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Brand and The Search For Meaning

I’ve been doing Brand work off and on, in some capacity, for about a decade.

Most of the time I didn’t think of it or call it Brand work. In retrospect, it’s obvious to me now that it was.

Brand, for too long, has been placed inside of the marketing department and, over time, has come to be synonymous with visual identity (colors, fonts, logos, etc). So before we go any deeper into this subject, we all need to be on the same page. While visual identity is component of Brand, the discipline of Brand is about substantially more than that.

Here’s how I define Brand…

Brand is anything dealing with what a company says about itself, what others say about it, how it actually functions across the business to deliver products and services, as well as the intersection between any or all of these factors.

So, yeah…pretty much everything is Brand work.

Fish 1: How’s the water?

Fish 2: What the hell is water?

The aspect of this work that I find most fascinating is the process of constructing a cohesive and unified Brand. That is, a business where what they say about themselves, is backed up by what they actually do, and is aligned with what others say about them.

So, how do we do it?

Most brands are built, either as an afterthought, or an exercise in rationalizing their visual design after the fact. A better approach is to plant the seed of a single idea and see that it grows until its presence is felt in every aspect of the company.

Regardless of how one goes about building a brand, I would argue that the process itself is, in many ways, the company’s search for meaning.

Raison d’être

When I begin working with a client and start asking about their purpose, one of two things usually happens.

  1. They tell me the most literal answer possible: that their purpose is to make money.
  2. They tell me the most uninspired answer ever: which is to rephrase what they do as a purpose.

Since every business, by definition, is required to make money, that is not its purpose but rather a condition of its existence.

Since every business offers something in exchange for money, fulfilling that service or delivering that product, is not purpose, no matter how you rephrase it.

The work of Brand, it’s not a “wordsmithing” exercise to explain in flowery terms how a business makes money. It is not to hide the fact that businesses must generate revenue. The work of Brand is to communicate clearly:

  • what a company does (solution)
  • how the company is unique (differentiation)
  • what the company values (purpose, mission, beliefs, values)
  • what customers, employees, vendors, shareholders, and other stakeholders should expect

When done well, this creates an entity with clear positioning and the exact same association in the minds of everyone who touches the Brand. Volvo didn’t become associated with safety by accident (pardon the pun). It was a deliberate commitment to making safety a part of not only their messaging and marketing, but in how they run the company. They are one of the most widely cited examples in Brand conversations for a reason.

So how do we find meaning in our companies?

The Search for Meaning

There’s no easy way to do this, but here is a great place to start.

  • Since all companies need to make money, let’s take money off the table for a moment.
  • Since all companies sell products, services, or platforms/marketplaces, let’s take that off the table, too. The meaning of your company cannot be just the delivery of the thing you offer.

Now, consider what you do, and think about all of the reasons you would still do it, if you had to do it for free.

  • What benefit would it bring to the world?
  • Who would it help?
  • How would it help them?
  • Why is it important?

Keep asking why until you get to the bottom of it. You need to figure this out, because at the bottom of this deep dive, is the thing that must supersede profit. It is the seed you will plant to grow your beautiful brand.

👉 Click here for an example

A few years ago, I started building Shareable.FM which is a podcast network to help people (listeners) find shows so good they are worthy of being shared. I also wanted to give podcasters the tools and strategies to reach their ideal audiences and simplify production.

I had noticed that there are so many good podcasts out there but I often felt overwhelmed by the number of choices and questionable ranking systems that led to the recommendations I was getting. So, I want to create a curated and organized site to find podcasts that have a standard of quality without the worry that the recommendations are being artificially manipulated by financial incentives.

At the same time, as a podcaster, I know first-hand that starting and running a podcast is a lot of work, and reaching a comfortable level of success is even harder. I wanted to ensure podcasters with shareable ideas have access to the assistance they need to be successful.

So, I started Shareable.FM to solve these two problems. Whether or not I ever make a dime off of this business, I’ll still move forward with it because I’m driven by the purpose of improving the lives of everyone in the podcast eco-system from the listeners who I want to help grow, to the podcasters who I want to help support.

That said, because I know the purpose behind this business, I have a North Star guiding my decisions. If someone offered me a lot of money to put an infomercial podcast on the network, I would say no, because it is counter to the purpose of the business. If an overpriced podcast hosting service wanted me to become an affiliate and promote their service to the podcasters on the network, I would decline, because I made a commitment to help my podcasters, not profit off of them.

While this side project doesn’t get the attention it needs from me, I am clear on its purpose and because of that Shareable.FM can more easily create solutions, articulate our positioning, and ensure consistency across every interaction someone has with the brand.

The Danger of Meaningless

When you see United Airlines breaking guitars and dragging people off planes, or Uber’s laundry list of sexual harassment and hyper capitalist policies, or any other company you can quickly recall that has received bad press, at its core, the reason for their failures is always the same: Brand.

These companies didn’t do the work to think about what they value more than money. They had no North Star guiding them toward making an impact, no mission held more sacred than creating shareholder value.

This is why we don’t trust companies when they make grandiose statements about DEI initiatives or climate change initiatives unless they have the receipts to back up their words. Companies without a clear Brand, rarely have the receipts because what they believe is dictated by trends or what makes smart business sense right now. If there is no conviction or deeper purpose, the Brand will be shallow and incapable of driving true emotional loyalty from customers or employees.

Find your North Star

Brands can find meaning by committing to the process. Searching for, discovering, and then aligning everything around a single purpose, triggers a chain reaction where every aspect of the business begins to have context. Decisions happen faster, campaigns practically design themselves, and sales conversations become much easier. When a Brand finds its purpose, it discovers its true identity.

While most companies treat branding like a change of clothes, the reality is, it’s a declaration of who they want to be that comes at the end of a long process in their search for meaning.

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