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Does Your Brand Tell the Truth About Your Organization?

To tell you about your brand, I first need to tell you about King Canute the Great.

In the 11th century, King Canute ruled over England and Denmark. During his lifetime, he was hailed as a wise, ambitious leader who was able to consolidate his power and influence the Roman church.

The most popular story about Canute went like this:
In an attempt to prove to his followers that God was more powerful than any king (himself included) he had his throne placed at the edge of the ocean. Canute sat down and commanded the incoming tide to halt. When it didn’t, and his shoes got wet, he leapt backwards, proclaiming:

Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.

This story was Canute’s brand.

It’s how the vast peoples of his kingdom thought of him: powerful but wise, ambitious but godly.

But over time, the story changed. Instead of exemplifying Canute’s deference to God, the story became about an arrogant king who thought he could stop the tides. The story—i.e., Canute’s brand—no longer represented the truth. (But he was dead by then, so he couldn’t do much about it.)

Brand, Defined

Like Canute, every organization has a story to tell—about why it exists, whom it serves, what it does, etc. That’s your brand. And to some extent, you can control this. By putting smart messages into the world, you can help shape what people think of you.

But it’s a relentless, nonstop job—managing a brand. Because even one inconsistency or slip-up can shatter your brand. (Just ask Volkswagen about their emissions claims.)

That’s why Jeff Bezos’ famous definition of “brand” still rings so true:

Brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

Notice: It’s what people say about you, not what you say about yourself, that ultimately matters. That’s why it’s critical that your own brand messaging aligns with who you actually are and your supporters’ experience of you. Because if it doesn’t, the public will sniff it out in a heartbeat. They’re just that savvy.

How to Tell If Your Brand Doesn’t Match Who You Really Are

1. Revenue is Slipping

If your organization’s revenue has flatlined, you owe it to yourself to re-evaluate your brand. Because when the gap between “what you say about yourself” and “how people experience you” widens, your customer/donor/member base will shrink.

2. Your Staff Can’t Tell Your Story

At your next staff meeting, try this:

  1. Hand everyone an index card.
  2. Ask them to write their answer to the question, “What does our organization do?”
  3. Collect the cards and read each one aloud.

As you read the responses, pay attention to the differences. Even if the gist is the same across every card, notice the words used—what is emphasized, what’s left out, what provokes reactions.

Every member of your staff should be able to succinctly describe your brand—i.e., why you exist, how you work, and what you make/do. And they should say it the same way.

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3. It Takes Longer Than 23 Seconds to Explain What You Do

The “elevator speech” is a marketing classic. But unless you’re on an elevator to the observation deck of the Empire State Building, you don’t have long to spit it out.

You have about 23 seconds to say your peace.

Even the most diversified, complex organizations shouldn’t need longer than 23 seconds to explain themselves. If you regularly spend 2-3 minutes pontificating when someone asks, “What do you do?” you probably have a branding problem.

There’s plenty of famous quotations about the importance of brevity, but my favorite is from Blaise Pascal:

I’m sorry this letter is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

Take the time and spend the resources to figure out your brand. Then turn it into a powerful miniature speech.

4. People know what you do, but not who you are

Many organizations—especially nonprofits and governmental agencies—enjoy widespread public awareness … but for the wrong brand. People may know your services, products, or programs, but they don’t know you, the organization behind it all.

For example: Your supporters take advantage of a state-funded, early-childhood education program, but they don’t realize it’s being managed by the Texas Health & Human Services Commission.

By the way, this isn’t necessarily a problem. You may be perfectly content with nobody knowing your name or mission as long as they’re using/buying your sub-brand’s services.

But by diluting your brand across multiple programs/services/products—and never putting your organization’s name at the fore—you face a fresh marketing challenge every time you do something new. Meanwhile, if people know your main brand, you can leverage this awareness the next time you want to promote something.

The Final Word

So there you have it, a few signs that your brand has drifted away from who you really are. King Canute couldn’t control what people said about his famous moment on the beach, but you can. But first, you have to notice the problem.

Next up: We’ll explore what to do once you realize your brand isn’t quite right.

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