There was a particular manager at the company whose name I’d heard several times, but I had yet to meet. Despite that, I felt like I knew him well, because, whenever his name came up in conversation, the typical reaction I heard was, “He’s a real a$$*#%! h@#!.” After about the fifth time hearing that description, I had begun to develop a very distinct impression about him. Like it or not, he had been branded.
When we think about commercial brands, we tend to think of a name, logo, or slogan … anything that is used to identify and distinguish a specific product, service, or business. But on a more basic level, a brand is an identification mark … like when a rancher or farmer uses a branding iron to mark an animal to indicate ownership. A mark can also be a symbol of disgrace or infamy, as in the Old Testament when “… the Lord set a mark upon Cain” after he killed his brother, Abel. This type of mark is used to stigmatize, condemn, or brand as disgraceful, as in the case of the a$$*#%! h@#! manager.
So a brand is a distinctive identity associated with the product, service, or organization … or in the case of the freelancer—with you. Most companies think their brand is centered around their product or service. But brands are more about the promises you deliver than the products you sell. The promise of value (and the delivery on that promise) is at the heart of it. So true branding is about selling a promise of value.
Making a promise is serious business, and, as in personal life, making too many promises, or changing them frequently, raises uncertainty in the people to whom the promises are made. Making and keeping a promise, and keeping it consistently, can be a powerful source of competitive advantage.¹
Companies can say whatever they want the buying public to believe about their organization, but it’s what they do that will be broadcast, announced, discussed, and judged in the forum of public opinion known as the Internet. Today, consumers are empowered to gather their own information and to form their own opinions and beliefs about your company and its products or services. Yet, many larger organizations remain in denial—unaware that what they think the buying public believes about them isn’t at all what the buying public actually believes.
Want to know what your real brand is? It’s whatever word your client uses to complete the following sentence:
“Oh, [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE] … that’s the person/company who _____________________.”
What would your clients say?
I once sold for a company with an over-zealous telemarketing team. A common response I heard from homeowners after I identified myself was, “Oh … you’re the company who’s constantly calling me and won’t leave me alone.”
Remember how I said that a brand can also be a symbol of disgrace or infamy?
They say marketing is a lot like trying to read the label from inside of the bottle. It’s difficult to know what our clients truly find valuable about doing business with us, and most companies seem afraid to do the one thing it takes to find out. The owners of a small restaurant in Cherryvale, Kansas, always thought their restaurant was unique because it was “the nicest restaurant in town.” But, by surveying their customers, they discovered otherwise:
We were surprised to learn that, instead of being the “nicest” restaurant in our small town, it was known as the “birthday” and “anniversary” place. Why? Because it was the nicest place in town. So now we market it that way, always collecting data from our customers as to when their birthdays and anniversaries are, and sending them cards for a free piece of pie or box of candy when they dine here for their occasion.
As I said earlier, your brand is closely associated with the value you provide to your customers. By simply asking their customers, the owners of this small-town restaurant discovered where their value truly lie—and were able to adjust their marketing message to match it. Determining what your customer values and then delivering on that value is what true branding is all about … regardless of whether it’s a professional or a personal brand.
¹Scott Ward, Larry Light, and Jonathon Goldstine, “What High-Tech Managers Need to Know About Brands,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 1999.