Search This Blog

My Answer To: Which Comes First, Corporate or Product Branding? (Answer: Neither)

There are many different definitions of the verb "branding" or "to brand" so let me be clear:

  • Definition #1 is "creating an image" - more often than not through engaging the audience and relates to corporate branding.
  • Definition #2 is "creating a name, symbol, sign..." - literally the word or the logo and relates to the product side.
Most organizations are stuck in Definition #2 and badly stuck at that. There is a constant push to create new logos, names, etc. that signify action or attention. Quality is judged by the quantity of logos you have. Terrible, wasteful, only splinters the image and does not achieve the desired result except in the mind of executives, mostly.

The discipline of systematic naming along the lines of Definition #2 is "brand architecture". Lots written on that. I highly recommend any article at Branding Strategy Insider but this one is particularly good. Also Professor David Aaker's Brand Portfolio Strategy.

In my view #1 is getting progressively more important and will soon be superseded by internal branding. See this very rough chronology:
  • Beginning of time - 1950s: You did what you were told and #2 was primary. There was no such thing as #1. You bought image and image only and did not know what went on inside the ivory tower.
  • 1960s-1970s: The seeds for #1 were sown with the civil rights movement, antiwar movement, feminist movement, Watergate. Hypocrisy was the biggest sin you could commit. But still there was no Internet so not much empowerment of the individual with regard to forcing transparency.
  • 1980s: All things branding became the craze because it was a wealthy, high-rolling time. There was very little interest in #1 and a lot of interest in turning yourself into #2, though nobody really thought of it that way.
  • 1990s - 2010: We tried to recover from the 1980s but didn't get anywhere till nearly the turn of the century. At that point and progressively more and more, we figured out #2 and paid superficial attention to #1. Mostly because we started to realize that not only could you write a blog but others could too and you couldn't control what they wrote! OMG!
  • 2010 - Present: #1 takes center stage as all attempts to control your image prove meaningless in the face of social media as a tool and the axiomatic belief that every person has the right to their say. In this environment the leader is the brand but the workforce is restless and every misstep, mistake, or lack of coherence generates all-out rebellion, too often played out in social media. #2 often is a direct outcome of #1. (There is tremendous emphasis on metrics but in the end personality dictates #2.)
  • Going forward: The concept of the genius leader will be obsolete and the focus will be entirely on employee-generated internal communication. Meaning, that employees collaborate to get work done and in the process help each other find the information they need. We will see companies relaxing the rules on what employees can and cannot say as they increasingly try to engage them for the sake of the mission. People will increasingly be thoughtful brand ambassadors at the frontline level, or begone. In this kind of organization #1 and #2 merge as customers interface with employees and real-time user demand generates the products to be branded and sold. 

Clearing Up Some Misconceptions About Government Branding

Government vs. Private Sector Branding
In the private sector you build brands to make money. The means of making money is to establish awareness, trust, loyalty and preference by the consumer - to the point where they would pay more for your product than a no-name equivalent.
In the government you engage in branding so as to effectively inform and explain. This should result in increased understanding, participation, compliance with the law, more effective recruitment, etc.
Metric for Results
The ultimate metric for branding in government is not money but rather that it serves the citizens' needs.
3 Kinds of Government Communication
Communication to Inform & Explain
Within the U.S., federal agencies may engage in communication to explain. It's OK for the communication to be memorable and engaging, but there are limits. Agencies may not engage in three kinds of communication:
* Self-promotion 
* Politically partisan
* Hidden messages
Public Diplomacy
Overseas, where it is in the U.S. interest to combat misinformation and promote positive relationships between ourselves and the world, the law recognizes a legitimate purpose to persuasive communication. This is public diplomacy and it is regulated by the Smith-Mundt Act,
The irony of Smith-Mundt, particularly in the age of the Internet, that it was designed to combat anti-U.S. propaganda with the facts, yet unless 12 years have passed, domestic distribution is not allowed (a 2012 attempt to modernize the law was not enacted).
Military Operations
Further along the spectrum psychological operations (PSYOPS), a.k.a. "military information support operations," is used by the military as a nonviolent tool of combat. Joint Publication 3-13.2, defines this as:
"Planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals in a manner favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called MISO. (Approved for incorporation into JP 1-02.)"
Why Branding and Propaganda Cannot Coexist Anymore
In the past it was acceptable and even expected to tell a one-sided story. Today the facts are available anyway and the customer is talking back. That's why it is more "effective and efficient" to simply explain things as they are, and show your audience your reasoning. You can't control what they think, but you can show respect for the audience's intelligence. By being straightforward and owning your story, you show leadership. The organization appears as one that is credible, engaged, and effective at doing the job it is supposed to do.

