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The Death of Branding and the Scam of Storytelling

Every brand is ultimately based on execution. Logos, packaging, unique selling propositions-- each is important, but ultimately your brand is based on how your customers -- and, in fact, your employees -- experience your products and services.

While many people don't agree, at least one person does.

David C. Baker is the head of ReCourses, a company that provides consulting, seminars, speaking, and writing for marketing firms. (David and I first crossed paths when he provided a great example of networking the right way.)

Here's what he had to say about branding, storytelling, and what truly differentiates a company and sets it apart.

But be forewarned: David doesn't mince words.

BNET: I gather you aren't a fan of the work done by the average marketing firm, especially since you titled a recent presentation "The Death of Branding, the Next Scam of Storytelling, and My Eternal Hope: Alignment."

DB: There are nearly 50,000 marketing firms in the U.S., and most wouldn't know marketing if it slapped them in the face. To most of them clients are like patrons of the arts, kindly paying for what the firm wants to do because the firm can't make a living selling pure creativity without tying it to business needs. If they could figure out a way to make money without clients, they'd jump at the chance. If they could do it without clients and without employees, they've be dancing in the streets. If they had their way they'd never specialize. They would brazenly claim that they were specialists in marketing anything, like barbers are specialists in cutting hair.

BNET: That sounds a little harsh...

DB: Maybe so, but it's also true. To many firms, variety is more important than deep expertise that benefits the client. Most marketing firms are forced to be experts in whatever new project comes along, through whatever medium looks interesting. For example, topic branding looked interesting, so they pursued it. Never mind they'd never had a class and never did any primary research, much less secondary research. Branding was just a word that provided the excuse to touch everything in the corporation, redo it, promise the moon, write a brand platform book that no one read... and then re-brand the company three years later.

BNET: But isn't branding still important?

DB: Branding is what a farmer does when all the cows look alike and he needs to know which ones need shots, are pregnant, or need to be slaughtered. So that's what most marketing firms do; they wrestle the "client" to the ground and "brand" them. It hurts like hell, it smells, the client cries a little inside, and the client is forever changed.

But nothing changes about the company. Branding, to the marketing firm, is merely an attempt to move upstream and have more influence, make more money, and fatten the portfolio but in the process -- and here, indeed, this is the saddest thing of all -- the marketing firm misses the whole point.

BNET: So why do so many companies turn to branding in hopes it will produce results?

DB: The average new Chief Marketing Officer typically lasts in the corner office about 23 months. Turnover in the position is incredibly high. So the title sounds great... but they typically have no power yet need immediate results. The biggest tool this brave soul has to play with is branding, and the marketing agency is cool with that approach because they generate lots of invoices and eventually hang another skin on their portfolio wall.

BNET: But doesn't the company still benefit?

DB: Often not, because for starters the way branding is done is typically all wrong. Most firms concentrate on visual uniformity rather than substantive differentiation. Plus, most branding is purely aspirational rather than transparently representative of the company. So people see the branding, compare it with the company they know, and think: Yet another lie in the advertising field. Their guard goes up and their trust goes down.

Technology has made this phenomenon even worse. PowerPoint decks and color printers make it laughably simple to have a "brand of the day" based on how you want customers to see you rather than showing them the truth.

I used to ask agencies to write on a piece of paper what set them apart, from a branding perspective, from the agency sitting next to them. Then I had them all switch papers, stand up, and read their neighbor's answer. Unfortunately they could embrace their neighbor's message with the same conviction as their own.

BNET: You're also not a fan of storytelling.

DB: Storytelling is just like branding; there are a few people actually doing it right and the rest are just getting on the next bus. There are thousands of books on branding and storytelling as marketing tools, and we have many useless books to look forward to. Just grit your teeth, live through the story-telling fad, pull the raw and real things from it and wait for the next wave, which is real in a way that neither of those are.

Storytelling has a place, though. Primarily it brings context and transparency to branding. And it involves the company's employees in less gratuitous ways. But none of that matters unless you are telling the truth.

BNET: So what does work?

DB: Alignment. Alignment is a healthy and well-articulated culture that helps the company do what it sets out to do. Branding can play a role in getting a grasp on what the company should look like to an outsider; storytelling should infuse those truths into the culture; but alignment ensures that everyone is pulling in the right direction. That's possible because everyone knows the direction, you've hired people who want to row in that direction, and managers understand that they are in the people business.

Here's the bottom line. Alignment is simply telling the truth: To your customers, to your employees, and to yourself. When you do that everything else falls into place. Then your brand makes sense and the stories you tell support your brand -- because your brand is you.

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Photo courtesy flickr user Dottie Mae, CC 2.0
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