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5 Branding Rules That Won’t Steer You Wrong

There are lots of people out there with lots of opinions about what a brand is and should be. Ask a handful of them what the answer to better branding is, and you’ll hear basically the same advice:

“Stand out!”

That’s like a swimming instructor telling you to stay afloat; it doesn’t help you if you don’t know how to swim.

For the record, I am one of those people with an opinion about branding. And that means I have the double task of not only making sure I have a viable brand, but that my MESSAGE about branding is different than what other people say about branding, too. (Anyone else getting dizzy?)

How I can talk branding to bankers or bakers—and make it work

The big breakthrough for me was when I realized that the best branding advice is industry agnostic. It happened when I started working with, and speaking to, groups with very specific goals.

I’ve found there are a few core branding tenets that work for just about everybody—whether you’re launching a new business, shining up an old one, or trying to craft powerful messaging to promote this product or that service.

These days I might speak to a roomful of professional organizers, and the next, 100 of the nation’s top financial advisors. On a Monday, a conference for professional photographers; on Wednesday, a group of health coaches.

It really doesn’t matter how different they are—they are all trying to be better, or at least distinct, from the next guy. My job is to draw out their brilliance and put it in a bottle so they can see it for themselves, and share it with everyone else.

And I’ve found there are a few core branding tenets that work for just about everybody—whether you’re launching a new business, shining up an old one, or trying to craft powerful messaging to promote this product or that service.

I’ve tried very hard to make sure they’re not glib or vague. It is not helpful to you for me to scream, “Stand out!” and “Swim harder!” as you splash around.

Here we go:

5 branding tenets that apply to you—no matter your industry

1. Your brand is not a website, a logo, or a tagline.

I know it seems like it is! But it’s not JUST those things. Sure, you need them, but they don’t mean much on their own. I know people who want to pay $50 for a tagline or even $5 for a logo, and they’re essentially treating those things as commodities, like shaving cream or shoes. You can do that if you like.

But anyone can do that! And if anyone can, then it’s not necessarily worth it. Even $5 isn’t worth spending if what you get doesn’t reflect your unique brand, and if it doesn’t communicate that value to others.

2. There is no such thing as a boring topic.

Oh, this is a big one with me. It makes me nutso. This tendency to assume that some things are interesting and some aren’t is a doomed conclusion—and either way, it makes you lazy. Why? Because you’ll assume what you’re doing is boring and limited and you won’t even try. Or, you’ll assume that what you’re doing is fascinating or meaningful in and of itself without you having to work very hard to communicate it.

Lazy either way.

Accounting software can change lives. And sex toys aren’t necessarily riveting. If there’s a reason to buy what you have to offer, it has the potential to be a brand that people love. Your job is to tap that thing.

(Consider Simple, a bank which plenty of people found so compelling, as a brand and business, that they, including me!, gave up the brick-and-mortar option to get what they had!)

In fact, every topic is neutral (your own emotional triggers around sex toys notwithstanding). What makes anything interesting is your take on that topic, and the precision with which you can create relevance and urgency to me, your customer, client, or fan.

3. Authentic is an effect, not a goal.

Authentic is an effect; it’s how you come off, no matter what your brand is. You can be an authentic or inauthentic sneaker salesperson or business coach. Just because you want people to like you doesn’t mean you’re authentic and vice versa.

You could say that the moment you “try” to be authentic, you cease to be authentic because you’re not being, you’re trying.

I’ll even go so far as to say that you don’t get to decide what’s authentic; we do! If you ping our BS filters, it doesn’t matter what you say you are. Any more than I can call myself an armadillo and assume that makes me one.

Instead of trying to “seem” authentic, align your efforts and actions with your beliefs—and get busy doing, making, and offering something of value to others.

4. It’s one thing to be passionate; it’s another to be compelling.

The word “passion” raises a flag for me. Not that I don’t believe you can’t be or shouldn’t be passionate—but your passion does not give me a reason to care. Should I hire you to exterminate my home because you’re passionate about pest control? Do I hire you to consult on my business just because you like doing it? No. The world does not owe you its attention because you care about a thing. It’s your job to give them a reason to care.

