Why my pony tail ain’t my brand

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By Francis Moran

One day last week, I tweeted the message you see to the right because I was tickled by the email that came in. In my haste, however, I added a snappy hashtag and thereby made the same common mistake I often accuse marketers — even branding experts — of making.

The prospect who sent me that email remembered how I look. I will be the first to admit that a red — okay, rapidly greying — pony tail, full-but-tidy beard and what used to be a curly moustache do tend to set me apart from the average corporate consultant, even in the less-buttoned-down realm of marketing. Based on how I look, he was able to easily remember who I am.

He wasn’t, however, looking for a pony-tailed, bearded guy; he was, in fact, looking for a PR firm. And, because of whatever impression about my abilities as a PR guy that I had left with him during a past engagement, he immediately thought of me.

In that nutshell, then, you have the difference between branding and visual identity, something that, as I said at the opening, many marketers and not a few so-called branding experts often confuse.

The best explanation of branding I have ever heard came from Ram Shriram, an early investor in Google whose pithy and dead-on definition I will never forget. “Branding,” he said, “Is what people think about you when you’re not there.” That’s exactly what happened with that prospect last week. In my absence, this chap thinks of me as a good person to turn to for their new PR requirements. That’s my brand to him and, thankfully, it’s both clearly memorable and what I would want it to be in this instance.

How I look, arguably also memorable, is my visual identity. And, while it might contribute to my brand — successfully, if it suggests I’m not a conventional thinker — it ain’t my brand.

Far too often, in my experience, marketers confuse one with the other, with the result that the so-called branding strategies they develop for their clients are actually little more than graphic standards manuals that explain why the various elements of the company’s visual identity exist and how they’re going to be governed.

Many of these manuals further torque the error by seeking to define the company’s brand, and this is where the exercise becomes even more misguided. Companies don’t define their brand; the marketplace does that for them. The most any company can do is define a set of brand attributes by which it would like to be known and then do its very best to live up to those attributes, something I call the company’s “brand promise.” The degree to which the company lives up to its brand promise in every single thing it does is exactly the degree to which it will be branded by the marketplace as it would want to be.


  • Kelly Rusk

    February 07, 2011 3:26 pm

    Great post and I agree there’s often confusion about the two.

    Typically branding firms do a great job of explaining to their clients what a visual identity is SUPPOSED to convey with the target audience, but they fail to explain that the actions, words and heck, even appearance of employees, usually have a stronger influence over the audiences perception of the brand.

  • Francis Moran

    February 07, 2011 4:09 pm

    That’s it, exactly, Kelly.

    Stay tuned on this one; I’m trying to persuade a colleague to share a particularly sharp example of how he saw the front line of an organization utterly betray what the company believed was its brand.

  • Mike McGuire

    February 24, 2011 4:32 pm

    (back from the dead)

    So, it’s about 5 years into my consulting business as an Industrial Designer.
    There is one person working with me and we work 14 hours a day.

    I (finally) get a callback from a major company.
    They want us to come in.
    Rather than send them a nice brochure, a small pitch to introduce ourselves, we send them an off-the-cuff concept drawing of a new product design, with a tag line at the bottom,

    “This is how we see the future of your product line…” We thought it was gutsy; it worked.

    On Thursday, I call to confirm our appointment with the CEO, VP Marketing, VP Product Development.
    The first 2 calls to the switchboard and self-disconnect before I get the menus to work.
    The third, fourth and fifth calls require 2 menus selections and I get the CEO assistant’s voicemail each time.
    At 4:30pm I call, dial [0] and spend 10 minutes being routed through various people to customer service, looking for the CEO’s office. I never actually reach anyone.

    We drive down to company X on a Friday. When we get within 1-hour of the company, I call to confirm. I get the CEO’s assistant’s voicemail. I call back on the customer service line, wait while my important call is on hold for 10 minutes, and then phone rep tells me that the person I’m asking for is not the CEO. I say I’m pretty sure he is. They pull up the org chart and debate with me the pronunciation of the names at the E-Level on the chart.
    I ask politely if they can forward me to the person listed CEO who I originally asked for they instruct me to call back on the previous number and hang up. We get to the location, head in to the building and we are told that the CEO’s office is downtown. I check Outlook for the location of the meeting and it clearly says we are in the right place. No problem.

    We get downtown only slightly late, and can’t actually get into the building because it is secured and when we dial the entry number, we get the CEO assistant’s voicemail. Eventually a FedEx guy shows up and he leave a package by the door. “No signature?” I ask? “Nah, he says. These guys never answer the door. I just leave the packages.”
    Eventually, someone who turns out to be the VP Marketing comes to the door and lets us in. “Did you dial the entry phone?” he asks. I affirm our grasp on entry door technology, but he seems unconvinced since we’ve made them wait for half an hour. I see there is no receptionist, and ask if this is the CEO’s assistant. It is. The “Do Not Disturb” Light is flashing on the phone, and voicemail light pulses urgently.

    In the boardroom we get right into the discussion on what they want to do with their new products and I move the conversation to the abstract a bit and I ask, “How do you customers see you brand? Are there any core values that we should consider when building feature set that reflects what you want for your customers?”

    “Well,” the CEO says, “Our Brand stands for customer service. We stand for connectivity and ease of use.”

    “Really,” I say? “Have you tried calling your office and using the phone system lately? I haven’t been able to reach your assistant in 3 days. And when I called your actual customer service line, they hung up on me. And your front door intercom also doesn’t work. Which is consistent with your assistant not answering her phone or opening the door.”

    I ask him, “Are you sure your company is about customer service? Have you checked with your customers to see how they describe the organization?”

    The conversation kind of goes cold from here. We leave. We don’t get a purchase order.
    Company X sales plummet and they are acquired 14 months later at 14% of their previous valuation.
    Their product line is absorbed into the parent company.
    It is not clear if any customers actually notice.

    Your phone system, your front door, and your CEO’s assistant are parts of the brand.
    If you don’t make good on you’re the promises you aspire to, you won’t have a brand worth managing.


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