You know that thing that happens when you know the word you’re looking for, and it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t get it to come out? That’s really frustrating.

It’s also frustrating when you try to explain something to someone else that seems so obvious to you, but no matter what you say, they just don’t seem to get it. I mean, OF COURSE Die Hard is a Christmas movie, why should you even have to explain that?

That’s the same kind of frustration you might be feeling when it comes to your brand. That’s because while brand is super simple in theory, in practice it’s actually pretty complex. So if you’re struggling with how best to build your brand, that’s not surprising…because this stuff is hard. It’s hard to know where to start, and it’s hard to get it right.

Fortunately, we’ve been doing brand work for a long time now, and we’ve learned a lot of things along the way.

Through this series, we’re going to make sure that you gain a practical knowledge of foundational principles that will guide you toward a deeper understanding of how to think about your brand, your identity, and the way you should position yourself relative to your competitors. We’ll also look at how to create and manage the impression you’re making on your customers, clients, partners, and competitors.

We’re going to challenge you to think about brand in new ways. You might think, for example, that what sets your brand apart is some variation on quality, service, or people. And it’s true, those things are important, but they’re mostly useful for retaining existing clients. They don’t help you to win new clients.

You might also think that marketing is the answer to building your brand. But, while marketing is certainly an important component, it’s really just the process of sharing information with someone else—anyone can do that. Consider the billboards you see along the highway—the vast majority of them simply aren’t memorable. They’re great examples of the fact that if you’re not sharing the right ideas with the right people, then your marketing isn’t helping you at all.

This series is designed to show you how to dig deep to find the ideas that really matter and how to put those ideas together to form an effective strategy to shape your brand.

At Cultivate, we’re not interested in brand as an academic exercise, we’re interested in what brand can do. So we use a very pragmatic definition: brand is simply the perception that a group of people has of an organization, product, or service. Brand is the perception that a group of people has of an organization, product, or service.

Basically, brand is the set of ideas that pops into a person’s head when they hear the word “Starbucks”. The ideas people have about Starbucks might be shaped by the experience they have when they go inside to order, the commercials they see on TV, or the things they hear other people say. Regardless of the source, those ideas shape their perception, which in turn affects their purchasing decisions.

Brand is the perception that a group of people has of an organization, product, or service.

Basically, brand is the set of ideas that pops into a person’s head when they hear the word “Starbucks”. The ideas people have about Starbucks might be shaped by the experience they have when they go inside to order, the commercials they see on TV, or the things they hear other people say. Regardless of the source, those ideas shape their perception, which in turn affects their purchasing decisions.

Because we at Cultivate take a very pragmatic view of brand, it means we believe that three things are true:

Brand is.

Whether you know it or not or like it or not, as soon as people know about your organization, product, or service, you have a brand. And when those people hear your organization’s name, a set of ideas pops into their heads. So the first question you need to ask yourself is this:

Is your brand perceived in the way that it should be?

Do others really understand what’s great about your brand, and why they should engage with it? One issue is that it’s quite common for brands to be only partially understood. You might associate Starbucks with coffee, for example, but they offer so much more than that. So it’s critical to build a full understanding of what your brand has to offer to the people you’re trying to reach.

Brand happens.

The perception of your brand changes over time, because everything changes over time – markets change, competitors change, technology changes, culture changes, and organizations change. Because the perception of your brand changes over time, the next thing you need to ask yourself is this:

What are you doing to shape the perception of your brand?

Are you actively working to shape that perception, or are you letting the market or your competitors shape it for you? Organizations, products, and services all change over time, and it can be really hard to effectively communicate those changes to the people who need to know about them. Over time, this leads to the type of partial understanding or misperception that we talked about a minute ago.

Brand matters

Ultimately brand is about things that people think, the way that people feel, and the decisions that people make—and those things matter.

So you need to dig into what matters to you, and why, and then dig into what matters to the people you want to reach, and why. We believe that the real magic lies in the intersection between the answers to these two questions:

What matters to you, and why?
What matters to them, and why?

