Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes a weekly column about leadership, diversity, equality and more exclusively for WRAL TechWire. It is published on Wednesdays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Often, when we think of a brand, we think only of an organization’s logo or website, but that idea of what branding means is far too simplistic. On a more holistic level, your brand is both a representation of who you are as an organization and also a promise you’re making to your stakeholders about what you’re going to deliver.
One piece that leaders don’t typically don’t take into account is that your brand is also growing and maturing every day. It’s alive, it’s evolving, and you need to consider how it changes over time. When you think about your organization’s brand identity, you want to create an environment where people understand why you exist and how your existence helps them be successful.
Two fundamental questions should be on every business leader’s mind, especially when faced with market volatility and economic uncertainty like we’re seeing right now. Why am I spending money on my brand, and how do I validate the return on investment of my marketing efforts?
Last week, I sat down with Karen Albritton, board chair at the American Marketing Association and CEO of the Raleigh-based digital marketing agency Walk West, to discuss how executives can drive organization-wide growth by connecting business goals to marketing investments. The full conversation is available as part of the Talk West podcast, produced by Earfluence. Karen and I dive deep into the subject, and it’s worth your time to listen to the episode, especially if you’re a C-suite leader, marketer, communications professional, or brand designer. I’ll also give you a sneak peek here.
Karen Albritton: People typically think of branding as something that helps sales, and that’s certainly a key part, but the key to branding is to make sure that the market better understands how you can benefit them.
A good brand is definitely going to result in more customers coming to you, but more than that, it opens the door to ask, “Can I charge more?” Because if I have a brand that stands for something, that means it’s more valuable. Also, if I have a great brand, can I attract better talent? And, what value does my brand perception add to the market valuation of my business? I know so many companies that have commanded a premium because they had a stronger brand. And I think we all know of companies that have been acquired and, actually, the acquiring company kept their brand because it had so much value.
For the business executive, it helps to say “Let me think broadly about the promise I’m making in the market. Let me understand the distinct space that I occupy in the minds of all of my stakeholders.”
Donald Thompson: Right, the key is very clearly linking the growth of a brand to a business value that I can quantify. That’s really important for business executives who don’t understand all this marketing stuff. Why do I need an agency? We already have an email address. We have a website and a cool logo. Why isn’t that enough?
The reality is that there’s so much competition for mindshare in the marketplace. A successful and powerful brand allows you to be in contention even when you’re not physically there.
The stakeholders who are choosing companies and the employees who are choosing employers are at least checking your website to see what jobs are available when they’re looking. A client is at least saying, why am I not including XYZ firm? Because I’ve heard about them. I’ve read a white paper from their executive. I’ve seen them in the news for the excellence they provide, whether it be marketing, engineering, life sciences, or whatever it is. That connection with your brand gives you a leg up on the competition in a measurable and meaningful way.
KA: Absolutely. As a leader, brand should influence all of the decisions that you make. It should be your North Star. It influences what kind of products and services you offer, the partnerships and strategic alliances you make, and what your experience is going to be for both your customers and your employees.
DT: Brand strategy means business impact, right? When we think about business impact – whether it starts top-down with the board, or it starts bottom-up with your frontline professionals – it has to exist at every touchpoint that you have with people in your community, with all the people you’re trying to influence.
As business leaders, one of the things we do sometimes is we try to make things so simple and clear that we don’t actually look at the full, holistic value proposition. That’s something I’ve had to work on as a business leader.
We start a conversation thinking about our digital presence, but then we forget there are so many other things about our brand that are helping our sales professionals in the field to better articulate the value of our business or, for instance, are helping our recruiting teams attract better talent. Your brand also includes things like, what are you doing for your HR professionals inside the business, so your brand better articulates your value to employees.
When we think about all the functions of a business, and we think about them tactically, we also have to raise and elevate that thinking to consider how the brand impacts the everyday work of the people we employ and the clients we’re going after.
KA: I want to make sure we talk about the role of a brand as it relates to your vision for the business. I think we’ve all seen the situation where a company’s vision actually moves beyond their original brand. You’re a CEO, and you’re chugging along, and perhaps your market is disrupted. You decide you’re going to move from being in one market segment to multiple market segments, or maybe you move from providing a certain type of service to being a tech company. All of a sudden, the brand you started with – that sweet spot you occupy in the market, that promise you’ve made – it’s not big enough to subsume all you’re going to be.
Brands need to evolve as their business model and their market evolves. One organization that I’m familiar with in North Carolina, they’re in the logistics space. They started out in freight and shipping, but now they’ve evolved into an end-to-end technology solutions company. They’re working all the way from shipping and delivery technologies for shippers to demand and forecasting for inventory. They’re doing all of these different things. Their original brand doesn’t cover all of that, so they rebranded to convey that they are helpful all the way across the whole transportation spectrum.
We work with a lot of organizations that are now asking themselves, “Does my brand today really reflect the vision that I have for the business?”
DT: Remember those commercials that Spike Lee used to do with Michael Jordan, and the tagline was “It’s Gotta be the Shoes?” They showed Michael Jordan doing all these things, and you know, how does he do that? Must be the shoes! Think about Nike and the things they’ve done well from a branding construct. They created an environment where you felt like, if you wore these shoes, you too could be like Mike. And we all knew it wasn’t true, right? But it connected their brand with a bigger vision. Brands are about creating a feeling of authenticity. That’s how you connect vision with marketing.
You have to ask yourself, what are the things you want to measure as a CEO when you’re thinking about your brand’s impact? Number one, you want to be in business with experts in your field – somebody that is at the top of their game, so to speak. Everybody wants to be in business with an expert, or a top entertainer, or a top thought leader in their space.
The second thing is third-party validation. Who agrees with you that your brand is amazing? That’s where you want to show them awards and recognition and great content that you put out about your brand so you can reinforce what your brand is.
The final and maybe most important thing is, “If I engage with this brand, am I going to have a successful outcome that actually matters?” Those are the things I’m thinking about when I’m trying to connect the big idea of “brand” to a measurable business framework. The brands that do those three things well are the brands I tend to purchase as a consumer and that I want to build as a leader.
Listen to the full conversation on the Talk West podcast, and as always, don’t hesitate to connect with me on Linkedin if there are ways I can be helpful. I’m always willing to share my time with other leaders who are chasing big goals.
About the Author
Donald Thompson is co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, which offers an employee-experience product suite that personalizes diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) through data, technology, and expert-curated content. His autobiography, Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, is available for pre-order now. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. An entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and executive coach, Donald also serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology and sports. Connect with him on Linkedin or at donaldthompson.com to learn more about MicroVideos by The Diversity Movement.
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