A Confused Brand Limits Market Demand | Episode 42

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A brand that lacks consistency and clear positioning leads to a confused audience. And that makes it difficult for you to build awareness, trust and market demand with the HR tech buyer audience.

Chris Outlaw, host of the Unified Brand Podcast, is our guest on this episode. He shares examples of “confused brands” and the impact it can have on audience perception.

Listen now to learn how to build an authentic, successful brand and why consistency in your messages and imagery is so crucial.

0:01:22 | Importance of audience and customer personas
0:05:20 | The danger of trying to be everything to everyone
0:07:06 | The impact of brand personality on market perception
0:08:44 | The power of consistency in branding
0:10:31 | Red flags of a confused brand
0:11:20 | Lack of brand guidelines
0:13:10 | The Twitter rebrand to X is a case study in how not to do it
0:15:18 | Brand evolves with changes in market, competition and technology
0:17:27 | Steps to avoid confused brand: Audit, define brand, focus
0:18:31 | Look at your competition to understand positioning in the market
0:19:08 | Avoid “shiny object syndrome” and focus on uniqueness
0:20:23 | Brand matters in crowded HR tech industry

0:00:01 Jenni: Hey everybody, it’s Jenni from GrowthMode Marketing. You’re listening to The Demand Gen Fix, the podcast where our team of GrowthModers and our guests discuss the ins and outs of demand generation and why we believe it’s the key to long term sustainable growth, especially in the HR tech industry.

0:00:20 Deanna: Hi everyone, Deanna here. We all know the importance a brand plays in building awareness, credibility, and trust in the market. It goes well beyond the visual  aspects to also encompass the messages, vehicles, and all of the touch points a person may encounter. It is about the experience that prospects and clients have in relation to your company and your technology. And if you don’t manage your brand with intention, it can come across as disjointed in the market, and a confused brand just won’t resonate as well with potential HR tech buyers. Helping me dig in on this topic is our guest, Chris Outlaw, creative director at Elements Brand Management and host of the Unified Brand podcast.

0:01:00 Deanna: Welcome to the show, Chris.

0:01:01 Chris Outlaw: Yeah, thanks for having me on.

0:01:03 Deanna: So let’s jump first into talking about what companies should think about as they work to build their brand image in the market. Obviously, the first and obvious one is audience. From your perspective as a brand expert, Chris, how should prospects or companies be thinking about their audience?

0:01:22 Chris Outlaw: Focusing on the audience is the most important thing, and a lot of companies don’t always start there; they don’t always think about that till later, or they have the idea that everybody is their target audience, which is something that is often brought up, and it’s tricky to build a brand around an audience that is for everyone, so you have to really focus on who your target audience is. Now, you can have multiple audience segments that you work with, but your brand narrative wants to be focused on a target audience, so think of it like the front of a ship. So, the front of a ship has got the point. That’s kind of where your target is. You’ll still pick up people on the sides of the ship as it goes through the water, but essentially you have that target. So some of the things to think about: standard demographics, but going further with psychographics now, that is what your audience will value; what they believe.

0:02:02 Chris Outlaw: Some of the things that their intrinsic motivations; maybe some other brands that they’re aligned to; some other companies that they would follow and be part of; maybe some publications that they’d read, or podcasts they’d listen to. All these kind of things that build up who that audience is, and a great way to do this is to build customer personas, and from that, some things to think about are what are the problems holding your customer back at the moment as it relates to your product and service? That’s a really important thing, but also more important than the problem, because a lot of times the audience isn’t problem aware, they are symptom aware. So, what is the problem, but what is the symptoms that they’re facing in their world that they see that you can then help them to understand is actually attributed to the problem that you solve. So, that’s an important thing to think about, the solution that you provide. So, you have, like, a base level in terms of the solution that you provide to your target audience,

0:02:50 Chris Outlaw: but then there’s also, how can you exceed their expectations? So, how do you take that one step further and create a memorable experience that allows you to become the sort of go to brand in your space?

0:03:01 Deanna: One of the things that you said bears calling out a bit more, and that’s when you’re trying to be everything to everyone. I see this all the time in the HR technology space, and in a lot of different B2B scenarios where the company is selling a product or a solution that really can apply to a broad audience, and so they’re looking at it from a marketing perspective. They use the HR technology example.