Going back to our earlier example, it might have been tempting for the leadership of Starbucks to think “we do coffee, so we need to find people who like coffee and convince them to buy our coffee”. But that would have been a huge mistake because it’s too simple and it stops short of what really matters: so instead, they went a step further by thinking about why coffee matters to their customers – why they’re buying it, when they’re buying it, who they might be with, and what else is on their mind at the time, etc. Thinking more deeply led them to build deeper engagement with those customers by doing things like providing tables for meetings, free WiFi, food to accompany the coffee, non-coffee drinks, and by creating mobile order and easy pickup. Over time, they built a deeper understanding of how and why Starbucks matters to the people that they serve.

In the end, that’s what brand is all about – how and why you matter to the people that you serve.

Now that you’re clear about what brand is, we’ll move onto how brand works. So far we’ve addressed the fact that brand is all about perception, but where does that perception come from?

We believe that perception is built on two key building blocks: expectation and experience.

The initial decision that a person makes to engage with a brand – to buy a product, choose a restaurant, apply to a university, decide to work for an organization, whatever – is based on that person’s perception, on what they believe to be true.

Once that decision is made, though, reality kicks in. They might think that a product is going to solve all of their problems, or that a restaurant is going to be great, or that the school they’ve applied to is the perfect place for them, or the new position they’re seeking is their dream job, but ultimately, it’s their experience that dictates how they feel about their decision and whether or not they stick with it and/or make the same decision again.

What that means is that in order to build your brand effectively, you have to set the right expectations and then be able to deliver an experience that’s consistent with those expectations.

It turns out that this is surprisingly easy to get wrong. Successful organizations generally know how to effectively deliver a product or service, but often will undersell their capabilities, either because they simply haven’t focused on what their external message should be, or because they lack the confidence needed to really tout their abilities. This leaves consumers with no reason to choose the organization, or their products or services.

On the other hand, sometimes organizations try to promote their abilities using empty platitudes – “top notch quality service,” “industry-leading products,” “outstanding customer service,” or the like. Their natural instinct is to focus on what’s important to the organization, how they pride themselves on their products or services.

Look, it’s important to know what you bring to the table, what’s great about what you have to offer to the people you serve. But it’s equally important to understand that nobody cares about you. People only care about the way something makes them feel, about how they want to be perceived, and about what they want to achieve. You only matter to them in that context – that’s the reality.

So if you want to build a brand, it’s important to set expectations consistent with an idealized version of your organization, products, or services, then build a culture that lives up to those expectations.

And to do that, you have to be able to figure out what actually matters – both to you, and to your audience. That, as it turns out, is the hard part: Finding what matters.

You know all the things that are great about your organization; you know the things that excite you; and we’re sure you have a lot of thoughts and ideas about the direction your brand should take. But it’s tough to be objective when you live and breathe your brand every day.

Also, it can often be really challenging to find exactly the right words to express what you’re truly about. But finding the right words and ideas to focus on is imperative if you’re going to lay the foundation for what you’re hoping to achieve. That’s where we can help.

We understand that you want your brand to be respected in a specific way – you want to be able to complete the sentence: “those guys are great because [blank].” It’s likely, however, that your first instinct will be to fill in that blank with a restatement of those ubiquitous values: quality and service. But to get it right, you’ve got to go one step further and ask yourself this: Why do quality and service matter to you? Why do you care about what you do? Is there something that matters to you beyond profitability?

We will often ask clients this question: If we gave you $10 million would you retire or is there something else keeping you doing what you do?

It’s a question that’s designed to help reveal the things that really matter to those running an organization. Because no matter what your profession, the thing that you do invariably impacts people’s lives in some way. You’ve got to identify who those people are and what impact you’re having on them, and why that matters to you.

When we, at Cultivate, dug deep on this question, we decided that what really matters to us is making great work. And by that we specifically mean “work” not “art.” We wanted to make things not just to please ourselves, but to make a difference for our clients. In other words, we wanted to go beyond making a statement on our own behalf, to ensure that we’re also making a statement on behalf of our clients, making sure that we’re representing their point of view, not just our own aesthetic preferences. Understanding that has allowed us to define greatness in terms of the impact we’re having rather than whether or not the things we make fit our own tastes.

