Branding Lessons from Lions, Cowboys, and Gangsters
If there’s an overriding principle in life and business, it’s undoubtedly that there’s never enough of anything to go around. To survive in either, you’ll need to figure out ways to stand out from the crowd, a process known as branding, so that you get your fair share. There’s no need to go to extremes with this. You don’t have to stand out like a Jesuit priest gyrating about like someone dropped a fire-cracker down his cassock and threw him into the mosh pit at a Thrash Metal concert. There are subtler ways to get noticed.
There’s an old story of two friends, Herby and Gus. They’re on safari when a slavering lion charges out of the bush in their direction.
‘Run,’ says Herby!’
‘Wait until I change into my Nike Airs,’ Gus replies, fumbling in his backpack.
‘What?!’ says Herby, ‘You’ll never outrun a lion.’
‘I Don’t have to, buddy,’ says Gus, ‘I only need to outrun you.’
The story has two lessons. The first is that Gus isn’t the friend Herby thought he was, and the second is that just being a little ahead of the competition is often enough.
With branding, you always have a choice. You can be like Gus, who stays ahead of the pack. Or you can be like Herby – food-chain fodder. The rest of this article is for those Sympatico with Gus. To the rest of you, I say – to the lion rather than you, actually – ‘Bon Appetit!’
A brand is sometimes defined as a mark of ownership. Businesses use names, symbols, or other markers to distinguish their products from competitors and foster a public identity.’
An excellent way to grasp the purpose of branding is to recall the pioneering days of the wild west when the ten-gallon hat was all the rage, and John Wayne proved he was an alpha male by wearing his spurs in the bath. Back then, if every cowboy east of the Rockies were as honest as legendary lawman, Wild Bill Hickock, there’d be no need for branding at all. But early ranchers burned symbols into the hides of their cattle to dissuade rustlers and preserve their brand. In Wyoming in 1886, it was commonplace for job seekers to put ‘Cattle rustler’ on their resumes, and they did so with pride.
Branding involves reputation too. Do what you can to establish a reputation. Just make sure it’s a positive reputation. My uncle Henry had a reputation for being able to traverse the entire five-mile-long waterfront of Seattle’s pier 16, knocking back a shot of Wild Turkey in every dockside watering hole along the route and still remaining upright. But this reputation was challenging to monetize, and he ended up on the fast track to Skid Row.
Some brands shine so powerfully that they eclipse everyone else in their market. Apple, for example, has such a grip on its high-end market that it could virtually add a ‘Thank-you-for buying-this-product insert’ that said, ‘Just for you, dear purchaser, we have inflated our margins to the size of a hot air balloon. Thank you so much.’ And they’d still have consumers in an eight-mile line around Macy’s, risking hypothermia to own the latest all-singing, all-dancing 5G iPhone in the December sales.
Branding can also be innovative. Chanel decided to market suits for women in an era when only men wore suits. This innovative move was hugely successful for the company.
Does branding matter? It sure does if Apple’s advertising budget of 1.8 billion dollars was anything to go by. Like Apple, you need to get noticed and remain noticed, you need to continually renew and refresh your brand. Never forget that you more than likely won’t be the only company selling beef-jerky-flavored ice cream in the digital age, so you would be well advised to ensure you always have unique selling points.
Beware of the DIY approach to branding, though. You’ll save 1.8 billion dollars relative to Apple, but you’re likely to end up with a company name like Gumbo & Pete’s Fishing Tackle Emporium or Eddie’s Tractor Tire Remolds if you take a bargain basement approach to branding.
There’s also a need for brand consistency. Customers want to be sure of what you stand for. So, don’t stand behind the counter of your new deli wearing a tee shirt with the slogan ‘Meat is Murder’ one week and ‘I ❤️ Horse Burgers’ the next. Another element of consistency is your mission statement. Some years ago, when Caterpillar was the world leader in heavy machinery sales, its nearest rival was the multinational corporation Komatsu. Komatsu’s laser-focused mission statement consisted of three short words – ‘Kill the Cat.’
Ensuring your brand messages are clear and focused helps you reach customers with shared values, establishing deeper connections between you and your market. Real-world success stories include online optician Warby Parker, who gave away a second pair free of charge to someone in need for every pair of spectacles they sold to a paying customer. Lululemon, a Canadian athletic apparel retailer, once boosted its brand by offering free in-store and online yoga classes. Adopt any similar approach with caution. Don’t make your giveaways compulsory. Had Lululemon taken this hard line, they would not have lasted a week after the gutter press ran the headline:
‘Fashion giant fined $1,000,000 as a 58-year-old shopper, Blanche DuBois, was strong-armed into adopting the Startled Pigeon Yoga pose, a ligament-busting position normally reserved exclusively for double-jointed Swamis …’
If you can, make the values you wish to share ‘Good and True.’ That way, you are more likely to build up a steady client base. The Cosa Nostra has values too. Mafia loan sharks offer all defaulters a gum massage with an automobile jack because they believe that all debts must be fully honored. However, you should be looking to share values with upstanding citizens, not the underworld.
Whatever you decide to do with your branding, be confident and clear. If your current business card reads anything like this:
Meek Brothers. We’d kinda like to sell you stuff. If that’s okay with you guys.
Then it’s time for a branding rethink.
Good branding is essential to commercial success in a world where we often need to take one step backward before taking two steps forward. All you need do is be as innovative and minimalistic as Apple, as innovative as Lululemon or Chanel, and never take an interest-free loan* from the Cosa Nostra, and success is all but guaranteed.
(*Mafia definition of Interest-Free Loan: We have absolutely zero interest in the borrower’s capacity to repay the principal sum plus our wholly reasonable 840% per day administration fee. We just want our greenbacks back. If that’s a problem, contact our customer service manager, ‘Fingers’ O’Hoolihan.)