Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Personal Branding In The Social Media Age

Rock climbing, biking, or violent crime?

How’s my brand?

When I was a teenager, my mother urged me to dress nicely because, “you do want to make a good impression, don’t you?” She even taught me how to iron my clothes so I could make a neatly pressed impression. (In fact, “pressing” clothes and making an “impression” derive from the same root). I remember asking her, “If it’s so important to make a good impression, why don’t you iron my clothes?” She answered with a smile: “It’s not that important”.

Mom also told me (repeatedly) that “you have only one chance to make a first impression.” She didn’t know it but she was speaking the language of personal branding. I’m often asked what personal branding means and I simply shrug and say, “it’s the impression you make”. We all make an impression on others, whether we intend to or not, and that impression is essentially our brand.

Another popular definition is that your personal brand is what other people say about you when you’re not around. Actually, I would distinguish between two different commentaries. When you’re not around, people can talk about what you do or who you are. The what-you-do stories are often interesting (“Did you hear what Travis did?”) but they’re not really your brand. Your brand consists of the who-you-are comments.

While the what-you-do stories can be lengthy, the who-you-are commentaries are usually quite brief – typically, 25 words or less. So your brand consists of the roughly 25 words that people speak about you when you’re not around. (This is a pretty good definition of a corporate brand as well).

If you care about your brand (some people don’t), you need to think about how to get the right words in place. My mother called it making an impression; today we call it managing your brand. But, really it’s the same thing. How do you get people to think of you in the way you want to be thought of?

One big difference between my mom’s era and today is the arrival of social media. In my mom’s day, making an impression typically meant meeting somebody face-to-face. Or it might have meant a good cover letter and resumé. (Mom was a great copy editor). Either way, it was personal.

Today, it’s not so personal. I can make a first impression on someone I’ve never met and never even heard of. Recruiters might look me up on LinkedIn. Friends of friends might see my Facebook page. Indeed, I hope that lots of people I don’t know will come to my website.

The other big difference from my mom’s era is the economy. My mother grew up in a manufacturing economy, where your skills were important. We’re now in a service economy, where your personality is important. As Tony Tulathimutte points out in The New Yorker, “Success in a service job … often involves getting people to see you as competent and likeable. … Now that what we have to offer in the service economy is ourselves, the rules of branding apply to us.”

So how do you make a good first impression these days? Think about the 25 words you want people to say about you and then work backwards. If you want people to say you’re intelligent, you better learn to write (and spell) well. If you want people to say you’re a good manager, then highlight your management expertise. As my mother used to say, “just remember to put your best foot forward”. Oh, and learn how to iron

Does Poverty Cause Poverty?

Where can I buy 13 IQ points?

Which of the following propositions is more likely correct?

  1. People make bad decisions and, partially as a result, become poor.
  2. People who are poor make bad decisions and, partially as a result, stay poor.

If you had asked me about this a week ago, I’m not sure which proposition I would have chosen. But then I read, “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” by Anandi Mani et. al. in the August 30th edition of Science. The editorial summary is simple and striking: “Lacking money or time can lead one to make poorer decisions, possibly because poverty imposes a cognitive load that saps attention and reduces effort.”

The authors conducted two parallel studies. One was essentially a laboratory study conducted with people in New Jersey. The other was a field study conducted among Indian sugarcane farmers.

In the New Jersey study, participants were asked to consider various financial problems that might arise in their personal lives. They were then asked to describe how they would reason through a solution. At the same time (or immediately after) they were given tests of cognitive function. The tests measured fluid intelligence – “the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations…”.

The researchers correlated family income to cognitive performance. They also repeated the tests under different conditions to control for extraneous factors such as math anxiety. The general conclusion was clear: “The poor performed worse than the rich overall.”

In India, the researchers used a “natural experiment” – sugarcane farmers are poor before their annual harvest and rich afterwards. (The participants earned at least 60% of their income from sugarcane). The researchers administered cognitive function tests both pre- and post-harvest. The results were quite similar to the New Jersey tests: the farmers performed significantly better after the harvest than before. (Again, the researchers performed a number of statistical manipulations to control for extraneous variables, such as anxiety and nutrition).

