Mistaking messaging for brand is like mistaking a house for its paint color.
Your brand positioning is the real estate – the “position” – you own in the mind of your customer. When chosen deliberately and honestly, that position is both meaningful to your customer and unique to your business. It is an articulation of why your business deserves to exist and deserves to have a relationship with your customer. This articulation is your brand strategy. You imbue everything in your business with this thing you have chosen that gives you a right to a relationship with your customer. The idea comes through in every single thing that you do – everything, not just messaging.
Your Messaging is Not Your Brand
I often lead an exercise when working with businesses on developing their brand strategy. To get myself and my clients out of our own heads, out of their business, and out of our own way for a minute, we try to get an embodied feeling about brand from the perspective of the customer.
I ask the team the following question: “What is a brand that you personally love, that is important to you, that you are loyal to, or that you have a warm, fuzzy feeling about? The only rule is that it cannot be something close to your business where your knowledge about it can lead you astray, and it cannot be Apple.” (That last rule is selfish – I just get bored of hearing about Apple, as much as I happen to admire it.)
Everyone has a brand that they admire, and most of us have brands that we adore. As these business leaders become customers, I hear things like
- “I love Patagonia because I feel like they care about something more than money, that their products feel good physically and they also feel good psychologically because of the way they treat the earth.”
- "I love Gibson guitars because they’ve been around for over a hundred years, so I know they know what they’re doing, and their guitars just sound so dark and rich.”
- “I love Trader Joe’s because of how well-understood I feel there as a busy working mom who needs things fast but with a little flair and fun.”
- “I love Pinterest. It inspires me. Seeing all those ideas make me feel good.”
- “I love Crystal Mountain Ski Club. These are my people.”
Look at that list. From only a handful of examples, patterns emerge: reinforcing the customer’s identity, feeling that she is part of the solution, an awe of heritage and transcendence, giving her a break or a pick-me-up, making her feel understood.
Want to know what I practically never hear?
- “I love X brand because their social media is so pretty.”
- “… because they have a nice tagline.”
- “… because their TV jingle is so catchy.”
Customers experience brands holistically. They don’t experience a brand as a mere message. They experience it as a promise a business makes and delivers. A message that expresses that promise in a resonant way can indeed enhance a brand, but that same message will never be the brand itself.
Messaging Is Only One P
One way to think of brand positioning is through the lens of the four Ps: product, price, place, and promotion. Because messaging is only one of those four (promotion), the four Ps framework expands your brand expression beyond the coat of paint.
Let’s consider this through two examples: Volvo and BMW. They are both high-end, world-class car brands, yet they stand for very different things in the minds of customers. Volvo stands for safety, and BMW stands for driving performance. But I don’t know that just because of what they say. I know that because of what they do and how they do it. Messaging is merely the outer expression of the deeply entrenched core of each brand.
No matter where in the world I go, when I say “Volvo,” people complete the thought with “is safe.” This is not because Volvo shouts safety overtly in messaging in the hopes that everyone will recall that when they go car shopping. Volvo is safe all the way to its fibers. Volvo manifests safety with everything it does as a business, including, but not especially, messaging.
Volvo strives for safety in several factors of its brand, the most important of which are not messaging. Although I know a lot about the Volvo brand, it took some digging to learn some of the following – these points are not something they message.
- Engineering. Volvo’s engineers’ charter is to build everything for the sake of optimizing safety. The shape of the car is boxy, which both looks safe and is safe structurally. Volvo was the first brand to innovate on external airbags for pedestrians. The tight turning radius prevents accidents. The car itself feels firm and safe to drivers. You feel the car hug the road. It does not accelerate like a sports car. You feel like a safe driver when you are behind the wheel. The interiors are nice but feel more solid than opulent.
- Bettering the entire category. Volvo has elected not to take patents on many innovative safety features, including the three-point seatbelt that is now standard on all cars. The company did that because Volvo’s promise is safe driving, and Volvo can amplify safe driving by encouraging other vehicle manufacturers to make their products safer.
- Pricing. Volvo’s price is at the upper end of mid-priced cars. If the brand were priced higher, it would signal luxury and put Volvo in a different positioning. Priced lower, and it would be hard for customers to believe it’s so safe.
- Distribution and sales. Volvo dealerships are upscale but not flashy. There are toy rooms for customers’ kids. Salespeople dress conservatively but casually and are trained to discuss safety features. The buying experience is nurturing.
- Repairs and policies. When something mechanical happens to your Volvo that impacts safety, the dealership does cartwheels to fix it, often without charging you. Volvo wants cars to be safe, so the company makes it easy for you to do things that keep Volvos safe.
Consider that: all these things big and small coalesce to reinforce safety – not just the message of safety but the actual honest-to-goodness safety. The customer’s entire experience of the Volvo adds up to safety.
Volvo’s messaging also communicates safety in ways both explicit and implicit. The company’s tagline is “For Life.” The web site and advertising imagery depicts Volvo cars unscathed after intense crashes. The company’s tone is nurturing and caring. But because Volvo is safety through and through, tirelessly infusing safety into every aspect of the business, the messaging does not have to do all the work for the brand. The company’s messaging is free to be frosting on the cake, not the cake itself.
Now let’s talk about another excellent car brand, BMW, which owns driving performance. BMW represents “Ultimate Driving Machine” with all parts of its brand, including but not limited to messaging.
- Engineering. Responsive acceleration enables you to drive fast and, more importantly, to feel like you’re driving fast – the driver can viscerally feel the vehicle’s power.
- Exterior and interior design. The exterior is high-design beautiful: glossy and aerodynamic. The interior focuses on the driver’s ability to enjoy the road. There are no coffee cup holders on the driver’s side in many models. A dealership representative once told me, “Coffee is for passengers, not drivers.”
- Distribution and sales. The buying experience feels like it is designed for driving enthusiasts – not family enthusiasts, not luxury enthusiasts. The salespeople know their cars. Some of them race sports cars in their leisure time. There are no toy rooms or free babysitters at the BMW dealership because BMW is focused on the driver, not on the driver’s family.
- Pricing. The price point is high-end, as this is the world’s finest driving machine.
This is all before messaging. The messaging always pays off and emphasizes the driving experience. Images in ads are of the driver experiencing the drive – not of the passenger, not of the kids in the backseat. The company’s tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” is not carrying all the weight to express the brand positioning. Instead, it merely puts words to something already built.
Enhance Your Brand with Messaging
Brand is a relationship between a business and its audience. It has a specific place in the mind of the customer, and that place, that set of associations, elicits a feeling every time the customer thinks of the brand. This might include messaging, but it is certainly bigger and harder to get right, as well as more rewarding, than messaging alone.
To create excellent messaging – messaging that moves people, that motivates them to engage further with your business – first define what you want to feel like to customers, what you want your customers to think of when they encounter your brand. This precise definition will help you develop messaging that works cohesively with everything else your customer experiences. Within that cohesion is power – the power of a meaningful, memorable, sustainable, successful brand.