Posted by: kwbrand | March 28, 2008

Branding is a Relationship


I wear big silver hoop earrings all the time.

smiling shot

There is something about those silver hoops that keeps me coming back. I think it’s because they’re funky and feel hip to me and, if I’m honest, that’s probably not the only thing. When I was a teenager, my father, a physician, prohibited me from wearing hoops because he’d seen one too many young woman whose hoops had accidentally gotten caught and ripped through her earlobe. As a good dad, he was trying to protect me. I obeyed his rule at the time, but always thought it was a risk I’d be willing to take. Now, as an adult and as something of the family black sheep and an enduringly obstinate person, I suppose it gives me a certain naughty thrill to put on my giant hoops knowing that I’m breaking an old rule.

So, in a weird way, my silver hoops are an expression of a complicated personal response—they represent both the role I typically play in the family and a foible of my personality. Are they the whole of me? No, but they are a small expression. They’re also a small expression of what I look for in other people. I tend to be drawn to people who I sense are a little stubborn, a little wicked. Like naughty ducks of a feather, we like each other, we “get” each other.

When people think of a “brand,” I have learned that they typically think of the trappings of a brand such as the logo, the corporate colors, the tagline or jingle. Indeed those elements are an important part of conveying the brand—they are the silver hoop earrings—but they are not the brand.

So what, really, is a brand? A brand is an expression of a relationship and that’s why they’re so complicated. Relationships, with self, with others, with community and with competitors, are inherently human, emotional, organic and really, super-freaking complicated. [If you don’t think of relationships as complicated, hearken back to your last family holiday; what were the issues? The baggage? The family pet peeves? What about the power struggles and relational politics? See? Complicated.]

Now, think of the last time you developed a new friendship. What was it about that person that appealed to you? When did you know that the person scored high on the “friend-O-meter?” Were there certain words they said that you also use? Were there ways they expressed their values that indicated that you had values in common? Did they laugh at the same jokes? Did they tell jokes that made you laugh? What did you admire about them? Did being together make you feel good about yourself? These are all important elements of early relationship building. In the case of a new friendship, the players in the equation are you and the new friend…and perhaps the other people in the room with whom you did not feel a quick affinity.

Just imagine that in that friendship scenario, you are not just you the individual, but you, the organization. Now it’s your job to proactively develop relationships. Your survival as an organization cannot passively assume new friends will just walk in and introduce themselves; you have to get out there first. So, organizational brand development begins with thinking about things like how your history, values, beliefs and goals influence the way you like to interact with people. How do all of those things come together in a way that is naturally attractive to other people (i.e. customers) who share those values or perspectives? How do you project and present yourself so those like-minded people will find you and want to get to know you? Once you meet, how will you deepen your friendship, get to know and “be there” for your new friend? How will you know what they want from your relationship with them (hint: ask). And, how do you develop the relationship so that when they meet other people, they are less inclined to dump you as a friend and start another relationship with someone else?

Brand development is fundamentally relationship development long before it is a function of creative design or interesting ad campaigns. The creative piece is important, but, like my silver hoop earrings, the creative needs to be pretty AND purposeful. It needs to serve as an attractive, compelling, and symbolic expression of who you are and how you want to relate to people. Without a good understanding of the relationship dynamics, creative elements are just window dressing—silver hoops on a blank-eyed, mute mannequin with all the personality of a damp tissue.

Good brand research will identify the many complicated dynamics that make you and your customer friends tick and will steer creative design so that the subsequent creative expression is an apt metaphor for those values. Or in other words, good brand development brings that blank-eyed mannequin to life and frees its wacky passion so it can run around yelling: “It lives, it Liiii-VES!”…and then it helps it find other whack-jobs who find that kind of thing funny.

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation

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