Like most people, I look forward to summer with great anticipation. But amidst the sunny skies and good times there is one thing I dread: BBQ chitchat. I am no wallflower, I just know inevitably it will circle to the question I fear most, “So, what do you do?"

Stuttering, I produce the blandest description, jolting the conversation to a halt. I start with the simple truth, “Branding.” Which generally is met with a blank stare, so I go a little deeper, “I mean, Brand Consulting.” The raised eyebrow forces me to admit defeat: “… uh… marketing?” People politely nod at my conversation killer, turn to my fiancé, and squeal, “Tell me more about being a pilot!”

What I do is challenging, creative and, frankly, really cool. My inability to meaningfully describe it is shameful because I consider myself an expert at helping others succinctly express what they do. Although I’ll take some blame, ultimately I look to the entire branding industry as playing a large role. 

The industry has grown and become more recognized, and it’s also become simultaneously diluted and confusing. “Branding” clearly needs to take a dose of it’s own medicine and rebrand itself.

Telltale Warning Signs

Branding is suffering from the basic ills it is attempting to combat:

·        Unclear positioning,

·        Hazy value proposition,

·        Messaging inconsistency,

·        And, the root of it all: navel-gazing

It’s no wonder books such as Retail Anarchy are railing against marketing and branding as an evil scheme to rip off consumers. People don’t understand Branding. And what they don’t understand they can’t fully access to create streamlined, efficient businesses.

Misunderstood Value

As The Delve Group preaches, when branding is done correctly it’s a sales accelerator. But that doesn’t mean getting volume sales in the short term – it’s about efficiently connecting with the right consumers for you and making long-term buyers of them. 

Brand is also an operations accelerator, helping build a strategy to guide core business decisions such as: hiring, vendor choice, partnerships, and which potential liquidation or exit strategies make the most sense. Your brand strategy IS your business strategy. And Branding needs to revamp it’s own.

Missing Foundational Pieces

Below is a start of what the profession of Branding needs to clear up:

1) Basic Positioning

Most people don’t understand the continuum from branding to marketing to sales. Branding needs to clarify where it stands among alternatives. We need to clearly define audiences, the tasks Branding encompasses, and why it is different from seemingly similar choices.

2) Value Proposition

Branding is often referred to as the how and not the what. It’s described as a name, an identity, a logo, key messages – the tools express a brand. Rarely do I hear people take it to the next step and describe the tangible results and benefits a company derives from having a clear and consistent brand.

3) Brand Architecture

Many entities claim they do “branding” and we need to agree exactly what that means in each context. Strategy consulting, branding agencies, public relations, designers, advertising firms and others all play a role, but it doesn’t make sense to use a blanket term equally. We need to break down the field and put each piece in its place so companies in need can better access the talent they need.

4) Audience Appropriate Messaging

Even with all of the above in place, it means nothing if Branding isn’t understood by target audiences. How many times have you heard the definition of brand as “a promise you make” or “the sum of all touch points that serve to develop a set of expectations”? Huh? When people responsible for Branding go off into academic left field and speak in terms that only have meaning for insiders, it leaves our most important audience (clients) to define what Branding means for themselves. That can lead to trouble when their “set of expectations” are not met.

Regaining Deserved Respect

When all of the above come together, we’ll have the tools we need to develop the perfect elevator pitch response for the BBQ chitchat question. More people will understand Branding’s context, complexity, value, and substantial impact.

I long for the day I hear someone say, “Oh, a pilot. That’s nice… So, Ellen, tell me more about what YOU do!” 

Ellen Sluder, Director of Business Development at Fleet Aviation

  • I think branding has firstly been misconceived in Africa especially. Agencies in Africa believe that a new logo and new corporate materials is a reflection of a new brand. Brand strategy experts in Kenya for example are very few and hence for Africa, branding is already undergoing a re-brand i.e. The move from tactical to strategic branding. Experts like Ken Kariuki and Tom Sitati have led the way in the brand-rebranding in Kenya.

  • Mark Russell

    Branding has the power to win and lose elections. People should be more cognizant of a power that is increasingly playing for higher stakes and to which we are all ultimately susceptible to.

