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How brands actually work, and how to use branding to turn your small business up to eleven.
2013-11-02: One reason we are the most successful animal on the planet is that we have the most sophisticated sense of self.
We evolved that because there's advantage in it. If we meet someone new, it helps if we can plan how the exchange is going to go: I'll say this, then she'll say that, so I'll say the other and we'll end up where I want to be. We can imagine scenarios and plan strategies because we can model what others will do.
(Incidentally, some say that our sense of self is a simple by-product of this need to model others. It was advantageous to be able to model others and in creating that capability we accidentally got the ability to model ourselves and that became our sense of self.)
We need a simple way quickly to get into the heads of other people, so we make block judgments. That 20 year old black male from Manchester is like this, that 80 year old German woman is like that. We all have assumptions about pretty much every group of people: The Japanese, vegans, people who drive Porsches, women who go to five rhythms dance, men who go fishing, chessplayers, DJs, sportspeople, single mothers.
What we are mostly assessing is the values those people live by. Which values they put over others. Perhaps a vegan puts animal welfare above saving money. Perhaps a Ferrari driver puts adrenalin higher than family. Perhaps a single mother puts her children over everything.
Having attached our expected values to the people we meet, we can then model how they will act. If we offer the single mother an acting job in Venezuela, they'll probably turn us down. If we offer the Ferrari driver free cinema tickets .. that probably won't motivate them very much.
And of course, we know something about the values that we live by.
That all happens unconsciously. It's natural.
Brands are simplified people. They act according to a set of values so that they are easy for us to model them: they plug in to what we already do unconsciously, unthinkingly. So .. we know something about the values that Volvo and Red Bull, for instance, live by. If we value safety, we may buy Volvo. If we value adrenalin, we may enjoy being associated with Red Bull because we want to support them because we live for the same thing (it's secondary that drinking Red Bull shows the people around us what we are like).
If you live for adrenalin, you WANT Red Bull to be successful, regardless of the product because they live for the same reason you live. They, and you, want the same world.
Values are only worth something if you are consistent. If someone seems hard to understand, if we can't predict their behaviour, they seem erratic to us .. we will avoid them. We can't seem to grasp which values they live by. We can't model them, can't trust their behaviour, so we can't trust them.
Being consistent applies to ourselves, too. If a jazz lover with a penchant for big band swing finds themselves sat in the hairdressers and really enjoying a hip hop track with a sampled jazz loop .. what then? The fact is, they just enjoyed a little hip hop. So maybe it's the sound of brass instruments that they like. Or perhaps it's the jazz rhythm used in that track. Here's what happens: we adjust our values in order for our real behaviour to be consistent with our own value set.
This is huge .. it means you can change people with thin-end-of-the-wedge strategies.
It also means, being clear about your values and living them through every decision you take, everything you say, everything you do, that makes you easily 'modellable' by your customers, so they know what to expect and when they want what you do, they'll come to you.
So, much as graphic designers want to own it because it's where they get most of their income, branding really isn't the logo. That's just the face. And graphic designers live in a world where the visual is uber-important. Not everyone is like that .. some people lead aurally, others prioritise touch and feel. But everyone uses values.
The visual brand is just a cue to bring up what matters, the values the organisation lives for. And the brand identity should be an expression of those values.
Happily, working on clarifying your brand values isn't an expensive exercise, and it's quite quick. It's also enormously powerful.
And don't go thinking it doesn't matter because you run a secondhand record shop in a small town, or a knitting circle or a surf training school. Brand consultancy will cost you a mortgage, right? Not the way I do it .. it's easily affordable to any sized business. Even if you're an artist .. singer, poet. Clarifying what you'll stand up for: That Really Works.
And when you decide you'll stand for something, you stand against something. That can't be avoided. People stick on this because it means turning people away. Nowadays in this have-it-all culture, no-one likes decisions. No-one likes closing doors and missed opportunity. But, Lush/Body Shop: against animal cruelty, that's not so hard is it?
That's kinda my message. If you've read this far, you're definitely curious. Do this, and you'll stand out. You just left everyone else behind.
What would your business be like if your highest value was affection? Community? Thrill? Creativity? Seriously .. here's the magic. If you can identify the values your business will live and fight for, and then turn it up to eleven .. that's when you get Felix Baumgartner jumping off a Red Bull balloon from 24 miles up.
It's where stories come from.
It's what makes people talk about you (quite valuable in this social media age).
I don't believe in marketing as gloss*. Marketing is the core. Your values set your compass and they affect everything you do, from how you greet people to the products you sell, the way you sell them and the way you approach business.
So what about those people who won't like your new values?
Well .. you do get to choose your values, so if you are a corner shop and you've chosen excitement and everyone around you wants community, then .. you've chosen the wrong values or you're in the wrong job.
All you need is enough customers to sustain you who value the same things as you. They should become customers for life. They will talk about you with their likeminded friends, so you will gain customers without needing to market yourself. Your customer base will grow. Losing customers is absolutely fine if you're gaining better customers.
If you're a bland business, no-one really likes you anyway. And without loyalty, your customers will happily chase down your price. That's a way to work yourself to the grave.
Having defined brand values gives you zip, it gets you out of bed in the morning, it gives you purpose and you gather enthusiastic supporters.
How to apply your new brand values? I'll leave that for another blog. But if you fancy being a case study, I'll go halves with you, 50% discount, just get in touch.
Nowadays, I start almost every project by getting the 'brand values' right. It works.
* Actually, I think marketing is a massive force for good and is pretty much the only thing that can save us now, but maybe that's for another blog too :-)

By John Allsopp
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