Instead, take it one step further. Channel all that passionate energy into something that matters to me, not you.

5. Pick a fight with old ideas.

I’m convinced that your creativity is largely determined by how willing you are to challenge existing ideas. Stop assuming people already know what you know (what I call the curse of knowledge), and start upending old assumptions.

Ask yourself, what do you hate about this? What bothers you about that? What do you think is the status quo for your business, and why do you think it can be different, better? Try the opposite game: What if the opposite of what you believe were true? Even if that isn’t the case, what if it were? See how challenging assumptions, even small ones, can breathe new life into your work.

Pick more fights with ideas—yours and others. Though, be careful about doing that at Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve made that mistake. More than once.

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Why You Should Stop Trying to Inspire People

I work with people of all backgrounds and businesses who have something to say and are dying to say it.

They want to do media and launch podcasts, give TED talks and write books. They want to “put themselves out there.” If there were two words that literally every person says to me, it’s that they want to “help people.” That’s not unique, but it’s a good direction to head in.

There’s another thing they want to do: “inspire people.” In a post-Oprah world, it’s no wonder that this is a common goal. They see authors and thought leaders and everyone else signing copies of their books and strutting around the TED stage, and it looks like those people are up there with a single goal: to be inspiring. That might be the effect, but I don’t think that’s why you get up there to begin with.

It’s not a bad intention, don’t get me wrong. But I think when we set out to inspire, we’re missing a step.

I’ve wrestled with this for a while—why it sticks in my craw, why it bugs me, why I feel like even though it seems great it’s the wrong goal. And the reason is this: It presumes I need inspiring, and that only you can fix my lowly, sordid self.

I don’t believe that’s what moves people.

I teach an online course on how to create a standout signature talk, for TEDx or any stage, and in it, I specifically ask students NOT to try to be inspiring. Be the opposite: Be vulnerable and honest and self-deprecating and real. Be willing to show how you struggled and messed up and why you’re no different from the rest of us.

In his (amazing) book, The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, Chris Anderson talks about how the pursuit of “inspiring people” is a little too on the nose:

“Inspiration is like love. You don’t get it by pursuing it directly. In fact, there’s a name for people who pursue love too directly: stalker.”

And there it is. The reason “I want to inspire people” doesn’t work (in a talk, but really, anywhere) is because it’s more about what YOU want, not what I need. And if you assume I need what you want, you’ve jumped a few steps, and you’re no longer leading with message, but agenda.

I think of inspiration as a little like self-esteem: You can’t give it to someone; it must be earned. It’s a byproduct of vulnerability, wisdom, courage. Your willingness to take a risk will inspire us far more than anything you do “to” inspire us.

When I had the opportunity to pitch my TEDx talk idea (“Stop Searching for Your Passion”) to the organizer of TEDxKC, I never, not once, said I wanted to do it to inspire people. Are people inspired by TED talks? All the time. The good ones, anyway. But it’s not because people got up there with the sole purpose of inspiring you; they had something they wanted to say, some truth they’d come to, some struggle they’d had, and wanted to share it.

The last thing I wanted to do was “inspire people to follow their passion.” I’d always felt that “follow your passion” was unhelpful advice, and I knew I couldn’t be the only one who rankled against it. I didn’t go in to “inspire” people with my brilliance, but to share how I’d struggled with an idea, and how I’d ultimately come to terms with it. I had the sense I wasn’t alone, and I was right.

So? Don’t go in to inspire. Instead, make it a point in all that you do, whether it’s writing, speaking, leading, managing, delivering, to tell us the truth, to show us the work. To change the way we see a thing. Share your own contradictions, complexities, and struggle. Take us with you down the path of your own discovery, so we can see how you got there, what decisions, and mistakes, you made.  

That, to be sure, will be the most inspiring thing you can do.