Three dysfunctional beliefs about branding that urgently need a reframe

In the process of living our lives and doing our work, we acquire a set of beliefs: convictions on how something is done, or how we should behave. They help us make sense of things, form a basis for decisions and allow us to live a life we believe to be good. Dysfunctional beliefs on the other hand, are beliefs that are counterproductive. When it concerns branding, there are three dysfunctional beliefs in particular, that I see people buying into again and again. I hope we can truly say goodbye to them in 2018.

Dysfunctional belief #1: If you build it they will come
Reframe: If you build it some might come, but not without a hell of a lot of effort.

The quote, ‘If you build it, they will come’ (from a Kevin Costner movie in which the ghosts of dead baseball stars emerge from a cornfield) has no place in the world of entrepreneurship. And yet it keeps appearing, wherever you are in the world. Last year I attended the Sankalp forum, an investment event in Kenya, and the extraverted, charming moderator who was interviewing the entrepreneurs, kept interjecting: “Yes!! If you build it they will come, if you build it they will come!”. I wanted to tear my hair out.

Let’s be clear: if you build nothing, surely no one will come. But that is where the truth in that statement ends.

Hope is not a brand strategy. Have you ever put in lots of hours into a new initiative and just kind of crossed your fingers hoping it would be a success? I do it sometimes, we all do it, we’re only human. Let’s congratulate ourselves for being optimists, but now put in the work to make sure success is not left to chance.

The teeny tiny percentage of initiatives that become an overnight success, or go viral, blinds people to the sad truth that almost certainly, no one will come unless you put in a tremendous amount of work. Some experts even recommend investing 50% of your resources in acquiring customers, and the other half in the actual development of the product itself (more on this under belief #3).

Dysfunctional belief #2: if I brand myself well, people will discover I’m a fraud

Reframe:if I brand myself well, I will get the opportunities I deserve

Imposter syndrome is pervasive across all kinds of professions, all genders and at all levels of accomplishment. It is rooted in a lack of self-esteem, and creates the sense that you are pretending to be more than you actually are, and that others will expose you and be infinitely disappointed.

If you are a consummate professional but you have low self esteem and you present yourself to the world in accordance to how you value yourself, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Does that mean that you need to build a brand that covers things up, that makes you look on top of your game, totally stylized to perfection? Not at all.

If you are a starting enterprises or young professional, and you have big ambitions but there is not yet much evidence of success, it can be really hard to find ways to sell yourself well.

Does that mean you should build a brand that claims you made accomplishments that you don’t? Nope.

Instead, frame your intentions as goals or a vision that others can be a part of. We work with Internet of Elephants, a startup game company in the conservation space. They are currently on an ambitious quest to create a product, which they believe will change people’s relationship with wildlife and create an entirely new revenue stream for conservation efforts. Their goal is to get 30 million people to play and donate, but that is not an easy thing to say out loud when you don’t have a successful product yet. “Who are these guys”, I hear you thinking. Right?IoE framed their goal as their aspirational vision: they want to create a world where 30 million people wake up every morning to check what their elephant is doing. And they share a timeline of how they want to get there from point zero, and have chosen to open up their entire product development process and speak openly about what they learn along the way.

Cynics might say there is a small chance that IoE will succeed in realising their aspirations, but their courage to go for it makes them many more friends than foes. The benefit of a big vision is that you can find like minded people who share it, are inspired by it and want to support you in achieving those goals.

Dysfunctional belief #3:
Branding and marketing are overhead.

Reframe: Branding and marketing will leverage all our other investments

As a brand developer, I speak to a lot of founders with big plans. They aim for millions of people on their platform, dozens of important partnerships, you name it. When you look at the entire roadmap for how this will be achieved, almost all the resources will go to building the product, hiring people and covering the usual business costs. How those millions of people will be brought on board, is often a missing link from the equation.

Cartoonist Sidney Harris knows a thing or two about magical thinking.

Cartoonist Sidney Harris knows a thing or two about magical thinking.

Few entrepreneurs, especially in the social impact space, want to see percentages of 10 to 50% going towards branding and marketing: perhaps it goes against an unspoken belief that great products sell themselves, and great intentions will get their reward.

But the business case for return on investment of branding is solid, even in the social space. For our book, Brand The Change, we spoke to over a dozen entrepreneurs about building their brands, and one of them was adamant about discussing the importance of investing in branding: Macmillan Cancer Support, a UK cancer charity.

After a £120,000 rebrand, Macmillan’s income increased from £97.7m in 2005 to £244.9m in 2016. More importantly, in 2016 the charity gave 1.4 million people personal support, either face-to-face or over the phone, and helped millions more through their information and support materials. The new brand has also helped attract better talent to the organisation.

One in two people interviewing for a job at Macmillan cite the brand as the reason they want to work there.

More volunteers have joined, and strategic partnerships with other strong brands, for example with Boots pharmacy, have provided Macmillan with exposure to a massive audience.

It is useless to invest money into building a great product if you do not have a way of getting that product into people’s hands. Investing in branding and marketing means you are leveraging all your other investments.

For anyone who has a mission to reach millions of people, it would be good to research early on in your business building, how much it will realistically cost to acquire a single user/customer/donor. For some industries this is a dollar, for others six. Now that will open your eyes to what your branding and marketing budget could amount to. Forewarned is forearmed.

Now you can start filling in that part of the formula where the miracle occurs.

Have an amazing 2018, I wish you the brand you deserve!

More resources on Branding for Social and Environmental Change:

Brand the Change, the guidebook
A full guide to building brands for change, with 13 case studies, 22 tools, the anatomy of a strong brand explained, and 5 guest essays by brand experts with tips and tricks on everything from trademarking to PR.

Brand Thinking Canvas — our go-to-tool to build stronger brands for change

Brand the Change Tribe — a community of social entrepreneurs and brand experts sharing experiences, tips, questions and resources

The Brandling Newsletter — sign up to stay up to date on live events, training and resources on branding for change

TED Talk: How branding can accelerate social change

Social Good is Always Good Branding, or is it? — essay for Stanford Social Innovation Review
Why putting social first is not always effective, or as impactful, as it appears to be.

Three Dysfunctional Beliefs about Branding — blogpost
Beliefs that hold social impact ventures back from reaching the audience they deserve

The Brand Architecture Exercise that Saved a Social Venture Millions of Dollars — blogpost
Think twice before creating multiple brands or sub-brands for your company

Working to see the day when organisations with positive social and environmental impact outperform traditional ventures. Weapon of choice: branding.