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The Reason Your Brand Is Like An Elephant

A version of this post appeared in Brandtalk on July 4, 2016

When I started promoting my workshops on Branding Essentials for Startups, one of the benefits promised was, “You’ll learn why a brand is like an elephant”. Soon thereafter, I started getting emails from around the world like this one, “I live in Buenos Aires. I can’t get to your workshop but please tell me … I have to know … why is a brand like an elephant?” It’s a good parable to keep in mind as you think about your brand asset(s). It will help you concentrate on a single message that will resonate with multiple audiences. Our story begins in India …

In the famous poem by John Godfrey Saxe, The Six Blind Men of Hindustan, he relays a famous Indian folk tale of six blind men using their sense of touch to experience an elephant. The first man felt the elephant’s side and determined it was a wall. The next felt the tusk and decided an elephant was a spear. The third felt the leg and thought it was a tree. The fourth felt the trunk and declared that an elephant was a snake. The fifth felt the ear and came away thinking an elephant was a giant fan. Finally, the sixth took hold of the tail and was disappointed to conclude that an elephant was nothing more than a rope. The poem goes on to point out that each blind man was partially right … and yet they were all completely wrong. None of them had really “seen” the elephant.

Brands are just like that elephant and each of the brand’s constituencies – people who are important to the brand’s future – can be represented by a blind man. Below is a list of some typical constituencies. Can you think of others that are important to your brand?

• Customers – by far, the most important constituency
• Current and Potential Employees – a very close second in importance
• CEO/President/Founder
• C-Suite Executives
• Financiers – everyone from bankers to venture capitalists to rich uncles
• Boards of Directors
• Advisory Boards
• Vendors
• Competitors – do they see you as a wolf or a sheep?
• The Press
• Regulatory Agencies

I use the term constituency instead of stakeholder because it’s more inclusive. Every stakeholder is a constituent but not every constituent is a stakeholder. Employees are stakeholders in that they have a stake in the brand’s success. That’s one reason the best employees want to work for the strongest brands. The press, by comparison, has no stake at all. They couldn’t care less if your brand succeeds or fails. They’ll happily report on it either way. But, as an owner or manager of a brand asset, you still have to care about how the press perceives your brand, because that perception is important to your organization’s future.

The point is, each constituency experiences the brand in an entirely unique manner. Each has only one angle on the extremely complex organization known as a brand. The customers experience the brand in a way that is completely different from the way the staff does. And the staff’s experience is wholly different from the way the CEO experiences the brand, especially if that CEO is the founder of the company. Founders, by the way, represent a special challenge to brand-building because, on the one hand, they’re closer to the brand than just about anyone else. Their knowledge of it is encyclopedic. On the other hand, their experience of their own brand is the most isolated one and often clouded by emotion. No one else in the whole world relates to a brand the way its creator does.

As owner or manager of a brand, you can achieve real value if you can get all these constituencies to understand your brand in a consistent way. You need to find a way to express a single brand promise that will be relevant to all of them. You don’t want anyone thinking: wall, spear, tree, snake, fan, or rope. You want everybody thinking: elephant.

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