Brand is behavior (and good news for solopreneurs)

You think you know more about marketing your small business than the big guys? PR and marketing guru extraordinaire Jonathan Salem Baskin thinks you're probably right. Baskin's new book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, is all about how the old model of marketing–building up a brand's "image" and selling it like crazy to the teeming masses–is beyond broken: it's irrelevant.

Full disclosure: Jonathan and I go way, way back; we've known each other since we were in high school, back in Chicago (although I could not find photo documentation of such…thank GOD). But frankly, that means less special treatment on the part of the interviewer, not more; I think you'll enjoy the results!

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CW: You've got a pretty game-changing thesis about marketing in your book. Before we get to the meat of it–that brand is behavior (which I admit, I didn't "get" just by looking at it)–can you talk a bit about what branding used to be, and what started to change that?

Sure. The human mind has always been a 'black box' of
swirling, changing thoughts and opinions. There was a brief time in the
mid-20th Century when mass media could hope to influence it, if not
sometimes manipulate what consumers might aspire to do. But those days
are long gone, thanks to the Internet, mobile media, do-it-yourself
culture, and the birth of successive generations who've been inured to
the claims of marketing. If brands were 'shorthand,' people now can
access the complete versions of things, with annotation, additional
content, and reviews. And then add to them.

Yet people still make choices, and they attach meaning to what they
do.  So what's the best model for getting your commercial interests
into that equation? It's not the old approach to branding, which
doesn't work anymore (and is the reason why trust in corporations is at
an all-time low, people aren't loyal anymore, and even some premium
products are finding that the only branding attribute that truly
matters is low price).

CW: So the solution is…?

JSB: I say the way to address this reality is to redefine your brand as behavior.

CW: Ah! Or "duh." Can you break that down for us a bit? Into some practical, actionable things?

JSB: Definitely. Brand-as-behavior is all about action and results, not fluffy, unquantifiable stuff.

So brand as behavior can manifest itself as…

  • …a tactic (how you communicate and illustrate what you believe is best done with actual actions, not just declarations)
  • …a strategy (by focusing on behaviors, you can understand your customers or consumers by what they do, when they do it, what causes it, and thus better understand and forecast your branding efforts)
  • …an ultimate goal (sales is the only real behavior that matters, isn't it?)

So giving folks information, or crafting "brand experiences," is only a small portion of this new definition of brands.  It's far bigger than marketing, and far more substantial than a creative campaign. It opens up a lot of resources within a company, not to mention mind power, to come up with newer and more effective ways to get and keep people buying your stuff.

And it provides a simple, obvious litmus test for every expenditure: if it prompts an action, it's worth considering; if all it does is propagate something "out there" that is important to people's thoughts about your brand, think again.

There's no "there" there.  Behavior is what matters. 

CW: How does that work lower down on the marketing food chain? What actions or processes should a solopreneur or small business owner be focusing her marketing efforts around?

JSB: Interestingly, small businesses are naturals for this approach; they do it almost unconsciously, or at least by necessity.  I like to refer to it as "one room marketing," where every member of the company sits around the same table and participates in every decision, irrespective of 'silo' or 'area of expertise' (for solopreneurs, that's easy).  What results is 1) a focus on getting things done, 2) an awareness that unless it not only 'touches' a customer/consumer, but moves her or him closer to purchase, it probably isn't affordable, and 3) an ability to change based on the behavioral reality of the business or the marketplace.

The challenge is to resist the siren call of 'branding' that might redirect some of that focus and money to nonsense ideas like 'building brand equity.'  Small businesses know that brands exist in real-time, and that they have little to do with image…and lots to do with products, services, and relationships.  Lead generation is all about awareness, but to call it 'branding' is a reach. 

CW: So I'm actually being a responsible design consultant when I tell some potential clients they don't need a professionally designed identity or website yet?

JSB: Totally. In a behavioral model, the 'identity' is a culmination of a deep understanding of behaviors (extant and desired, plus a causal map of real actions to move people along to purchase and re-purchase).

A website is a tactic, although a gloriously cool one. I'm sure you've had clients who expected a newly-designed web site would somehow tell, convince, inspire, and sustain a new relationship with customers…and it never works that way, SEO notwithstanding. Really ugly design on top of entirely beautiful behavioral strategy can still work (Amazon, or Google search for that matter). Great design is all the better, but it's not a first step or substitute for smart business strategy.

CW: Can you elaborate a bit on some potential sales closing processes, or even post-sale processes, that might help boost numbers long-term?

