How do you define your brand? Is it how you position yourself in the minds of stakeholders and the public in general? Is it shaped by what people think you do and how you do it? Is it determined by the design of your website, the quality of your marketing collateral or the success of your public relations efforts?

by Dan Hutson

I just finished reading Gregg Lederman''s Achieve Brand Integrity: Ten Truths You Must Know to Enhance Employee Performance and Increase Company Profits, which cuts through the confusion and misconceptions to get right to the heart of what a brand is and what your brand strategy should be. Although most business leaders are obsessed with the concept of branding their companies, few really understand what it means to develop a successful brand. Nonprofits have even less of a clue. Many seem to think that their brands are reflected in having the right logos, taglines, mission statements and stories.

While we all understand that Starbucks and Southwest Airlines and Walt Disney are great brands, there seems to be a limited grasp of what makes them so.

Lederman gets it. These companies are insanely focused on making sure that every experience and every point of contact with their people, products and services shape their brand from the inside out. It's not just about doing better or marketing better than the competition. It's about being better.

When customers (or stakeholders) have a consistent experience over time with you, your products and services, they come to expect that same experience every time. That's your brand promise. Your brand strategy, according to Lederman, is this:

"Brand strategy is the process of aligning what we say with what we do, to positively influence what customers think."

It sounds simple, but if you think through the ramifications of it, there's really nothing more difficult. It isn't about better communication or more effective marketing. It's about developing and delivering products and services that align with your brand promise. It's about employees who consistently meet the expectations you've set. It's about delivering on that promise even when there's every temptation and justification to maybe dial it down a notch or cheat a little because times are tough and what you're doing is hard.

According to Lederman, people will judge your organization by the experience they or someone they know has with your brand 90 percent of the time and only 10 percent or less by the marketing messages they've heard.

The difference between you and Southwest Airlines is that they're investing in the management of doing vs. your management of saying.

Lederman lays out what he sees as the four realities of branding:

1. Branding is not a part of the business, it is the business.
2. A brand is about experiences, not logos and taglines.
3. The little things that you do consistently are much more important than the big things you say.
4. A brand strategy is the single most important differentiator between a good company and a great company.

Saying that you deliver great customer service, care about your employees or operate with integrity is meaningless. Doing what you say you stand for, day in and day out, is proof that these qualities are woven tightly into your organization's culture. No marketing campaign will convince someone you're great at customer service when they've had a lousy experience that demonstrates just the opposite.

Achieving this level of brand integrity is hard work. Most organizations won't even attempt it. That's why the rare organizations that truly live their brands stand out in such stark relief when compared to everyone else.

I'd wager that the number of nonprofits operating at this level is even smaller as a percentage of all such organizations. Nonprofits may not see the incredible benefits of going through the kind of transformational process Lederman describes in his book when they're struggling just to stay alive. Of the tens of thousands of nonprofits operating in Southern California, for example, I could probably count on one hand the number who operate with the kind of brand integrity we're discussing here. And don't ask me to name them because it could be I'm overestimating.

I strongly believe that achieving brand integrity in this way will divide those organizations that survive and thrive in the future from everyone else. It's up to you to decide on which side of the line you want to be.

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