Branding Happens: What Fuels Your Fire?

July 31, 2009

The whole concept of “branding” is a vacuous hustle, the majority of the time. You can spend outrageous amounts of money “improving” your “brand” with only vague ideas and doublespeak.

–Hamilton Nolan in “Corporate Bullshit at Its Finest”

As the last month of summer nears, AxisPortals has been planting gardens;  grilling burgers;  tending to the usual round of baseball practices, sleepovers, and chores; and contemplating the myriad evils of branding and rebranding campaigns.

Signs one has entered the land of “vacuous hustle”:

  1. Consultants are paid significant sums to ask you silly questions like, “If your company were a car/animal/tree/shoe, what kind would it be?”
  2. You and your team studiously answer these, but somehow your “brand” isn’t miraculously clearer and more well wrought as a result, nor are profits palpably higher.
  3. You expend a great deal of energy on vague and wistful branding goals, but are still  fuzzy on exactly what you’re doing, for whom, and why.

Now, AxisPortals, former English professor, loves a good metaphor, and would never suggest that metaphorical thinking cannot in fact be useful.  Of course, it can.  When you are pondering your brand, let the metaphors and the similes flow.  Develop analogies.  Picture what you are and what you want to be in vivid detail, and capture it in image driven language.  Let that poetic vision inspire you to action in the prosaic day-to-day world of your work.

But don’t mistake the poetry for the work.

AxisPortals is the offspring of a wildly successful entrepreneur/small business owner.  She used to love listening to his stories about the growth of his business, from the early times when how much money he could pull out of his pockets at the end of the day determined what was for dinner that night, to the later days when his client roll was far too large to hold entirely in his memory, anymore.  She paid careful attention as he discussed zoning and advertsing, competitors’ pricing schemes and government regulations, promissory notes and the wonders of compound interest.  She loved to listen to him talk to customers, and to note the ease of his changes in focus, tone, and diction as he moved from one to the other.

She never did see him pay anyone to ask him what kind of shoe his business might be, but loves to imagine the irreverant fun he’d have had with the whole notion of that.

Still, he was a bit of a poet, and a naturalist, too.  He effortlessly discerned does, fauns, pheasants, and foxes where AxisPortals saw only cornfields and prairie grasses.  He offered volumes of hardbound poetry as gifts, and his inscriptions were careful and heartfelt.  He would drop everything to watch the sun falling behind a tangle of bare branches.  And he not only allowed AxisPortals to develop literary interests, but downright encouraged lofty academic pursuits.

Thus, AxisPortals actually can tell you all about the various shoes he and his business might have been likened to,  among them the following five:

Steel-Toed Workboots: Dusty, grimy, tough, paint splattered, tied with rawhide laces, and made for work.  The smart choice for a “get ‘er done” business in which one might variously need to kick a cylinder or kick some butt.  Serious protection for one’s chief means of locomotion.

Classic Wing Tips: Well-made, polished, buffed, timeless.  A business must move comfortably in many circles.  Thus, the steel-toed boot for the nitty gritty, and the classic wing tip for the lawyer’s or the banker’s offices, the business dinner, or the community affair.

Deck Shoes: The successful business knows how and when to indulge in down-to-earth relaxation and fun. These are perfect for the baseball game, the county fair, the open-air art show, or the quick spin around the lake. Work hard, play hard, and be flexible.

Snowshoes: Sometimes, you simply must get to where you said you’d be, and you have to arrive on time.  Conditions are no excuse for tardiness or for failure to materialize.

Hip Waders: The very thing when branding experts show up with paint-by-numbers metaphorical exercises and hefty price tags.

For a business to have central metaphors or key corporate narratives (here’s a good basic  introduction to corporate storytelling, for those unfamilar with the term),  it must already be actively  living out the metaphor or the story of the moment with energy and conviction.

Branding happens whether we want it to or not.  It is the result of our business’s collective activities and attitudes, the result of our interactions with clients, the result of our approach to employees, the result of our public writing and speaking, the result of our relationships with colleagues and competitors, the result of our web presence, the result of our political sensitivity, the result of our passion and conviction, the result of our integrity. The reputation, perception, and conversation that these things together create in the community is, de facto, the brand.

Recognizing the inevitabilty of branding helps keep the psychobabble in proper perspective, and in check.  When it comes to branding, there’s simply no replacement for the natural power of your everyday actions and interactions to tell the world who and what you are.  Study or tweak the metaphors if you must (and do hang out with folks who can help you learn truly to see  what has been there all along–like a doe at dusk, still and silent at the forest’s edge), but understand that no mentor or consultant can ever write the “poetry in motion” that you are for you.    Ultimately, you simply have to live your story, composing it as  each day unfolds.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Etymologically, a brand is a burning piece of wood, and that may be the most useful branding metaphor of all:  keep the passion that fuels your fire always in mind, and tend to how effectively, happily, and willingly you carry that torch.  Beware, though, of beguiling metaphors that threaten to prevent you from carefully tending or passionately brandishing your unique fire.


The Automatic Investment: Social Media Presence and Your Company

July 30, 2009

For AxisPortals, the lesson to take away from the much talked about case of the Chicago realty company suing a Twitterer who was critical of their services is that all of us–every company, every brand, every product, every service, even every individual professional–has an automatic investment in the online social sphere, whether we realize it or not.

To the Twitter aware, it was immediately apparent that the company’s move was ill-considered, and the company’s official explanation of the background involved did little to alter that take,  which was swift and widespread.  The case immediately passed into the permanent archives of “how not to approach social media” lore.

