Today’s guest, Lindsay Pedersen, is talking about branding with us and no, not just your logo or your business colors—real branding, as she does in her book, Forging an Ironclad Brand. Lindsay’s going to deconstruct what brand is and why is indispensable for leaders.
Lindsay Pedersen: I found myself repeatedly having this conversation that was about demystifying what brand was. So, I found that there’s just this very basic misunderstanding about the word that was preventing fruitful conversations about brand.
If you’re like me and you think that brand is a worthy topic of conversation, when people have a similar understanding of what it means, is useful.
So, I was doing this a lot and in one on one conversations and I was writing about it in my blog and I was guest lecturing about it at the business school, where I often guest lecture. It kind of got to a point where I felt this momentum. People were sitting up straighter when they were engaging with this, this elemental meaning of brand. It seemed to empower and kind of clarify for the people who I was talking with in a way that made me think I want to encapsulate this in a book.
That’s what sparked it. And then I spent a couple of years researching for the book and writing in the book. So now it is just about ready to go out to the world.
Rae Williams: What would you say is the unique story or idea in the book?
Lindsay Pedersen: Yes. The fundamental kernel, I believe is brand is almost synonymous with business and brand strategy, almost synonymous with business strategy What has happened in a lot of environments—and I live in Seattle, which is a tech town. So this is very true in a tech town like Seattle, is that brand is thought of as a logo or a PR story or of its many, many manifestations instead of this big north star that is useful for anybody who is making decisions for the business.
So, what I hope that people quickly take away as what a profoundly useful tool brand is for running a company. It’s the very crux of commerce itself. And when somebody thinks of brand as merely one of its manifestations, like merely a logo or merely a TV ad campaign, they miss out on most of its power.
That’s what I hope people come away with. After hopefully convincing the audience of this, I unveil a method, a step by step method for defining a brand that can serve as that North Star for the business.
A Path to Understanding Branding
Rae Williams: How did you get into branding, and then why did you decide to title your book the way you did? I find your title the be super powerful.
Lindsay Pedersen: Backing up, I spent the formative years of my career in consumer packaged goods. So, I was a brand manager at Clorox and I was as a brand manager and consumer packaged goods. Uh, the brand manager has P&L responsibility, so they’re essentially the CEO of the business, and they certainly do marketing. They’re figuring out the supply chain, they’re doing demand planning, they’re working with sales, they’re working with R&D on, you know, formula and product improvements. So, it’s truly a CEO type role.
And in that environment at Clorox, which is similar to a company like P&G, Proctor and Gamble or Nestle or General Mills or Johnson & Johnson, the brand, culturally, the brand is embraced as the North Star. It is the thing that gives us competitive differentiation. It’s the thing that allows us to charge healthy margins and to have a sustainable and enduring and robust business.
So, in that environment it’s so taken for granted as the most valuable asset that a business has. I was surprised when I left consumer package goods and heard people react to the fact that I was a brand strategist with, “Oh, so you do logos?” I was so puzzled by the disconnect that when I thought of brand, I thought of the North Star, the thing that enables this business to be a thriving business, the meaning and the value that this business brings to customers and employees.
Others outside of consumer packaged goods, but particularly in high tech, thought of it as something much smaller.
I left consumer packaged goods and started a brand strategy consulting business working with companies. Sometimes it was consumer businesses, but a lot of times it was software businesses or retail businesses, businesses outside of the consumer realm.
When I would help them define their brand through a brand strategy, it unlocked all of this clarity for them. It enabled them to put a stake in the ground with what their business was about and rally employees and owners behind that, which was a lot more gratifying to, for these leaders to be running a business that had a meeting like that where they have this conviction and this stake that they had put into the ground.
It also created more value for the business because they could prioritize against one thing. So that is how I came to have this biting passion for helping people see brand as this North Star.
The title of the book. Oh my gosh, this is such a cobbler’s children wearing no shoes thing because up until the very end, like the 11th and a half hour, the title of the book was going to be just The Ironclad Brand Strategy. And I was talking to a past client of mine who’s a CEO, so kind of the archetype of a person who I hope will be reading the book, and he’s like, “uh, no, no, no.”
He convinced me that it needed to be more active and that I needed to sort of take my own advice as a brand strategist and to be more forthright with how much agency is involved with building a brand strategy.
It’s not just about creating a neat brand strategy that sits on a bookshelf. It’s about being super actively engaged as a leader with the building of that brand strategy and with the activation and living and breathing that brand strategy as the North Star for the business. So that was the idea for the Forging an Ironclad Brand. And Ironcladis the name of my business. So that was, that’s how that word came in.
Rae Williams: So why exactly does it matter for businesses and individuals to make sure they have an ironclad brand and an ironclad strategy?
Lindsay Pedersen: Let’s just take the simple case of business owners. This could be a small business as it could be a large business, it could be a simple business or a complex business. When you run a business and you’re a leader of that business, you’re always trying to negotiate tradeoffs, right?
