Letter from Pop!Tech: Tips on Persuasive Branding

This week I was in Camden, Maine, attending Pop!Tech, an annual gathering of thought leaders in technology and design launched in 1996. This year Pop!Tech inaugurated a three-day bootcamp for social entrepreneurs, called the Social Innovation Fellowship Program, the latest addition to Pop!Tech’s year-old startup incubator, Accelerator.

The purpose of the program was to tutor 16 social entrepreneurs, most of whom run nonprofits, in “go to market” strategies. But many of the 22 lecturers delivered advice equally relevant to for-profit startups. (Fans of Y Combinator should check out Accelerator.)

Particularly useful was a primer on branding by Cheryl Heller, the founder and CEO of Heller Communication Design in New York. Most companies invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce successful branding campaigns. Heller’s three-hour session gave Pop!Tech’s social entrepreneurs a good dose of that value for free. Now you’ll get it, too.

Most of us think of our brand as a tool for communicating who we are and what we do. We think of logos or catchy names — totems that convey the mission or identity of our businesses.

A good brand does express identity, Heller said. But great branding goes one step further. You must think of your brand less as a tool for communicating identity, and more as a tool for conveying a promise.

“You don’t have a brand,” Heller said, “you have a brand promise. [A] brand promise does more than express who you are, it indicates to your audience what they can expect to get from your company in exchange for their money and time — whether they are a customer, partner, investor or employee.”

There’s a key word in her definition that 99 percent of entrepreneurs overlook: employee. “Employees are the most important audience any company has,” Heller said. If your brand promise does not engage your employees, you won’t be able to deliver it.

Heller offered a simple case study to illustrate her point. The Ritz-Carlton Company, widely recognized for effective management, also has a very successful brand promise:

Ritz Carlton: Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

As Heller explained, this tells investors: Ritz-Carlton serves a distinguished clientele. It tells employees: A high level of behavior is expected of you and you can expect a high level of treatment from Ritz-Carlton. It tells customers: You can expect a certain experience when you stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

When done right, the most effective branding is really an act of persuasion. Can your brand convince people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, or buy something they wouldn’t ordinarily buy? Can the power of your brand persuade people to buy your good or service, even when external circumstances (such as a recession) suggest they ought to prioritize other actions, first?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, you have a persuasive brand. But the real payoff of persuasive branding isn’t loyalty, Heller emphasized. It is forgiveness. Every company makes mistakes. Have a bad stay at the Ritz? Have a bad flight on United? Which has the more persuasive brand promise? (United: “Fly the friendly skies.”) Which company are you more likely to forgive?

So how do you create a brand message that expresses your identity, delivers a compelling promise, and persuades your audience to behave in a certain way?

Four Tips on Persuasive Branding:

1. Be brief. Be clear. “Clarity and brevity do not come naturally to entrepreneurs with a mission,” Heller lamented. Use the Ritz Carlton promise as an example. Notice it does not include words like “luxury” or “hospitality.”

2. Don’t clutter your brand promise with references to how you differentiate yourself. “Who you are and what you do is core to your brand promise,” Heller said. “How you do it, that changes as you grow.” Wizbang as your technology is, it is only one of your tools. Don’t mention it.

3. Avoid common words used by other companies. Heller’s examples: strategy, core values, mission, vision, operational excellence, efficiency, value-added, character, integrity, positioning, sustainability, corporate citizen, cause.

4. Speak to all your constituents: customer, partner, investor, or employee.