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Jul 13, 2017 BY Rachel Clemens, former Mighty Citizen Research, Branding

3 Steps to Figuring Out Your Authentic Brand

Recently I asked you: Does your brand tell the truth about your organization? 

My thesis was simple: What people think of your organization and what you think people think of your organization are … different. Possibly very different.

The consequences of the “inauthentic brand” problem range from the manageable (e.g., user irritation) to the extreme (e.g., drooping revenue).

So what now? How can your organization take a deep breath, splash some water on its face, and take a long, steady look at itself?

In short, how can you uncover your authentic brand identity?

3 Steps to Figuring Out Your Authentic Brand

If you do only one of these, make it this first one…

1. Conduct a Brand Workshop (Like Fish Do)

Two goldfish, Jill and Jimmy, are swimming along, enjoying the day.

An older goldfish—we’ll call him Gramps—passes, heading the other direction. Gramps smiles at them and comments, “The water feels great today, doesn’t it, kids?!”

Jill and Jimmy swim on in silence, stunned by Gramps’ words. After a few minutes, Jill finally turns to Jimmy and asks, “What the hell is water?”


On top of being the basis of an eye-opening and moving commencement speech by David Foster Wallace, the fish story also illustrates the frustration of the marketer.

The marketer—i.e., the professional communicator—suffers from the Curse of Knowledge. The Curse of Knowledge is your inability to imagine what it was like not to know something. When you know something, you’re “cursed” forever with knowing it—and, as a result, you’re unable to adequately relate to people who don’t know what you know.

When you spend 40-50 hours at your organization every week—thinking about it, worrying about it, working on it, solving, talking, meeting, reviewing, etc.—you’re drowning in knowledge. But your users (or donors or members) don’t think about you nearly as much as you think about you. They aren’t yet suffering from the Curse of Knowledge.

You, as a communicator, want your users to know something. But you can’t even pretend to know what it’s like to be unknowledgeable. (Bridging that gap is why marketing departments are so important.)

The Brand Workshop, Defined

So pick a day—an entire day, ideally, but at least a half-day—and invite all of your staff to an organization-wide Brand Workshop. Your goal is to answer the big questions:

  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do you get up in the morning?
  • What value do you provide the world?
  • What’s special about how we operate?
  • Who are your people?

The Brand Workshop is akin to yanking Jill and Jimmy out of the fishbowl and showing them their home from a distance. A well-run, sophisticated Brand Workshop is like those first images coming from the first photographic satellites: Oh, THAT’S what Earth looks like.

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Provide lunch. Take short breaks. Play fun improv games to get the blood flowing. And most importantly: 

  1. Invite an outside party to conduct and facilitate the meeting. Otherwise, your results will be biased, narrow, and untrustable. Your fishbowl needs a Gramps to keep it in line. 
  2. Invite everyone. The sharpest insights can come from anywhere and anyone. From the biggest sharks to the baby starfish.

2. Do Your Homework

I’d love to conduct this experiment: 

  1. Take the executive team of a medium-to-large organization and put them in a room. Ask them to answer a single question as accurately as possible: “What do people think of your organization?” Then let them luxuriate in their conversation for as long as they need—an hour, a day, a week.
  2. While they’re in that big important meeting, I’ll craft, conduct, and analyze the results of a user survey of 1,000 people in their target audience.
  3. Develop a brand strategy and campaign from each of the two perspectives—the one from the executive planning team, the other from my survey results.
  4. Run both brand campaigns and see what happens.
My prediction: The user survey version would win every time.

I’m fond of saying, around the office and to clients, “Research kills opinions.”

It’s true. Research. Kills. Opinions.

Research turns our personal, biased, limited pontifications into credible insights. Research transforms aimless wanderings into detailed maps, a handful of pebbles into a hefty boulder, unwieldy writing into precise prose.

Now that you’ve conducted your Brand Workshop—and landed on a company-wide consensus of what you do, how you do it, and why your organization exists—it’s time to jump out of the fishbowl and ask what other people think. Only then can you understand if your audiences have the perception of you that you want them to have or if you need to get to work changing those perceptions.

The two types of research you need are:

Qualitative Research 

For organizations looking to refine, relaunch, or redesign their brand, qualitative research isn’t to be underestimated.

Usually taking the form of one-on-one stakeholder interviews, qualitative research produces the stories your organization needs to hear. Spreadsheets and bar charts are great and all, but nothing can speak more loudly than a user / donor / funder nailing what’s wrong (or right) with your brand.

Quantitative Research 

Anecdotes alone won’t suffice; you also need some numbers. You need some BIG DATA.

Big data can come from plenty of sources. Much of it already exists in the world; you just need to hunt it down and make sense of it. But you should also conduct your own user survey that helps illuminate what the world thinks of you, your organization, your work, your look, your feel, your value, etc.

But be careful! It’s super easy to write a survey that produces biased—and thus, useless—results. Even the placement of a comma or the word “and” can essentially warp your survey analysis.

3. Create a Messaging Platform

“Messaging Platform” is one of those marketing phrases we love to hate.

But it’s appropriate because your brand is, basically, a platform. From that platform you launch all sorts of things into the world—products, services, messages, influence, knowledge, etc. It’s this ecosystem that tells your audiences how to think about you and why they should care.

If your platform is invisible, inconsistent, or misunderstood, so too will be all of the deliverables that emerge from it. But not you. That won’t happen to your organization. You’ve gotten internal alignment (through your Brand Workshop) and you’ve practically ingested the results of your user research. Now it’s time to turn your science into art—and produce a Messaging Platform.

If it helps, think of your Messaging Platform as your organization’s manifesto. It’s not your autobiography or memoir. It’s your statement of purpose. It describes what you stand for, what you stand against, what you believe in, what you don’t.

Don’t misunderstand me: A Messaging Platform has plenty of parts. There should be sections devoted to Tone, Audiences, Positioning, Value Proposition, Elevator Speech, Core Values, etc.

There’s plenty of meat on the bones, but at its core, a Messaging Platform should be the Alpha and Omega of how your organization—and more importantly, the people who make it run—think and talk about yourselves, so that your audiences will think and talk about you that way too.

It’s a beast of an undertaking. It takes time, some sober reflection, and plenty of revisions.

But if you can marry your internal beliefs with your audience’s external perceptions—and then put it into compelling and interesting words—you’ll never again worry about whether your brand is lying to the world.


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