Branding can unleash a business’ competitive advantage and fuel enduring growth. And yet, despite this power, brand is grossly underused. Few leaders leverage brand fully, believing (wrongly) that brand is squishy and elusive. But when a tool this vital is dismissed, the business suffers mightily.
The good news is that all leaders can ignite brand to create value.
Lindsay Pedersen is the author of Forging An Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. She is a brand strategist and leadership coach who views brand as a blend of science, intuition, behavioral economics, and ancient storytelling. She developed the Ironclad Method™ while building brands with companies such as Starbucks, Clorox, Zulily, T-Mobile, IMDb, and burgeoning startups. In today’s interview, our guest will share how to build a brand that will generate business growth.
Welcome to StartUp Mindset, Lindsay. We’re excited to have you here. For the readers who are not familiar with you, could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I’m a brand strategist who works with leaders and entrepreneurs to define their business’s most value-creating brand. After learning the science of brand building in brand management at Clorox, I left to work with leaders to apply the brand discipline that’s natural at consumer goods companies like Clorox to start-ups who benefit from that single-focused North Star.
You have recently published an interesting book entitled Forging an Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide. Could you tell us a little more about the book and why you decided to write it?
Coming from consumer packaged goods, I hold brand as the heart and soul of a business. When I spoke with leaders outside consumer goods, though, I heard a puzzling and pervasive view that brand is a logo. And since in consumer goods, brand is the way that we create a sustainable differentiation for our business, and the way that we prioritize as leaders, I found that misunderstanding baffling and super consequential. Brand is the thing you mean to your audience. That matters for any business that serves humans, regardless of industry.
But because leaders outside consumer goods misunderstood brand as logo, they were sometimes intimidated by it, or scornful of it. I wanted to shine the light on what brand is and demystify it. In the process, I wanted to share a step-by-step method for defining one’s brand so that any business could do it and benefit from the clarity that brand brings.
Some of our readers are new founders and entrepreneurs who started a business because they believed they could add value to the market as well as succeed in business on their own. However, some of them may not know the difference between branding and marketing. Could you explain your definition of each and how branding can help our reader’s businesses?
Brand is the meaning that your business stands for. Marketing is the activation and delivery of that meaning to your audience. A brand that builds the most value is the North Star for the entire business, certainly including marketing, but everything that creates customer value. Brand can guide your decision making well outside of marketing. It can guide who you hire, who you partner with, where you have offices, where you recruit, whom you recruit, how you create culture and purpose among employees.
The reason brand is important is that it creates value for your business. One can look at this economically. Brand elevates pricing power – a preferred brand can charge more and profit more than a non-preferred brand. Brand creates a moat – a beloved brand confers loyalty, and it’s hard to steal customers who love your brand. Brand creates the force multiplier effect of focus – leaders who are optimizes for a single, deliberate brand idea can do more with less. Brand allows sustainable differentiation – while patents expire, and features obsolesce, and products get copied, a genuine brand does not expire, does not obsolesce, and cannot be copied. Brand engender purpose among employees – employees are yearning for purpose, and brand can serve as the tool for defining a purpose that will galvanize employees.
So, you can think of brand as something that inspires and motivates, but you can also think of brand as something that enables you to attract and retain customers who are willing to pay more and stay longer, and keeps competitors on a different plane. Brand has an aspirational quality, but it also has a highly-rational, economic value.
In your book, you outline an eight-step process shows how to build a robust and hard-working brand strategy. Could you share with us one of the first steps in that process?
The step that people gloss over is the first step, which is what I call “Orienting.” You orient the direction of your business by defining your target customer, and their competitive frame of reference. When you define your target customer, you are determining the human being that your business brings the most value, and who brings your business the most value. I’m surprised by how shallow most people go when defining their target customer. This week I heard a CEO of a start-up say that he was going after 35-45-year-old women. There is no such thing as a 35-45-year-old woman! I happen to fall into that group, but if someone asked me about myself, I’d probably say that I’m a mom, a small business owner, a daughter, a wife, a fitness enthusiast, a yogi, a daughter. There is a lot more to me than my age and my gender, and the brands that I love see me for that, rather than as a one-dimensional demographic.
