The Parlor

You Don’t Own Your Brand, You Share It

Colorful illustration with text that reads Brands are co-created

Takeaway: To understand your brand and authenticity—and their interplay—realize the importance of the relationship between you and your customers, because brands can thrive with mutual participation.

Imagine you walk into your office, announce, “I am authentic,” and then think you actually convinced anyone.

We don’t express authenticity through proclamations. We earn it through relationships.

The same is true for your brand.

It makes sense to consider authenticity and brand simultaneously because they are related, concurrent forces. Authenticity shapes branding, branding creates authenticity, and they continue to fuel each other.

Both should be seen as two-way thoroughfares between you and your customer. Ideally, this road has a healthy flow of regular, repeat travel.

You can’t have total control of either one. Both are a shared process.

Dealing with perceptions is difficult, but thinking about this bi-directional energy between you and your customer helps you gain a deeper understanding of both so you can put that insight into action.

But first, let’s define the terms.

What is a Brand?

There’s no shortage of content about building authentic brands online. But when you sift through all the information online, there isn’t a clear consensus definition.

Too often, the word brand stands in for a logo, a product, or a business name.

Or brand is discussed in terms of a business’s face or personality.

Sometimes, a brand is described as a promise to a customer.

Here’s the problem: all of these are aspects that a business can control.

But to understand what a brand is, it’s important to make a clear distinction:

You are not in control of your brand.

Brand expert and best-selling author Marty Neumeier makes this clear in The Brand Gap when he challenges businesses to see brands as “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.”

A brand “isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is,” Neumeier writes.

Like beauty, a brand “is in the eye of the beholder.”

You can influence perception but you can’t control perception.

This is a challenging realization, but a promising opportunity. If the result of branding lives with your customer, then branding is a process of collaboration.

A brand is “a relationship between an organization and an audience,” writes Jeremiah Gardner, author of The Lean Brand.

You Co-Create a Brand With Your Customers

This is a shift from thinking about your brand as something you can control to something you co-create with your customers.

If you are looking for a set-it-and-forget-it, short-term focused, closed-off approach to branding, this is a tough pill to swallow.

But if you are a customer-centric company devoted to delighting your customers by engaging openly with them, this is an exciting opportunity.

An overwhelming amount of choices in the market opens spaces for you to create something authentic that people connect to.

And when they connect to your authenticity, they contribute with word-of-mouth advertising, helpful feedback, social content, and sometimes even new ideas.

There’s that word again—authenticity—that hangs around branding. We have to take a closer look at authenticity through the same shared, two-way framework that we used to clarify the definition of a brand.

Saying the right things, supporting good causes, and making promises are not enough to be an authentic brand.

In fact, if there’s a gap between what you say and what you do, then your brand will drive straight into that ravine. Pobody’s nerfect, but it probably would have been better to just not set up expectations that you couldn’t meet or to set up more realistic expectations.

An Equation for Earning Authenticity

As you align your concepts of brand and authenticity around a relationship with your customer, think about authenticity through these three elements:

Clarity: are we clear about what we stand for and what makes us unique?

Consistency: is our communication frequent and our message unwavering?

Corroboration: do we back it all up with evidence or experience?

When you scan the crowded field of brands, you see a lot of clarity, some consistency, and very little corroboration.

No one likes a faker. People want the real-deal. And originality attracts the people who are the best fit, even if it’s a small group, to help you co-create your brand.

Sharing the evolution of an authentic brand that is clear, consistent, and corroborated can be a meaningful experience for everyone involved.

It’s also good for business.

Consistent presentation of a brand has been seen to increase revenue by 33%. (Lucidpress, 2019)

Eighty-eight percent of consumers say authenticity is important when deciding what brands they like and support. (Stackla, 2021)

And forty-six percent of surveyed customers say they would pay more for a brand they trust. (Salsify, 2022)

Appeal to Strengths, Not Weaknesses

This is an invitation to appeal to your customers’ strengths and grow your business while you do it.

Marketing has a deservedly bad reputation for appealing to human weaknesses like fear, scarcity thinking, and status-seeking tendencies.

These persuasive strategies persist because they work. Ugh.

But we don’t have to accept this fate. It hurts culture, preserves marketing’s “bad faith” notoriety, and makes us feel awful.

We don’t have to perpetuate this mindset, and frankly, we should all feel insulted as consumers.

It’s time to appeal to our strengths. And our framework for thinking about branding as a relationship between you and your customer helps us understand this.

Together, you and your customers can stand for something. If your business authentically (consistency + clarity + corroboration) emerges from a set of values that you share with your customers, then you are well on your way to co-create your brand in the world.

Those values can be magnanimous and full of purpose. They can also be rooted in simple, shared delight. Either way, share them.

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