What’s it all mean? The authors sum it up nicely: “Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. … The findings are not about poor people but about any people who find themselves poor.”

How much cognitive load does poverty impose? The authors compare their findings with other research on cognitive loads. They conclude that the deficits they measured were roughly equivalent to the cognitive deficit imposed by missing an entire night’s sleep — roughly 13 IQ points. Think about staying up all night and then trying to make complicated decisions. Your ability to make good decisions would probably suffer significantly. That’s essentially the same load that poverty imposes.

The authors conclude by discussing various policy implications. I think there are branding implications here as well. “Poor people” have a brand just like Republicans or Democrats or college professors have distinct brands. To some observers, of course, the “poor brand” is largely negative. It may just be time to take studies like these and begin re-branding what it means to be poor.

Branding: Search, Experience, and Credence

She can influence experience goods.

She can influence experience goods.

As you think about branding, it’s useful to think about your goods (products or services) in one of three categories: search goods, experience goods, or credence goods.

Search goods are products whose “fitness” you can judge simply by looking at them. You can look at (and perhaps feel) an apple to tell whether it’s ripe and fit for purchase. With search goods, you can assess both the price and the value before you purchase it. Is it sturdy enough? Ripe enough? The right size? The right color? The right price?

Search goods typically are products rather than services and they’re more likely to attract price competition and substitution. If you can evaluate products simply by looking at them, you can fairly easily decide if you want to substitute one for another.

If you’re the price leader in a search good category, you’ll probably want to brand around your pricing. If you’re not the price leader, you’ll want to brand around other attributes, including secondary attributes. You may want to brand around the channel (“convenient, easy-to-find”) or the source (“a manufacturer you can trust”), longevity (“since 1916”) or geography (“Made in Boulder by Boulderians”). Packaging is also an important element in branding a search good. You want the packaging to stand out during the search.

Experience goods need to be experienced to understand how well they fit your needs. A bottle of wine is a good example – you can’t tell how good it is just by looking at it. You can identify the price but not the value. With an experience good — much more than a search good — you may assume that the price indicates the value.

You can only ascertain the value by consuming (experiencing) the product which, of course, happens well after the purchase decision. For this reason, experience goods typically have less price competition and elasticity. Indeed, a low price may be a subtle signal that there is something wrong with the product or service.

Branding an experience good often depends on reputation and word-of-mouth. People who have already consumed the product can provide useful testimony to those who are considering the purchase. This only works, of course, if the previous consumers are credible. Longevity may also play a role as potential consumers may assume that a well-established, long-lived brand offers more value than an upstart.

With credence goods, you can’t judge the value even after consuming the product or service. What’s the real value of your college degree? How successful was your hip surgery? Was it worth the price? Would it have been more successful if performed by another surgeon?

There’s no basis for comparison with credence goods. In some ways, they’re faith-based products. You need to trust your supplier. As The Economist points out, the more credulous you are, the more likely you are to be overtreated or overcharged.

In branding a credence good, previous consumers can be important but only up to a point. They can’t accurately judge value either. Let’s say a patient had the same surgery you’re considering and says he had good results with Dr. X. But how would he know if he might have had better results with Dr. Y? There’s a limit to the witness’s credibility.

For this reason, marketers of credence goods often add third-party ratings agencies (or government institutes) into their branding mix. If a neutral board of evaluators gives Dr. X a grade of 95% and Dr. Y a grade of only 94%, that’s a powerful brand differentiator for Dr. X. Note that this is true even if the differences (95% versus 94%) are small or if the rating scale doesn’t really measure what the consumer thinks it does. Most consumers rarely investigate the inner workings of third-party evaluations. A wise consumer evaluates the evaluator.

(I adapted this from Kevin Lane Keller’s excellent textbook, Strategic Brand Management).

Branding Versus Marketing

Consistent, Differentiable, Fits the Space Available

Consistent, Differentiable, Fits the Space Available

I teach a course on branding so I’m often asked to define the difference between branding and marketing. I usually have a fairly long-winded answer and I’ve noticed that the person who asked the question often leaves the conversation with a puzzled look.