*As always all opinions are my own.

How To Fix Yahoo's Brand: Take It Back To Quirky

Personality is at the heart of every brand. Personality starts at the top. And it defines the brand whether the leader lives, dies or leaves.

So many examples: Starbucks is Howard Schultz. Amazon is Jeff Bezos. Virgin is Richard Branson. Meg Whitman, eBay. Oprah. Trump.

CEO = Chief Branding Officer.

Americans love to idolize celebrities because celebrities are wish fulfillment.

Similarly brands fill a void in our lives. They help us find meaning and a kind of identity. So we crave people who represent the kind of people we want to be. They create brands. We patronize them.

Carly Fiorina was a terrible pick to lead Hewlett Packard. She is a smart person clearly. But she did not pick up the brand as the founders left it. She could not match the image or the spirit of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard and their famous garage. She did not inspire.

Yahoo has the same problem right now. Marissa Mayer is clearly a killer. I would hire her to run lots of things. But not this brand.


The Yahoo brand represents quirky. That's what it is. It's not meant to be mainstream. I just looked up who founded it - Jerry Yang and David Filo. They were trying to be "uncouth" but what they ended up being was weird, in a good way. Read this from Wikipedia:
The word "yahoo" is an acronym for "Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle".[12] The term "hierarchical" described how the Yahoo! database was arranged in layers of subcategories. The term "oracle" was intended to mean "source of truth and wisdom", and the term "officious", rather than being related to the word's normal meaning, described the many office workers who would use the Yahoo! database while surfing from work.[13] However, Filo and Yang insist they mainly selected the name because they liked the slang definition of a "yahoo" (used by college students in David Filo's native Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s to refer to an unsophisticated, rural Southerner): "rude, unsophisticated, uncouth." Filo's college girlfriend often referred to Filo as a "yahoo." This meaning derives from the name of a race of fictional beings from Gulliver's Travels.
Yahoo could have worked well with Microsoft, if Microsoft had celebrated the quirky that nerdiness is. My daughter watches that show "King of the Nerds" with the guys from "Revenge of the Nerds" on TBS - where they have the "nerd-off." It's hilarious - like "The Big Bang Theory" - but a little crazy. These are the smart kids, not the cool kids, and I like them better.

Quirky could be Yahoo. But it starts at the top.

Marissa Mayer is prissy. Prissy can't lead quirky in any convincing way.

To fix the Yahoo brand get a quirky CEO...the company is in Southern California...shouldn't be too hard to find.

Let that quirky person recruit other quirky people to get quirky content onto Yahoo, to create a haven and a home for those who are just a little bit left of normal - in a good way. Let Yahoo be the place for talented people, or wannabes, to let their "freak flag fly."

Internal Communication: More Story Means Less Data Required

When you provide information to your staff, do they know what to do with it?

If the data has no story attached - probably not.

You can give them a gigabyte of words and numbers and photos in an email. Who cares?

If they don't know why it matters then it's easy to hit "delete."

My experience has been that people expect very little from corporate communication. They know it is sensitive. A little hint goes a long way.

But covering the lack with oceans of no-context "information" doesn't cover it either. In fact it can make things worse - just like drinking salty ocean water when you're stranded in a boat.

Most of the time those stories are out there. Not on big broadcast emails. But in small informal gatherings where they must be shared. To make the speaker seem human, the organization real. To break the ice.

There are differences between audiences at work when it comes to communication preferences. There are those who already know the stories because they live them firsthand. For them the more raw the data the better.

