By far the biggest error I see my CEO and entrepreneur clients making when it comes to branding is downplaying the importance of cultivating an engaging brand culture. I hear every excuse in the book from, “that doesn’t apply to my customers/industry,” to “I already have a culture because I have a Facebook page/store front,” and, my personal favorite, “I don’t buy into corporate culture so why should I create one?” Which is a joke because yes you do. We all do, which is why all of the excuses are just obstacles to successful branding. The sooner you can shake them, the sooner you can sprint ahead of your industry’s peloton and into the lead position.
Creating a unique and compelling brand culture takes a little creativity and a lot of confidence. It isn’t something that happens overnight but there are a few steps you can take right now to get started: stop pretending it isn’t real, create your unique “How of the It,” design a virtual community, and develop a long-term relationship strategy.
Stop Pretending it isn’t Real
No really, just stop. In the style of R.E.M’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It let me just offer you this: Starbucks app, T.V. out, YouTube in, print ads drop, blogging up, corporate image glass wall shattered, @NY Times 20.3M+ followers. It’s the end of old marketing as we know it…it’s the end of old communicating as we know it…. it’s the end of
“branding is just packaging” as we know it….don’t get left behinnnnnd. Sorry to subject you to that, but that’s what you get if you’re still pretending that creating a brand culture that your customers want to engage with isn’t important. Let’s pull ourselves together now and get real.
Create Your Unique “How of the It”
This is a term coined by the brilliant brand strategy guru, Sasha Strauss. (If you're reading this Sasha- you're my hero because you are the only other person I've seen get animated enough to break a sweat when talking about branding. Thank you for making my passion "normal.") His philosophy is essentially this: Your products and services are grounded in a topic that you share with your clients and customers, so create a belief system around it that your clients can get excited about, celebrate, share with others, align with, be inspired by, and participate in. Because that’s what culture is, right? The shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterize an organization and its consumers. There are over seven billion people on the planet; your customers have almost unlimited options when it comes to getting their needs met. You need to give them something, some authentic reason to choose and align with you, or your company is just more “biggest, fastest, strongest, cheapest” white noise.
Design a Virtual Community
This is something we really dig deep into when we create a brandbook, but for now, try sketching out on paper the “look and feel” of your brand. What do your consumers see, feel, and experience when they engage your brand? If your brand was a place, what could people do when they were there? How can they engage with other community members? What’s the vibe? What message do they walk away with? Use colored pens, magazine pictures, phrases, smells, songs, or whatever creative elements you need to create your brand visual. The more “real” this visual becomes, the easier it will be for you to translate it into a virtual experience. When I did this for Lushy Llama, I designed the Llama Cabana, a pristine open-air cabana at a high-end Hawaiian beach resort. I wanted my clients to feel like they could leave the stresses of entrepreneurship at the door and find inspiration, support, solutions, and maybe even a few cocktail ideas and laughs in a casual and relaxing environment. I created different rooms for my blog, services, speaking and workshops, social media, and merchandising, each with it’s own twist on the overall feeling of the cabana. This desired experience then influenced how I designed my website, social media strategy, blog content and even my vocabulary, work attire and presentation style. The result is a distinctive Lushy Llama experience, and, while it may turn off some potential clients that prefer a sterile and Harvard-esque approach, it strongly resonates with my ideal clients and gives them a place to connect with other like-minded entrepreneurs (no corporate stuffy-stuffies allowed in the Llama Cabana). Don’t worry about appealing to everyone. Gigantic companies with limitless budgets like McDonalds or Pepsi don’t even try to do that. Find your ideal clients and create a community that is meaningful to them, otherwise you may as well change your brand name to “Company 22468,” because that’s what you will be to your customers.
Develop a Long-Term Relationship Strategy
Your customers are looking for a relationship, not a one-and-done transaction. Connecting with your business at this level allows them to simplify the constant barrage of marketing coming at them non-stop. Once you engage them you have the opportunity to become their go-to solution for the common topic you share, but to keep that position you need to engage them in a meaningful and service-centered way. To do this, first determine the end point you want to take your customers to, in other words, what is the “full buy-in” position in your community? Are they engaged in all of your social media? Do they come to events? Read your blog religiously? More importantly, what have they learned from you and what can they be, do, or have because of their interactions with your company? Then determine where they enter your community, not just literally like through your blog or at an event, but what needs they have that bring them to you in the first place. Now create a strategy that brings them along that path by serving them with what they need and enjoy at every touch point. In other words, you are the expert; be the source your customers can come to know, like, and trust by demonstrating that you understand where they are, what their struggles are, and that you are the best brand to take them to the place they want to be. Create touch points that allow you to provide valuable information along with something to strive for, celebrate, enjoy, reflect on, and look forward to. This is infinitely more valuable to your customers than a coupon for a single transaction.
Warning: Do Try This at Work Or You'll Get Left Behind
While this post is by no means a comprehensive guide to creating a compelling brand culture, it is a fabulous start and a call to action for you to stop pretending that brand culture isn’t for your customers and to do something about it. If you’re inspired but still a little stuck, take a brand culture field trip and look at some of the experiences you enjoy that you may not even realize you are a part of. For example, what’s your favorite clothing, coffee, tea, car, body-product brand? How do they engage with you? What is their vibe? How do you recognize other brand loyalists? Do you know, like, and trust them? How did they reach that relationship level with you? Have your executive team do the same and talk about what you discovered, liked, and disliked about these brands and your relationships with them. Talk to your customers, friends, and family about the culture you want to create, and really listen to what they have to say. Most importantly, just do something. Create the best culture you can envision now, listen to the feedback you get, and tweak it along the way. Break away from the peloton and your identity as Company 22468. I know it’s scary but I promise you won’t ever want to look back.
Blog title photo taken by Daniel Nanescu of Splitshire.com
Companies with awesome culture:
Volkswagen (they will survive their recent bad press because their culture is so good)