A shortcut to building a better brand

Building a great brand isn’t magic, it’s about working a system.  The system I’ve outlined below is a shortcut to building a better brand.

Great brands take years to build, 10 to be exact, and are built on 5 pillars.

1. Leadership

2. Culture

3. Marketing

4. Communication

5. Customer feedback

By understanding these pillars, it’s my hope that you’ll be able to take the shortcut to building a more profitable business and a great brand.  Stick with me, and we’ll explore each of these in more detail.

But first, let me explain how I came to decide on these pillars.


Branding is confusing.

In the hierarchy of confusing business terms, branding is right near the top. Advertising is simple enough. It is the messages we make then pay to spread across large audiences. The idea of marketing gets a little fuzzy. But because of the 4 P’s (place, promotion, price, product), we know marketing includes more than just ads.

Then there’s branding.

Branding is important. A brand lowers the number of competitors, earns consumer preference and earns more money/unit. But building a brand is often a confusing idea few recipes or formulas.

There are two great descriptions I’ve found for brand. The first comes from Marty Neumeier, brand guru, leader of transformation at Liquid Agency and author of Zag: The #1 strategy for high performing brands.  Marty says “A brand is the gut feeling a customer has about you”. The other comes from Ross Smith, the brilliant mind behind the brand company Mindshelf. Ross says “A brand is a promise wrapped up in an experience”.

Both Marty and Ross clearly put perception of your brand in the hand of your customers. Still, I struggled to understand what a company does to create desirable feelings in their customer. I wanted to know where things like positioning, leadership, culture, marketing and customers all fit in.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to fix this problem.  I decided I was going to learn 2 things

A. The common characteristics of high performing brands.

B. How to draw branding.

I’m happy to report, Mission Accomplished.


Branding is a system.

Last week I was the keynote speaker at two branding conferences.  These were the first events that I’ve ever publicized my drawings on branding brand building.  I am as nervous now (typing) as I was then (speaking) to show this to you.  It’s the same nervousness I had when I did my first few photography exhibits.  My art is on the wall for you to critique.  I’d really love to hear what you think – I welcome your opinion. Without further adieu, this is how I draw branding.

a shortcut to building a better brand

There are exceptions to every rule, but by and large this is the framework for building a great brand.


Components of the system.


1. Leadership

Steve Jobs wanted to create a “dent in the universe”.  Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO has a vision to be earths most consumer-centric marketplace. Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO has a vision to deliver happiness.

Great leaders have powerful visions of the future they want to create. Money and profits are not visions, they are the result of a vision. Visions are much bigger, they are the purpose which drives your companies existence. A strong vision will inspire employees and act as a honing beacon to customers. Great brands are not build overnight. On average, they take 10 years to build. This means that there will be dips along the way. Passion will to help you get through the dips and humble approach help you learn from them.


2. Culture

Would Starbucks be the exemplar brand they’ve become without their cheery, passionate baristas? Probably not.  They’d more likely be just like Second Cup, Timothy’s or any other big chain of coffee shops.

If branding were a two sided coin, brand and culture would be on opposite sides. On one side, branding: the way your customers feel about your company. On the other side, culture: the way your employees feel about your company. One builds the other. In other words, great cultures that build great brands need more than employees following orders, they need employees committed to the leaders vision.

In a traditional top down hierarchy, a leader may be able to achieve short-term compliance. Compliance (following orders), is important at certain times.  However, over the 10 year span it takes to build a great brand, compliance is not enough.  Visionary, humble leaders with passion understand they need employee commitment. To get commitment, great leaders do a few things differently than many other companies.

  • They build a culture founded in trust.  Its easy to dismiss this statement but trust is not a naturally occurring element in any of the organizations I’ve worked for.
  • The visionary leaders understand that their vision is a prediction of the future.  To succeed in their vision, leaders need employees to buy in.  Employees buy into the vision when they have the opportunity to invest in that vision.  Employees can invest when they feel secure enough to ask questions.  Questions lead to debate. Debate leads to learning.  Learning leads to ideas. Ideas lead to innovation.  Innovation leads to entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship leads to more growth.
  • The culture of great brands are lead by values, not profits. Since the marketplace and consumer needs are constantly changing, so the product de jour can’t be the sole focus of employee attention.  The difference between value and profit lead companies can be summed up by Harvard Business Review author Theodore Levitt who used the term “marketing myopia” to explain the idea that businesses do better in the long run when they focus on meeting customer needs instead of selling products.

In a culture that values learning and entrepreneurship, employees are able to multiply the effort of leadership by taking advantage of new opportunities in the market.


3. Marketing

Post-It note products. Service at the Ritz-Carlton. Free online university courses at Coursera. Ridiculously low prices at Costco. Each of these are part of marketing.  The mix of products, prices, places and promotions that great brands make or offer is more important to long-term success than the advertising they use.

When the marketing is done right, the product or service offer is the advertising. It creates word of mouth, and word of mouth is the most trusted form of advertising.  In the service dominated world that we live in, employees (people) who deliver remarkable (purple, as in Purple Cow) experiences that help great brands stand above the crowded market.


4. Communication

Check out this short commercial.


This is a real person giving authentic response to a remarkable in-store experience. The whole thing is captured on video and edited into a commercial. Commercials like these play on TV all the time, but in this case you’re watching it from YouTube. This commercial is remarkable because it converges all three kinds of media today.

1. Paid – The advertiser ScotiaBank pays to put this commercial together and distributes it through traditional and digital channels.

2. Owned – ScotiaBank can also use this commercial on their own media channels like Twitter, Facebook, their website or on TVs in their branches. It’s important to count the staff who delivered these recorded experiences here.

3. Earned – Customers featured in this series are giving away their own authentic reaction to a cool service.  This is a form of word of mouth. Bloggers, magazines and news agencies also reported on this unique campaign and ScotiaBank was the beneficiary of all this earned attention.

Great brands leverage a mix of all types of media, not just paid advertisements. This way they are able to scale both message reach and brand trust.

The mix of media helps organizations deliver the core message, or promise, through a value proposition.  Inside the customer’s brain are all kinds of boxes to categorize information.  Anchoring your message inside one of these boxes is known as positioning. However, your promise will remain as words until it’s backed up by experiences.  As they say, talk is cheap.  Only when you touch a customers heart, are they willing to believe in the leaders vision and pay more for the experience.


5. Customer feedback

In February this past year, I travelled to Las Vegas to visit Zappos’ headquarters.  Like thousands of other companies around the world, Zappos uses the Net Promoter Score(NPS) to help them listen to customers, measure performance and improve their customer experience.

key performance indicator, net promoter score
Net Promotor Score at the bottom left of the Zappos KPI dashboard


On my tour of their company I learned that every single employee, executives included, has to spend two weeks on the front line, working the phones with the customer loyalty team (CLT).

Zappos also gathers feedback from their retail partners and suppliers.  They open their books to internal customers (retail brands). This means that partner brands like Sketchers research, analyze and review Zappos’ own data to help the company offer better service to customers, create unique offers and be more profitable. With a customer-centric mindset like this, is it any wonder the company grew to over a billion dollars in revenue in less than 10 years?

Customer feedback, good and bad, helps organizations realize their potential.  Feedback helps organizations better understand customer needs.

With continuous feedback, a leader can make small adjustments to their strategy and plot a course to align their vision to the values most cherished by the consumer. The result is a customer-centric company focused on providing long-term value and earning sustainable growth.


What do you think?  Are there glaring problems with my Brand Growth System? What parts do you like?

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