Zen and the Art of Branding


Originally published in INC. Magazine

It takes some imagination, but think of all the truths you could discover about your brand that have nothing to do with the bottomline.

Brand. It’s a noun. It’s a verb. In theory, it is a universal promise — a declared intention, if you will.

But as an experience, it is complex, diverse, and personal. A brand is one of an organization’s most valuable assets. And yet, its actual value resides in the hearts and minds of its consumers and prospects. (Crazy, huh?)

Yes, branding is intricate, to say the very least. It’s practical and ethereal, inexplicably tangible, and intangible alike. And so, let’s take a fresh look at how to be brand leaders, managers, and doers. Let’s set aside our marketing funnels and budgeting spreadsheets for just a minute, and instead think of how we might approach our jobs differently if we were pursuing not year-over-year growth, but brand enlightenment.

Keep first things first.

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, then this is the best season of your life.” – Wu-Men

Stop. Take a look at your calendar. How do you spend your time — really?

Now make a list of critical priorities for your brand. You know, the “so obvious yet so seldom considered” stuff like how to activate new users, deepen affinity, and create meaningful evolution of your offering for the future.

So, how does where you spend your time — and where you should spend your time based on your stated priorities — overlap? Great brand stewards keep first things first, which means not just daily recommitment to a vision, but also the discipline to say no to the myriad distractions that add little to the brand’s proposition.

Mind the shop.

“Preoccupied with a single leaf, you won’t see the tree.” – Vagabond

Do you have key performance indicators? If so, with what frequency do you review them? And of greater import, how are you making these insights actionable for your brand, and integrating them into every part of your business?

Far too often, marketers become obsessed with the latest shiny object and forget about the holistic experience their brand is providing, which leads to vulnerabilities for the business, and false notes for its consumers.

Be authentic.

“Flattering words are but honey-coated poison.” – Buddha

Where is your brand “full of it”? You know, long on hubris and good intentions, but short on substance and follow-through?

Now more than ever, it is critical for your brand to be true to its intentions; in the participation economy, walking the talk is no longer just an opportunity to deepen differentiation or affinity, it is an absolute

mandate. And the brands that fail to live up to their promises will perish from the poison of inauthenticity sooner or later; it’s that simple.

Stay open.

“We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

In consulting with a very diverse range of clients for over two decades, it is staggering how often we see organizations create their own obstacles, jamming up the path to deep, rich experiences for their customers. “That’s how it’s always been done” and “Our process (or insert department here) won’t allow that” all-too-quickly harden into tacit cultural excuses for a lack of meaningful innovation, or even incremental evolution.

To keep your brand fresh and relevant, don’t allow yourself to get stuck. Don’t accept “no” for an answer right off the bat. Yes, the world is filled with real barriers and considerations, but be sure to invest time and resources in true exploration for your brand — pursuing “what if,” modeling new opportunities, and investing behind exploration into unchartered waters. Your brand, and its future customers, will thank you.

Everything matters.

“After enlightenment, the laundry.” – Zen Proverb

Yes, great brand stewards dream big dreams. Pursue innovation. Chase inspiration. But a great brand strategy is just that — scintillating thoughts on a piece of paper — unless they are made real not just in magical moments, but also in the very practical, common and even banal parts of a brand’s interaction with its consumers and prospects.

Said differently, it’s hard to be inspired if the bathroom is disgusting, the service is sub-par or customer service fails to actually provide service to the customer.

When you’re building a brand, everything matters. So while it’s imperative to pursue enlightenment, don’t forget to view every point of interaction that consumers have with your brand through their eye, and deliver on the little stuff that’s not so little.