If you’ve ever built a business or are currently building one, then you know just how difficult it is. What makes business most difficult is that a lot of your success depends on other people’s choices, decisions and actions.
You have to convince potential investors to see your vision and help finance your dream. You want great employees to join your team and give you their best daily. You want customers to choose your product or service and tell others about it.
On the surface, it seems like a big game of influence. But business is more subtle than that. It is more about alignment and facilitation than it is about influence.
You can’t MAKE investors and customers give you their money. And you can’t MAKE the best and brightest in your industry join your team and give you their best. They CHOOSE to do it when you’ve created alignment between what you want and what they need.
And what they need from you is your help solving problems, making their lives easier, or fulfilling their goals and deepest aspirations.
If it sounds daunting, it is. But that’s also what makes you, the entrepreneur, so powerful. And the biggest tool you have at your disposal is your brand.
Brands are powerful and complex. So much so that they are nearly impossible to define. They represent too many things to mean only one thing, and should therefore always be defined in proper context.
For me, the best way to understand a brand is to take a closer look at how people use brands. It will also help you understand why your brand is your most powerful tool for creating alignment.
Let’s explore four ways people use brands.
1. Cognitive ease and quick decision making
Brands serve as a shortcut for companies to make complex business decisions and customers use them to make quick purchasing decisions.
Companies that have great brands operate on a solid set of principles that inform the choices employees make and shape their behaviors. Over time, making decisions becomes as easy as asking whether it’s aligned with the brand. It gives employees the freedom and autonomy to operate within the confines of the brand values. Once an employee internalizes the idea that their job is to help make Disney The Happiest Place on Earth, for example, it becomes easier for them to make decisions even when they are faced with situations not spelled out in the employee handbook.
Customers buy brands because they’re safe. Everyone knows what they get when they buy Apple, Coca-Cola, Chick-Fil-A or WalMart. There’s no guessing and no uncertainty. And when faced with multiple options at the grocery store aisle, people don’t freeze because they can reach for the brand they know and trust. Such is the power of a brand.
2. Self-identification and social status
People use brands to communicate a part of their identity with the world, or they use them as scripts to become the people they aspire to be. Brands often become an extension of who we are. Marketers are obsessed with humanizing brands because they can appeal to their target audiences. Millions of dollars in research go into understanding the wants, needs, fears, insecurities and aspirations of customers, in order to create brands that appeal to a specific audience in a very powerful way.
Projecting pieces of identity with the world is one of the most important games we play as social animals. We want to signal to those around us where we stand in the pecking order. We want them to know who we are, what we are about and what we stand for. We not only project our values and beliefs, we also want to project our success and all the other things that hold social currency and enable us to climb the social ladder. Luxury brands have mastered the art of tapping into our need for social validation and status.
3. Belonging and connection
Brands are also very tribal. They divide the world in micro-communities of people that share the same worldview. In the process, brands help fulfill our need for connectedness and belonging. The brands that accomplish this feat the best are sports brands. Very few things bring people together better than sports. Sports brands often make people override their natural way of dividing the world in “US versus THEM” as they reach across racial, political or religious lines to cheer on the same team.
Outside of sports, many other brands also command the kind of cultish following sports teams do. Some brands tap into this power by creating communities for their fans to meet up, as well as programs and events for their most fervent brand enthusiasts to connect. Most notably, Harley Davidson has meetup groups around the world.
4. Meaning and Purpose
In our perpetual quest for meaning in life, we often recruit brands to help. They often give us the opportunity to align our actions with our beliefs in ways that create cognitive coherence and reinforce our beliefs. As consumers, we often vote with our dollars for causes that we believe in and want to advance, like buying an electric car to help fight climate change, or boycotting a specific brand for their political views and endorsements.
As employees, we often choose which company we would like to contribute our gifts and talents to, based on causes that matter to us. The youngest generation entering the workforce is especially driven to work for companies that stand for something and where they can contribute to making the world a better place. This, more than anything, will give you the best chance of attracting and retaining the best employees.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that almost everything you want to accomplish in business is an outcome not a goal. An outcome is the predictable result of a process that you can’t directly or fully control. And a goal is a step in that process directly or fully under your control. Although we can’t MAKE investors, customers and employees do anything, we can use our brands to create alignment between what we want and what they need or aspire to.