Others are very far from the core. They don't know what's "really going on" and they need to in order to feel engaged.

The more shared story exists between organization and worker, the less explanation is required in any single instance. And then the data can speak for you.

It's about turning your heterogeneous dispersed workforce population into a nimble cohesive group that feels like a SWAT team.

To get real stories out takes a lot if courage at first. It means being real. The task is to share the conflict and the drama, the real challenges and how they are or are not resolved.

Communicating this way requires what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov called a "broken" heart. Not a depressed or pessimistic view. But rather the kind of openness that comes from realizing how fractured and uncontrollable any circumstance can be.

The stance of "broken" is not at all weak - not by a long shot. It is strength in humility and honesty before G-d (the Divine, the Universe) that witnesses and gives life to all things.

Broken communication is telling the story as a kind of living testimony. Neither good nor bad, right nor wrong, but always a struggle to achieve the mission.

Stories. Brokenness. Conflict. Drama.
A good laugh.

These are the things that people want to read. And once they get it, a little information goes a long way.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's Personal Brand Crisis

In the branding world there are only two things: superficial perception and the inside story.

There is no reality. There is only data. Data means nothing until you give it a frame. Nobody cares about the truth. (What is truth anyway? What is meaning? Graduate school made all that stuff debatable.)

Branding is a game of chicken. I put a story out there (the message), backed by an inside story (the framing of data), and you match me with two levels of perception. The first is what you think without thinking. The second is what you think upon consideration.

Now to Marissa Mayer. She has a serious problem on her hands. Which is that while the data may support her business decisions, her poor choices in communication have created a lot of negative noise around her personal brand. Translated into plain English that means: she's losing credibility as a leader.

From a completely outside perspective, watching only the news and the social media space, here are the communication mistakes she is making. All of them have to do with being tone-deaf when it comes to the brand.

1) Narcissism

Usually it's good to hire a high-profile, powerful-seeming person to turn a tanking brand around. But Mayer seems to have grabbed the spotlight. I seem to read about her in the news as much or more than I read about Yahoo. These days leadership is about helping the workforce to accomplish great things, not the genius leader. It's a lesson we all painfully learned when Steve Jobs passed (RIP).

2) Insensitivity

Mayer comes off as a privileged person who has never had to work a day in her life. Maybe she had good reason to end telecommuting - maybe the workforce was taking advantage - maybe they were doing that a lot. But the fact that she built her own nursery at work and then denied others the  same flexibility seems hypocritical. She should have known what people would think, and anticipated that in her communication on the subject.

3) Unpreparedness

Internal memos are routinely leaked these days. Media and social media scrutiny is ruthless. A skilled leader anticipates potential public relations crises and has a plan for addressing them, primarily going on the attack before the attacks come in. Mayer always seems like a deer caught in the headlights.

4) Inexplicability

I've been reading about various things Mayer has been doing to try and turn Yahoo! around. Some of them seem good - particularly her personal focus on new hires. Others I can't figure out, at least from a branding perspective. As others have pointed out, why would she go on the Today show to announce the new homepage when they have a partnership with ABC and Good Morning America?

5) A Darwinian Approach

The worst mistake Mayer is making has to do with how she treats people. There are iPhones, free food - and unrealistic deadlines. While everybody wants to excel, it is infuriating to bring your boss an idea and have her take it, then threaten to throw you out if you can't deliver it irrationally early:
"Mayer told the team she loves the new product so much that she wants it shipped by December 1 – months ahead of the schedule the team itself had put together. Mayer told the team they had one week to figure out if they could meet this deadline. If, at the end of that week, the team decided they would not be able to meet the December 1 deadline, Mayer said she would find a team that could." - Business Insider
Had Mayer first looked at the Yahoo heritage and isolated its "Brand DNA" - or what made it great in the first place - she could have worked with the workforce to revitalize the company and bring it back to health along a steady path. Instead her moves seem disjointed and erratic. She needs to mend fences with her team, put them out front, then explain what the company is doing, why and how - over and over again.


As always, all opinions are my own.