This is a simple question: What Does Your Brand Say? A few months back, a friend sent me a draft of her book and asked if I would proof it. It had already been through several rounds of editing at that point, but she trusted me to give both the draft a thorough read and her my honest feedback. We had worked together while I was the editor of a lifestyle magazine and she was a home and life organization columnist. Over that time, I grew to know her voice almost as well as my own.
Within a couple weeks of when I returned my edited draft, she sent me another email, this one titled, “What Do You Think?” Inside was a PDF of the book’s cover. I flinched when it opened. About a dozen clichés were condensed into a single portrait of a woman who looked like she was plucked from a spread in Cosmo—in March 1989.
Uh, the pic needs to go, I wrote back. Listen, this book officially elevates you to the status of media mogul. You need to start being conscious of how these pieces fit together as a cohesive brand. You’ve invested too much time and effort in this book to put it out there under this cover. And you’ve invested even more in your company to make it your first real impression on a national audience.
She started as a part-time home organizing consultant, mostly working her own neighborhood while her kids were in school, but as the opportunities grew—she was always a vigilant networker—and her kids depended on her less, she branched out across the region. Over the last couple of years, she also began hosting organization clinics of her own design and then a podcast. The book was something that was on her mind all along. I know because I tried to talk her out of it a number of times. Nobody reads books anymore, I said. There are so many more effective ways to market yourself. But she never listened, thankfully.
Its release, though, unleashed a challenge even larger than writing a book: fostering a brand of her own. This is how most of them are born. That is to say, organically, not in a conference room among a bunch of highly-paid agency types. Which also explains why a lot of companies tend to have an awkward phase as they feel out their identities, not unlike puberty. If they don’t figure it out quickly, however, they likely won’t make it to adulthood. What follows is a game plan to help ensure that yours finds its voice fast and stays true to your intent and your audience.
Define your parameters
Who is your audience? Who are the influencers who can help you reach it? Even before you get that far, though, stop and ask yourself, if you didn’t at the very beginning of all this, why are you doing this? What’s the point? If you can’t clearly and concisely define that for yourself, you have little chance of pulling it off for a bunch of strangers. Consider the answers to these questions your foundation. The better you know your niche, the more specifically and personally you can speak to those in your circle. Likewise, you won’t waste your time chasing after someone beyond those margins. That’s not to say he’s a hopeless cause; you’re just going to end up expending a lot more time and energy to get his attention when there are plenty of others ready and willing to hear you out.
Look in the mirror often (It’s not vain)
Am I doing what I set out to do? If not, why? Maybe you discovered a better way. Maybe you settled for the sake of convenience or cost. You can’t expect to be prepared for everything. Research isn’t foolproof. And anyway, your experience and instincts played a big role, too, and they’re not going to fail you now. So don’t be so quick to gloss over them, now or ever. Consistent self-evaluation will ensure that your inner voice remains the clearest as the discussions grow more congested and conflicting. Outside of your head, make a conscious effort not to compromise on your formative steps. You’d like to avoid compromise entirely, but it’s especially critical in the early going. You hatched a plan for a reason, and now you need to give it a chance to breathe. You’re also setting a precedent for the onslaught of decisions to come. Bend now on the look of your site and it’ll shift every decision thereafter that much further from your reach. Also, surround yourself with people you trust, from confidants who aren’t on the payroll to hired consultants. And by trust I mean, people you’re confident will deliver objective, sometimes- (oftentimes-) hard-to-hear feedback. When you’re deep on the inside, it’s easy to lose touch with the masses—and nearly impossible to re-establish that bond once you have.
Keep your eye on the prize
In the constant avalanche that is any one of your social media feeds, we’re wont to get tangled up in tangents and go chasing after likes and followers. Remember that it’s one piece of your campaign and it’s intended to work in concert with the others. Stray from your voice—and it should be one voice—and your message and you undermine the value of the whole, and for what, a few more half-interested followers on Instagram? Social channels serve a valuable purpose—they’re nurturing an intimate conversation with your consumers—but they’re not the be-all, end-all. If you’ve made your greatest strides in social media, go ahead and make it the head of your marketing campaign. But don’t neglect the arms, legs, and torso. Each should express a slightly different perspective of the same message. The impression that gradually (very gradually) deepens from that repetition is your brand. Or, at least, the public’s perception of it. Is there really any difference, though?