I centered my high school thesis on the wonderfully-written dichotomies that fill Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A foreigner myself, I was fascinated by the fact that a non-native speaker could juxtapose the English language in such a poetic way. And I envisioned his style laying parallel to mine as my professor constantly told me that my essays sounded more like long-length prose in what was intended to be a book of poems.

In fact, if we’re to get super personal, I am a dichotomy myself in many ways. My closest friends will say that I have very little gray–it’s mostly black and white, and often not one or the other but a clashing combination of both. In the spirit of introducing a little “gray”, we can agree that it’s not necessarily an all bad or good thing. It simply is for now (and can always evolve).

What it does mean, however, is that I probably see life through this dichotomous filter of mine. And one of my points of focus has always been–shocker–branding.

As editor-in-chief of the platform you’re currently reading, I’ve been in branding most of my life. But it’s only recently that I noticed the beautiful dichotomies that exist within it. (And there are few things I love more than a good branding-reflecting-humanity moment.) Of course, I wasn’t surprised to observe that branding–once again–has similar traits and values to myself, people, and life in general. I’ve always said that the principles of branding should become general education for they apply as much to a person as they do to a company, a community, or even a nation. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of my life has been studying branding through the lens of my own growth, my challenges and triumphs.

And now I cannot unsee it. I’ve always been such a big believer in accepting the dichotomies of life, not as extremes but as opportunities to maintain some kind of equilibrium in moments when we feel things toppling over. And someone incredibly close to me recently told me that there’s beauty in that. There’s beauty in utilizing the constraints on both sides to find a third way out, in, around, whatever it may be. To push through and evolve.

So, if you’re here because you’re interested in branding more than my life story (which I’m assuming most of you are), hear me out: The struggles we have in branding are a direct reflection of the struggles we have within ourselves. The same itch to escape friction, put on a good face, cave to exterior pressure, fall into habit… They’re all there. And the only way I’ve personally been able to get out of those traps–for that’s what they are–is by embracing dichotomy. Not as an end all, be all, but as a propelling force of nature.

The branding dichotomy of alignment vs. authenticity

While there are many, the branding dichotomy I confront myself with most often is that of alignment versus authenticity. Why? Because my work in editorial marketing sets me right where brand identity, business growth, and communication strategies meet. And what all those pieces face is the need to manage messaging while simultaneously humanizing it for the (surprise, surprise) humans consuming it.

As with all dichotomies, your first encounter will make you feel like you stand at the edge of a choice. You can either go one way or the other, have one thing or another, but never both. At least, that’s what we’re taught: You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, right? Wrong. And apart from the fact that I personally disagree with this, the inevitable truth is that accepting any “choice” sets you up for limitation from the offset–thereby leaving space for someone to come and “help” you, coach you, advise you, and sometimes, take advantage of your self-induced sense of insufficiency.

Brand leaders are no different in this regard. They’re humans, too. And they look at the world today only to find an impossible set of contradictions. Sell without being salesy. Guide employees without infringing on individuality. Stay top-of-mind without being repetitive. Be culturally relevant without jumping blindly. But like in life, this kind of duality is exactly what’s stifling our growth. And to overcome it, we must understand that our success is not dependent on tactics but rather on convictions.

Branding is human, and branding is everything. This means the industry, profession, practice, call it what you will, is susceptible to the same conditioning as everything else–distraction, habits, and fear included. You will most likely feel the need to fight against the source of your discomfort. All while pointing fingers as to why the darn fight is necessary in the first place. Ironically, it’s easier to fight a Sisyphus-like battle in a constant state of contradiction, blaming the outside for why things aren’t working, than it is to observe things for what they are and accept them. After all, the latter leaves you with only one option: innovation.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take the dichotomy I mentioned above: alignment versus authenticity. We’ve been conditioned to believe that such duality is normal. Everyone has to make choices in life. True, but under what conditions? Under what pretenses? If you’re presented with two options, how often do you naturally tend towards believing there must be a third? For many of us, not very often. Psychoanalysis says our tendency is to try to fight the situation that brought on the duality in the first place. Meaning that we spend more time discussing which to choose or worse, the forces at work that are causing us to choose in the first place.

