brandGuest Post by Simon Erskine Locke

When it comes to building brands most experts will likely start with the tactics: Develop a mission statement or messages, create a logo, use PR, advertise and leverage social media. 

To be clear, these are all important components of the brand building process. But there’s a problem when we go straight to tactics – you may end up spending months or years, and thousands or millions of dollars, trying to build a brand that does not resonate. 

Like Sisyphus you may be pushing a rock up a mountain, stuck in an endless struggle against branding gravity – an unseen force preventing your or your client’s brand from taking off.

Research will clearly help you identify brand messages that engage audiences. But it has its limitations. Confirmation bias, for example, encourages us to look for what supports our beliefs and ignore what doesn’t. Armed with what you think will work, you may find that your story – which may be too complicated or focused around what you want to say, rather than what audiences want to hear – simply doesn’t achieve your desired goals.       

As a starting point on the journey to build company or personal brands, it’s important to step back and think about the drivers of behavior.

If I have learned one thing in the process of building brands for multinational corporations and my own company, it is that the key to success is simplicity. And, that getting to it isn’t always obvious or easy. 

Let me provide an example. When I started my first communications agency, people asked me for my “elevator speech.” As a former head of communications for major financial services firms, where I’d been responsible for communications soup-to-nuts, I would tell people that I focused on 360-degree communications … in short, I was saying I could pretty much do everything. As a result, what came out of my mouth was long-winded and convoluted. It was rarely the same and would elicit either yawns or disengagement.

When I founded CommunicationsMatch™, I came up with a simple articulation of what we do – “Connecting companies with communications professionals.” Five words. Interestingly, I never trip over the words, they come out easily and I (mostly) have been able to keep my audiences engaged.

Why is it that a simple formulation of a company’s brand purpose can have such a significant impact on communication and delivery of the message? 

The answer lies in the way in which we process information. Over the last year I’ve written a lot about the social science around why we do what we do. A recurring theme is that our brains are wired for efficiency. We routinize tasks with the goal of making them easier to process so we can use the mental energy we save on new tasks.

For this to make sense, it’s worth thinking about the quantity of information we have to process at any given moment in terms of data. We’re talking gigabytes. It’s a complicated world and our brains need shortcuts to avoid overload. 

Language is an example of how we reduce the effort it takes to process information. When we look at an individual tree we can see its complexity. Language reduces the idea to its essence – the word “tree” simplifies an individual tree into an easy-to-understand concept. And when we use the word, others understand what we are talking about. 

Given all that we have on our plates, taking on new information – particularly if we have no real incentive to put in the mental effort to do so – takes work we’d often rather not do.

Put another way, unless there’s a strong motivation (value gained) from understanding someone else’s business or brand, there isn’t the interest or capacity to process messages if they’re overly complex.

This is often hard for us to understand because we are so deeply invested in our jobs or businesses – we can’t believe that anyone else would not be interested in what we are doing. In my last post for Waxing UnLyrical, I argued that we have to take the “I” out of communications. The point is the same here – ego often gets in the way. 

Let’s wind this back to branding. Here are a few takeaways:

  1. A brand is mental shorthand for the complexity that is you as an individual or a company.  Like the word “tree,” it makes the complex understandable.
  2. For a brand to resonate, the idea it conveys must be as simple and as clear as possible –audiences have limited bandwidth and interest in taking on new information.
  3. When building a brand, if we keep 1 and 2 in mind we will be best positioned to distill our communications to their essence.
  4. The value proposition of a brand for an audience is key, because it’s the reason why they will invest their time and limited bandwidth to understand the brand’s proposition.
  5. When we articulate a simple story it is more likely to resonate not only with audiences, but also in the telling. I believe that it’s as important to listen to what feels right as it is to do research.

Many professionals and companies struggle with branding and telling their brand story.

Why? Because brands are complex things. They are the sum of all the leaves on a tree, and all the communications or touchpoints between the company and its audiences. 

The ideas distilled and encapsulated in brands provide a simple way of understanding the complexity of a company. By understanding the drivers of the behaviors that lead us to pay attention to a company’s or individual’s story, we have a framework to code or re-code brand communications in ways that are more likely to resonate with audiences. It also helps us understand the “why” behind the importance of simplicity and clarity of message required for our or our clients’ brands to take off.

One final example: At a former employer, when we talked about the brand as it was we were a “Buick,” and what we wanted to be was “Mercedes.” In two words, we were able to simply articulate and communicate the complexities of the brand and our desired goals, providing a foundation for the tactics required to achieve this goal.

Getting to the core of your brand and its purpose is difficult. But as I have argued, when framed in terms of what it takes to break through with our audiences, the importance of the journey to having a simple message and value proposition cannot be overstated.

Image: Bess-Hamiti via Pixabay, Creative Commons License CC0       

Simon Erskine LockeSimon Erskine Locke is the Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch™. CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and agency search resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size.  The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

Latest posts by Shonali Burke (see all)