Branding Yourself – without the pain in the…

Okay, so I have to start by admitting that when I first heard the term ‘brand yourself’ I thought of baby cows. As in, baby cows receiving the very painful and permanent imprint of someone’s logo on their butts.

That image went away when I started hanging out with real branding experts. Corporate branding, I mean, where no animals are harmed in the making of the marks.

These people are really interesting, because you can dish about the stuff you buy, and they can tell you why you’re buying it. (Sometimes, of course, an incredibly soft pair of black leather riding boots are just for keeping your legs warm and your feet dry in winter…while looking sensational with the bag you scored in an online sale, and the fact that both are from Cole Haan is just a coincidence. But I digress.)

We live in a blizzard of branding, so it was a surprise to hear from my friends Dr. Natalie Petouhoff and Laura Walton that brands are having a hard time these days. Apparently it’s becoming increasingly difficult for them to deliver on their brand promises.

One thing I’ve known for a very long time is that delivering on promises is pretty important. I hadn’t given much thought to making promises via an abstract intermediary, but, as Dr. Natalie and Laura pointed out, brands are very much like people, in the way that companies are sort of like people…in the legal sense. So it follows: sometimes companies make promises, and if the promises aren’t kept, trouble ensues. Often, that kind of wrangling happens in a back room – or a courtroom. But when a brand makes (or carries with it) a promise, and doesn’t keep it, the whole mess can happen right out in front of everybody, via Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogosphere, and in the media.

Now, having been raised to a new level of branding-awareness, I asked the esteemed legal advisor and intellectual property expert, Fred Wilf about promises. (Fred, by the way, is the guy who put the ® in Teamability®, for which we love him forever. And although he’s an attorney, he speaks in a way that the rest of us who aren’t can readily understand.)

Sayeth Fred, “In the legal context, a promise is a statement or declaration of intent. It can be written or oral. A written promise can be signed or unsigned. It can be unilateral or bilateral/multilateral (mutual). It can be made in exchange for something of value or the promise of payment of something of value (‘consideration’). It can be made in exchange for another promise that does not include payment. Under the law, whether a promise becomes an enforceable contract depends on each of these facts, and a few more.”

And as it always happens, Fred got me thinking about things I hadn’t been thinking about, to wit, what if all brand promises had to meet the legal standard? What if what my brand – what I promise you – was an enforceable contract?

So, for any one of you who have taken the widely recommended advice to upgrade your image to a brand, I just want you to know one thing: Your brand promise may be the most important promise you ever make – and keep.

Keeping your brand promise isn’t just a directive, a script, or a process. It’s more like a world-view. You need some way of building and sustaining a living model of what you are and what you stand for. For organizations, that’s usually called culture, but for a brand – or a person with a brand – there just isn’t enough time to get something that big into a small package. Business or person, there’s only one of you – and nothing to hide behind.

Your brand – and your brand promise – will stand or fall based on credibility. And despite all those assurances of privacy and confidentiality made by top-level-friends-and-followers-only infochannels, this is a social media world. There are no secrets.

So whether you’re maintaining a company or a personal brand, you must maintain currency in keeping your promises, because people are watching and deciding all the time. Including me…and Fred.

Here’s some basic advice:

First, make sure you know what you’re promising.

I’m going to be blunt here. If you borrowed the concept for your brand promise from someone’s website whose product is ‘pretty similar’ to yours, you blew it before you even got out of the gate. Promises – at least the good ones – arise from the heart and survive through integrity. (Perhaps you are old enough to remember the inherently equivocating “Promise her anything, but give her Arpége” campaign. If so, you’ll understand why it drove me to use any perfume BUT that brand.)

Second, make sure you are promising the right promise: the one your potential customer really wants.

Begin by drafting your promise; then reflect on it, and then air it out through your preferred channels. Are you promising a starry night where the earth moves? Something that ends happily ever after? Or is it just your ‘thing’ that’s helpful and reliable? Before you set the promise in stone, you had better be sure of its connection – and its connotation. Remember the 5M rule: Mixed Messages Mostly Make Messes.