All of that energy, wasted.

A brand’s durability is dependent on the mindset of those who architect it.

Amidst the aforementioned illusion of choice, a third option, in fact, exists. It’s the option of not choosing either, of having whatever percentage combination of both that works for you. Of having your cake and eating it, too. Of accepting the conditioning–the illusionary existence of a choice–and deciding to face the difficult challenge of coming up with something new. Something of your own, which lo and behold, ultimately unshackles you from the conditioning that you acknowledged and accepted.

There are no best practices in this state of innovation. There are only the interesting experiences of others, educational so long as you don’t resort to mere copying. Because riding this wave effectively is not a skill set but a mindset. This is not something you learn, it’s something you realize. And the only way you can do that is through contemplative observation.

Let’s go back to our dichotomy of alignment versus authenticity. This is the classic example of: “All of my career, I was taught that consistency is key in branding, but now the world asks that I show nuance.” Most brand leaders will naturally feel they’re at an impasse. They cannot imagine forgoing consistency; it’s everything they know and have built about their brand. It’s everything they want others to know about their brand. It’s what they’ve been repeating over and over again, and what’s gotten them this far (limitative thinking, once again).

On the other hand, they cannot imagine being completely authentic either. That would mean that they have to say everything they think and believe in. And can you imagine what that would entail? “We’d have to trust all of our employees to speak openly and honestly in the name of our brand.” God forbid you should trust your employees wholeheartedly with “your” brand. Not only is this kind of possessive thinking incorrect (a brand is not a unit to be had but a unity to be shared), but it’s also not true that being authentic means saying anything and everything that crosses your mind.

How do brand leaders come to these kinds of conclusions, then? From the things they read, the things they hear, the advice they receive–most likely content coming from people that have also fallen into the trap of thinking only two choices exist, the only difference being which one they recommend you choose and why. And unfortunately, the only thing debating a duality does is reinforce its existence. It’s in their interest to uphold it and “help” you pick a side, follow one route over another–for you might not know the best way, but they do.

So, now, I’m going to prove to you that in this particular alignment-versus-authenticity debacle, a third option exists. You can then embark on your own journey of training your mindset to think outside the nonexistent conditions imposed on you by others. I highly recommend it (does wonders for the skin).

Solving brand communication challenges with an editorial mindset

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to observe brand communications over the years. How they’re treated, structured, created, assessed, manipulated, etc. Imagine I’ve been the editor-in-chief of Brandingmag for almost a decade now and, in all that time, I’ve simultaneously built content ecosystems for mostly large B2B organizations. I know brand comms inside and out. I’ve had to manage, craft, and measure everything from social media campaigns to executive speeches, case studies, contributor articles, podcasts–entire thought leadership platforms, in fact. I know what people think content is, I know how people misjudge it, I know how people underestimate it, and I know where and how it fits into branding (branding as the “everything” I alluded to above).

I must reaffirm the difference between content and communications, so we may be on the same page. Content is the trees; communications is the forest. And, as the saying goes, if you spend too much time thinking about the trees, you stop seeing the forest. A good metaphor for what I was saying about skill set versus mindset, as well (skill set being the trees, mindset being the forest). So, for the sake of this example, please remember that we’re speaking about the forest of brand communications first and foremost. We’ll leave the singular content trees for another day.

This cohesive thinking I’m alluding to is something I call “thinking editorial”, a clear ode to the luxury I’ve had of building brands and a media platform in tandem. In short, the difference between how brand comms is generally described and an editorial mindset is that you would never think to replace the latter with something as limiting as “marcomm”, “content marketing”, “public relations”, or “social media”, while it happens to the former all the time.

Brand communications today is caught in its own dualities. Just recently, I read a post on LinkedIn that made it seem like brands have only two options: either be boring or go completely unhinged. The kind of sensationalist post that pollutes most of our digital channels today. No recognition of a possible spectrum or middle ground. No notion that perhaps brands can be both educational and entertaining.