So that’s what matters to us: making great work. We want to be respected as “the guys who make great work – work that really has an impact on organizations.”

So now you know you’ve got to figure out what matters to “them.” But before you can do that, you need to think about who “them” is.

It’s completely understandable if you immediately identify “them” as your customers or the people you serve. After all, your business depends on the people you do business with or for. But every organization addresses more than one group of people: big or small, it has employees, potential hires, maybe even volunteers. Some organizations have partners, and many have various kinds of customers or clients. All of these “thems” have to be considered at some point in the process since each will have an impact on how your ideas about your organization are formed. So the next question is, which of the “thems” should you address first?

At Cultivate, we chose to start with our clients. The challenge was that our clients come to us for a number of reasons and looking for different services, so it wasn’t at all clear at first how to think about “them” as a group and figure out what “they” care about. We needed to dig deep, to find an insight that would tie all of our ideal clients together.

The key for us was to identify those we serve best. Anyone can buy our services or products, but those things fit some people better than others. What we were looking for were those ideal someones, and the thread that tied them all together.

Once we’d identified that thread, we worked to understand what was driving that ideal client or group of clients. What were they asking for and why? What did it do for them?

The conclusion we came to was this: regardless of what a client was asking for—whether it was a website, or a social media strategy, or photography, or app, or a video—they were asking for it because they recognized some sort of unrealized potential. There was something that they wanted to get after but they didn’t know how. And the thing they were asking for was a means to that end, not an end in itself.

The thread that tied together our ideal clients was unrealized potential.

What mattered to them was finding a way to achieve their full potential, and our products or services were a means to that end. What mattered to us was doing work that makes a difference. The intersection of those two things was to communicate that the work that we do has the kind of impact that allows our clients to reach their full potential.

Finding the magical intersection between what matters to us and what matters to them gave us a place to start building a brand strategy focused on what really matters.

The strategy we developed has three essential components: identity, position, and campaign.

The first component of an effective brand strategy is identity: a simple straightforward factual statement about who you are and what you do.

And the really important part of building an identity statement is to understand that it isn’t designed just to inform, it’s also designed to introduce the critical conversations you want to have surrounding your organization.

For us at Cultivate, the simplest form of our identity statement is that we are a “brand agency committed to ensuring that our clients matter to the people that they serve”. This functions as a face value, straightforward statement of who we are and what we do. But it also introduces a few critical conversations that we want to have with prospective clients:

What does it mean to be a brand agency?
What does it mean to matter?
How do we make sure that our clients matter to the people they serve?

All of these important conversations allow us to elaborate on who we are in a manner that’s appropriate for the situation. That way, we can adapt what we need to talk about based on the context, and the client, and not be locked into a rote script. It acts as a framework that allows every person on our team to talk about Cultivate in a way that is simultaneously individualized and consistent across the board.

Having an identity statement is a great start to building a brand, but by itself, it’s not enough. You have to push farther to build a deeper understanding of why you do what you do and what you’re going to stand for as an organization.

Position is often thought of in terms of how one brand positions itself relative to another brand. The only issue is that we often find that approach leads to thinking in terms of differentiators, which can cause a couple of critical problems.

The first problem is that trying to focus on your differentiators can lead you on a fool’s errand, because not all brands HAVE strong differentiators. If you think about it, what’s the difference, really, between McDonald’s and Burger King? You might be able to name some differences, but none of them are particularly significant. And this is true of many brands, particularly in commoditized industries. So you may end up searching for something that doesn’t exist, and focusing attention on a so-called “differentiator” that isn’t actually meaningful.

The second problem is that focusing on what makes you different isn’t necessarily compelling, because—and don’t take this the wrong way, NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOU. People only care about themselves and what THEY want to accomplish. Your organization, products, or services are simply a means to that end. People don’t really care about what’s different about you – they only care how engaging with you will benefit them.

