Brand Ecosystems

Episode 59

Derek and Tucker break down how to craft effortless experiences when considering your brand as a whole.


Today, we’re talking about how a brand is more than a logo

Tucker Derek, today we’re talking about ecosystems. We’re talking about pulling things together. We’re also talking about how a brand is more than just your logo, which comes up a lot. When we work with clients, they think about working on their branding which means they think they have to change their logo. That’s not always the case, and I think this conversation is a good example of why you can do a lot around your brand that isn’t necessarily changing the primary logo.


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Derek When we say the word brand, everybody jumps straight to the logo and that’s normal. It’s not a criticism. We’ve been trained to think of them interchangeably. But a brand touches so many parts and places of an experience that somebody has with a business, with an organization, with a club, etc. so to only think of a brand as the logo short changes all of the ways and places and opportunities we have to reinforce the type of perception and reputation that we want our brand to stand for.

Tucker If you think of a brand as being defined by a person’s gut reaction or gut feeling or gut perception of a person, a place, or a thing, to say we’re going to brand this product is someone’s gut reaction to that product. Well, that gut reaction is built off of much more than just the visual aesthetic of it. That’s a huge part of it. And there’s a lot of the verbal aesthetic parts like the messaging and the tagline that go along with that too. The name has a huge piece in that. But a lot of it is experience too. What was it like when you used that product if you’re talking about a service? What was it like when you got that service when you were working with maybe a professional services firm? So people think of our brand. It’s bigger than just our flag or our logo. It’s a lot more of who they think of when they’re working with us and how that experience is working with them and the results that come out of that. So the brand and the ecosystem that builds around it really has to do with the interconnected web of elements that make up the identity. And then identity is a lot larger than just the visual identity.

Derek If you think of brands that you have a positive association with, something that you belong to, a place that you frequent, an organization that you work with, the more consistent they are and the more intentional they are with their brand, the more effortless that experience is going to seem to you. Maybe it’s because of what we do, but I notice all the ways and places that people haven’t taken advantage of when it comes to the entire ecosystem of their brand. When somebody does it right, you almost don’t notice it because it’s done so thoughtfully, and it’s so effortless and so consistent. We should do a whole podcast on the gut reaction thing, like, what is your gut? The good news is that there is some science behind it. The frustrating thing is, how do you define brand? Well, it’s your gut reaction to something. But that’s not to undervalue your first response, your impression, your gut reaction, how something makes you feel, how an experience with somebody, someplace, either does or does not fulfill expectations or that you walk away from that as a positive or negative association.

Tucker We had a conversation about a sub-branding thing a while back. I think it was episode 40, and we got into brand architecture. This is a little bit different than that. It has to do with architecture. It has to do with those things. And I would say you need to care about your brand ecosystem. And someone might ask me, you might ask me, why should anyone care about that? And I think it’s important because a lot of organizations – big, small, indifferent – don’t think of their brand as this ecosystem. They might have a positioning strategy. They might have all of these things that help their creative departments and their marketing departments function, but they’re not doing something with the mindset of the experience. There are a lot of organizations that we’ve worked with who don’t understand that we’ll talk about brand strategy and we’ll talk about this and that absolutely has to do with the visual direction that we will go. And it has to do with how we might change the name of the organization. But what they should also see is it should change the way that you market, it should change the way that you sell, and it should change the way that you service the current customers that you have. And how that all comes into play is really important.

Derek We are not saying that a branded ecosystem is slapping your logo everywhere. When you think of the professional sports team that we’ve worked with locally, they’ve identified something like eight very different types of fans. And that doesn’t also include their corporate partners. So the corporate partners and each of these different fan segments all want something. They all experience this brand in completely different ways. So you need to think about how to talk to them, what offer them, and how to reinforce each of those different experiences.

Tucker We work with a lot of private clubs. And this comes up a lot because private clubs, for those of you who have not worked in them, are home to a lot of pockets of people. They have membership factions. This is that group of people and this is that group of people. Maybe there are the tennis people that really love tennis over here. And this is the super hardcore golf fans. And those factions create a little bit of a challenge. If you don’t think ecosystem-wide, then how are you going to build a brand for all those different people to resonate with all of them without watering it down? That’s where you need an ecosystem to build unique experiences for each one of those fans like you’re talking about so that they can feel like they’re a part of something big and great and awesome. But it’s just for them.

Derek Having an ecosystem defined within a process of branding or rebranding an organization ultimately makes all the decisions easier. If this includes things like guiding principles, rationale, reasoning, and strategy, all within that strategy, as you look to different experiences, to different subsections of your audiences or your membership, etc., when done right, this makes all the difference in the world. It keeps the master brand cohesive and yet makes it applicable and personal for each of these different audiences.

