Hardware Talks

Mark Mian on the Mutable Nature of Brand

Who controls your company's brand?

While every company has a brand, not every company has the brand they truly want. Why is this important? What can you do about it as an organization? Brand strategist and Highway1 mentor Mark Mian gave a talk to our startups about the brand story, and we sat down with him afterward to dig a little more into the concept of brand ownership.

HWY1: Are there aspects of a company’s brand over which they have no control?
MM: Absolutely. Brand is similar to a publicly-held concept of your company, your product, your organization, and the people in it. It’s a nebulous, codependent variable that’s being constantly influenced by both the external audience and the company itself. However, in this connected age, it’s increasingly possible for a company to be excluded from that conceptual conversation, and the reputation of the company could be solidly held outside of the company’s control, such as on a review site. For example: let’s say you have one product on Amazon, and the reviews are terrible because one customer had a problem and they started a way of looking at things that captivated others, and it just snowballed. Suddenly your company is seen as dishonest. The public has much more of an ability to create the story now, whereas traditionally that ability was more in the hands of the company and the press.

Is there anything you can do about aspects of your brand over which you have no control?
You always have influence. You can change your ways, be conciliatory, pay attention to feedback — but in the end, you’re always putting your brand into the chaotic field of the public, and they can make what they want of it. Your competitors can influence it, too. It’s a game of influence with multiple players, over which no one has total control. That said, creativity also plays a huge role; it’s not as if there’s a finite set of tactics or techniques you can use. You might come up with something nobody’s thought of before that will recapture or inspire your audience.

Is there a difference between a bad brand and a badly executed brand?
I differentiate between brand and branding; I don’t know if others do that, but to me, the brand is sort of like the soul of a company and the branding is the execution — so yes, absolutely. There are a lot of startups that have a good brand at heart, but maybe can’t afford design or don’t know how to look for good designers. Consequently, they fail to reach the public’s attention because they don’t necessarily look up-to-date or professional or inspiring. In a sense it’s sad; something that could change the world could be stopped because of some superficial flaw, or something perceived as a flaw.

Since there are so many ways for a brand to potentially go wrong, what’s the first thing you’d do if someone said their brand is terrible and they don’t know what to do?
I have to diagnose the problem. I think of myself as a brand therapist or surgeon: I have to do a lot of research and understand the context both internally and externally. I do a lot of interviews within the company and then I do a lot of external research, maybe even interviews with competitors. I try to get a god’s-eye view of the situation, and then look for the crux of the problem systematically; we don’t want to just treat symptoms.

In my early years, cosmetic changes were typically what I was hired to do.

As an example, a common problem I’ve been approached with by companies is: “We think we need a new brand name because ours sounds clunky.” But it often turned out they hadn’t really done the research to qualify their suspicions — they just thought they should have a better name because theirs didn’t sound like other popular brand names. Sure, it may be that the current name is actually no good, but it may be that there’s something deeper going on, preventing the brand from attracting and differentiating. A name change might not get at the real underlying issue: after all, the name is a way of relating to people, and maybe the real issue is a larger problem within the company’s culture of relating to outsiders. The overarching issue is always whether everything in the company’s expression and behavior works in concert to leave a lasting impression.

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