branding

Are you "shoehorning" or taking a road less traveled?

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For many years my professional life was the equivalent of being a square peg being forced down the round hole. The truth is I did it willingly even when I knew deep down that I was in the wrong lane.

Today I call that shoehorning – doing everything possible to fit the mold or be found occupying the right space, no matter how crowded or uncomfortable that space might prove to be. It’s another way of trying to be all things to too many people. Many of us do this without giving it much thought because somewhere along the way we made the assumption that this is how it is; this is what we’re supposed to do.

This can feel counterintuitive for us as individuals, and it can be detrimental to organizations and brands.

Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken is the antithesis of shoehorning. Although we know the closing three lines well, we don’t often heed the advice of poets. Instead, too many of us have bought into the belief that the well-worn path someone else blazed will somehow lead us toward similar success simply by staying the course. As a result, we avoid differentiating ourselves for fear that divergence leads to a dead end.

Taking calculated risks can help move us in a new direction. But what if that isn’t enough? When is it time to rethink and recalibrate your brand, your organization or even what you personally do around the those critical why and how questions? Here are few prompts to help:

 

What are you willing to own? When so much is already taken or spoken for, when so little looks different from one organization to the next, what are you willing to hang your hat on? What unique or radical aspects of your work are you willing to be defined by? You know the challenges as well as the glaring deficiencies in your industry. Are you willing to put your stake down where others are less comfortable or unwilling to commit? Taking ownership is bold if not a bit scary. Consciously choosing the other path instead of shoehorning into the same queue as everyone else creates needed separation.  

Who are you willing to invite in? Who do you trust to strategically question your motives? Who will have your back when challenges arise? Who will help you push things further than you imagined but also pump the brakes when necessary? It’s critical to assemble teams of people who think differently than you. Their nuanced points of view will challenge you, which is the litmus test you need before customers and clients bring their challenges.

What outcomes are you willing to accept? Nobody says “let me fail first then I’ll get it right.” But often we don’t know what getting it right truly looks like until confronted with things that are not quite right – which is still a distant cousin from wrong. Embrace course correction and iteration as necessity rather than nuisance — it will take the heightened fear of failure down a few pegs.

What are you willing to say? Articulating what makes you different can be hard. We all want to be liked right away, and because of that desire we can be wooed to say yes to circumstances that warrant a no. What we say matters. When you know what you’re willing to own, you need to have the confidence to write it down, share it, and articulate it — over and over. You and your team have to be aligned on what you’re communicating at every touch point. It’s the consistent message (followed by consistent action) that begins to make the difference.  

 

Few if any customers clamor for more options that resemble existing options. So, much like Frost’s familiar poem, consider leaning into a strategic approach to do things differently and avoid shoehorning yourself into well-worn spaces where everyone looks remarkably the same with comparable features.

This is what makes all the difference.

 

Eventually, we all need help (how we ask for it matters)

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I know this firsthand: asking for help can be a hard thing to do. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers or the capacity to accomplish what needs to be done can be challenging, sometimes defeating, and almost always humbling. But I’ve also discovered it’s among the best ways I learn and grow – personally and professionally – if I’m being genuine with my ask.

What to ask for

It has me thinking about how I can best offer my help as well. Usually it comes down to having to interpret what the ask is for. I’ve realized through my own “bad asks” that how you ask for help matters, and it starts with clarifying exactly what you’re asking for:

  • Am I interested in insights or just implementation?
  • Do I need advisors/experts to help guide the work or assistants to follow my lead?

Knowing what to ask for brings clarity to the need. Knowing who to ask for help brings focus on the right skill sets and fit. 

Certainly there are tasks that just need to get done. In those situations, there’s nothing more helpful than sets of extra hands. But sometimes more digging and legwork is necessary, especially when it comes to issues of branding, messaging and marketing.

When your brand isn’t performing or its purpose, promise and message are unclear, insights from the outside are going to be helpful. This is where that old adage rings true – sometimes you’re just too close to the work.   

Yet the business of branding and messaging all too often slips into that implementation part of the ask when insights could prove more helpful. But that's what happens when some fast-on-the-horizon marketing opportunity looms.