Tucker So I want to do two things. I want to, one, talk about red flags. What do people see that if we talk about it here, they could go, I have that problem. That is absolutely me. And then, two, I want to go, What can you do about it? So walk me through a couple of red flags. Maybe it’s in a new business conversation and someone goes, Here’s the problem we have. And then we could go, Well, that’s because you’re not thinking like an ecosystem. You’re thinking very singularly about all of these things.

Derek The biggest one is a lack of consistency or fragmentation in how the brand is presented across different mediums, different platforms, and different ways. Some organizations might put a lot of effort and thought into their website, for example. And then when you go visit that organization and walk through their front doors in person, they’ve then maybe not taken the same thoughtful approach to what that experience is like. So there’s 2D, 3D, and then social, etc. So fragmented language, fragmented visuals, and lack of consistent presentation of who you are, what you look like, and how you sound, are probably the most common.

Tucker So from our brand standpoint, we don’t have fragmentation because both of us talk with our hands, and that’s just a part of our brand. And that’s just how it works. Because I’ve noticed that we both talk with our hands and maybe that’s just the experience of dealing with us.

Derek I’ve tried not to. And then, I feel like

Tucker It’s not authentic.

Derek Yeah, it’s just not how it works.

Tucker The second one is brand experiences fall flat. This is where you get people saying it’s the watering-it-down approach that we were talking about. It doesn’t feel like it’s for anyone because it’s for everyone. And this happens a lot when we deal with experiential brands when you’re dealing with professional teams or with private clubs or any of the people that put on events or specific things for people to come experience. Sometimes when you are so afraid to make a decision because you have no ecosystem strategy, you don’t have an understanding of who this experience is specifically for, and you don’t have any guiding light for how it should be shaped, it makes you feel like you could have had this experience anywhere, and that is the worst thing that could happen, because you want your brand to feel memorable, unique and different. And how do we do that? We need to build what I call a strategy for all of these experiences that we give our teams so that they can come back and say, Here’s who it’s for, here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s why they’re going to love it.

Derek So sometimes it’s not intentional. Sometimes it’s sort of accidental. Time goes by and you are paying attention, and all of a sudden you just haven’t paid attention to it long enough that now it’s not up to date and current anymore. Other people we work with have made the mistake of taking a MeToo strategy and saying, Well, if that works for that competitor or comparable organization, then it will work for us too. So we want to look like them and sound like them. This Is not the strategy we would ever recommend. For your brand to be for somebody and for it to stand out amongst that crowd of competition, it’s critical. And sometimes you only have one crack at this. If that experience falls flat first, you very likely might not get a second chance.

Tucker The last red flag for me is when a client comes to us and we go, Okay, can you slide your brand rule book, your guidelines, across the table to us? Or can you send us the file that you use for any of that? They go, No, we don’t have any. We have a logo. Do you want that file? That is a huge red flag. So there are no guardrails keeping your team on the right road. There is nothing that you’ve identified or outlined, where you said, This is how we sound, this is how we look, this is how we treat our guests, this is how we build our visual experiences, or this is how we talk to people. If you don’t have a guideline set, if you don’t have rules that help your team make decisions quicker, then they’re just going to do what they think is right at the moment. Sometimes that’s awesome. Sometimes it’s absolutely right. Sometimes it’s super wrong. And that can get really dangerous too because it makes it harder to onboard people. It makes it harder to have consistency. It makes you less efficient. There are a lot of problems that come with not having those guidelines.

Derek When they don’t have all the assets they need to tell the story, when they don’t have the visuals and the guidelines, more often than not, they’ll get bored with the limited ones that they have and they’ll start adding their own. And to keep things visually fresh or to keep the messaging interesting, with their doing that, oftentimes without any guidelines, now we’re back to fragmentation and inconsistency. It’s good for us because that’s obviously a problem that we can help with. On occasion, we’ll run into a customer or client who actually has a whole brand style guide, brand book, and a ton of assets. But for whatever reason, they’re not using all of them. They’re kind of honed in on a couple and they’re not taking advantage of everything they have. That’s not as common as it is to talk to a marketing team or an in-house creative team that just says, I don’t have anything to work with.

Tucker Yeah, I laugh, not because it’s like a cackle like, ha ha ha, these suckers are going to come to work with us. But all I can imagine is if that was the approach a doctor took and they said, Well, I hope people get sick because that way I’ll still have a job. It’s just like a really funny thing for me. It’s a hard thing, but how can we solve this? How can we move this forward so that when someone goes, I think that we’re not giving our team all that they can have from a brand side. We’re just not thinking the right way. How can we solve that problem?