My editorial experience tells me that there is, however, a way of creating content that is relevant to both brand and audience (no need to compromise on either side), and it has nothing to do with being neither boring nor unhinged. As I mentioned in my reply to said LinkedIn post, “It’s simply ‘good stuff’ created with intention that audiences will not only learn from, but reference. That positive effect is more beneficial to a brand in the long run than making someone laugh. Seems that being helpful creates a deeper, longer-lasting connection.”

These kinds of fundamental truths are what thinking editorial teaches. Even being inspirational–something seemingly untouchable–can be threatened by duality. Because when a company focuses on being inspirational at the detriment of being useful, it can very quickly fall into the trap of emptiness. Empty actions, empty words.

A company that thinks editorial, however, would never be considered manipulative or money-hungry, two concepts that have plagued our industry from back when branding, marketing, and advertising were all considered to be the same thing. This company would never spend its resources fleetingly for the sake of a trend, a platform, or an algorithm. This company would never be disowned or debunked for saying something it didn’t mean, it didn’t intend, or it didn’t live by. Communications teams would no longer be flooded with crisis after crisis, constantly in defense mode. They’d be able to go back to what they love most: communicating naturally with people by sending positive vibes and brilliant content into the world.

For communicating with an editorial mindset does not happen when content is produced to fill an empty slot in a campaign destined only for brevity, targeting, and purchase. That kind of content can only come through in an authentic way if its source is a creation process filled with good intention. But companies continue. They continue doing things as they’ve always done them, ignoring the rules of life that govern us all. Ignoring our world’s deeper needs and desires. Treating their people and consumers with superficial tones. And failing to transform detrimental duality into a dichotomous opportunity.

Brand comms that are both consistent and authentic is not only possible, but recommended.

To go from being conditioned to instigating evolution within our chosen dichotomy (alignment versus authenticity), I suggest taking your editorial mindset well beyond the simple recognition of how content and comms differ. This starts, as we mentioned, with dismantling the illusion of the choice. Should the duality remain, you might be tempted to think that the only clear choice is alignment, for all the branding education we’ve received over the years has told us that a brand cannot be successful without being consistent, and it cannot be consistent without repetition, so that should be our main goal.

That’s your first red flag: The fact that you feel you have to choose. Doesn’t mean you cannot make a choice, but do yourself a favor and step back to observe whether there are truly only two options. Because my experience has shown me that you can be both aligned and authentic. You don’t need to choose. What you need is to evolve your approach so that it not only spawns deeper understanding across your organization, but simultaneously allows for contextualization across departments, geographies, divisions, etc.

As my good friend, Nanne Bos, would say: It’s about coherence and flexibility. It’s about building a structure that is coherent (aligned) but allows for flexibility (authenticity). He suggests thinking of it in terms of legos: The building blocks are created by the larger organization, while its various representatives are then able to take those blocks and build something of their own. I believe this works very well if we think of brand identity as being something that is only or even largely visual, but it’s not. Most of the communication your employees are doing is verbal and, in that case, they need to feel what they’re saying in order for it to come out naturally.

Feelings do not come from simply being handed the tools by which to achieve something. It’s your conviction related to the value of achievement that makes you feel something, not the skill set itself. The journey rather than the destination. People must believe–and actually be–active participants in the brand should you wish for them to truthfully represent it without crossing whatever defined or implied guardrails you set. They must become so adept at what it stands for that they can confidently add their own individuality to the brand communication they’re responsible for. And trust me, each one is responsible for a lot.

This is the point at which self-preservation and fear step in to claim that it’s not possible for a large organization to achieve this. That once you pass a few hundred people, the only way to ensure any level of alignment is by leaning completely in its direction. My instinctual response is that if you don’t know how to maintain an editorial mindset as you scale, then pull back on the scaling. Losing your balance between alignment and authenticity for the sake of company size is another big red flag signaling the need to take a beat and rethink.

There is a way to scale while still maintaining your brand communications, and it all starts with having a structured ecosystem in place. The best content ecosystems I’ve seen all have two things in common: (1) They align very strongly with both their organization’s brand and business strategies, and (2) they educate every employee they touch on the elements of a strong verbal identity. Meanwhile, they take some of today’s common tendencies and build goals around overcoming them:

  • Disconnected content creation, distribution, promotion, and measurement
  • Wasted resources (including an imbalance of external versus internal promo)
  • Incoherent messaging and the lack of brand narrative control it fosters
  • A visual identity that trumps the verbal one
  • A lack of thought leadership support and, therefore, an incomplete culture puzzle
  • Too much focus on brand versus the people that communicate for it.

