Why did a hick from the heartland write a book on branding?
That’s an easy question. I love branding. I love it more than my hometown.
Besides, my time between the cows taught me the essence of branding:
Sh*tstained cows don’t sell.
Granted. This sounds less profound than your average Steve Jobs quote. But it’s true. Why? Because building a brand is about convincing folks.
And sh*tstains don’t help.
You must polish your cow if you want to convince people.
That’s all there is to it.
Yes, I know that you’re not selling cows. (Ranchers don’t read.)
The cow polishing is an analogy.
Let me clarify.
Cow means your project.
This can be your product, business, charity, person or party. But the word
project simplifies things.
Polish means building a brand.
And building a brand is making sure your stuff says the right things.
What is this stuff? Good question.
Everything representing your project, from your name and logo to your packaging and personnel.
What are these right things? Simple.
That which makes people think your cow – I mean project – is valuable.
How your brand creates value
There once was a Roman who said that “everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it”. He meant that value is subjective, dependent on the thinking of the buyer.
If someone has a problem, and they think you can fix it – your project is valuable to them. The more useful they think you are, the more valuable you are.
In other words, people think your project is useful when they think your project can help them.
Value = people thinking you are useful.
Cow buyers need quality meat. Donors need happy feelings. Voters need representation. These needs can make your project useful to them. If they don’t feel your project will meet their needs, they will not buy, donate to, or vote for it.
Now that’s where your brand comes in. By making it say the right things:
Your brand makes people perceive your project as useful.
Cows should be perceived as tasty. Charities should be perceived as effective. Politicians should be perceived as having a voter’s interest at heart.
As our Roman implied, this perception is subjective. But subjectivity is what makes branding fun.
And being able to influence perception makes brand builders powerful people. So if you do it right:
Your brand increases the value (perceived usefulness) of your project.
Let me put that in an algebraic function for you:
Same cow, better value. And valuable projects succeed better.
- Valuable products sell more.
- Valuable charities receive more donations.
- Valuable politicians get more votes.
You get the point. Brands are built to promote everything, from cars and candidates to careers. That’s why you can use this book for everything you want to be perceived as valuable.
Why brands are so powerful
By now, you might think a great brand is everything. With the right brand:
- A sugary soda – best used to declog the sink –
promises an adventurous life full of sensual surprises.
- A chemical lipstick – advertised by a bone-thin teenage model –
promises to keep your date interested beyond the first night.
- A 4×4 – with the fuel economy of a perforated battle tank –
promises a major upgrade in masculinity.
As you know, these brand promises are not always fulfilled.
Strong brands make everything seem valuable.
This means you can make good money, even if your project is useless. (Think AAA-rated sub-prime mortgages from big-name banks.)
Yet others, by being actually useful, succeed with a weak brand or without a brand. (Think most forms of craftsmanship.)
Let’s summarize this in a fancy quadrant and classify projects based on actual and perceived usefulness.
Cadavers languish in anonymity, and for good reason. They aren’t useful, nor perceived as such. You won’t survive long selling them, so examples are limited to failed start-ups and temporary sweatshops.
Shiny cripples offer little, yet seem valuable somehow. Like that blood test that only required a drop to decide if you needed a doctor but didn’t. (Beware: selling shiny cripples can land you in jail and/or hell.)
Rough diamonds are rare, like custom furniture. There’s no logo, brochure or website of the master carpenter. Yet that robust chair will be handed down for generations.
Prize-winners are destined for greatness. Both this book and the device
on which you are reading it might be examples. It fulfills your needs and looks
The lesson of this quadrant is as simple as my inbred cousin:
Every project benefits from a strong brand.
But know this: if your project only pretends to solve a need when it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. Your support team is flooded with complaints. Angry reviews accumulate online. And the word spreads faster than a fat kid chasing the ice-cream truck.
This negativity affects the strength of your brand. And in my town, folks will tan your hide if you sell a shiny cripple. Remember what happened to the bankers after the financial crisis?
Forget it, bad example.
Remember what happened to Theranos after shamming the sick? Exactly.
Make sure your project fulfills the promise made by your brand.