Finally, figure out how you’re going to convince your potential ‘consumer’ that you really will be keeping your promise.

These days, few people take time to read all the copy. It’s your brand that gets you up close and personal, and it’s in that very tight space that the truth comes out. Not just with your followers and not just with your Facebook friends, but with everyone.

Adopt a platform of respect, appreciation, and gratitude – and make sure that the people on your team treat each other that way. If your brand gets mixed up in any one or more of the fifty shades of miserable management, you’ll soon be sporting a danger sign that glows in the dark.

Brand credibility is something you have to earn on the shop floor, in the board room, in the middle of the late night scrum session, in every conversation, every text, and every face-to-face, every day.

No matter how hard we try to connect with our customer, if we can’t first connect with each other, no brand – personal or otherwise – will ever rise to the standard of being a promise.

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The Downside of Power

Ok I’ll admit it: I like power. I like to have it, I like to exercise it, I like it a whole lot. And I even like the responsibility that comes with it.

Sometimes it gets me places I didn’t think I’d ever be going.

Take powers of attorney, for instance. I’ve had a few in my life, especially from relatives who trusted my judgment in an emergency. That’s usually when good judgment is needed, so that the emergency can be addressed without a detailed think-through of potential consequences and if-thens and maybe-buts.

But now I have an emergency of my own, and it has a lot of moving parts. I need to construct a whole end-of-life scenario for someone dear who can’t.

As you get down into the details of something as delicate as this, there are tough decisions to be made. Sometimes basic values apply cleanly. Sometimes they don’t. My usual approach to this kind of ambiguity is to look for situations that are somewhat similar and use them to identify an answer.

That’s how I got to thinking about how end of life is very similar to end of job – also known as termination, downsizing, and outplacement. Having made this connection, three guiding principles came into view. They are:

  1. Maintain a ‘least restrictive’ environment.

In the healthcare world (particularly mental health) this means allowing the person the latitude to do what they need or want to do, as long as it doesn’t compromise their own, or other people’s, safety. For the end of lifer with a cognition-limiting diagnosis, it means no tying them down or stopping them from eating as much ice cream as they want.

Comparably, in the employment world, it means that when you’ve decided to fire someone, don’t pile on a terrible evaluation or otherwise spirit-damaging experience on the eve of their impending separation.

  1. Make the transition as painless as possible.

In the healthcare world, I am talking about paying attention and taking action to ease pain, boredom, or distress, in whatever manner that drugs, comfort accommodations, and/or companionship will be effective. Because anything that takes the mind off doom dwelling, at least for a little while, is a blessing.

In the employment world, I’m saying that when people are on the way out, even if no one really likes them, please provide the courtesy of a farewell lunch or cake and/or group card…whatever. It feels lousy enough to have been cut from the team, especially when you enjoyed and appreciated the job. Don’t compound the pain by omitting the niceties.

  1. Avoid false hope, but be sympathetic.

In the health world, this refers to the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. Helpful staff people usually want those who have power of attorney over someone’s final days to sign the DNR yesterday. Any reluctance to do so is generally met with an air of suspicion. (Fear of liability is apparently as strong a motivator to action as, say, a tiger loose in the lobby.) Since this was the most difficult principle for me to define, I tried out a lot of scenarios from other fields. Again, comparison to the world of work was the most enlightening.

In employment world, termination is very much like a DNR. There’s an order stating that a person or persons have to go, and usually the person who carries out the order isn’t the one who made the decision in the first place. (Think about that for a moment. The power of attorney holder is not the one making the decision that the person will be let go. That decision takes place at a higher level, so to speak.) Primarily for this reason, it’s important for the bearer of bad news to depersonalize the whole process. Sad to say, many do a great job of the depersonalization part, but of the rest, not so much.

What if, instead, we made it clear that at least one person in the room really wanted the soon-to-be-departed to stay? In the health world, that would involve an effort to connect at the very end, as a sort of social resuscitation. In the employment world, it could be as simple as adding one small word of regret by the terminator.

Will you ‘love people out’ or will you just leave them behind?

You have the power to choose.