There’s the “Do I do this thing that’s going to give me a short-term bump today but might hurt tomorrow?” “How can I build a business that’s going to be around this year, but is also going to endure for years and years to come—and how do I endure this month?”
“How do I make sure that I survive as well as thrive?”
And that’s what brings together all business owners is that we all are trying to find that thing that will help guide decisions.
The idea of brand strategy when you’ve developed one is that it has these two characteristics, as resonant to your target customer that your target customer wants it, and it’s something that your business uniquely is good at.
So, when you have those two elements tied together, then you can allow that to drive your decisions and those decisions will then serve your short-term needs as well as your long-term needs.
So, if you’re Volvo, for example, since that has a really, really single-minded brand of brand strategy around safety, they can make decisions. The leaders of the various businesses under Volvo can make decisions that optimize for safety, not speed, not sexiness or vanity, not even other great things like fuel efficiency. It’s all optimized for safety.
When you’re not spending cycles debating decisions that are existential like that, you’re saving a lot of time, but you’re also creating a lot more value than if you’re always kind of reinventing the wheel every time you have to make decisions like that.
I’m talking to the business owner because brand is a value creation tool. It’s a way to enable you to create the most value that you can as a business.
Where to Begin
Rae Williams: I’d love for you to discuss the first step with us.
Lindsay Pedersen: One of the things that I found when I was building brand strategies is that one of the things that make people a little bit resistant to it, is that it feels kind of squishy. It feels kind of, “How do I know if this is right?” It’s kind of too far on one end of the spectrum of right brain left brain.
And what I sought to learn was, are there qualities, are there criteria for enabling a leader to zero in on the right brand strategy? Because not all positioning choices are created equal.
Some positioning choices are going to build more value for a business than others. Some positioning choices are more differentiated to a company than others. Some are going after larger markets than others. So I spent several years really toying with what are the criteria that, when present together, lead to an ironclad brand strategy.
I defined those nine criteria, and in the book, and I start with probably the most exacting. That is the criteria that it has to be a big brand promise. So, the first criteria and for an ironclad brand strategy is it has to be a big idea.
When it’s something that’s a really meaningful promise, which is it answers a really meaningful, big need to a meaningfully large audience, that is the way to create value for those people and commensurately for the business. So, when the promise that you bring to your customer really matters, you can fuel a business that really matters.
That’s the first step—is it big? Is this something that is going to matter?
Rae Williams: I would love for you to give me an example of a success story, someone that’s done a very good job. And then if you can too, one that’s not done so great a job.
Lindsay Pedersen: Sure. Yeah. A brand that I have a huge amount of heart for right now and, and I admire both as a student of brand and as a customer is Airbnb. They have isolated this unmet need among audiences to provide this very human desire to “belong anywhere.” So that’s their promise, to belong anywhere.
It’s a big promise, and it marries these needs to belong as well as to feel safe and particularly in the, in the context of travel, to feel safe in different parts of the world where you’ve never been.
So, it’s a promise that’s really meaningful to guests who get to experience a new place through the lens of a local. It’s also a meaningful promise to hosts who get to share their world with someone that they would otherwise never get to know.
Airbnb has created so much value.
Certainly, I mean there was the, you could look at the valuation of Airbnb and they’re going to be going public in 2019 so you can look at the literal valuation, but you can also look at the value that customers who have been using Airbnb and for hosts who have been using Airbnb that they have unlocked for themselves monetarily and just value in terms of the richness of their lives.
This is a brand that I just love. They’ve been succeeding and I want to see them continue to succeed because I think it just this taps into this deep human need that otherwise is kind of going unmet.
Rae Williams: What about a brand who hasn’t done so well?
Lindsay Pedersen: Yeah, it’s funny because I do have an answer to your question, but in some ways if you can think of the brand, then it probably has a lot of value. Especially if I’m thinking of a brand that I think that you too will know, it’s probably a brand that actually has done a lot of things right. Otherwise we wouldn’t know them.
So, most examples of most of this is that they actually don’t fall to the surface and we don’t know the ones that fail because if they were generating value than they probably already would have just generated our awareness.
Having said that, I think that brand awareness is partly about how good their promises, what we just talked about that with Airbnb. But, it’s also partly about how much money they put into generating awareness for that promise. So, a brand that I think is really poor, but what you will know and what the listeners will know because of all the money that they’ve spent on marketing is AT&T.
So, AT&T, they spend in the hundreds of millions of dollars a year on TV media alone. So, we have a high awareness of what they are. But do you know what AT&T stands for?
Rae Williams: I actually have no idea. I don’t know what they stand for.
Lindsay Pedersen: That’s truly sinful because after all of the money they have spent getting our mind share, I don’t really know what, I have no way of kind of hooking onto what it is that, what is the stake that they put into the ground?
So, most businesses that don’t bother to define the stake they’re putting into the ground. Like AT&T, most businesses like that don’t have the money that AT&T has to make up for their lack of conviction. So, we don’t know about them because they’re not spending $350 million a year on TV media. It’s kind of a funny thing where the real brand losses are the ones that we never heard of.
