Branding Always Trumps Messaging
We spend a lot of time working with our clients on their core messaging. What are the two to three essential points that your organization wants to convey to your key audiences? In an ideal world, that positioning is a direct reflection of your brand, the essential distinguishing characteristic that defines who you are.
But it’s important to note that brands are not built simply by way of messaging. Rather, they are sum total of the actions that an organization takes. The decisions you make that dictate the quality of your products or services, your internal culture and values, how you treat clients and employees – all of these actions are what ultimately create your identity and determine the relationship you have with the marketplace. T.S. Eliot had a bit of an esoteric way of expressing this point of view: “Being is intelligible only in terms of Becoming.” In other words, you are what you do – and to underscore the point, not what you say. (I think this quote is such an essential part of public relations that I’ve long included it under my email signature.)
I thought about this recently on a number of fronts. First, not to get political, but let’s take the case of the president’s first 100 days in office, which is getting a lot of attention. I think it’s fair to say that the first three months of the new administration could have gone better, especially in context with what was promised. The president’s two principal campaign pledges – the scrapping and replacement of Obamacare and the building of the border wall with Mexico – have not happened, despite the bluster and priority associated with them. Suffice it to say that there have been other disappointments as well. But while an objective observer might conclude that the president and his team are off to an inauspicious start, just two percent of those who voted for him disapprove of the job he is doing.
Intuitively that may not make sense until you weigh the robust almost unassailable nature of the president’s personal brand. Built over decades of high-profile real estate deals, as a conspicuous reality TV star and as a self-appointed pundit on Twitter, the Trump brand has overpowered his policy flip-flops, the insults to foreign leaders or the lack of any discernable actions that would benefit his base. When the president boasted during the campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes, he was basically saying that his brand could stand up to any transgression. And when he emerged virtually unscathed from the “Access Hollywood” tape affair, we found out he was right – at least among his core constituency.
On another front, consider the recent United Airline fiasco. You can certainly make the case that the airline’s brand has suffered mightily over the years (and in fairness, so have the brands of just about all major airlines). But I have to wonder what the public’s reaction had been had the airline in question been Southwest, which has spent decades building its service-oriented brand and was named last year by the readers of Reader’s Digest as the most trusted airline in America. I suspect that many people would have turned their ire on the airport security officers who apparently manhandled the passenger rather than the airline itself. Southwest’s accrued reputation for trust and service likely would have given it some capital. And when it came time to apologize – a combination of action and messaging – there is little doubt it would have done so in a manner consistent with its brand.
We are currently working with a local nonprofit organization which is struggling to settle on its core messaging. It has slalomed down the messaging slope, trying out one set of messages only to soon veer off in another direction. But its priorities are misplaced. Its focus should be on is its overarching brand, an identity that is largely defined by the many, many ways it helps people.
In the continuum that is marketing, most of our clients come to us with their brands already honed, leaving us with the strategic work of how to best project and communicate that brand and the bones that constitute it. Without that brand framework in place, however, there can be no “core” to your messaging, or put another way, nothing intelligible to become.