Categorized | the branding notebook

The Branding Myth, Part One

At some point in throwing together a small business or start-up, you’re going to drive headlong into issues of branding. It may be something you read online or, more usually, a topic brought up by an outside vendor — a designer, Web designer, PR specialist, or copywriter. Branding is a ubiquitous topic, a word that drips into the mindset of everyone even tangentially related to marketing. And, it seems, everyone’s a branding expert.

But how important is branding for a start-up or small business? Sure, the whole branding package is the gravitational center of big ticket marketing. All the Godzilla-sized companies throw untold resources and uncountable MBA’s at the branding project, but what can a measly little startup with highly limited sources accomplish?

The answer is quite a lot and very little.

The place to start is to understand that all these bestselling authors and vendors are selling you a fiction, what I call, The Branding Myth: “You, too, can and should do branding. No matter how small you are or how few resources you have”

Not really.

Let me tell you a story. Three weeks ago, I interviewed a B-movie producer here in L.A. for one of the books in our Shoestring Venture series. Now, this guy is living the life of his dreams, but he makes movies that you probably never even heard of — they’re that bad. I’m talking forty or fifty thousand dollars per straight-to-DVD movie destined to fust unviewed on a video rental store shelf somewhere in the American heartland. They’re all the same: girls with guns in some commando or James Bond like adventure. Or, should I say, scantily clad. genetically fortunate girls with very big guns stomping around jungles or stomping out terrorists. You have never seen any of these movies — I guarantee it. You wouldn’t be capable of reading this right now.

He knows he’s making junk, but he loves his job (more than you do, I bet). When I brought up the topic of where he finds his screenplays, he let out a huge laugh.

“You know,” he said, “writers are really funny. Okay, I love making my movies. But they’re junk. Really good junk. But junk. I like to think they’re the best junk out there. But junk. Every time I fax over a contract to a writer, they always want me to insert some clause about a bonus if the movie wins an Academy Award. S***, no problem, I’ll put the clause in. How ’bout I give you a billion dollars if the film wins an Oscar? Sure! Happy to oblige!”

And he let out a huge laugh.

The difference between branding at the Proctor & Gamble level and branding at your level is just the same as the difference between an Akiva Goldsman and the folks writing this guy’s movies.

Realistically, branding is a complex, costly, multifaceted, and long-term affair involving integrated advertising, media placement, marketing research, retail management, forecasting, finance, and promotions, as well as increasingly larger servings of the newest and latest marketing methodologies, such as social media marketing.

Branding, in short, is an enterprise endeavor involving a dizzying array of capabilities and a disheartening amount of capital.

There’s a reason why the MBA count tends to be high in branding-related positions.

It is not — I repeat — it is not a thing that little businesses really do. For the same reasons they don’t do activity-based cost accounting or enterprise-wide business process management. Sure, a small company may use QuickBooks to track costs or haltingly use a project management system. But these are worlds away from enterprise-wide activity-based costing or BPM, activities which are too complex and resource-devouring to be profitably applied in full to a small or bootstrapped business. Though, of course, small businesses can kind-a sort-a do something very similar to activity-based costing or business process management.

Kind-a sort-a.

Branding is no different. To do branding the way it’s really done requires more resources and competencies than the average small business or startup can bring to bear on the project.

Now, I’m going to get my share of shrieking emails for that last paragraph, so I’ll repeat it.

Branding as it’s done in the real world is not something small or bootstrapped businesses can really do. They have neither the resources, time, or the internal (or external) competencies.

The “branding myth” is that any company — even one person working out of a basement — can pursue “branding” as a strategic endeavor. And most of the people who traffic in that myth — bestselling authors, designers, Web developers, copywriters, PR shills — have almost never done branding the real way, that is, the way Proctor & Gamble or Coca Cola do branding. (Or, if they have, they haven’t occupied any time living at the small or shoestring business level.) And these folks often don’t have even the remotest knowledge of key branding activities such as research, consumer behavior, or integrated advertising. Talk to the average corporate brand manager and the average designer and you discover, within a few short sentences, that they live in completely different worlds and have vastly different skill and knowledge sets.

Now, I’ve worked the branding gig across all wavelengths of the business spectrum. I’ve bopped with the big roundhousers, like Mercedes-Benz and Warner Brothers, the serious folks who can really pack a branding punch, like Iomega and Maserati, and the scrappy but small can-do start-ups and small businesses.

Whatever passes for branding at the small scrappy level ain’t what folks like Mercedes or Warner Brothers are doing.

The bad news, on the other hand, is that all companies have to pursue something like branding to be successful in the long-term. A small biz or startup can bounce blissfully along totally ignorant of activity-based costing or business process management, but they must do kind-a sort-a branding at some level.

Just because you can’t do branding doesn’t mean that liberates you from having to do branding. As Descartes said in a different context, “you’ve already launched the boat — you have no choice.”

And the good news is that there are branding basics that every start-up can employ that, without a great outlay of resources or complex demands on capabilities, can reap long-term, high-growth results.

The remainder of this series will deal with these “branding-like” activities. If your start-up is growth-oriented, it behooves you to get the branding foundations laid down correctly so you can build future branding competencies on solid ground.

And it’s a lot easier to learn than what it takes to be a brand manager at a joint like Mattel.

In part two, we start with ground zero of branding: the customer.

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