AxisPortals, though, is less interested in the particular case at hand than in the larger lesson:

The Online Social Sphere Automatically Matters, and you Automatically Belong to It

You may not have a Twitter account or a Facebook profile, or belong to any of the other  similar services.  Nonetheless, you are always only a post away from participation, and because a good portion of your customer base or audience is likely to be participating actively, there’s a good chance that such a post will come sooner rather than later.

Are you ready?

The renter and the property mangement company apparently had a contentious relationship well before the twiticism and the overreaction to it ever hit the news,  so perhaps nothing much could have been done to repair that particular situation. Nonetheless the case makes a good illustration of how crucial it is to respond to criticism in the social sphere in productive fashion.

The main thing is not to fear it.  Indulging in the fight-or-flight response leads to either escalation or avoidance, neither of which are productive.

These strategies are better by far:  listen, learn, offer to repair the problem, extend a genuine thank you for the feedback, and make your moves towards establishing good will apparent.  After all, your response, too, will enter the social sphere, whether you deliberately put it there or not.

Here’s are just a handful of the many products, institutions,  and brands that AxisPortals has referred to via Twitter or Friendfeed over the last few hours:

St. Marys School, West Chicago

St. Mary's School, West Chicago

Good N Fruity

Good 'N Fruity

Dennis Uniforms

Dennis Uniforms

Cascade Drive-In:  Pretzel Coupon

Cascade Drive-In: Pretzel Coupon

Blackberry Smartphone

Blackberry Smartphone

Add in the products that friends and colleagues have referred to, reviewed, discussed, and provided links to, and such a list would run for pages and pages.

These spontaneous references are the natural result of people interacting with products and with each other.  We share our passions, our complaints, our desires, our gut reactions, our criticism, and our praise.

No company or product is immune.  Every company or product has a stake in the conversation.  It’s an automatic investment, and one that should be tended wisely.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Your automatic investment in the social media sphere costs you nothing, but failing to understand its worth can cost you everything.

For Your Summer Reading List: Social Media

July 27, 2009

The Authoritative Book On Social Media Finally Published | Social Media Explorer.

Something to add to the summer reading list!

AxisPortals Aphorism: Social networking strategists need handbooks, too.  Devote a few shelves to reference works worth keeping on hand.

The Tech Rush: Get Moony Eyed

July 20, 2009

AxisPortals came of age during the moon frenzy.  She read Tom Corbett books, drank bright orange Tang, begged her mother to purchase SpaceFood Sticks (the chocolate version was just barely edible, but the taste wasn’t really the point–it was the idea of the thing that mattered), and could, like most children of that era,  do a perfect imitation of a NASA launch countdown.  “Lift-off” soon became part of the  everyday vocabulary of childhood.

Even the  family cookie jar bore witness to the urgency and romance of the space race.

Over the weekend, the fifteen year old that AxisPortals knows best observed, in passing, that he found Facebook rather dull.  Oh, he said, it had been fun for a little while, but with everyone (and their parents and grandparents) there–and with the endless invitations, applications, and updates–the initial appeal for him had faded considerably.  On the whole, he noted, MySpace, despite its current lack of cool, had been a whole lot more fun.  At least it could be readily tinkered with, and it wasn’t quite so parent heavy.  Somewhere in there, he sighed over the boredom of it all.

AxisPortals wonders what, if anything, in the technological realm today fills us with wonder and excitement?  What makes us want to dance in the moonlight all over again?

Countless  gurus inform us of how we can and should use technology to improve our personal and professional lives, but it’s just as important to tend to what captures our imaginations, what fires us up, what gets us moony and starry-eyed, what makes us want to reach for something more.

AxisPortals Aphorism: In the rush toward technology, don’t miss out on the romantic rush of dancing by light of the moon, or the sweet challenge of reaching for it.

Summer Sounds, Summer Moods

July 14, 2009
The beginnings of a summer soundtrack. . .

Summer Tech: Nature vs. Technology

July 14, 2009

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee.
~Emily Dickinson

AxisPortals has been spending a good bit of time involved in extra-technological pursuits this summer:  perched on metal bleachers absorbed in baseball’s eternal dance of swings, slides, stretches, signals, and silences; crouched in gardens planting flowers and pulling weeds; settled quietly outside on cool nights,  head tilted toward the sky where lightning bugs blink high in the trees and bats scribble crazy black paths against the evening’s deepening blues.

AxisPortals has been to the carnival, too–braving Pharoah’s Fury, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Sizzler, and reaching once more for youth’s elusive brass ring with a few spins on the carousel.  She let cotton candy dissovle on her tongue, held her arm obediently still as a large but temporary tattoo of a tiger was applied, and gamely toted the assortment of toys won at various “give us three bucks and we’ll give your kid a cheap prize” booths.

Oh, yes.  AxisPortals has been technologically indolent, and has the fading sunburn and the collection of mosquito bites to prove it.

Work must always be tended to, of course, but this little bit of backing away from the various keyboards and virtual connections that sometimes dominate our day-to-day lives seems important.  Even though this bit of flowing with the rhythms of summer does only qualify as a small break–after all, AxisPortals did send several text messages from the carnival, and does tend to have the Blackberry clipped to her waist even while gardening–there’s nonetheless something peaceful and revitalizing about purposefully stepping away from tweets and blogs to dance to summer’s fleeting music.

AxisPortals Aphorism: If you can’t remember what bug spray, sunscreen, or an approaching thunderstorm smell like, back slowly away from your tech, and step outside, into summer’s dance.

Update: Glad to know that AxisPortals isn’t the only one who feels this way.  See “Twitter Slammed by Summer Doldrums”.  (Then, go for a nice summer stroll or swim.)