It never ceases to astonish me that even while ostensibly ‘rebranding’, businesses and organizations still get caught up in generalized branding and marketing efforts.
Far too often I meet with companies who have thrown good money after bad trying to differentiate, only to do nothing of the sort. A new identity, new advertising, new website, social media – they’re all just tools in the communications toolbox: some useful, some not, for that particular business. And none will be as effective as they should without a strong, sustainable brand – one that really knows and understands what it is, what it stands for, genuinely cares about what its audiences care about, knows who those audiences are – really, genuinely understands their competitors’ strengths and weaknesses, can truly differentiate, and can live up to their promises for the long-term.
Like great buildings that stand the test of time, successful brands are built on a solid foundation and a clear vision of what that will look like and how it will function down the road. Whether built in stages or all at once is irrelevant – as long as those things are front-of-mind, managed, and driving all marketing and communication decisions. Too often they’re not.
A little tirade born of a recent experience
I admit to being on a bit of a tirade on this topic following onboarding a new client very recently – a strong, ethical company trying to make a difference in an industry with some negative perceptions. They’ve done much to be proud of – without recognizing those connections as their true differentiator. None of them are linked to their core business, and the ‘pros’ guiding them thus far haven’t made that obvious connection either.
The client shared with me two (expensive) corporate marketing and branding documents created recently by a competitive firm. They looked and sounded impressive, redefining vision and mission, proposing a strategy, and talking about brand. Yet within a few brief paragraphs, it was evident that there was no real understanding of brand or differentiation – certainly not of this client. Three ‘rebrands’ and three un-trademark-able logos later, the analysis and recommendations were just advocating a seen-it-before rebrand of a different kind. The documents missed the boat and the client would have spent much of its hard-earned profits with a new look and direction, but the same old results. We’re starting over, but it’s frustrating for me on behalf of my client, whose words to me were, “I wish we’d spoken two years ago.”
‘Been done’, seen-it-before branding/marketing efforts are, in a large part, constructs of professional toolmakers
Designers, copywriters, content writers, digital marketing specialists, suits, web developers, and PR folks may be great at what they do, but that’s not branding. They work in silos, independently developing their tool(s), each trying to put their unique mark on their work (with or without outsourced elements) – all without cohesive brand and communication strategies stemming from them. Companies are easily led astray by slick presentations and expert-sounding talk, beyond their core competence. They end up with sharp looking tools and nice words that dilute key messages, confuse the brand, and veer off strategy – if one exists at all. Odds are, they’d make the same recommendations for anyone in that sector: templated, been done, same old thinking, writing, and visuals, dressed with a new name and logo.
Clients need to shoulder some of the blame as well
Clients don’t know what they don’t know (none of us do), and are often easily misled by inexperienced or self-serving consultants. They often mistakenly assume that they know their brand (confusing it with what they do and whom they sell to, an identity, or campaign, or the pitch they’ve been making for years), and are at a loss as to why their efforts are not garnering the results they’d hoped. And they fall prey to habits. When asked, “What makes you different?” they’ll deliver pat answers born of honest belief and years of conditioned responses: “We have the best product”, they say. Or, “Our service is second to none.” Sadly, my response to this is, “prove it.”
Service sectors, including insurance, financial, legal, accounting, engineering, architecture, and health/fitness, are some of the most challenged
Businesses in these sectors may well have unique differences, but as much as they try to be different, they frequently become more of the same. These are saturated markets, where brand differentiation is exceedingly difficult. More than just a new logo, new look, new website, social media (although they may well need all of these – or not), real results for these types of businesses require a new way of looking, thinking, and doing. They need a genuine understanding how to identify, build and sustain their brand.
These businesses are investing heavily in their ‘branding’ and marketing efforts. With what results?
Have you noticed, for instance, that almost as quickly as law firms began to become ‘brand focused’, many began having their websites designed to template by a single entity – with a background in providing generic business cards for those same firms – old habits. Take a screen shot of 10 top firms: can you tell them apart at a glance? Do you remember definitively which was which after reading them?
How about a large financial services company specializing in inventory and receivables loans? They closed a unique deal with a well-known brand, and received approval to leverage it. Instead, they safely chose a standard tombstone ad format, losing their opportunity in a glut of competitive, template-style ads – because that’s the way the industry had always done it. Exactly.
And then there’s the fitness model. Glutted, saturated, with new gyms, trainers, and facilities popping up and others closing at a consistently alarming rate. People fall for the same old spiel, the gyms and trainers make money – particularly in January and the start of bathing suit season, but sustainable? Differentiated? Forget about it. Well, almost. It’s hard to beat a sports marketing education out of an owner, but it can be done. Trust, an ear for education, and a willingness to try something truly different has branded one client for long-term success.
Time to throw a spotlight on ‘been done’ branding/marketing. It’s been done for far too long.