missing the brand boat

A colleague of mine alerted me to an article reviewing a talk given by Cheryl Heller, the founder and CEO of Heller Communication Design, at Pop!Tech the technology and design conference held in Camden, ME, every year (it’s like TED, but off steroids.)

My interest was piqued by Heller’s opening thesis, “Most of us think of our brand as a tool for communicating who we are and what we do. We think of logos or catchy names — totems that convey the mission or identity of our businesses…A good brand does express identity…But great branding goes one step further.”

This is almost verbatim the way I begin talking about brands, so I expected the rest of Heller’s talk would resonate with me.  But unfortunately it didn’t.

According to the write-up, she went on to recommend “Four Tips on Persuasive Branding:”
1. Be brief. Be clear.
2. Don’t clutter your brand promise with references to how you differentiate yourself.
3. Avoid common words used by other companies.
4. Speak to all your constituents: customer, partner, investor, or employee.

She also provided a simple case study based on the Ritz-Carlton Company.  She praised the renowned hospitality brand for its brand promise:

Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.

She explained this phrase “tells investors: Ritz-Carlton serves a distinguished clientele. It tells employees: A high level of behavior is expected of you and you can expect a high level of treatment from Ritz-Carlton. It tells customers: You can expect a certain experience when you stay at a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

While this all sounds great and I generally agree with Heller’s advice, I believe it misses the most important point about a great brand.  Her recommendations and her case study speak only to communicating a brand.  It’s even more important to operationalize a brand –- that is, to put it to use, bring it to life, make it more than words on a page.

The thing that has made Ritz Carlton so successful is not its cleverly phrased brand promise – it’s that the company has operationalized that promise.  For example, every R-C employee is given the freedom to expend $2000 to resolve a guest complaint.  By operationalizing its brand through this practice, R-C makes its employees “ladies and gentlemen” –- that is, by definition they are people who respect others, who know what the right thing to do it, and who have the power to do it — and it facilitates the promise of “serving” their guests as “ladies and gentlemen.”

Other ways the chain operationalizes its brand include:

–  implementing “Scenography,” a program hotel managers use to create integrated “scenes” or guest experiences unique to the hotel’s locale

–  using Mystique, a computerized customer-relationship management system that allows employees to enter informal observations about guests (like whether you like your martini with 1 or 3 olives) so that other employees can serve them well in the future

–  investing a whopping 10% of payroll on employee training!

The company has adopted an entire management approach that is its brand, its way of doing business.  Its brand is central to everything it does.

I realize I’ve been posting a lot on the subject of operationalizing your brand lately and so forgive me if I’m repeating myself.  It’s just that, like many other speakers I’ve heard and authors I’ve read, Heller started in the right place – she just didn’t go far enough.  Companies need advice on how to do more than express their brands.  They need to understand the importance of operationalizing their brands and they need to learn how to do it.

That’s why I focus my engagements and my speaking on helping business leaders understand what operationalizing your brand means and developing tools that facilitate its implementation — my site lists some examples.

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