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Secrets of branding: It’s not as easy as it looks

“The best way to discover what is, is first to learn what is not.” This Buddhist wisdom for seeking truth is equally useful for developing a brand. It makes sense. The essential characteristic of good branding is truth – in marketing, we call it “brand authenticity.” Successful branding is also infinitely complex – like truth, it is much too intricate for any map or playbook.

It’s often easier and more effective, therefore, to think of good branding in terms of what it isn’t. So I asked seven friends – each with deep and unique professional branding experience – to share their number one rule for how not to brand. Here is what they said.

A good brand is not a logo

Julie H. Wilson -– founder, Reasons Group

How do you define a brand?

“A good brand is a commitment to consistent delivery, quality and performance.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“Confusing a brand with a logo; thinking a graphic representation or clever tagline makes a brand.” Wilson adds, in some ways brands should think small: “Making the logo too large, especially on wearables or giveaways, is a frequent mistake. People are much more likely to respect and wear your logo or display your tchotchkes if the logo is understated, rather than blatant.”

A good brand is not rigid

Linda Berman – chief creative officer, Majestic Realty Co. (Fort Worth Stockyards)

How do you define a brand?

“A good brand is a rubber band. As brand professionals, we are charged with testing the elasticity – seeing how far we can stretch it before it breaks. It’s at the outer edges of that exercise that the magic happens.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“Rigidity. Following outmoded rules that no longer apply. Being too prescriptive and missing the point that we don’t really buy brands – we join them, feel them, love them. If you don’t give people a compelling, personal, deeply emotional reason to seek you out and remain loyal, they’ll look elsewhere. It’s kind of like a relationship”

A good brand is not flakey

Lisa Albert – director of marketing & communications, Texas Ballet Theater

How do you define a brand?

“People often think of a brand as a logo … but it is so much more. It is the feeling people get when they hear the name of your organization or product. It’s how they perceive you. A brand resides in the hearts and minds of your constituents.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“Inconsistency. A brand must be consistent. You must be who you say you are. Know who you are at your core and invest in being really good at that.”

A good brand is not conventional

Debra Morrow – previously president and chief creative officer of Witherspoon Advertising & Public Relations, now principal at Morrow & Co.

How do you define a brand?

“A brand is more than your story. It’s how your story makes people feel. If all it does is lead a horse to water, it’s not powerful enough.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“Being afraid to depart from the normal. As Mark Twain said, ‘Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.’ ”

A good brand is not timid

David Gravelle – founder of Gravelle Branding and Richards/Gravelle (The Richards Group)

How do you define a brand?

“A brand is the desirability of a company, product or person as perceived by real and potential clients. It is built by a promise you make to the marketplace. You live and die by it.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“The biggest mistake is not having the courage to be different. From then on, the challenge is to stick to it. The best-known, most relevant brands come with leaders who make it their mission every day to manifest a successful brand. Smart, dedicated leaders operating with courage — that’s what a good brand takes.”

A good brand is not rocket science

Mike Wilie, president & CEO, Witherspoon

How do you define a brand?

“A brand is what people say about you [or your business] behind your back.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

Although the process of developing a brand is often complex, the brand itself should aim for simplicity. “Businesses especially often make brands too complicated and therefore unbelievable.”

A good brand is not made by amateurs

Chris Chilton – director of marketing & public relations, Botanical Research Institute of Texas

How do you define a brand?

“The process of giving meaning to an organization and its mission.”

What’s the biggest mistake you see brands make?

“Thinking anyone can do it. Creating the right brand takes time, money and marketing and design professionals. When your company president tells you that his wife has a creative side and that she is going to try her hand at a logo … it doesn’t matter if her last name is Ogilvy or Mather, or even if it is spelled BBD&O – say ‘no!’”

Duke Greenhill is vice president of creative and strategy at J.O., a full-service marketing and PR firm. He writes about business and marketing for Fast Company, The New York Times, the Harvard Review and others. He has worked on branding projects for clients including MasterCard, Ritz-Carlton, the government of Monaco, Chanel, L’Oréal, Tiffany & Co. and more. Reach him at

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