Derek I’ll let you take the strategy approach to this. For me, it starts with a brand audit. I like to recommend that you gather all the ways, all the places, whether that’s signage, images of your physical spaces, printed things, the collateral, website, social media, all of the ways and places in which your brand is currently being represented. This is usually a great lay of the land to take pictures and images and spread it all out on a table and see what you have and what you don’t.

Tucker We’ve had a lot of clients come to us and say, Let’s do an audit. And I think where it actually starts before the audit is a mindset. It’s a philosophy. It’s where you think about this from a bigger standpoint. It touches every single experience. It’s all visual. It’s all verbal. It’s all experiential. It’s all these things so that when we do an audit, they don’t get surprised when we take a picture of their front entryway. Why would you do that? That’s a huge part of the experience of your whole thing. Or maybe when you walk into the stadium, what’s the first thing that you see? There is another part of doing that audit. We’ve had clients, I call it undercover because it makes me sound cooler, where we go in unknown to get the experience as a guest without anyone knowing that we’re there for any reason, and we write down what we experience, who’s talking to us, who’s not talking to us, when they say something to us, what did they say and how did they say it? When you ask for something, how do they respond to that? Those are key points to put into an audit. So if you do your own audit, and I would suggest getting someone your staff doesn’t know and have them do that. Have them walk through an experience and give you a true audit. Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid of not being good enough in some areas. There’s this level of being really transparent with your audit that will help you understand where you guys are lacking. And in some regards, it’s going to be visual. Sometimes it’s just going to be the way you talk to somebody that might totally have to change.

Derek We just did this for ourselves. This sort of an audit. Matter of fact, we probably do it more often than most because we need to do for ourselves what we do for our clients.

Tucker We try to do it yearly. And I tell our clients to do that too. Once a year – don’t try to make it the same time every year. But once a year let’s give ourselves a performance review and try to make it as honest as possible and as third-party as possible. That would be the best way to do it.

Derek At a high level, we think about what our customer journey looks like. What are the key touchpoints from hearing about us to visiting our website to taking a meeting to us sharing examples of other things with them, to them potentially walking in our door, or for them to meet us when we walk in their door and, and all of those steps. And this is just a super brief list. The list can be long. But when you start to think about all the pieces, places, and mediums – I forgot social media – all the ways that people interact with you, that’s the audit that we take. And to think about them through that strategic lens – what’s the purpose of each of these, and what’s the next one that that specific medium is trying to get to is the follow-up step.

Tucker And this all helps if you have a brand strategy, not a visual strategy. Visual strategies are very helpful, but a brand strategy is super important for this to say what perception we are trying to create. Who are we? What do we do and why is that important? And why should anyone care about that? Who do we do it for? Figuring out answers to these great questions as a strategic side – I’m sure we’ve done a lot of podcasts about that in the past and we’ll flip through the list – and applying that audit to that strategy to say where we are not accomplishing these things is going to be critical for you guys to look through your experience and then stand back and say, If we’re really trying to build this perception, how are we not doing it the way that we service this guest or this customer right now?

Derek I’m assuming we’ve done a podcast on perception, on reputation, and how to be thoughtful in landing on a series of 3 or 4 or 5 attributes that, when combined, describe how you want your brand to be perceived. Once you’ve done that, that’s the critical step. Once you’ve done that, then you can look at that audit and you can look at every piece, not just to understand what you have and what you don’t have, but to look at what you have and say, Is this reinforcing that perception or not? If we’re trying to be open, welcoming, warm, and timeless, is that message on our website reinforcing that? Does the furniture in the front lobby of our office represent that? Does the brand that’s then been applied to our member-member tournament also help continue to reinforce that whole story? So it’s strategy first. Like you said, you can skip the strategy and have a great-looking brand but it’ll fall flat. It won’t have the true meaning and it won’t resonate next level like the way that it can.

Tucker We need to redo the front office furniture. I can tell you that.

Derek We’re working on it.

Tucker So the takeaway is a big thing here. Within the brand ecosystem, remember that your brand is someone’s gut reaction to you. It’s the gut perception. It’s how someone experiences your organization. And if we think small, if we think only visually, then we’re going to limit ourselves to only improving visually. And that’s not okay.

Derek Get beyond the visual. Make it strategic. That makes it meaningful, which will help you stand out from the crowd. It’ll make you memorable. And then when that experience actually pays off for your audience, for your customer, for your guest, for your fan, they’re going to become advocates and start marketing for you.

Tucker All right, until next time.

Derek Till next time. Talk to you soon. Sussner is a branding firm specializing in helping companies make a meaningful mark, guiding marketing leaders who are working to make their brand communicate better, stand out, and engage audiences to grow their business. For more on Sussner, visit sussner.com.

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