  • I sympathize, but I am not sure we need to rebrand branding (though I would bet thousands of consultants would love to take it on).
    At the inevitable dinner party chit chat question, I simply reply, “I am a brand strategist.” If that is met with an inquisitive stare I add, “I help organizations create a strong brand.” Generally that is met with, “Oh – like logos and stuff?” to which I reply, “Identities are certainly a part of it, but we get involved in almost every aspect of the organization. That’s what it takes to make it work.”
    I’ve practiced this almost as much as my elevator pitch.
    I’ve found that people who understand what brand strategy or think my explanation is cool are great contacts to make at a party. People who think I draw pictures and makes funny ads aren’t really who I want to work for (but we can still have good party conversations).
    By diminishing the scope of what we do to to accommodate everyone goes against good branding, too. People who don’t understand everything that branding influences aren’t likely to be helped if we give them a different word.
    We occupy a creative and misunderstood yet highly influential role. Instead of changing the name of what we do, I would be more interested creating a credibility standard for people who demonstrate the right mix of creativity, strategic business thinking and leadership.

  • James Mahoney

    Hey, Ellen! No kidding? You’re going to marry a pilot?!!
    So…cast your mind back to not-so-long ago when it was cool to be in advertising or design (not that it still isn’t, mind you). Then BRAND became the hot thing, and suddenly everyone with an Adobe program or a freelance writing gig re-branded himself as a Brand Consultant or some other Brand thing. It was very fashionable.
    And it didn’t help much. Almost all the new “brand people” continued to get the same kind of work they did when they were “just” designers and writers. All it really did was more firmly equate “branding” as logo, look and feel, etc., in the minds of most businesspeople. For the civilians, branding was, is, and probably ever shall be a swoosh or a monogram on a product.
    Stephen’s approach is a good one, not least because it’s workable, but also because it takes advantage of the world as it is. If you get a glazed look with “I help organizations create a strong brand,” then the conversation wasn’t likely to go much further in that direction anyway. If instead, you see a spark of interest, then there’s your opportunity to get one more person’s head straight about it all–and maybe pick up a new client.
    And really, if you can clearly and quickly position what you do (and why you’re excited about doing it), what difference does it make that your neighbor’s Uncle Hal doesn’t get it? He just gets lumped in with the 90% of businesses who think their “brand” is just spiffy. It’s the other 10% that understand your value and are willing to pay for it.

  • Ellen Sluder

    Hi everyone – thanks for the thoughtful replies.
    I am very intrigued by the idea of a standard or perhaps even a certification. It could not only help lend credibility to the profession and improve the ability for potential clients to sort the wheat from the chaff, but also raise the profile and reputation of the branding industry to move it away from people who think it is just about “drawing pictures and funny ads.”
    The idea of only concerning ourselves with those who already understand the power of brand seems short sighted, though. A lot of people have not been taught about what branding really is and they’ve been self-taught via snippets of what they see here or there. They don’t fully understand how it’s all around them and influences their lives (e.g. Mark’s comment about how it influences things beyond direct consumerism). If these folks knew, perhaps they could become *great* supporters of brand. They are simply uneducated or mis-educated – and who better to educate than those who actually do the work?
    Some of my best projects are those that end with the client being amazed at how far the branding process has taken them in examining their business strategy. They had some vague sense that they “needed a brand” and then put their trust in me and my colleagues to help them figure it out. They didn’t know exactly what they were getting into – but were helped beyond what they had imagined. And I have had other clients that claim they know branding and “believe in it” but in reality, they can’t face where the research points their brand needs to go strategically and they meddle, dilute it, get fearful, art direct and ultimately end up with something that falls short of it’s potential. And they walk away less impressed with branding than they went into the project with.
    It’s precisely for those who don’t understand brand that I think we need to categorize, define, and promote the value of branding. Otherwise, we will keep traveling in very small “enlightened” circles, when there is so much more potential out there to strengthen brands all around, streamline company operations and communication, and reduce business waste.
    Thanks everyone — keep the comments coming!

  • Living in Metro NYC, telling folks that I’m a branding and marketing strategist and consultant doesn’t get too many blank stares, but often requests for qualification/ clarification. And that makes sense: if you ask 6 branding pros to define branding you’ll likely get 8 answers.
    I enjoy getting quickly into the fact that brands exist only in customers’ minds, and that I help determine how best to express the brand’s personality and core values so consumers can connect and develop a relationship with the brand. I often talk about Jungian archetypes, tribal values, emotional drivers and providing platforms from which people can live their lives.
    I can talk about this stuff all night. Maybe that’s why I don’t get invited back?