The benefits of outside expertise

Few of us would be foolish enough to advise our physicians on how to cure what ills us without their expert evaluation, or advise our attorneys how to structure a business deal without their thorough assessment of the terms. Yet with issues of branding, marketing or communication, self-diagnosis and proposed solutions are what usually greet outside counsel. This is what makes the marketing or branding RFP nearly obsolete for thoughtful creatives who place extraordinary value on their relationships, their time and their craft.

Being open to the full potential of collaboration   

Like many of the partners I choose to work with, I’m drawn to the genuineness of connections over the binding of contracts. This is where expertise gets leveraged, trust and potential is realized, and how the best (and sometimes unexpected) work gets accomplished.  

While current challenges might be unique to your brand – they are not unique in general. That’s good news for any organization. Those current challenges likely resemble scenarios that outside experts work through day in and day out. They have familiarity in this territory. There is a knowledge of which questions to ask. And there is a recognition of what works and what doesn’t.

By clarifying the kind of help you’re asking for, you’ll have a stronger likelihood of saving time and, budget while also avoiding the difficult dance of finding the right partner to help.

The perils of not asking  

I’m more accustomed to asking for help these days – creative help, mentoring help, financial help and additional brainpower help – even though it didn’t come natural at first. Better yet, I no longer see it as a sign of weakness or personal failure, but rather a desire for something greater when my own perspectives and talents just aren’t enough.  

Nobody outright asks for trouble. However, there's one clear takeaway I have learned: by not asking for help and clarifying my ask, by default trouble is essentially what I'm asking for.  

On Message (vol. 1)

Recently someone share with me what they thought ratchet was all about – and for the most part they were spot on. But the analogy that was used to describe the work really struck a chord:  

Message is to a brand what location is to real estate.

Indeed, it is that important. People don’t make real estate investments without carefully weighing all the issues of location and, for a business, audience. Yet for some reason many brands jump headlong into identity work, marketing, sales, further product development, and even social media, without giving much thought to developing a concrete and easily understood message. 

Building stuff and focusing time on brand design, marketing, advertising, creative and the potential of social engagement – these are the shiny new things that many of us get excited about. This is the fun and sexy stuff, and we would agree. But there is a caveat. 

Among all this creativity, our job is to pause and ask: What will you say? Why should anyone care? This is creative work. It is a critical part of the creative process.

Don't forget the message ...

Don't forget the message...

Shiny things have the potential to blind us from the proven and somewhat pedestrian ways of success – which starts by articulating the why, the how, and the what. 

Not many people get excited about words on a page. But words do matter. When chosen judiciously and with intention, their impact can be far-reaching. Messages give rationale to our purpose for being and why others should take notice. Stories, which are examples of our messages in action, have the power to connect, ignite, transform, inspire and best of all – linger. The greatest stories are timeless and shared with conviction. They also contain conflict, which is something we shouldn’t shy away from either. That vulnerability is both real and relatable.

Does your brand have a clear message? Do your stories have power? If not, keep in mind that you have the ability to refine, rethink and recreate. 

To borrow from the textbook real estate perspective and a friend’s analogy, perhaps the most important thing about your business and your brand is – message, message, message.  But unlike a piece of real estate, your brand is not stuck on the same plot. 

The Consensus Paradox

Seeking consensus among the masses is good when choosing a vacation destination (nobody wants to embark on new adventures with a disengaged or disgruntled traveler). It’s not particularly helpful when building brands. In fact, it can be detrimental.

Asking for a show of hands and getting less than 100 percent alignment does not constitute a trip back to the drawing board or appeasing every new idea. While thoughtful feedback is fuel for bettering just about anything, discernment on when and how to use that feedback is critical. The buck must stop with someone who is empowered to say – this is the direction we’re headed and why

Seeking consensus sounds noble and democratic in theory. In practice, it sounds flat and uninteresting – the very things that branding and messaging initiatives seek to avoid – or reverse – in an attempt to differentiate.

In your quest to stand out, get comfortable pushing the envelope and, when necessary, reining things back in.

