5 strategies for building a great brand
Ken Pasternak
May 3, 2017

There is so much conversation today about "brands" and "branding," in advertising, marketing, digital and organizational contexts, but the fundamentals for building a great brand are often neglected. Although most businesses and organizations may recognize the value of a strong brand, they may not have the core strategies for building one.

A symbol, color, mascot, or a few words can conjure up strong recognition and appeal for some organizations with major resources, but not for others. This is because a brand is so much more than a logo, color, campaign or slogan. Great brands are built by the sum total of promises made—and fulfilled—that add up to meaningful and lasting relationships.

Through our work in multiple industries, we’ve developed five key strategies for building great brands. These strategies are especially important to organizations that have grown large, and complex, where competitors offer similar products or services, or when pricing, technology and distribution channels blur differentiation. In light of these realities, the clearer your promises, and the greater your differentiation, the stronger your brand will be.

Brand is not a campaign; it’s your culture.

You do not build a brand by selling something. You build a brand by being something, and letting that culture shape the way you behave and communicate. Think about the power of culturally-driven brands like Patagonia or the Girl Scouts of America. Through their cultural values, they inspire a desire to participate. All organizations have cultures, but they can be difficult to bring to the surface. It is important to spend time with people across the organization, to listen and understand their perspectives, because with that effort, you can identify the core principles and drivers that galvanize your community.

Brand is community driven.

Brand comes from within. It must be believed in and supported by all members of your community. Great brands are those whose missions people want to be a part of, because they match the aspirations of the community. Harley Davidson is not just a type of motorcycle; it is a community of riders whose lifestyle is distinct and appealing to its market. Large organizations are complex communities. Each person needs to understand, believe in, and want to support the organization's culture in his or her own way for it to be successful. When brand is community driven, it goes from promise to reality.

Brand inspires behaviors.

Many of our clients tell us they developed their core values during a retreat, but when we look at these values, they sound a lot like everyone else’s values, because they are just general human values. It is the "behaviors" to which the organization has committed that are relevant, differentiating and critical to building a great brand. People generally want to do the right thing, but how do they know what the right thing is for the brand? To be successful, brand behaviors must be defined, articulated and rewarded.

Virgin America’s mission has been "to make flying good again," to help people enjoy the experience. Everything Virgin does, from investing in new cabin décor to creating better inflight entertainment and service experience, contributes to that goal. Customer satisfaction and business success are the rewards that reinforce these behaviors, creating a cycle of growing brand strength.

Great brands are disciplined.

Great brands also convey what they are not, by making very clear decisions about what they will or will not do or say. One of the best examples of this is Apple. They are simplicity embodied. They have committed to making far fewer products than Samsung or GE, while achieving greater sales and building a much more valuable brand. In marketing, they rally around a few simple themes each year, which keeps the brand fresh and shows how disciplined focus brings Apple's promise to life in powerful ways.

A great brand is never finished.

Nike, one of the most successful brands ever, sums it up with the maxim: "There is no finish line." This has been its mantra since it was founded. At its core, it represents the athlete, not the product, and athletes always have a new hill to climb or record to break. Over its history, there have been many ways in which Nike renewed its brand promise, but always with the same DNA—the commitment to athletes, the same challenge to constantly excel, and the same core personality.

As you consider the work that you do every day, ask yourself, what does this project or this initiative say about our organization as a whole? Does it tap into our culture, engage and inspire our community, and reinforce who we are? Is it clear enough, specific enough, and does it provide a path forward? If not, then your efforts may not be helping you build a recognized and appreciated brand.

Ken Pasternak is managing partner at Marshall Strategy, a brand and identity strategy consultancy in San Francisco. He helps organizations build great brands by creating clarity and consensus about who they are, what they do, and why they matter.