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November 17, 2023
Branding is a long arc game.
The vast majority of organizations don’t have the budget, market position or celebrity status to make a big splash. Not anymore. Not in today’s media landscape.
We live in a world where anytime anyone makes anything, they compete with everyone.
But brands don’t want to confront this cold reality, because they think they’re special. The assume building a better mousetrap, or even just a different mousetrap, is still enough of a value proposition to earn the world’s attention.
I’ve spent twenty years building brands, and in my experience the smarter, more sustainable strategy is to create a continuous drumbeat. To achieve small storytelling victories over time across many channels.
Take the function of public relations. Every employer of mine that hired an agency to execute top of the funnel brand awareness had unreasonable expectations.
First, companies assumed top tier coverage could be secured immediately. My founders basically said, look, our product needs to be front page news of the biggest magazine in the country, by next week, otherwise we cancel our contract.
And it was a lovely ambition and certainly not unachievable in the long term. But the truth executives don’t want to hear is, the ramp up period with an external marketing agency takes six weeks. That’s the minimum required onboarding time for any outside team to do intake with the company leaders, understand the brand, and get the inbound and outbound flywheel spinning.
And that’s if brand identity is intact. If the executives are disjointed in their respective goals and visions of the company, then the process will take even longer. Because in the world of marketing, identity is the ultimate lubricant.
Stories move an order of magnitude faster and smoother when everyone is aligned with who they are.
Here’s another unreasonable expectation companies have for branding. I call it the one off fallacy.
Founders in particular want to tell their entire story in one fell swoop. Rather than being methodical and parsing out their brand piece by piece over time, they go for broke.
It reminds me of the parody song on how the internet is overwhelming and impossible to sustain:
Could I interest you in everything? All of the time? A little bit of everything, all of the time. Apathy’s a tragedy, boredom is a crime. Anything and everything. All of the time.
That is honestly what companies believe branding is. Let’s go tell the whole world about all this amazing thing we do, right now, for one time only, and then we can coast on that viral wave until next year.
I remember the founders at our startup literally trying to do this. Now, keep in mind, these leaders were engineers and salespeople who had zero experience doing marketing, so we can’t fault them.
But they spent two full months trying to write a single press release. Two goddamn months. For one page of text. There must have been five or six drafts floating around, and that still wasn’t good enough to take to market.
My favorite part of this debacle was, instead of meeting with our agency twice a month, the head of sales suggested that we meet twice a week.
Yes, let’s quadruple our cadence, and each time we gather, we will try to throw the kitchen sink of product launches, fundraising announcements, company acquisitions and growth milestones into one bloated marketing mess.
Meanwhile, our poor public relations agency kept telling the executive team, look, you’re trying to do too much here. This is a story with way too many main characters, narrative arcs and plot points. It’s going to be impossible to tell our story in just one press release. We need to just pick one angle, tell that story well, and when the momentum dies down, we’ll pick another one. And another one after that. And another one after that.
I was so frustrated by the process, and felt powerless to make an impact, despite my extensive marketing experience.
Okay, we’ve talked about two unreasonable branding expectations thus far. The assumption of speed, and the fallacy of one offs.
The last one is called the myth of quality.
Have you ever worked with someone who overreacted to every piece of feedback and micro optimized themselves into oblivion? Have you ever had a colleague who spent so much time adapted to every minor variation in metrics that she never executed anything?
This personality gives me hives. Because it’s rooted in perfectionism. Which is rooted in fear. And that’s no way to live a life. Or run a business.
I’m not saying doing great work isn’t important, and I’m not saying there isn’t a time and place for performance metrics.
But great brands get built by companies who ship regularly, It’s a numbers game.
The only way to create things that have the potential to change the world is by executing work that might not be as good as you’d like it to be. Think of it as a mantra.
Imperfectly done now is better than perfectly done never.
As example, my boss once told me during a performance review that a few of my published pieces had missed the mark. He said sometimes the tone was off or the topic was too niche for our customers.
Now, my instant response to his criticism was, okay, fair enough. I own those mistakes. Happy to course correct. Simply tell me what you’d like me to do instead, and I will execute against that creative direction immediately.
But then the feedback slid into unreasonable territory. This is where the myth of quality reared its perfectionistic head. My boss continued with his performance evaluation and said the following.
Scott, you write some great stuff, and then you write some not so great stuff. And we need you to only write the great stuff.
Man, you should have seen the blood drain from my face when my boss said this.
Really? That’s your feedback to the only writer you have on staff? Only write great stuff? Do you have any idea how creativity even works?
I was pissed. I collected my thoughts and replied:
Look, you can’t expect someone who composes ten thousand words a week to hit the bullseye every time. I promised you, I’m going to produce content that is subpar. That’s just part of the process. But the only way to do great work is to do a lot of work. Quantity begets quality, not the other way around. You can’t just have one without the other. Both are necessary elements on the one spectrum of execution.
That, my friends, is the myth of quality. If you want to build a brand, not everything you do is going to be top notch, and that’s okay.
I understand and appreciate that companies want to put their best foot forward, but they’ll never capture an audience by putting no foot forward.
Brands live and die on momentum. Even if what the company ships into the world isn’t a ten out of ten, that work can still move the story forward.
Remember, branding is a long arc game. It takes years. Decades. It doesn’t take millions of dollars, it take moments of imagination.
Lots of moments.
And if we’re lucky, after a while, somebody somewhere will care.
Does your brand have an entire mountain of gold you continually mine, or are you trying to live off one nugget for fifty years?