Branding Only Works on Cattle cover
Lead generation and sales conversion are really interesting subjects when it comes to the role of branding. Once you start with the proposition that your customers have no relationship with 'your brand,' per se, it starts you on a very useful path.

Consider closing sales: in the traditional brand model, price is somewhat external to the brand proposition…it's the valuation of the benefits, many of which are associative or intangible, that accompany the brand 'promise.' In reality, of course, price is actually what a lot of people care about most, and it usually stands out as one of the only apples-to-apples points that would-be purchasers can compare between choices. Further, in the old model (I'm thinking of the tactic of direct marketing specifically), the idea is that you name a price and hope that it will, with the brand vaguely in the background somehow, prompt a sale.  

I think that's tantamount to asking somebody to marry you the moment you meet them.

CW: Not a very compelling scenario. So as small business owners, how do we rewrite that scenario?

JSB: Closing sales means giving purchasers real, compelling, substantive reasons to buy, and to buy 'now' vs. 'later.' 

If you define your brand as a set of behaviors — those that you take for your customers, and those which your efforts enable by them — your branding can be made far more relevant to registering actual sales. You've skipped all of the imagery and ephemera that links your product or service to some abstraction, or claimed things that you hope somehow, someway, sometime your purchasers will remember, care about, and apply to their decision-making. Behaviors are your tools to truly differentiate what you sell, and allow you to integrate price far earlier into your sales close conversation. 

CW: Which translates into action how, exactly?

JSB: Skip 'buying the vague brand promise' and focus on communicating…no, demonstrating…the actual brand value of a relationship with your business, as defined by doing real things that have real value.

I have done a lot of work recently on the idea of 'customer loyalty,' and how it's so fleeting in this day and age. If we see re-purchase/post-sale processes as a set of behaviors, and not the domain for creative content or other intangibles, we are again handed the tools to make long-term relationships with customers meaningful and somewhat sustainable. Think about how many post-sale 'relationships' with businesses default to nothing more than 1) more cross-selling nonsense sent to the customer, 2) thinly-veiled sales promotion campaigns, always trying to upsell good customers, and/or 3) qualitative surveys, frequent purchaser points, or other activities that make the quid-pro quo of selling terribly obvious.

CW: Whereas…?

JSB: A behavioral model would allow you to define your post-purchase relationship in terms of actual things you do for your customers…you could almost quantify these activities and market them up-front as reasons to buy from you. Personal service. Quick issue resolution. Random discounts. Whatever.

CW: You worked for some really big, fancy organizations—Edelman, Grey, Limited Brands—before hanging out your own shingle. What would you say are the most important things to have in place before making the leap to working for yourself?

JSB: Be crazy. Lol…well, actually, be crazy about what you love to do. I'm convinced that going out on your own is dependent on your love for, and the reward you get from, doing whatever it is you want to do. Know it. Believe it, don't just aspire to some ideal future or lifestyle. So talking about having 'passion' is not enough; you really need to have an intimate, real understanding of what makes you tick, and be at peace at the prospect that you could do your own thing, not make a ton of money, and still be very, very happy because of the mere fact that you're doing it.

After that, you need to be very realistic about that money situation. My brand is behavior paradigm suggests that you can't afford to contemplate what would-be clients or customers "should do," or what you intend to tell or "educate" them to do. Understand what they do, pure and simple, and figure out the way(s) your product or service will fit into those behaviors. I've had a lot of start-up clients who were shocked that people didn't grasp (or buy) their newly enhanced whateveritwas they sold. Your marketing will need to communicate not why people should be your customers or clients, but why there's absolutely no good reason why they SHOULDN'T be. SO your plan should be material and obvious, not aspirational.

CW: Fantastic advice, and all too easily ignored in the throes of launch fever. Any parting words of wisdom?

JSB: My last bit of advice would be to remain flexible. If there was one thing I underestimated when I decided to go solo, it was the amount of surprise, if not outright chaos, that would become a regular aspect of my life. If you're the kind of person who doesn't like that, you shouldn't try to be your own boss. On the other hand, the flip-side of that chaos is that you still have control over how you respond to it (or anticipate the next surprise), and it's a very empowering feeling.

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Jonathan Salem Baskin, "chief heretic" at Baskin Associates, Inc., has provided branding and marketing consulting to
clients across four continents, specializing in translating business
strategies into programs that involved more than words and images.
You can read more of his fascinating (and insanely well-written) takes on marketing at his blog, Dim Bulb. A practitioner of all he preaches, he also has a business website and actual MUSIC VIDEOS he created as part of the promotion for Branding Only Works on Cattle.