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When It Comes to Branding, Perception Is Reality

Seeing is believing. That is a strange aphorism that would seem to be disproven time and again. Human perception is notoriously unreliable. People are always seeing things that are not there, or at the very least, are not what they seem to be. We are constantly being misled by our perceptions. In the wrong light, blue looks like green, a woman looks like a boy. And no two eyewitnesses can agree on the details of a accident that happened right in front of them. In almost every aspect of life, it is demonstrably true that seeing is a poor basis for believing.

One of the few exceptions would be in the field of branding. For ages, companies and governments have been able to use this fact to their advantage. Flagrantly corrupt political regimes get away with violating the human rights of their own people, while currying even more loyalty and devotion from those same people. Televangelists use the same tactics to similar ends. Companies that sell bad products still have loyal followings.

Understanding something about how these entities use perception and branding may not catapult you to the position of dictator of your very own banana republic. But it is sure to help you create better strategies for enhancing the brand value of your business. Let’s start with a closer look at what branding is all about:

Shorthand for an Aspirational Reality

Consider the message you want to convey about your business to the world. Your brand is that manifesto of who you are and what you are all about, reduced to a single word or symbol. It does not matter if it is actually true. It is who you want to be, and how you want people to see you. If your brand is successful, the perception of who your are becomes the reality of who you are, as far as the world is concerned.

Here is a branding pop-quiz: What company comes to mind at the mention of the words, corporate security? No matter how old you are, the majority of you immediately thought of Blackberry. In reality, Blackberry (once RIM) is a punchline of its former self. Even in its heyday, it is questionable that they ever had the best solution for corporate security.

What they had without competition was the reputation for corporate and institutional security. That narrative became a part of their brand. RIM was a pager company that overreached. Even now, people who have never used the product, and never will, still think of it as the first word in corporate security. For that reason, it is one of the most successful technology brands of all time.

What RIM was able to do was turn its brand into a shortcut for an aspirational reality. Even after governments were able to successfully force RIM to hand over backdoor keys to parts of their service, people still associated the brand with unshakable security despite the evidence to the contrary. But by that time, RIM’s brand was no longer about the facts, if it ever was. It was about the perception conveyed by the brand. In most cases, branded perception is better than facts.

A Little Openness Goes A Long Ways

One of the strongest branded perceptions a company can have is that of openness and honesty. Financial services have been trading on that fact for years. It is all about incorporating trustworthiness into the brand. Charles Schwab is a good example of this principle.

In the latest round of ads, people are invited to “talk to Chuck”. Whether or not Chuck is open, honest, truthful, and a safe place to park your money is an open question. As long as they court that perception, it will be true to their many customers.

Some companies are fearless about presenting information about themselves that is uncurated. At times, they surface uncensored customer reviews. They give the potential client plenty of information to enable them to do their own research and come up with the best fit for them. Lexington Law lists consumer reviews that are uncurated and transparent so that you can get a full picture of how the company manages its customers relationships online.

That kind of honesty allows them to own that attribute. That is the very attribute that a company needs if people are going to trust the company with their money. They do not mind you knowing that they will not be successful every time. But their record of success, and customer satisfaction speaks for itself. They remind us that when branding yourself as honest and open, it helps to actually be honest and open.

People Can Forgive Anything If They Think You Care

Why does one company get punished for moderately bad behavior, while another seems to get away with murder, their fans cheering all the louder? Consider how life plays out in courtrooms everyday. Two people commit a crime. One gets the book thrown at him, while the other walks with the lightest possible sentence. Justice is not blind; it’s human. One defendant is defiant, while the other is contrite and remorseful. Remorse wins every time.

Judges and juries want to see that the defendant cares about the consequences of his actions. They want to see that there is a possibility for change and growth. That is also what people want to see in a business. They want to know that when a business makes a mistake, it cares about the human consequences, and wants to make things right. The business may or may not do anything to change its company culture. But if people perceive that they care, that perception is usually enough to buy quite a lot of benefit of the doubt.

This is not about being cynical. I have no desire to help bad companies leverage perception to increase their brand value. But it is a neutral fact. Anyone can use it to their advantage. My hope is that good companies struggling with their brand, can learn to leverage their honesty and genuine concern as the perception that dominates their reality.


March 19, 2015

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