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For the Brand to Thrive, the Leader Must Be the Brand

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A brand isn't an inanimate object.

GE is not a light bulb, it's the power that drives America. Virgin isn't an airline, it's a high-flying lifestyle. Louis Vuitton isn't a pocketbook, it is European fashion at its savoir-faire best.

None of these companies earned their reputation by accident. Brand building requires a consistent and coordinated effort. Even Apple, arguably one of the most successful brands of all time, has to refine its story over time to stay relevant.

Related: The Basics of Branding

In a recent New York Times article, reporters Matt Richtel and Brian X. Chen highlight how Apple the brand has increasingly become synonymous with the next big "iThing," rather than being associated with critical emotional brand attributes driven by values, vision and mission.

Correcting this perception doesn't fall to marketing or communications. It's squarely in the wheelhouse of CEO Tim Cook, who is repositioning the firm at the crossroads of creative collaboration and social responsibility, while continuing on the path of growth and innovation.

Bottom line: less hardware, more brain share.

The beauty of the brand story. In an entertainment-centric world, branding is equal parts flaunting your differentiators and weaving your company's story into everything you do.

A recent spate of campaign ads have moms and dads of would-be politicians bantering playfully with their candidate sons and daughters. Candidates have figured out that building their brand means sharing a peek at who they are as real, live human beings. While they still have to tout their platform, politicos are relying more on stories than slogans.

When you are a CEO, your story becomes your brand's story. In the case of Apple, Tim Cook has taken to Twitter and other venues to express his support for gay rights and environmentalism. He has increased Apple's charitable giving platform.

Related: The 5 Branding Rules of Attraction

Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of design and a close collaborator to the late Steve Jobs and, now, Tim Cook, says that innovation remains squarely at the heart of the company's central mission. "Steve established a set of values…that are completely enduring," he said.

But to the Apple critics who have seen slow sales growth, "Mr. Cook is uninspiring, his social views window dressing, when what they want is magic."

Only time will tell which brand story will prevail.

Be-to-be branding. You have to know your brand, inside and out, to keep your brand identity strong. Defining your brand message is hard work.

It cannot be assumed that everyone, staff and consumers included, is in agreement as to what your brand actually stands for. You need to:

  • Define your core focus and purpose.
  • Identify the problems you solve and how your differentiators impact your clients.
  • Know your specialty and how you add value beyond your core mission.
  • Understand your company's vision for the future and the steps you'll take to get there.

If you asked all of your employees to write their insights on each of the above attributes, would their answers be the same or radically different? If there is a disconnect with your employees, you can be sure there is an even greater disconnect with the target audience you need to engage.

Be a control freak. Communicate regularly but in a highly controlled way. ''Media'' train your staff on the narrative you've created, then have them live and breathe it in every interaction. Funnel media requests through a third party to give time to craft a brand appropriate reply. Off the cuff is dangerous.

Tim Cook declined to be interviewed for the aforementioned New York Times story but that didn't stop the reporters from rounding out their story with YouTube videos, speeches, earnings calls and other public and semi-public statements. Sometimes not communicating is equally important but in today's media environment, reporters and editors will find a way to give you the last word.

To gauge how much work you have to do in controlling the message, try the following:

  • Compare the blogs your employees write to your approved messaging. Does it synch?
  • Are those 140 character-tweets reflective of your approved tone?
  • Does that homespun iPhone video reflect the highly polished style you are trying to establish?

Where does your brand stand? Share your insights here!

Related: The Psychology of Color in Marketing and Branding

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