3 Big Facts People Get Wrong about Brand

What you need to know to find your fit, gain traction, and win.

I’ve been working with people to build brands for the past 20 years since I was a teenager, and it never fails to surprise me how many misconceptions are still common when it comes to brand.

While some might dismiss it as trivial, that might also play a role in why such a high number of startups fail. If you get these three things right, you significantly increase your chances of maintaining strategic alignment, meeting your market, and gaining traction.

Brand is not what people think of you.

Jeff Bezos famously (or infamously) once said:

“Brand is what your customers say about you when you’re not in the room.”

This codified already deeply flawed thinking about brand. Brand is the identity of the company. Identity is a psychological idea of who you are. According to the American Psychological Association, identity is,

“a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person[…]”

If I wore a studded leather jacket, dyed my hair blue, and had a giant mohawk, that might give you some ideas of who you think I am. You might think I’m angry or rebellious, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true. And even if it was, that still wouldn’t comprise the whole idea of who I am.

Your brand is the totality of “who” your company is. In business, just like with people, identity drives your decisions, motivates behaviors, and has a significant impact on whether your venture succeeds. It’s worth taking the time to get it right, get it clear, and stay true to it.

Grab a copy of the Brand Hacker’s Guide here.

Don’t confuse expression with identity.

Another common mistake is that people tend to believe that a company’s brand is the things we see — logo, color scheme, etc. Within the industry, we even call these “Brand Identity Systems,” which is really awful. The truth is that this has always been inaccurate. What people really mean is “Brand Identification Systems.” Identity and Identification are no more the same as your personality and your driver’s license are. Suppose you were to show me your driver’s license. In that case, that might tell me who you are in the sense of how to identify you from someone else. Still, no one would argue that your driver’s license would reveal to me your beliefs, desires, the experiences that shaped you, and the truth about who you are. Similarly, while your logo, name, and design systems help to identify the company, that’s not the same thing as the identity.

It’s helpful to think of brand in terms of the identity — the sets of beliefs and concepts that drive the company’s thinking and actions — versus the expression of that identity. Someone might believe themselves to be a rebel who values the importance of resisting unwarranted authority. That would be their identity. The expression of that identity might be to dress punk rock and have a mohawk.

Your codified set of beliefs, along with your mission, vision, and values, are your Brand Identity System. Your logo, color scheme, etc., are your Brand Expression System. And when you can link your expression to be aligned with the identity, that’s when brand becomes really powerful.

Brand is a crucial step to set yourself up for success — not to be left for later.

Brand is not about getting your design right or creating really pithy marketing messages. Brand is about setting the psychological and emotional tone and direction of the company. Before you ever have customers, brand is already coming into form and shaping how you make business decisions. Doing brand well is a matter of establishing what you’re about and why and allowing that strategic intent to guide your course.

A good psychologist can help someone better understand who they are, giving them access to a more successful and happy life. Similarly, a good brand strategist can help you discover the right course authentic to your company’s identity and chart the way forward to fulfillment and success.

My team and I spent the last seven years blending these two disciplines together. We’ve taken the same principles from psychology which help individuals discover who they are and married them with established brand and business strategy and practices. What we found was a way to leverage cognitive science to maximize a company’s chances of success. Since then, we’ve perfected the model with companies like LinkedIn, Adobe, Tesla, Epson, and hundreds more.

We are just at the very beginnings of a business-psychology revolution. The practices that started with advertising in the 50s evolved into companies like Facebook and Instagram, which we saw in the Social Dilemma. But this is just getting started. The application of cognitive science to business strategy is about to explode into totally new ways, transforming business as we know it. When we look back a decade from now, the brands that will have won will be those with the best understanding of people. Starting with themselves. Will it be you?

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