A Week in Branding

Hey Loyal Readers (wink),

It has been an interesting week dominated by the concept of “branding”.  Branding as preached by two gurus on the subject.  I don’t know if the trouble is with branding or with gurus, but you can take branding or leave it, or take it with a grain of salt.  Or you can get irritated because you want this special, much-hyped body of knowledge to be made relevant to who you are (if you are an individual in the job market or an innovator with an idea that needs to be heard) or to your business (if you’re a business owner that isn’t quite sure what aspect of your business might conceivably be called a brand).

First, I picked up “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” by Al and Laura Reis.  Al Reis, along with Jack Trout, wrote the marketing classic “Positioning” in the Seventies.  But I didn’t get it for that reason.  I got it because everybody I know who is either in business, marketing, or personal growth says to!  Both texts are similarly strident in tone, and I think that even if the material itself isn’t as flexible (i.e. adaptable) as you might want it to be, it’s packaged in a way that sells books.  You know, “22”, “immutable”, “laws”? Jeez.

Like “Positioning”, this book is written from the sidelines.  It reads like a rant.  These aren’t “laws”, they’re logical arguments that you have to stay with from the beginning to the end.  It’s only a “law” if they can persuade you that there’s no other way to see the problem.  The authors make it plain that the people responsible for these brands didn’t take their advice.  That’s something that stays with the reader.  In “Positioning”, they described how they invented a positioning strategy for the country of Belgium (“Five Amsterdams”) which the country’s Ministry of Tourism turned down.  Sour grapes, perhaps?  When you make a point with an idea that nobody bought but that illustrates your logic perfectly, that just prompts a question;

Who is buying?

And how many options do they have?

Okay, I hoped I’d get some clear directions from this book on how I could build my brand.  As in, “don’t try to establish your brand for Design-product Systems until you have read this book”.  It could very well be that I have a similar set of problems as General Motors with its five original brands (lines) that then became “megabrands”, an idea that Reis states that consumers can’t handle.

So what is the Design-product brand?  What is its focus?  Is Design-product a brand or a company?  These are interesting mental notes to take.  I am aware that I have different pitches for each BSA group meeting I attend.  The basic conception of who I am is the same, but only when I apply it to the specific audience do I discover that I do different things that are relevant to different people.  This alters my message about what I do for them.  I want to be easily understood, but I often confuse people.  They once understood “Marketing Engineer” – or thought they did – and, in any case, were curious to verify their assumptions, just as I was when I sucked it up and threw down the money for Al Reis’s book. 

Branding is easy to specialize in – and champion to the exclusion of everything else.  Reis’s expertise appears so narrowly focused that it can’t take much else into account.  “Everyone else is stupid and wrong” is the resulting tone I take from this book, and rather than agree, I want to argue right back!  One can easily figure out why this or that “law” is regularly ignored; laws of solvency are more consequential than laws of branding.  But still I can take much from this book in small ways that will affect all aspects of Design-product in the weeks and months to come. 

The second brush with branding took place last Wednesday morning at the Marketing/PR Wizards meeting.  This one was very well-attended.  But interestingly, there were more men than usual in the audience, and more construction and related engineering firms represented in addition to the usual selection of big architecture firms.  Steven Melanson was invited to speak on “Verbal Branding”, and presented not the first talk to this group that offered a scintillating promise of “no more cold calls, no more elevator pitches”.  What is verbal branding?  It’s a way for Steven Melanson to brand himself a guru, certainly.  It’s an idea that needs a practitioner in the A/E/C realm.  Steven Melanson isn’t that guy.  Not yet.  And we wonder if he will be.

Verbal branding is a way of baiting someone you meet at a networking event into asking only the questions that you want them to, giving them less content rather than more (because most “content” is me-too gobbledygook anyway), and bypassing predictable objections, misconceptions, invonvenient truths, or whatever, to make the prospect presume good things about you rather than question your quality or appropriateness.  Melanson’s examples of verbal branding came from clients he had worked with in other industries, which included a telecom firm and a law firm, not to mention his own consulting business.  Sadly, none of the examples readily translated to what these marketing and BD people have to sell.  So creating a verbal brand around a firm in this industry was a mystery.  I tried to help by suggesting that a verbal brand for an architect might be “First Architect On The Moon” (like The Cardigans, who titled their album, “First Band On The Moon”).  I thought my idea would take off.  It didn’t.  Not even a chuckle from the room, or a star for a good try.  Ah, chastened! 

Per Al Reis, branding is all about making your brand the first to be something, anything, no matter how small.  The more narrowly defined it is, in fact, the stronger your brand.  You’ve created a market by creating a category.  First Is Best.  Automatically.  Nobody will question whether your brand is the best at what you do.  Nobody will question whether your brand is equipped to provide them with all of the services they need.  If you’ve got a good verbal brand, you’ll have the same result.

I stopped trying to figure out what a good verbal brand is, while some others in the room, who admitted to being newbies to marketing, persisted with questions to try to get some wisdom that addresed their problems.  I believe the rest of the room was just as lost and turned off as I was.  I saw the co-chair looking my way, and thought I saw her hoping that I, another consultant, could make this arcane subject clear to everyone, or at least relevant.  Maybe even speak for the group and say the unspeakable;  “You don’t have an industry example that we can relate to or learn from.”  I thought about asking Melanson how he might verbally brand Frank O. Gehry.  But I’d be willing to bet he didn’t know who Gehry even was.  And saying that a well-known signature project would sum it all up (“We Designed Bilbao”) would not be helpful as “verbal branding” for Gehry, his firm, his employees, or customers.  No better than “First Architect On The Moon”.  Melanson briefly covered the notion of positive and negative assumptions about what you do, and making sure that those were addressed.  For example, a “consultant” is often presumed to be expensive, small-time, and unbounded.  So Melanson’s verbal brand is (you guessed it) “I teach verbal branding.” 

(Wait for it)

Really?! What’s that?

So teach away, Mr. Melanson.  This brand of snake oil is not going to take you or us very far, even if we are buying.


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