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Branding With Integrity

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Everyone has blindspots – those wonderful places where how we see ourselves lives in blissful ignorance of how the rest of the world knows us to be. Blindspots also exist in organizations – often as cultural blackholes of denial or virtual ostrich farms with heads stuck so deeply in the sand one wonders how they can even survive. Yet survive they do. Surviving, however, is not the same as thriving.

To thrive, it is important to recognize that these blindspots can undermine the integrity of even the most well thought out brand. They erode relationships with customers and employees in the same way that an individual’s blindspots erode integrity and trust at a personal level. The obvious challenge is that blindspots, by their very nature, are invisible to us. To build both your personal and brand integrity, you must be willing to do some digging, sweep away some cobwebs, and clean off those perceptual filters that keep your ego safe by preventing you from seeing those elements of your image that may be less than flattering.

Most organizations think of two key things when building their brand. The first look at who they intend to be at their best. Because most businesses these days recognize the power of branding, many begin building their brand before there is even a real business to base it on. The second thing companies consider is what the market wants. They look at the latest consumer trends and fads and endeavor to build brand that hits as many of those “hot buttons” as possible. The integrity challenge arises when they fail to honestly consider a third element – who and what they actually are.

Even if you aren’t an entrepreneur, if you sell any product or service it is important to be conscious of how you are branding yourself. Like it or not, your customers are buying who you are just as much as the product or service you offer. Don’t make the mistake of trying to portray yourself as something you are not because this is who you think you need to be to get business. As society has become more saturated with marketing messages, consumers are becoming highly sensitized to reject marketing hype and gravitate towards messaging that is real, raw and relevant. The bottom line – saying what you think people want to hear is more likely to lose you customers than to gain them.

It is more important that your personal brand is authentic than that it is trendy – or even politically correct. My last hairstylist, Taylor (not his real name), is a perfect example of this. I stopped going to him last year, despite loving how he did my hair, after he made an offhanded, yet completely serious, comment about believing that recycling and other such environmental do-gooding were pointless. I knew that it was futile to try to convince him otherwise but felt that in continuing to give him my business, I would be supporting this stance, so I switched to a salon that specializes in products that keep our environment and our bodies pollution-free. I’m happier because I now get my hair needs met somewhere that more accurately reflects values. Taylor may miss my business a bit, but it is also likely that he will get another client for the very same reason that I left. This client is also likely to be happier with his services and stay longer because she is a better fit.

Bottom line: the clearer you are on what you are and aren’t, what you do and don’t do; and what you can and can’t offer, the easier it becomes for the customers who resonate with you and your unique brand to find you. This also means that the people who don’t resonate with you won’t become your customers. While the idea of purposely turning away any customer may seem like business blasphemy, it makes solid business sense. The more aligned customers are with the authentic you, the more likely they are to become raving fans, the longer they will stay customers, the more they will buy and the more likely they will be to tell others about you. Perhaps even more importantly, the less likely they are to complain and cause problems, reducing the amount of time and energy you waste having to address these issues.

In addition to getting clear on who you are, building a brand with integrity requires acknowledging where you are. Consider many of the high-flying technology and internet start-ups that went public early on because they were the latest hot new market. Investor funds poured in, giving these companies the illusion that were actually up and running. The reality, of course, was that they were not yet making money, only spending it. Because they were all aspiring to be Google-esque, many began to immediately invest in all of the fun perks that such companies have become known for. Fitness trainers were hired. Gym memberships were purchased. Catered meals were brought in daily. Lavish parties were thrown. While this may have fit with their idealized employer brand, for the stage they were at – a negative cash flow stage – it was neither realistic nor responsible to be spending investor money in this manner.

The employees initially enjoyed these perks, but as staff became more aware of the business realities and the uncertainties they faced to turn the start-up cash drain into established cash flow, they became a source of stress. These and other “big spender” financial decisions then became symptomatic of leadership that was out of touch with reality. Without exception, the CEO’s in these organizations were all charismatic promoters who, should anyone dare to voice concerns over the fancy offices and personal trainers, had no problem instilling confidence in the ranks that all was well – at least in the moment.

Unfortunately, of the half dozen companies I am thinking of, over half of them didn’t manage to make that shift from promising idea to profitable product. It wasn’t because their idea was flawed, their staff were lazy, or even that they didn’t have a good brand. It was because the person captaining the ship was determined to see the company as being somewhere that it was not. The ones that did make it recognized early on that they would have to find ways to be a great place to work that they could do on a budget, and that investors would be more impressed with fiscal responsibility than with fancy offices.

Ultimately, brand integrity comes from an alignment between what the market wants, who you say you are, and who you actually demonstrate yourself to be through your actions and decisions. If you are true to this, you may end up targeting a smaller market, but that market is far more likely to be raving, loyal, fans of you and what you do. At the end of the day, this is more likely to build a thriving business that is truly sustainable than if you try to be something you’re not.

It is best if this period of honest self-reflection can occur near the beginning of building your business as it can prevent you from getting too invested in trying to be something that you either can’t or really don’t want to be. As with many good things, however, it is better done late than never.

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