Since I’m about to teach the course again, I thought I would do a web search to find a pithier answer. I wanted a simple mantra to cut through the clutter. Unfortunately, the search only added to the confusion.

Many of the sources I consulted confused marketing with selling. I’ve always thought that there were at least two parts to marketing:

  • Understanding market dynamics, identifying underserved segments within markets, and developing products or services that people or companies in those segments will want to buy.
  • Once you have the product/service offering, effectively communicating its benefits (of the “whole product” not just what’s in the box) to the target market to make it an appealing purchase.

I’ve always thought of marketing as a “pull” operation while sales is a “push” process. With effective marketing, you create products that people want and pull them in. Here’s how Theodore Levitt put it in his classic article, “Marketing Myopia”:

Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert the product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering, and, finally, consuming it.

All too often, the sources I found on the web (for instance, here and here and here) focused on the “second half” of marketing. They effectively define marketing as an adjunct to sales, perhaps even a support service to sales. In my humble opinion, that’s far too narrow a definition of marketing.

So, if marketing is about identifying customer needs and satisfying them, what is branding about? It’s the process of planting a consistent, compelling, and differentiable image in the customer’s mind. You want to occupy a position in the customer’s brain. The customer’s brain is probably pretty full already so she’s not going to give you much room for your position. You need to keep it simple and consistent.

This definition is essentially the customer-based brand equity (CBBE) model pioneered by Kevin Lane Keller at Dartmouth. In short, CBBE suggests that it doesn’t matter what the brand owner thinks, it only matters what the customer thinks. The value of the brand lies in the customer’s mind. The process of branding is putting appealing, differentiable images into the customer’s mind that will fit the (small) space available.

Is there a simple, pithy way to summarize all this? Here’s the best I can do. Marketing is the process of developing products that people actually want to buy and communicating the whole product benefits. Branding is the process of putting an idea in someone else’s head. Marketing is what you do. Branding is what you are.

News Is No Longer Newsworthy

email at signMy how times have changed. We used to send newsletters to our customers and prospects. Back in the day, these were actually printed on paper and distributed via snail mail. Then we started sending out email newsletters; they were nicely designed and tried to capitalize on the news of the day. Then news and content aggregators came along, and people could find their own news, thank you very much.

So how do you get your news across in today’s accelerated news cycles and shortened attention spans? A lot of it has to do with the subject line strategy. A good subject line can increase open rates and click rates. A poor strategy can consign your news to the virtual wastebasket.

What makes for a good subject line? Adestra, a British digital marketing agency has just published a study on subject lines that boost or depress readership. Adestra surveyed hundreds of different words in 90,000 campaigns and analyzed how those words affected open rates, click rates, and unsubscribe rates. The word “newsletter”, for instance, marginally increases the open rates but seriously suppresses the click rate and increases the unsubscribe rate.

The word “newsletter” simply describes what’s in the email. It’s all about content. Other content words, including “report”, “learn”, and “book” all suppress both open and click rates. Apparently, people are tired of just reading stuff. On the other hand, words like “alert”, “daily”, and “weekly” tend to increase open and click rates. I was surprised at “daily” and “weekly” – they seem like passive words to me. But Adestra argues that “…customers begin to expect your emails … and get into the habit of reading them.”

We all know that people like to save money but different ways of saving produce different results. For instance, the words “sale” or “save” have a modestly positive impact on open and click rates. The term “free delivery”, on the other hand, has a much more pronounced positive impact.

Interestingly, many terms used as calls to action suppress rather than boost open rates. Words like “get”, “register”, “subscribe”, and “don’t miss” all suppress open rates. On the other hand, words like “breaking”, “alert” and “update” tend to boost readership.

Some email campaigns have used “fwd:” and “re:” to try to convince readers that the message relates to a previous thread or is being passed along by a colleague. Both, however, moderately suppress open and click rates and dramatically increase unsubscribe rates. Recipients apparently feel tricked and quickly unsubscribe.

The Adestra report compares effective and ineffective words in B2B, B2C, retail, and charity campaigns. Refer to the report to find your type of business. But remember that these trends can change quickly. Best practice still calls for split testing: divide your campaign into random subsets and use different subject lines on each. You’ll soon discover which ones work best for you.

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