Not everyone in your organization will love the logo, the colors or the choice of type. They may not embrace every word of your message – and that’s okay. It’s not designed for them. It’s for your customer. 

Your extended team can do amazing things when they help shape the brand rather than dictate it. Asking for or falling victim to the consensus paradox won’t create internal believers. To the contrary, it can create pockets of skeptics who can appreciate the attempt but can’t get over what the brand has become versus what it could’ve been. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that a brand is more than a logo – and even more than a message. It’s about consistently exceeding expectations, providing exceptional experiences and connecting with stories well told. That’s where people fall in love with your brand. Your team included.   

 

For nonprofits, winning by year's end needs to be a year-long effort

The “year-end ask” has been a staple of the charitable funding equation for years. Like retail, this is the season that can define the fiscal year. Black Friday – along with consumer-friendly initiatives such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday – has recently inspired Giving Tuesday. Noble as this giving initiative is, it also finds itself strategically hamstrung as it falls on the heels of the nation’s biggest retail spending days in hopes that there is something left in the consumer wallet to support the greater good.

And that leads to a bigger, more strategic question for the charitable sector:

How can nonprofits connect effectively with prospective donors who might already be suffering from seasonal spending and donor fatigue?

Nonprofits can benefit from some of the same separation strategies that entrepreneurs and startups need to apply with investors and venture capitalist firms to gain funding support. It also requires knowing your audience, compelling them to action, and not relying on the calendar to spark donor interest.   

Following are five ways nonprofits can better attract, and work to retain, a loyal donor base:

  • DEMONSTRATE CREDIBILITY & EXPERTISE. Entrepreneurs must demonstrate talent and expertise by identifying real business problems and offer solutions. Investors will admit that good ideas don’t get funded if the right people aren’t in place. If you’re relying on a track record of past successes or name recognition to carry your organization, it’s time to rethink how your people – your most valuable assets – are helping to drive successful outcomes.
  • BE OPEN & TRANSPARENT. Investors demand regular metrics and details from entrepreneurs to see if they are delivering on their promise – and donors should expect similar consideration. Are you making it easy for donors to understand your impact? Is data relegated solely to your annual report? Proactively share your impact on both the financial and compassion meter regularly with your audience and take ownership for all that you do – even as you grow and learn to do it better.
  • TELL COMPELLING STORIES – AND NOT JUST AT YEAR'S-END. What you do and why your organization is worthy of being funded needs to be part and parcel of every nonprofit story. It’s the organization’s responsibility to raise awareness as well as funding if meaningful change is to occur. So get personal. Share insights from individuals who benefit from or impact your organization’s work. Leverage video to bring those real stories to life for the donor. And strike a balance between successes and the emotional reality of what you’re facing. As you tell authentic and compelling stories, existing and prospective funders can see that progress is being made without losing sight of a need that demands greater attention.
  • EMPOWER YOUR DONORS TO SHARE THEIR STORY – AND YOURS. Leaders and development officers will always serve as chief fundraisers, but they also need to be relationally engaged and recognize how their donors are being transformed, and then identify the right avenues to have them advocate from the heart and personal experience. This third-party validation of your organization's work often can reach and inspire a group of prospective donors that may never appear on a prospect list.
  • BRAND PRESENTATION MATTERS. Donors will judge the book by its cover. Like it or not, perception matters. But today brand strategy and communication tools that enhance brand credibility are accessible to all, including those with limited budgets. If extreme frugality has been your branding and communication strategy, then carefully consider what your brand might be communicating before you ever get a chance to speak with a donor.    

While many charities hope to hit a home run on Giving Tuesday, some inevitably will strike out. But all can take a cue from Cal Ripken – baseball’s most reliable player to ever play the game – by showing up every day and finding ways to make an impact. In doing so, nonprofits can demonstrate to donors that they have compelling reasons to be charitable that trump the well-intended, once-a-year plea.    

Your organization’s story is unique. How are you making it compelling? And how is your year-long strategy taking the pressure off the year-end ask?

 

A version of this post first appeared on re:charity.