anchored in the strategy—where the organization builds an experience in pursuit of its goals, and give supporters (and perhaps detractors) something to share with word-of-mouth.

With a brand strategy, you define the experience first. You take a stand for what you believe in, make a promise, and set yourself up to deliver the promise. Then you tell a story; you capture people’s imagination and invite them to share your cause. Once the brand is experienced and a story is shared, there is a constant mixing of the two, drawing people deeper and deeper into a relationship. You own the brand experience while you embrace their stories and explore more of your own.

Then it’s good to let everyone talk about it. Because they will.

Everything matters.

You’ve probably heard many times that your brand experience is the result of everything. Of course, that means absolutely everything. All of the good things, all the not-quite-as-good things, and all the things you’d rather forget. Your organization’s brand experience even includes things you are probably not even aware of.

Admittedly, this can feel a little overwhelming at times. With everything we have to do each day just to operate, we simply don’t have the time or attention to spend on the tiniest of details. Ignoring the issues, though, is reckless.

A brand strategy anchored by a compelling vision, a clear mission and spirited values is how you ensure that everything—absolutely everything—tells your story.

Every instance that is recognized as connected to the brand will have some amount of impact on the perception of the brand. And it all adds up.

As a leader, your role is to set the vision in motion, and then build a skilled team that will act upon your mission. A trusted team—guided by clear values—will ensure every detail of the brand experience is in line with a consistent story. Every experience; every message; every sight, sound and texture; every interaction; conscious or sub-conscious; everything.

The reason we document our vision, mission and values is to ensure that everyone we’ve hired—everyone responsible for delivering the brand experience—is connected to the exact same goals. We give people a cause to belong to, and then give them permission to find all the different ways to advance that cause. They will face choices that may be critical, opportunistic or simply functional, but when we are confident they share our story and a commitment to the vision, we can trust our team to make choices—big or little choices—that matter.

Be good to be great

Success is found in a simple equation: a good business model plus a strong brand strategy will thrive.

As part of that equation, I will be the first person to tell you how important it is to have a solid brand strategy. I believe any organization in any industry can benefit from being proactive and strategic with their brand. No exceptions.

I will also tell you that a good business model could still be successful without the support of a compelling brand strategy. As much as it pains me to admit it, there are plenty of organizations that succeed regardless of how clumsy, disorganized or just plain bad their brand appears. The team works hard (probably harder than they have to), and they are able to hold enough relationships to support a business. It’s not pretty, and it’s not easy, but it works for them.

The opposite, however, is not true. Even the best brand execution won’t save an organization with a poor model behind their operations. It doesn’t matter how much attention or love or enthusiasm the brand generates; if the organization can’t function effectively, it’s doomed. If the organization doesn’t generate interest and deliver value—whether that’s revenue, donors, supporters, or attention—it simply isn’t sustainable.

While a good business may survive with a weak brand, a poorly run organization will fail, even with the best brand ideas. Always. You have to have a good model to have success with a great brand. No exceptions.

Kodak is expected to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks. Kodak is an amazing brand; the phrase “a Kodak moment” is synonymous with moments so special they are worthy of a fabulous photo. With a solid brand and a lucrative business model—for many years they had a virtual monopoly on film production—the company was a classic power brand; the choice of consumers, a desired employer, an industry innovator and a leader within its community.

Kodak had the chance to stay relevant and evolve the brand experience, but they missed the opportunity. Love for the brand couldn’t ignore the technology shift that was eating away at the existing business model. The brand still holds a place in everyone’s heart—it’s an American icon—but the business model eroded and has fallen apart.

A strong brand strategy can evolve with the business model. A smart model can evolve around what innovation delivers and what the market demands. A good model is at the foundation of a great brand.

The Curse of the Accidental Brand

A brand that adds value to your organization is a purposeful effort; a strategy that supports your goals. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it can’t be accidental.

An accidental brand starts off innocently and with the best intentions. A new organization launches and does a few thing right, but in all the chaos of getting started leaders neglect to consider the strategy for the brand. Perhaps they design a snappy logo and recruit a few good people; perhaps they develop a catchy promotion and have a product that generates some buzz. They collect employees or volunteers, customers or supporters, but there is no deep connection to the brand.

Thanks to a solid model behind their operations, the organization will see some success. Enthusiasm pays off. Quick profit or attention—arguably important but a shortsighted goal—makes everyone feel confident in the brand, especially the leadership team. Unfortunately, a little success is enough to be dangerous.

Yes, dangerous.

Within the daily grind that every organization experiences, routine becomes a system and mediocre becomes a comfortable standard. The resulting culture and brand experience lack the direction and conviction of a brand with vision and purpose. Any passion that first launched the company is now stale. The momentum of familiarity dominates the efforts, and past successes become an irrational crutch for a lack of innovation or growth to move forward. The organization has created an accidental brand, and it can persist for years.

Accidental brands are dangerous because over time they give the impression that they are solid and valuable when really all they are is comfortable and inoffensive. Accidental brands get stale, and then they get sloppy. Accidental brands get blindsided by enthusiastic competition.

Enthusiastic competition is fueled by a passion for the brand experience, and they are hungry for success. Enthusiastic competition shatters preconceived expectations and limitations. Enthusiastic competition trusts, nurtures and rewards their stakeholders with innovation. Enthusiastic competition is relentless about understanding what sits at the core of the relationship.

Accidental brands are cursed because moderate success and familiar habits limit innovation; there’s a perceived a risk to change while blindly ignoring the opportunities of evolution. Accidental brands forget that enthusiastic competition is always possible.

Routine is never a rule, and mediocre is never worthy. Don’t let your brand be accidental.