Why Give a Damn:
If, as a startup, you hire professionals to help create your brand, not only have you wasted valuable money, but you have settled, ipso facto, on creating a mediocre brand. — My belief
Let me begin with the obvious: I’m not a branding expert, not by a long shot. I studied philosophy in undergrad, I’ve never read a book on branding and I tend to go against what the “experts” tell me is appropriate (i.e. I tend to do the opposite of what branding firms and consultants have told me in the past). I say all this to caution you to read this post with a grain, or even a bag, of salt. This is just one guy’s opinion on what not to do when creating a brand.
Disclaimers aside, I think, for entrepreneurs, brand consulting firms and PR firms are the last outlet you want to explore when establishing your brand and getting your word out there (important note: I’m speaking to startups here who want to create a brand, not mezzanine stage companies or growth stage who already have a brand and may have the resources to justify working with brand consulting / design firm like IDEO, Sterling Rice Group, or Behance… who clearly do know what they are doing). It’s been my experience that anyone who tells you, as a startup, that you need a consulting firm to help with branding or PR is either trying to get you to spend money you should put into your team and product, or they lack practical experience with launching a startup of their own. I’m hoping that in this post, I can outline why I feel so strongly about this topic.
Brands must resonate
A good brand resonates with the people you are trying to affect. And we resonate and feel most connected with authenticity, audacity, boldness, vulnerability, and the imperfections that come along with being human. Your brand’s genesis must originate from your core and from the emotive reasons you are creating it. If you are an entrepreneur, you are about to dedicate the next 5 to 50 years towards solving a problem you desperately care about with an idea you obsessively believe in. Let that obsession and the vulnerability that comes along with trying to do something far larger than yourself, shine through your brand. Take the time to work with your team and build a brand that comes from you. If it is truly human, it will resonate with other humans… I know it sounds so obvious it’s almost painful, but many people forget this. If you build a brand from the strategies of a consulting firm, your brand will be a reflection of it. I highly recommend getting a few beers, climbing a mountain, getting in front of a white board or under the stars and exploring, to your core, what it is about what you are doing that resonates most with you and your team. Find the essence of why you do what you do and it is that essence that will capture the intrigue of your customers and followers.
Find the essence of why you do what you do and it is that essence that will capture the intrigue of your customers and followers. Tweet This Quote
Great brands don’t come from consensus—they come from your gut
Bill Cosby has a quote I love. When asked what the key to success was he responded by saying, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone.”
If you are going to make a truly authentic and edgy brand, one that really resonates, I do not believe you can build this through consensus… it would be a fast road to mediocrity. Most consultancies and PR firms use a consensus based decision-making framework and although sometimes that is critical, when building a brand, this will ensure yours is average. A good example is how we even chose the name for the Unreasonable Institute. I remember sitting in a hotel room having just finished reading a book called The Power of Unreasonable People. As I lay the book down on my nightstand, I realized I wanted to call the accelerator program we were launching “The Unreasonable Institute”. It spoke so loudly to me and I immediately fell in love with the name. That is, until I asked for other people’s input.
Great brands don’t come from consensus—they come from your gut Tweet This Quote
The first person I asked, naturally, was my mother—she is right about everything 99.99% of the time). She immediately discounted the name thinking it was, for lack of a better expression, a bit “too unreasonable.” She was probably right. We then did a survey of 6 different names (Unreasonable Institute one of them) and sent it out to a friend base of a few hundred individuals. Much to my chagrin, the Unreasonable Institute was near the bottom of the list. I then asked a few “experts” in branding for their opinions on the “Unreasonable” name and they all agreed it was just too bold and one even said, too “irrational”. They thought it might upset some people and that many others wouldn’t understand it. Here’s the truth, they were probably right. But what I’ve learned over the years is that you need to have “outsiders” to have “insiders” when it comes to a brand. You want to have a niche, an exclusive group who can say, proudly and unequivocally that they are “x.” (‘x’ being the variable brand name, in our case, x = “unreasonable”).
Ultimately, the founding team at the Institute decided to ignore all the polls, all the data, all the feedback, my mom (sorry mom), and the advice of experts… And create the Unreasonable Institute and in many ways, the brand strategy I’m now getting off the ground at Unreasonable Group. Although history is still unwritten for us in terms of if Unreasonable will become the brand of the 21st century I know it has the potential to become, all I know is that if we had listened to consultants, our friends, even our parents, and not our gut instinct, the Unreasonable Institute would likely be called GISE “Global Institute for Social Entrepreneurship”. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a more mediocre sounding name =). And of course, as my good friend and co-conspirator Teju Ravilochan points out, a name is only a tiny piece of branding. Ultimately, what it comes down to is execution, communication, your reason for existence, design, the values your company lives by, and how you hold yourself as a team and as an organization or movement… this was just a small example.
In this post, I missed the most important aspect of building a brand. In my rant on not using a firm, I missed the target by a long shot. The short of it is, to quote Teju, “you don’t build brands, you earn them.” A fancy logo, a good name, flashy design, these are all icing on the cake but without the cake, your brand won’t be worth caring about. What I mean here is that your brand is earned through trust, integrity, transparency, authenticity, and a belief in the validity of what you say and stand for as a company (i.e your values). For us at Unreasonable, I think the reason we have built a brand with a lot of potential doesn’t have much to do with our graphics design or sticky name (important but not critical), it has much more to do with being a values-driven organization that is religious about why we do what we do. More so than what we do, or how we make it look, it’s about why we are so obsessed with our work (read why we created this site). When push comes to shove, I like to believe that it is the “why” of your organization that resonates most with people. So, in short, forget about building your brand and think more about why you are building your company and then let that shine through… Your brand will follow instep.