Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Branding — So Easy It’s Hard

A one-word brand: Credibility

A one-word brand: Credibility

Yesterday, I wrote that our personal brands mainly consist of what others say about us when we’re not around. I also suggested that the sum of what others say about us is usually 25 words or less.

So branding should be easy, right? How hard can it be? I can usually dash off 25 words in less than a minute. So why is branding so hard to get right?

Let’s not forget what George Bernard Shaw wrote in a long letter to a friend. At the end of the letter, Shaw noted, “Forgive me for writing such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short letter.”

The simple (and often unobserved) truth is that writing short is a lot harder than writing long. You need to agonize over what stays in and what doesn’t. The shorter the message, the harder the task.

Writing a message that differentiates you in 25 words or less takes a lot of discipline. I could talk about myself for hours (which is a perfect way to spoil a date). But writing 50 words ensures that you’ll fail. If the message doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stick. None of it.

One way to think about this is to identify the minimum message necessary to get in the door. I worked for B2B software companies. We could say a lot about our product’s features and functions. But what did it take to get in the door to see a decision maker? Ultimately, we decided that it was one word: simplicity. We offered simple solutions. Our competitors offered complex solutions. That was often enough to get us in the door. Once we were in, we could tell the rest of the story.

Similarly, what’s the minimum message necessary to get a prospective car buyer through the showroom door? In Volvo’s case, it’s a single word: safety. There’s a lot you can say about a Volvo but Volvo employees wait until you’re in the showroom to say it. I know exactly why I would go (or not go) to a Volvo showroom. It’s because I’m interested (or not) in a safe car. I self-select.

On the other hand, I’m not sure why I would go to, say, a Lincoln showroom. Lincoln just isn’t a clearly defined brand in my mind. Perhaps they’ve said too much.

Similarly, Bill Clinton often says too much. In 1992, his goal was to get votes (similar to getting in the door). But he talked so much he continually muddled his message. Finally, James Carville taught him that, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Carville also said, “If you say three things, you’ve said nothing.” With Carville providing the discipline, Clinton clarified his brand and won the election.

The essence of branding is knowing what to leave out. We’re always tempted to say too much. That muddies the water. To keep the water clear, say less and say it consistently. I’ve said enough.

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