So that’s why we choose to think about position in terms of an idea or set of ideas around which you can rally your team. It’s the place you’re going to plant your flag, the thing (or things) for which you’re going to stand. Position is primarily for you, not for “them.”

However, rallying your team around a specific position will affect the way in which your organization behaves and the decisions it makes; which ultimately affects the experience people have when they’re interacting with your organization and the benefit that they receive; which, in turn, affects the way that they view your brand. In other words, position ends up being what you show to people rather than what you say to people, and it’s what ensures that you’re delivering on expectations.

McDonald’s, for example, positions around the idea of “good food, served fast, at a fair price”. You won’t see this on their promotional materials, but you’ll see those ideas reflected in the way that they source and pre-prepare their food (to control costs and also ensure consistency, which is a kind of “good”), the way they lay out their restaurants (again, to ensure both consistency and speed), and the way that they run their point of sale terminals (optimized for transaction speed).

Conversely, Burger King positions around the idea of putting the customer first, leading to marketing messages like “have it your way.” Two similar organizations, two very different positions, resulting in distinct, clearly differentiated brands.

When working out a set of ideas for your position, it’s important to understand whether your primary goal is to inspire people inside your organization or to inform the decisions that you make.

At Cultivate, we felt that our team was already fully engaged with our organization and that inspiration wasn’t the thing we needed the most. So we designed a position statement that would help inform the decisions we make and the way we approach our work. What we know for sure is that what matters to us is making work that has an impact. We also know that what matters to our clients is achieving their full potential. That’s why we chose to position around the idea “mattering, not marketing.”

We really like this idea because it gives us an easy way to evaluate the decisions we’re making. It isn’t sufficient merely to do marketing, we also have to ask ourselves whether or not the work we’re doing is actually helping our clients to matter. And over time, as we continue to keep our focus there, it will show in the work that we do and in the experience that our clients have.

But while this works really well for us internally with our team, it’s the wrong message to use with people outside of our organization. Many clients come to us because they want help with marketing, and “mattering, not marketing” might be a turnoff for them. Which is why the third piece of the strategy—campaign—is so important.

Campaigns are about doing the work necessary to communicate a specific message to a specific group of people to achieve a specific set of objectives.

A campaign can be anything from a large multi-channel marketing campaign with videos and billboards and social media outreach, to a new set of talking points for front-line sales representatives, or even just an update to an organization’s website.

Designing a campaign always starts with identifying objectives and audiences. Once it’s clear who you need to reach and what you need them to do, then you can focus on designing the right message and do the work needed to deliver that message to them via the appropriate channels.

Identifying objectives and audiences might seem pretty straightforward, but what we’ve found is that it can be easy to think about those objectives in an overly simplistic, self-focused way.

Here’s an example: “drive more sales.” Ok, so what’s wrong with that? Well, the problem is it leads to thinking about audiences in a very superficial and overly simplistic way, like “people who need our product.”

In our experience, it’s much more useful to reframe objectives in terms of decisions that we want our audience—our clients in our case—to make. So to accomplish that, we might take the statement “drive more sales” and rework it to say: “the objective is to encourage more people to decide to buy our product.” That might seem like simple semantics, but what it does is shift the focus onto two critical components: people and decisions.

By this point in the process a good amount of thought has gone into gaining a better understanding of our clients: who they are and what matters to them. But there’s still a lot more digging for us to do. Yes, we know what’s driving them, and we feel confident that we understand what they’re trying to achieve, but what are they like? What do they care about? How do they think about themselves? And most significantly, how do they want to be perceived by others?

It’s critical that we understand our clients’ perspective on the decisions that we want them to make.

There are two primary drivers for the decisions that people make: utility and identity.

Decisions driven by utility are entirely pragmatic. We all frequently make those kinds of decisions, like when we choose a dentist, for example. Most of us would start by choosing a dentist with a good reputation, who we believe to be competent. We might base our decision on reviews, a reference from a friend or family member, or years of experience, but, regardless of the metrics we use, choosing a dentist is still a pragmatic decision. The choice of dentist carries no particular prestige.