Branding Comes from Leadership
Rae Williams: Why is it important that you are speaking specifically to leaders in brand strategy formation?
Rae Williams: I feel really strongly about this, that the leader needs to own the brand. The reason is at its core, an exercise in choosing your positioning is an exercise in taking things off the table. It’s an exercise in choosing things that you’re not going to focus on. And the only person in the P&L or in the company or in the business unit who can truly do that is the leader.
So, if somebody who’s not the leader of the company is building the brand strategy, they’re not going to have the air cover to be very brave in choosing their brand strategy because their leader hasn’t been in the room or been in conversation with them about “I’m willing to deprioritize these five things so that we can focus on this one thing and really nail it with this one thing.”
So if it is a brand strategy that the leader is not involved with, it actually isn’t really a brand strategy, or it probably is a neat marketing campaign but it’s only going to be as brave as it has been embracing of the idea that, in choosing one thing, you have to say no to a lot of other things. Only the leader can do that in a way that’s going to be activatable.
So later down the line at when push comes to shove and you’re making really difficult decisions. If the leader wasn’t saying “Yes, it’s okay to make that sacrifice,” it’s going to be either a political hairball to have to do something that’s on brand or it’s just not going to happen.
People eventually get weary and won’t follow the brand.
So, if the brand is the North Star, then the leader is actually the primary audience for that North Star. It’s for the leader. That’s kind of the whole point. The whole point is to provide this focusing guide for the person who best benefits from focus, which is the leader. And a happy byproduct of that is the employees love that too because it enables them to delegate better, to push decision making down because he or she has said this is our North Star, so make decisions according to that.
So, employees love that and feel a lot more purpose and meaning in their work as well. But it has to be modeled by the leader and embraced by the leader, not just when it’s an easy decision, but especially when it’s a hard decision.
I really am talking to leaders, and it kind of starts with what we began our conversation with, which is brand is your most differentiated and valuable asset as a business. So of course, the leader should be the one to be driving that. You don’t delegate that. It’s kind of like you don’t delegate your marriage. This is the whole idea of what brand strategy means. So, if the leader is involved, then it sets up the brand strategy to really unlock the power of that clarity and intention and focus.
A Challenge from Lindsay Pedersen
Rae Williams: I would love for you to issue a challenge—we can make this specific to leaders. What can they take action on to change their business today, this week, or this month?
Lindsay Pedersen: Yes. Awesome. So, if you’re kind of new to brand and this is the beginning of a journey of thinking about your brand, then my challenge is get very, very specific about who you’re serving, who your target customer is. There’s no such thing as a woman, age 30 to 45… who is the actual human being, who is the archetype of your target customer? Get specific about it and get empathetic and curious about what this person’s life is like. And when you think about the problem that you’re offering solves, what is it like for your target customer to be in the midst of trying to solve that problem?
Get really, really specific and precise and not use broad brush strokes about who your sweet spot audience is. That’s the first thing.
And for listeners who are like, “Yeah, already done that, of course we’ve done that. We have a brand strategy, we have our target customer, we have our brand strategy.” Then my challenge is when you look at your brand promise, that one thing that you bring that nobody else brings and that your customer is willing to pay for.
When you look at that thing, does it represent the overlap of something that your customers really want and that you’re really good at, and then that your competitors are not good at? So a very common pitfall when writing a brand strategy is to land on something that customers really want and that your company is really good at providing, but not taking this extra step of insuring that it’s something that only you provide. I’ll give an example of this in a second.
If your brand promises something that’s general to the category in which you play, it’s not going to be a hardworking brand promise.
So, here’s a fictional example. Say you’re a pancake brand and you, you make pancake mixes and you’ve noticed that your target customer is a really busy mom who loves to celebrate Saturday mornings with her kids. And that’s your target customer. And you’ve defined your brand promise as delicious pancakes. So, this target customer wants this delicious celebratory breakfast for her family on Saturday mornings. That’s awesome. She wants it and you’re good at providing it. You make really delicious pancakes.
But you’re pancakes. So of course you’re delicious. Every pancake is delicious. That’s the cost of entry for being called a pancake.
So, you have to go farther in this journey to define not just how are we delicious, which is a category benefit. It’s the table stakes that you bring, what are we specifically good at that nobody else is good at?
So, then you can look at the things. If you’re this fictional pancake brand, maybe you have an original recipe from Sweden, or maybe you’re all organic ingredients, or maybe you only require one ingredient added, or maybe you’re the fastest version.
Brainstorm all those things and get really precise and kind of hold your own feet to the fire that you’re picking something that is not just an easy—it’s easy to say yes to delicious. But you’re picking something where you’re going to double down where nobody else can deliver. So that’s my challenge. Get really into that brand promise, ensure that it’s not just relevant to your customer and something that you’re good at bringing, but it’s something that only you’re good at bringing.
Rae Williams: Where can people find you? How can we contact you?
Lindsay Pedersen: I have a website,ironcladbrandstrategy.com, and you can subscribe to my newsletter. I send it out once a month, and I talk about provocative topics and brand and leadership.