10 Essential Branding Maxims


A version of this article previously appeared in Forbes.

In 1987, when Rick Astley filmed the video for his hit song Never Gonna Give You Up, he had no idea it would eventually become one of the most viewed videos of all time.

By 2016, the video had been watched over 218 million times. Never Gonna Give You Up’s resurgence began in 2007, when a user on an obscure gaming site posted a link to Rick’s video under the heading for a trailer of the not-yet-released Grand Theft Auto IV video game. One year later, the phenomenon had become commonplace and was dubbed “Rickrolling,” a term that is now ubiquitous with any Internet misdirection technique.

Many companies unknowingly Rickroll their would-be customers by improperly aligning their products’ capabilities with their marketing messages.

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Maxim #1 – It’s About the Promise, Stupid

According to marketing guru Guy Gabriele, brands live in the minds of customers and prospects. Guy believes that your brand is not what you say it is or what you hope it will be. Rather, your brand is a promise which is interpreted by those to whom you message. When your product or service is unable to deliver on this promise, you are effectively Rickrolling everyone who responds to your misaligned messaging.

At Computer Motion (NASDAQ: RBOT, acquired by Intuitive Surgical), our initial brand’s promise was, “Robotics will reduce costs within the operating room.” Although we did not intentionally mislead anyone, the customers and prospects that believed us were Rickrolled.

We assumed that robots would perform tasks that would reduce the required number of surgical staff persons. The reality was that robots added costs to surgical procedures because the size of the surgical team remained unchanged. Once our target market acted upon our call to action and experienced our products, they revised our brand’s promise as follows: “Robotics are cool, hard to use and add costs to surgical procedures.”

It took us a couple of years to realize that our brand’s intended promise was not in sync with reality. We eventually modified our promise to: “Robotics will enable new minimally invasive procedures.” Fortunately, we delivered on this revised promise and ultimately helped create a multibillion dollar industry in which costs increased, but patient outcomes were greatly improved.

We were slow to revise our brand’s promise because we wanted robotics to reduce operating room costs, as we felt that such cost reductions were a requisite for our success. Avoid Rickrolling your customers and prospects by ignoring what you want your brand’s promise to be and understanding the actual promise that resides in the minds of your intended users.

The remaining Brand Maxims are taken from Guy Gabriele’s “Little Red Book” series, which he devised in his role as a Marketing Lecturer within UC Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program.

Maxim #2 – What You Say It Means Doesn’t Mean Anything

What you believe your brand represents means nothing in reality. What the brand means to your customer means everything. Whatever they say it means, that’s what your brand means. Find out what they think. Remember: it’s all in their heads. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #3 – Gap, Gap, Everywhere A Gap

There is always a gap between what you intend your brand to be and what the consumer believes it is. Find that gap and take steps to close it. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #4 – Frankly, They Don’t Give A Damn!

Consumers don’t want to hear about your company Mission and Vision. Those things are about you. They care about their experience with your product and your company. Their experiences create the brand. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #5 – Consistency Is Not Simply Replication

Remaining consistent to a brand’s visual and verbal guidelines helps breed familiarity, but familiarity can breed contempt. Simple repetition and thoughtless replication fail to take into account the place where the brand lives: in your customers’ minds. To live a full and productive life a brand must be allowed to grow, evolve and reshape itself. Consistent relevancy is your goal. That’s why brands are managed. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #6 – Sometimes The Baby Does Have To Be Thrown Out

Before you re-brand, re-think. A brand refresh is often considered to be the least painful way to fix a failing brand. Do a relevancy check. Are the basic underpinnings of the brand still meaningful? If so, then a refresh may be in order. If not, you need to have the courage to throw out everything and start over. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #7 – Viral Marketing Could Make You Sick

A viral initiative should be embarked upon with great caution. The high risk (losing control of your brand expression) may be too great a price for the reward (Millions saw me on YouTube! –Whoo hoo). – Guy Gabriele

The CEO of Morpheus Software created a video that was nominated for a YouTube Video Award. His “Kitty Said What?” video, created using his company’s photo-morphing software, was viewed approximately 4.5 million times. Although it was exciting to be associated with a popular YouTube video, the resulting revenue was modest, approximately one penny for each time the video was viewed.

Maxim #8 – Pennywise Is Unwise

Examine the brand investment. Brands need the proper support and funding. If you haven’t invested in a Brand Audit recently, strongly consider it.

The economy, marketplace and your customers have changed. Your Brand expressions need to be audited on an annual basis. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #9 – You Are Not Nike Or Apple Or Target

Remarkable marketers each one, but even if you have budgets as large as theirs, don’t do as they do – learn from what they do, and then make it your own. – Guy Gabriele

Maxim #10 – What Is Your Brand Manifesto?

“It’s all in your head.” And in your heart.

That’s where brands live. A brand is not a logo, a package, an identity system, tagline, color palette or marketing campaign. These are merely cues we give our customers to help them know us, understand us, and, yes, like us. Every brand expression is meant to help our customers shape a persona for our company, product or idea. A persona, like a brand, is not a “thing.”

A brand is created in the instantaneous assessment the customer makes upon encountering a cue. They know you in their minds and in their hearts.

“I like this.” “That’s cool.” “They suck.” “I need that.”

We all change our minds and change our feelings. That’s why we stress that branding is a process that results in a brand. And the process has to be actively managed. Win their hearts; the money will follow. – Guy Gabriele

You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.

Image credit: COLLAO/AFP/Getty Images

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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