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Is Branding a Bad Word

By Ray Baird

Just the other day we had a conversation with a potential client about the misunderstanding of the “B” word. Yes, in our opinion, “BRANDING” for some companies has become a tainted word and a confusing concept. During the recent discussion, the prospect specifically addressed the misperceptions and misalignment of what the word and the branding project we were discussing meant to the executives of the organization — and in our experience, that’s not uncommon. The bigger question is WHY has branding become such a confusing concept? Or more importantly — how can the process be tweaked to have a successful business outcome?

Let’s start with the problem, then discuss a reasonable business solution.

BRANDING is an all-encompassing word with many different components. Branding programs can be comprised of brand research, brand strategy, brand positioning, brand essence, brand identity, brand experience, brand standards — you get the picture. The bigger problem is many companies professes to be experts when it comes to branding and owning a piece of the brand equation. PR companies say they do branding, advertising agencies claim to do branding, digital firms also jump into the brand world — but these are tools and experiences a well thought out brand strategy and position should deliver. And that’s the problem, companies going through a branding process without the benefit of clearly separating strategy and positioning from delivery can experience varying degrees of complications. And this is the problem — execution before strategy done by a branding generalist.

Don’t get me wrong, the value of a smart and informed advertising, PR or digital firm is essential, but not until you have nailed the positioning and strategy. I know what you’re thinking, I’m biased (we are a company specializing in building corporate brands). Why would I suggest considering using a different term? Bottom line, unless executives are clear on the role and expectations of the project, it  will not yield the desired outcome. Additionally, throughout my career I’ve had to re-educate corporations and re-train executives on the realistic expectations of today’s best branding practices. So, it begs the question — What can we do about it?

Change the Vocabulary to Change the Perception
If your organization has had a bad branding experience or is confused about the expectations, you might want to think about changing a few words to help clarify and align expectations. First of all, start talking business. Instead of employing broad use of the term “BRANDING”, think about breaking it into a few specific deliverables to help your executives divorce execution from strategy. This will help you and your executives to focus on the strategy without being influenced by color, images or snappy taglines in the strategy phase. Here’s a couple of tips:

Corporate Positioning vs. Branding
One potential solution to help eliminate confusion and help executives focus on developing the right long-term positioning is to label your project what it is — a Corporate Positioning exercise. By changing the language to a strategic business dialog, you’re better equipped to have the team focus on things such as market research, customer perceptions, competitive positions and a Corporate Positioning Statement. This example removes the confusion of mixing creative elements to distract from pure positioning. You get the point.

Messaging or Reputation Strategy vs. Branding
Another term we’ve seen used is MESSAGING or REPUTATION vs. Branding. Once again, this will eliminate any confusion around having the identity or creative influence true position at this stage of the process.

Lastly and most importantly — the whole premise behind changing the terminology is to focus executives on making strategic business decisions based on true positioning factors instead of being influenced with shiny creative objects. That said, please don’t take this to diminish the role or importance of brilliant creative. It’s just the opposite. Diligent and insightful positioning produces break-through creative. Just ask any notable Creative Director. The main point we want to emphasize is that in order to build a notable, competitive and admired brand in today’s marketplace, you’ve got to get the positioning right. Only then can you build the creative and communication to differentiate in the market (worthy of another post).

So if your company has brand fatigue or is confused about the role and terminology, try switching up the language — speak to the goals of your business to best focus your company on the opportunities at hand.