The phrase “We need to stay on message, we need to stay on brand” is quite common in corporate America.
But in order to stay “on brand,” you need to have extreme clarity around what your brand is and what it stands for—and this goes for both corporate brands as well as personal brands.
Seth Godin’s definition of a brand comes to mind here: “A brand is a set of expectations, memories, stories, and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” The art of staying “on brand” is then the company’s ability to continue reinforcing and nurturing those feelings and impressions within their target customers, while simultaneously being aware of what their customers’ perceptions are of them and their actions.
Oftentimes, there is a disconnect between what companies think their brand is and what their customers think their brand is. For example, Facebook probably believes its mission is to bring people closer together, which is true. But at the same time, many people believe that Facebook is a company on a mission to vacuum up as much data about their users as possible—and further, is willing to sell that data by any means necessary. As a result, for some, there is a disconnect between what Facebook wants their brand to mean and their actions.
Staying “on brand” is a lot more difficult than just making sure your press releases touch on a few buzzy keywords, or your marketing materials don’t stretch too far in any one direction.
Here are three steps you can take to make sure your brand is clearly defined, and you are always being honest with your customers.
1. Have honest conversations about what your brand really is—internally with your employees, and externally with your customers.
Writing a mission statement or a list of core values is only the beginning.
What customers have to say about your brand and business matters far more than what your executive team or managers believe.
Facebook is a perfect example of this. Internally, I’m sure Facebook has dozens and dozens of conversations about what the Facebook brand stands for—and yet, the negative shadow looming around the company right now is massive. Users don’t trust the platform. Users are asking for transparency, and not receiving very much information in return. This is a brand that once stood for community, connectivity, and friendship on the internet. Yet, over the past five years, the brand has become synonymous with election tampering, data rights violations, and more. At this point, it doesn’t matter what Facebook says they are. The public believes differently.
2. Understand how your values need to be communicated through your brand.
Staying “on brand” is just another way of saying “staying true to your core values.”
Another poignant example here would be Robinhood, the mobile-first trading platform that was all over the news recently for its involvement in the “Gamestop frenzy.”
For years, Robinhood has stated its mission to “democratize finance for all.” Yet, when a Reddit forum of retail traders found themselves on the right side of a short squeeze against a handful of hedge funds, Robinhood pulled the plug at the height of the trading frenzy. In an instant, retail traders were locked out of buying additional shares of $GME, while hedge funds could continue trading undisturbed.
Since then, news article after news article has been published highlighting the gap between what Robinhood says it stands for as a brand, and what its actions say about its business. And despite raising several more billion dollars pre-IPO, there are doubts if the platform has its users’ best interests in mind.
In today’s day and age, it’s not enough to “say” what you stand for.
Customers decide what you stand for based on your actions.
3. Do everything possible to ensure your actions accurately reflect your brand’s mission and values.
Brand consistency is not the same as staying true to your brand.
Brand consistency means making sure employees and partners are using the right version of the logo, for example, or staying true to brand guidelines.
But what makes someone recognize a brand (and ultimately make a purchasing decision because of it) isn’t just brand consistency in terms of assets, but consistency in terms of trust with customers in the marketplace. Take Pampers, for example. Decades have gone by and the brand is still the same. The branding elements have changed (colors, fonts, etc.), but what the brand stands for and the trust it has built with its customers has remained the same. Same thing with Apple. Everyone recognizes the Apple logo, as an asset, but customers are also able to recognize the qualities Apple has proven it stands for: being able to surprise and delight its customers.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that actions always speak louder than words.
Companies can put out as many messages as they want about what their brand stands for. But at the end of the day, it is the customers who define your brand’s meaning. And the only way to ensure your customers are talking about your brand the way you want them to is by doing the above: having honest conversations about what you stand for, ensuring your values are actively being communicated, and doing everything possible to listen and make sure customers are seeing how your actions reflect your brand’s mission and core values.
That’s how you stay “on brand.”