The National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM) has done some studies that confirm what everyone reading this will already know. The primary concern of middle market companies in the US today is finding and retaining qualified people to get the work done. It’s a problem, in fact, that’s approaching crisis-level concern. But the NCMM isn’t content with simply restating the obvious. They’ve looked deeper to determine why this is such a chronic problem and what middle market businesses can do about it. They’ve found that most of these companies have neglected to build what they call an “employer brand” and an “employee value proposition”. But is building a completely new brand, specifically designed to appeal to job candidates, really the answer?
Let me make a distinction between communicating sustainably and communicating consistently. I’ve written here before that, for most marketable assets, a good brand strategy should last for 15-20 years. (Less, if the asset is in a trendy business like fashion or entertainment.) That’s what’s meant here by sustainability. You should be able to make the same brand promise for all that time, without wavering. If written effectively and with a broad enough vision, the brand promise should allow for any occasional adjustments you may have to make to your lines of products and services. It should be able to respond to changing market currents over that time period. No matter what happens week to week, month to month, year to year, a well-considered, well-written brand promise should be sustainable, all that time, to function as a guiding light, a north star to lead your vision. Consistency, in your communication is a different matter. Consistency refers to all the people in your circle who will be making the brand promise. They need to be engaged and all singing the same tune and pedaling in the same direction.
Boardwalk co-founder, Harriet Breitborde, is one of the most talented graphic designers I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. She told me of an assignment she had before we formed our partnership. She had been lead designer on a logo redesign for Wilsons Leather. Using the standard winnowing process, where you start out with dozens of candidate logos and narrow the options down, they had finally arrived at two finalists. Wilsons CEO, at the time, could not choose between the two designs. He liked them both. He asked to have a week before deciding. During that week he showed the designs to as many of his employees as he could, asking each one to vote for one of the two options. Then he chose the option that lost the vote! He reasoned that a new logo should seem a little off, a little uncomfortable. If the design is too easy to vote for, if its too familiar, then it won’t have the kind of edge it needs to attract attention and get noticed. Not sure I’d advise anyone to choose a logo that way but there is some value to his reasoning. Be that as it may, there are definite things to consider when you select a logo for your brand.
I know quite a few professional types – lawyers, CPAs, bankers, etc. So I often hear of their struggles to differentiate their firms from their competition. A bank is a bank is a bank, right? They all offer the same checking accounts, savings accounts, lines of credit, safety deposit boxes, home loans, car loans, etc. They all hit you with fees one way or the other. Mid-sized law firms and accountancies often also suffer from this kind of apparent sameness. In a world of conservative suits, how does one stand out and become known? Other types of businesses, mostly in B2B, manufacturers and the like, also view themselves as “parity” brands. So I thought I’d jot down a few notes about the possible ways these kinds of businesses should reimagine themselves for distinction. You have to start by knowing your market.
I was in Paris once and ran into a family of American tourists. They had just arrived that very day and were tired, stressed and hungry from their travels. They asked me if I knew anywhere good to eat. First of all, this was Paris. There’s good food everywhere. Serving a bad meal in France is practically a capital offense. But this family was really in luck because I knew just the place. “Yes!” I was happy to help, “I happen to know a fantastic little bistro right around the corner from here. Ask for Marcel. He speaks English. He’ll take good care of you.” But all I got from them were blank stares. Then the mom explained they were hoping for a restaurant more like from home – something like McDonalds. Such is the power of branding that Micky-D’s was their top choice in a city world famous for its spectacular gastronomy. After parting, I felt sorry for this family. I kept thinking of them as missing out on a wonderful life experience, sampling Parisian cuisine. And I started wondering how McDonalds does it. How does their brand wield such power so far from home? But of course I knew the answer because for one week of my life McDonalds held that kind of sway over me, and it was when I was traveling.
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