—Ellen Sluder, Director at CoreBrand, LLC
Working in the brand strategy industry for the past eight years has irrevocably changed the way I view the world. It is nearly impossible for me to hear a company name, see their logo, or view their marketing messages without a critical eye. But I never really imagined the extent to which branding would infiltrate my life until my first child was born 18 months ago.
It quickly became apparent that the fundamentals that hold true in building brands not only translate directly into “building” yourself as a parent and a co-parent, but are critical for success in keeping your sanity on this crazy and fascinating journey. Here are seven things branding has taught me about parenting.
1. Define and communicate your values. The most successful leadership teams always take the time to clearly define the vision for the organization, build a strategy to get there, and publicly reinforce the plan frequently. The best companies embed these values throughout their business processes, culture and communications.
Because my husband and I see the world so similarly, it was easy to take for granted the notion that we would approach parenting in the same way. Then came a few tense I-would-have-done-that-differently moments where it was no longer me and him unified against the problem/issue, but rather temporarily pitted against each other. This is never good in the heat of the sleep-deprived moment and so it became clear that we needed to articulate and agree to our combined parenting strategy. It felt a little awkward to verbalize at first, but now we have an agreed upon vision from which to prioritize household activities and teach our daughter life lessons. And, knowing we are truly operating from the same core builds trust when the other is absent.
2. Be consistent. If conflicting messages about an organization are spread, confusion arises in the minds of target audiences. No one knows what you stand for, credibility is lost and the brand is weakened.
As we start to see the beginnings of the terrible twos setting in, this lesson could not be more important. The persistence of a young child when she wants something she can’t have is unmatched in any other scenario I have ever encountered. Handing over yet another cookie sometimes seems like a small price to pay for some peace and quiet. But if no sometimes means maybe or eventually yes, I will become known for being a pushover and my credibility as a parent will erode. She will not understand when no really means no, which might ultimately be dangerous. The answer isn’t to stick to your guns no matter what, but rather to try to have the foresight to find those messages that you can stick to. I try to remember to not just say an automatic “no” but to pick my battles. Is it really going to ruin her to have another spoonful of ice cream? Better to give a reluctant yes upfront than change my message half way through.
3. Naming is hard. Countless times clients have approached me with corporate naming issues only after they have tried and failed to come up with a name on their own. When you attempt to build a name without an underlying strategy against which to vet options, naming becomes an extremely subjective exercise. When the decision is left solely to personal opinion, consensus is rarely achieved easily. An objective framework is needed to generate and evaluate names from a business-strategy/non-personal perspective.
I knew all of this going into the naming process. Even though a child’s name can arguably be more subjective than a corporate name, instead of talking about what we liked or disliked, my husband and I first talked about criteria. We wanted the name to be common, but not popular. We wanted people to be able to easily spell it based on hearing it. We wanted it to have many nickname options. And, if possible, the ideal name would have some kind of family connection. We each added names to a master list and then crossed them off based on meeting our criteria. We ended up with 5 options and ultimately decided on Henrietta – the Americanized version of Hendrika, a family name from my mom’s Dutch heritage. Everyone’s heard the name, but few actually have it — the highest peak of popularity was in 1892 when it reached the 105th most popular girls name. At home, she’s Hennie. At daycare she’s Etta. All this figured out without one hurt feeling between us.
4. Engagement is critical to success (Also known as: speak in the language of your target audience). Time and time again companies claim that their most valuable asset is their employees, yet they fail to involve them in a meaningful way that advances the corporate vision. Brands rarely fail because of poor strategy; they most often fail because of poor execution. It is crucial that employee behavior aligns with the firm’s business and brand strategy – but just telling them what the new brand is won’t suffice. You have to frame it in a way that has meaning to them and they can fully understand their role in bringing it to life.
My ultimate goal as a parent is to teach my daughter how to navigate the world on her own. If I just tell her what to do in every scenario, when faced with a new challenge, she may not have the skills to unlock an answer. It is important to teach her not what to do, but how to think about it. In order to engage Henrietta, the messages must be relevant to her. I have to use words and analogies that make sense to her and teach her why it’s important, and what her expected role is. Without context, only the words remain remembered, not the underlying moral.
5. Don’t get too caught up in what the competition is doing. Understanding the competitive landscape is an important part of building differentiation. But often companies can become too obsessed with what the other players are doing and it becomes a game of frenetic one-upmanship that results in a plethora of me-too strategies. This often ends in the collapse of a brand for spreading itself too thin trying to be all things to all people.
With parenting, the goal isn’t necessarily differentiation – but a lesson can still be learned. Competition between parents – especially new mothers – can be intense. With so many places to hear about other people’s parenting strategies – at the playground, online, in reference books, at mom’s groups, between friends – it is quite easy to suddenly be measuring success not against your own goals or even your own baby’s progress, but instead look at other kids as a yard stick. One of the wisest pieces of advice I remember hearing was “Statistically, your child is most likely to turn out average.” I also remember someone pointing out that if there was a “right way” to parent your child, there wouldn’t be whole sections of bookstores devoted to the topic. Everyone has an opinion, but what really matters is going back to lesson #1 – grounding yourself in your own values and measuring success based on how you – and not your neighbor – define it.
6. Success is a balance of art and science. The most successful companies understand the importance of both the thought behind the brand and the visual and verbal expression of that strategy. Branding is art therapy for companies. They come to a brand consultancy with their problems – most often with growing revenue – and we use words and pictures to help ease their issues. Great strategy alone will not deliver results and great creative is rarely made without a solid strategy behind it. Both are critical ingredients to a healthy brand.
The same is true for a healthy and happy child. Yes, my role is to teach her about the world. But an important part of my job is also about encouraging creativity and exploring and just having fun. Parenting can’t be all about strategy and rules and learning. Sometimes you just have to pick up the paintbrush, too.
7. Let go and trust. For all of the planning that a company does to build its brand, there comes a point when they must trust in the brand guidelines and resources and the engagement of their employees and let go. Although the fundamentals of each brand’s core should stay consistent, the brand should also have flexibility built into it to allow for individual freedom and expression. Too much control and oversight and tight fisting of the brand can sometimes hinder its ability to adapt to market conditions and thrive.
The same goes for parenting – ultimately you have to trust that you’ve done a good job, laid a good moral foundation and let go.
Of course, I can wait until she’s 35 to do this, right?