Now this book helps you build a strong brand. But like kitchen knives employed for murder, the same tools can be used for evil. You can inflate your project and lure people with useless stuff. This is always unethical and often unlawful.
Don’t do it. Things will get really nasty, real fast.
Why another book on branding?
Why use this book and not so-and-so’s? Because:
Classic branding books cater to brand managers, not to brand builders.
I know. I (was forced to) read all of them.
Reading these books acquaint you with some pieces of the branding puzzle.
Writing them will get you speaking gigs at respectable companies.
Yet they’re useless if you need to build a brand. For where do you begin if you’re starting from scratch? Or if you lack time, money and experience?
To paraphrase Nassim Taleb:
“The only thing a brand building professor can teach you is how to become a brand building professor.”
Also: Classic branding books are impractical or boring.
Some authors highlight only one piece of the puzzle. They focus on their hobbyhorse, leaving you with some crumbs but nothing to sustain a full branding journey.
Others aim to build academic credentials. They recycle platitudes and stuff them with jargon, citations, and pomp. These attempts to bore you to death are borderline criminal.
As I already made my money and care little for my academic reputation, I tried to avoid the sins of my predecessors. Therefore:
I made this book as practical and entertaining as possible.
It gives you insights into the nature and psychology of branding, as well as a roadmap on creating a strong brand, regardless of your (paltry) experience and (pitiful) budget.
I also included some stick figures. You’re welcome.
Why build your own brand?
A fat wallet might tempt you to trash this book and dump the entire circus with a branding agency. After all, they promise the same as me: help communicate the value of your project. Yet:
Delegating your branding to an agency costs (heaps of) money.
However – despite what their fee suggests – agency folk don’t have any magical abilities.
Don’t be fooled by turtlenecks, man buns and MacBook’s. As in any job, these are merely parts of the uniform your expert uses to signal her supposed competence.
But even if they are competent and affordable, there are more insidious consequences of not building your own brand:
Delegating brand building to an agency means losing stewardship.
When an agency handles research, strategy, design, and advertising, they build up the knowledge and feeling with your brand, removing it from your company. If you pay others to build a brand, you’ll never learn to do it yourself.
Delegating brand building to an agency is cumbersome.
For every tiny change, you’ll need to call the account manager, who then informs you that the relevant designer is hiking the Appalachian Trail for the coming weeks. Bah. You’ll have enough delays within your own team.
So, why go through the effort of reading this book and learning its techniques yourself? Simple:
Hiring agencies means losing (1) money (2) stewardship and (3) time.
Always build your own brand. Then even if you delegate tasks to outside experts, you’ve got a firm grip on them and no-one can sell you any bullsh*t.
Finally, there is a rule born from ancient warfare:
Never trust mercenaries to hold your strategic positions.
The same goes for your most crucial asset: your brand. And who cares more about it than you? Here’s a hint. NOT the guy charging by the hour.
So be brave and do it yourself.
You don’t need a master’s degree in marketing to be good at it. I know, for I’ve got one. And it’s as useless as tits on a bull. (I only advertise my degrees for branding purposes.)
All you need is an understanding of the principles and the willingness to work at it.
But that goes for most things in life.
How to use this book
This book can be read from cover to cover.
It’s structured to give you:
- A solid understanding of brand psychology.
- A clear process for brand building.
- A practical toolset to:
- Strategize how your brand can be valuable.
- Design the identity that communicates this value.
- Build a powerful Brand Experience.
But you don’t have to follow the rules.
You can use this book as a reference guide, reading only the chapters you need for study or work assignments.
The busiest readers can just read the summary of each chapter.
Print readers find this list of tools at www.brandbuilding.com/tools.
Downloads are free to use for your own brand. 2
Then, a note on notes. This is not an academic book, but I did include some endnotes in case you want to call bullsh*t on anything.
Finally, a word on my tone. I’m far more pleasant in person than in writing.
On paper, I casually slander a lot of politically vulnerable groups like stockphoto lawyers, dead philosophers and dirty cows.
I assure you: the irreverence is of good nature.
However, if you happen to be offended throughout, please refer to the immortal words of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman:
The more you hate me, the more you will learn.
All right, I see you are trembling with excitement.
We’re ready to take the bull by the horns.
Let’s build you a brand.