In making these kinds of decisions, what a person really wants to believe is that the brand knows what it’s going to take to achieve their objective. The decision of dentist is based on whether or not the person believes that the dentist knows what he or she is doing and that they understand what it’s going to take to achieve a positive outcome – not just in terms of dental health, but also in terms of the experience itself: cleanliness and comfort of the facilities, ease of dealing with insurance, etc.

Conversely, decisions that are driven by identity are largely based on how people feel about themselves and/or how they want to be perceived by others. Luxury products–luxury cars, luxury watches, luxury clothes–are the clearest example of this. Yes, each of these products has a utility, but to some extent, each is designed to show that the purchaser has wealth or taste or class or all of the above.

Most decisions, however, lie somewhere on a continuum between utility and identity. The person shopping at Whole Foods is making purchases that definitely have a utility, but they are also making a statement about who they are, what they believe, and how they want to live. The person deciding between an Apple’s iPhones and a Samsung Galaxy is sometimes making that decision on a utilitarian basis (e.g. cost) and sometimes making that decision as a statement of their identity.

By shifting the objective of our campaign from being internally focused (“drive more sales”) to externally focused (“encourage more people to decide to buy our product”), we’re able to clearly identify the drivers for that decision: Is the decision being made primarily out of utility or primarily out of identity? Understanding which is which allows us to think about the target audience and develop a message that is specifically tailored to be as compelling as possible for them.

In the case of utilitarian decisions, the message needs to communicate that the brand understands what it’s going to take for the person to achieve their objective. That means developing a deep understanding of what the person wants to achieve, what they need to do to achieve it, and why they want to achieve it, and then developing a message that connects the brand’s identity and position to one or more of those drivers.

In the case of decisions based on identity, the message needs to focus on communicating that the brand understands what the person is like and how they want to be perceived by others. That means developing a deep understanding of the psychographic profile of the audience – what thing they believe about themselves and about the world, how do they want to be perceived by others and why that’s meaningful to them, etc… Once we’ve achieved that, we can develop a message that connects the brand’s identity and position to one or more of those drivers.

Going back to our experience at Cultivate, the thing that was most helpful to us was when we started to understand that our clients were coming to us because of some type of unrealized potential.

At first, it appeared that the decision to engage with us was a utilitarian one—our clients wanted to achieve something, and we were means to that end. But while that was certainly true, it was not the whole truth.

When we dug in more deeply, we realized that this unfulfilled potential was always rooted in the sense that our clients weren’t being properly understood by others. And that ultimately, that was the source of their frustration – being misunderstood. Others just didn’t get it, didn’t understand the organization, and didn’t understand why it was important to engage with them.

So what we did was take our position—“mattering, not marketing” — and use it to shape a message that fit their pain point: Marketing, meet mattering.

Our clients understood what marketing is, that was not the problem. The real issue was that whatever they were doing for marketing wasn’t helping them to actually matter. Promising that we could solve that problem, that we could ensure that they actually matter (and are therefore no longer misunderstood) is what made the case for why they should choose to work with us.

That message — “Marketing, meet mattering” — allowed us to reach our target audience (prospective clients) in a way that attracted ideal clients to us, clients who felt misunderstood, clients who really wanted to matter. So not only were we creating a way to achieve our objective of encouraging more people to decide to buy our product, we were also attracting the right people, the people we were best able to serve.

Once you have identified exactly the right message for your ideal audience, all that’s left is to identify channels: face-to-face meetings, phone calls, email, your website, social media, etc.

For us the primary channel was the web, so we refreshed our website to focus on the “marketing, meet mattering” message, including revamping our case studies to focus attention on what it means to matter, and how we helped our clients be better understood by the people that they serve.

You can see examples of that work by visiting our case studies.

So whether you’re looking to reshape perception, get your message out, or hire the right people, we want to share with you the work we did at Cultivate to achieve those goals for ourselves. And we want to look at some of the things that we have learned along the way that will help you to build a brand that truly matters.

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We’ve developed and refined an approach to brand that is very pragmatic—one that works in practice, not just in theory—and we can’t wait to share every detail with you.