The other part of Orienting is identifying the frame of reference you fall in among your target customer. What are the other ways that your target customer solves the problem you solve? What most people do is name their superficial direct competitor. Sometime that is truly the competitive frame of reference, but often, the frame of reference is a substitute, or a work-around, or an indirect competitor. The more that you understand this, the more relevant you can show up for your customer. In order to differentiate, you need to know what, from the customer’s standpoint, you are differentiating from. For me, my yoga studio does not compete with other yoga studios. It competes with the other things I’d do with my time during the hour I’d be practicing yoga, which would include running, cycling, pilates, and sleeping in. More useful for my yoga studio to show up in that context than to talk about what makes them different from other yoga studios that I don’t know or care about.
You also emphasize the importance of knowing the character of your business. Could you explain what that means when it comes to branding?
Brand is the relationship between your company and your customer. And customers, as human beings, are more likely to bond with a company that is person-like than some nameless, amorphous entity. When you articulate the character of your business, you make it easier for customers to bond with you.
In addition, as you grow, there will be more and more people who are writing copy, creating messaging, developing imagery, or actually speaking with the customer. As that happens, you want to ensure that your company’s character is showing up in a consistent way, regardless of who is doing the communicating. If a customer has one character experience with your company through one touchpoint, and a different character experience through another, that inconsistency breeds mistrust. It also is inefficient for your business to be coming across in multiple characters. So by defining the character you want your business to show up as, you not only make it easier for customers to bond with you and trust you, but you also can push out responsibility to others across the organization, scaling in a way that still reinforces a single character idea.
For startups in the survival stage of their business growth, what branding advice would you give to help them reach the success stage?
Get really, really curious about what it is like to be the consumer trying to solve the problem that your offering solves. What is it like for them? Try to think less from the standpoint of your product, making its way into the life of your customer. And more, what is it like to be my customer, and how best can I help them solve their problem in a big way? Ultimately, this not only enables you to build a more meaningful brand and business, but it is also more efficient, gets you to the right thing faster, with fewer hiccups. Start with the customer, rather than starting with your product.
With the digital landscape expanding at a feverish pace, the branding world will most likely change right along with it. Where is branding headed and how can entrepreneurs be prepared for what is coming?
There is a paradox here. In one way, the modes of communication have radically changed over the last 30 years, and particularly the last 10 years. And they will continue to transform.
But what hasn’t changed is that we are serving human beings, who are equipped with the same human qualities as our ancestors, and this wiring doesn’t change just because there are new mediums for communication.
I think it’s smart to keep in mind that while the environment changes, the human wiring does not. Humans still love clarity, they love storytelling, they love companies that show integrity. The best way to be prepared for continuing transformations in the digital landscape is to keep a line of sight to who you are as a business, who your target customer is. Don’t just look at the things that are changing; look at the things that are not changing. That alone will invite trust and a deepening relationship with your customer.
You interviewed over 50 business leaders while researching for your book. What was one of the major takeaways you gained from speaking with all of those leaders?
I interviewed business leaders from start-ups to medium-sized companies to large corporations, and the ones who derive the most benefit from brand are the ones who use it to guide all of their decisions – not just the marketing decisions, but all of their decisions. They use brand as a decision-making filter for everything they do as a business – from building culture, to recruiting the right employees, to innovation, to partnerships, to pricing, to distribution channel development, and yes, traditional marketing. I perceived in these conversations just how many directions leaders are pulled in, and just how badly they crave focus and clear prioritization. It’s liberating for these leaders to have this North Star to guide how they make decisions.
What mindset or trait do you think every entrepreneur must possess in order to become successful?
Curiosity and the ability to adopt a beginner’s mindset. When you can be super-curious – a true beginner – when it comes to your customer, you can learn to channel them as you build your business whose goal is to serve this person. Curiosity is your superpower. It also makes it more fun, more gratifying, to be an entrepreneur.