To steal a metaphor from another field; to be a great brand builder you must think more like a gardener than a carpenter. 

Building a brand is about creating a consistent and meaningful experience for customers that reflects the values and personality of the brand. I’ll spell it out straight from the start and we’ll work back from there: you cannot ‘build’ a brand, you can just create the right environment and prompts for it to thrive.

The first challenge I think of as The Illusion of Control – the idea that because you can write down and define your brand, you are in control of it. Worse still, that your definition of the brand is what your brand is and anything other than that is a mistake.

Building a brand is about consistency. We’re told a consistent tone of voice (TOV) and the use of distinctive brand assets are critical. What’s more, it needs to be based on consumer insights and a deep understanding of the competitive landscape which needs to be understood by everyone working on it to enable a clear understanding of the direction of travel.

That’s a lot to remember. So we write it all down and call it a brand book, and then we make sure it’s in every induction and presentation of the next 12 months. Which is all right and proper – these things are important. But the codifying of these things has a more detrimental secondary effect, it provides the illusion that we are in control of the brand. We’re not.

Our brands are defined by thousands of small interactions (if we’re lucky). The customer service, the look of our stores or websites, how we write emails, how we behave under pressure, our hiring procedures, our choice of imagery etc. And each of these is totally relative to the context in which they are seen and by who they are seen. What may be hugely important and meaningful to one person may be totally forgotten by another. So we can never be sure exactly what our brand is, but must instead strive to reinforce what we want it to be in the minds of our audience. 

The carpenter, focused on definition and build says, ‘Our brand is…’
The gardener, seeking to cultivate and adapt over time, always starts with something along the lines of, ‘If we do our job right, then people will think our brand is…’

The second challenge of growing a brand is the sense that once the brand has been defined internally, it now is magically defined externally. “Right, that’s the brand done, what now?”

The fact is, no one cares about our rebrands or new brands. They’re busy worrying about their own problems and haven’t the time or attention to check our websites, social media feeds or packaging to check up on our new take on the world. For our audience to notice, we must instead make an effort to take our brand to them – putting our money where our mouths are in terms of both media spend (it’s not a bad thing!) and putting resources into making customer experiences better.

But how we do it is critical – note the rise in manifesto videos being used as ads over the last 10 or so years. You know the ones with dramatic shots of the product in use and a voiceover starting “Here at BrandX, we…”, with an informal tone that’s not selling but describing.

You can’t make people believe something by just telling them. Try it. Walk into a bar and declare yourself the most attractive person there, then wait to be approached. Not gonna happen. It’s the same with these manifesto videos. They seek to convince, the good ones have some proof points, but fundamentally the approach is flawed as they require both attention and trust – things prospective customers are not generally willing to share with some unknown loudmouth brand that’s shown up in front of their chosen video on YouTube.

Like brand books, in themselves these aren’t bad tools, they’re useful to describe your brand to those who are interested – like new employees or those waiting in reception at your HQ – but not to prospective customers. For prospective customers, you need to earn their attention by doing something entertaining, useful or interesting for them, then ensuring they remember it was you that did it.

The carpenter, seeing the world as a collection of definable ‘things’, pictures the brand as completed once it is defined and explained to people. The gardener on the other hand, knowing constant effort is required, knows that communicating beyond their walls is about doing good things for people, not shouting about themselves.

Be more brand gardener than brand carpenter. You cannot define your brand, only grow it.

Growing a brand over time is a complex process, and requires a lot of creativity and critical thinking. It’s hard to do on your own and it’s difficult to see what the real opportunities and challenges are when you are within the business. So when we do begin to crack the challenge, there is an overwhelming temptation to formalise it, lock it down, and describe it rationally. But it’s a false outcome, an illusion that only serves to make us feel like we’ve completed a task.

Growing a brand, like creating a wonderful garden, is a task that takes effort every single day.

Cover image source:  Markus Spiske