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.