How can an editorial comms system help you do all of this? By forcing you to go beyond the simple brand narrative and messaging framework that you initially built. You cannot expect aligning all of your employees around a few thousand words in total to build you a durable brand. It would build you a consistent brand (until it dies of boredom), but that’s about it.

You also can’t pretend that dedicating a meager two pages of your guidelines to verbal identity is enough for employees to understand how to communicate in the name of your brand. It’s no wonder that you don’t trust your employees to be their authentic selves when speaking for your brand and, therefore, believe that focusing on authenticity over alignment is a bad move. You’re not giving them enough to go off of, meaning they don’t stand a chance. It’s limitational thinking breeding limitations–simple as that. Combine this with the assumption that being authentic means saying absolutely everything you think, and you have yourself a formula for insignificance.

Instead of jumping from your brand narrative (along with a few brand pillars mostly driven by the spaces you operate in) straight to product and service messaging, fill the gaps in between. Take that editorial mindset you now have and transform it into editorial marketing. How would you build your communications ecosystem differently knowing the barriers and opportunities we’ve discussed thus far?

I, of course, have my own suggestion, but in the spirit of what we’ve just gone through, it doesn’t have to be a one-to-one application. You can make the process your own so long as the editorial values of branding are maintained. My approach to editorial marketing, for example, accounts for the following layers:

  • Layer 1 is your corporate messaging. This includes your high-level positioning, narrative, and brand story.
  • Layer 2 comprises your content pillars. These are loosely based on the areas in which your brand plays, plus additional internal components such as sustainability and culture.
  • Layer 3 is made up of content topics. These are the conversations you want to make sure your brand is contributing to.
  • Layer 4 is all about your propositions. In other words, the unique points of view (POVs) you want to bring to those prioritized conversations (content topics). These are the POVs you want to be known for in the next year, let’s say.
  • Layer 5 then brings in your capabilities (i.e., the products and services you offer that align with and validate each proposition).
  • Layer 6 (my favorite layer) is all about your thought leaders. These are the folks you’re prompting to take on specific propositions, thereby owning those unique POVs in the name of the corporate brand.
  • Layer 7 (the last layer) then brings in your content pieces–the actual pieces of content produced to communicate each of your propositions.

By now, the creative industry should have no problem understanding that strategies of impact must be built to last. A comprehensive approach such as this one enables both durability and scale. The foundation–including both mindset and framework–allows for as much addition to the structure as is necessary without it collapsing. But it’s important to start by asking ourselves how do we shift our mindsets from the content craze of the past several years to a state of editorial thinking, the kind of thinking that builds brands for more than mere awareness and engagement? To maintain the integrity of a brand, you need a safeguard to constantly remind you that content is not about quantity, it’s about quality.

And that’s what thinking editorial does–it allows you to take the insights of traditional publishers and reimagine your brand’s communications as an agile (yet consistent), breathing (yet stable) content ecosystem designed to withstand the tech of time. It’s your third choice amidst the alignment-authenticity dichotomy. It’s pushing through your conditioning and evolving–something every brand needs to do today because to think in black and white is to believe there is no gray. Editorial marketing pulls you out of the tendency of feeling like you have to choose, compromise, sacrifice one value for another, one benefit for another, and places you at the center of your brand. Ever communicating, ever present, ever authentic, ever aligned.

P.S. I don’t think it’s a coincidence (nothing is) that in some parts of this article I referred to my chosen dichotomy as such–a dichotomy–and that in others, I referred to it as a “duality”. Even that distinction in and of itself marks a transition from dual-toned conditioning to an opportunistic–dare I say romantic–view. I’ve officially reversed aging. I’m back in high school, fascinated by the existence of dichotomies and how much evolution they’re able to provoke once we stop labeling them as bare opposites.

Cover source: AlienCat