0:03:26 Deanna: They may say, well, I can sell my technology to any company that has employees. I just looked at a website of a company in this space this morning and it said, we work with anyone from small businesses up to enterprise level companies. That’s a really broad audience, and I think where companies make a misstep in building out a brand is they’re looking at it saying, the broader the audience, the better, because that means we can sell to more companies.

0:03:55 Deanna: The reality is, it’s a really crowded market. Marketing resonates less than it ever has in the past, even though we don’t want to hear that, right? And so when you do that broad brush stroke with your marketing, your message resonates with no one, right? So, when you think about audience, we work with a lot of companies to help them build an ideal customer profile, to really narrow down that audience, so that the marketing and the brand can be much more focused. Going to what you said, Chris, about understanding their problems and painting that picture for them,

0:04:33 Deanna: well, if I am an HR leader making purchase decisions for a manufacturing company, I may have some of the same issues as an HR leader making purchase decisions in, say, a healthcare system, but I also have some nuances and unique pain points that are specific to the world that I’m living in. From a brand building perspective, if you narrow down that audience, you start to get more targeted with that messaging that you’re putting out there, and it’s going to resonate better. So, I think it’s really important to have perspective on audience beyond what’s possible, because you need to resonate in the market and you need to build a brand that sticks out in people’s minds, and it’s really hard to do that in a really, really crowded market.

0:05:20 Chris Outlaw: Yeah, 100%. It’s about relevancy as well, so in terms of if you’re positioning a brand, you’re creating relevancy, you’re tying what you do to how you solve their problem and to that audience. So you need to create relevancy for somebody. If you’ve got a message that is trying to appeal to everybody, you end up appealing to nobody, so I totally agree with what you said. The nuances are the things that are really important. So, you said nuances there about how somebody who’s in, say, a larger HR company will have, maybe it’s a CTO or something like that. The issues that they’re going to have on a day to day basis in terms of rolling out software, or trying to actually get buy in from above to actually sign off on a new kind of digital transformation piece, or something like that is going to be far different.

0:05:59 Chris Outlaw: There’ll be similarities to someone in a smaller company, but the actual nuances of managing a team while you’re doing that to try and transition the team from the old kind of system to the new system is going to be different for somebody in that sort of size company, and those things, they’re going to meet them where they are, and that’s the most important thing about branding, is you’re creating something to meet people where they are, so you’re trying to reach them where they are. And we see so many things every single day through social media, advertising, or if we’re watching streaming stuff, and things like that, there’s so much we have to take in that we’re being bombarded that to try and cut through that noise, you need to be specific.

0:06:34 Deanna: Absolutely, so I think another area that companies should be thinking about as they’re looking at building their brand image in the market is, obviously, tone. There’s different personalities; you have to think about how you want to resonate with an audience and the relevancy of it all,  and I know when we talked previously, Chris, you had mentioned some examples where you see this personality that doesn’t match up with what the company is, for example, and how that can impact the view that people have out there in the market.

0:07:06 Deanna: Can you give us an example or two to that effect?

0:07:09 Chris Outlaw: The thing we see a lot is that the unified brand podcast comes from the idea of the fact that we use, in our agency, the unified brand framework. That’s where it comes from, and that’s a methodology built on my experience, 15 plus years in the industry. In marketing, design and branding, we talk about four key layers. There’s lots of elements to building a brand, almost like a periodic table of elements that you can bring together, but there are four key layers to this. There’s the core, which is the heart of the brand. There’s the strategy, which is the brain of the brand. There’s the personality, which is the kind of tone of voice and the personality of the brand. And then there’s the identity, or the face of the brand, and a lot of brands focus on the front two, the external, which is personality and identity, but a lot of brands actually miss personality completely, and they just go for the visuals. And the issue with that is we do a lot of audits in industries for clients, and we’ll look at these industries and you’ll see so many of these players in the industry are all looking and feeling exactly the same. There’s no difference between any of them, and a lot of times it’s because you’ve had a market leader in that industry who has risen pretty quickly and they dominated that space.

0:08:08 Chris Outlaw: And then all of the people that come in afterwards try and actually be this leader; they just follow what the leader is doing, so if the leader does advertising in a certain space, they’ll follow it. No one is trying to disrupt or change or add a different flavor in there, or different personality, and a lot of people miss that out. And it can be really, really powerful to adjust the personality of your brand to match, again, meeting your audience where they are. So, we use archetypes a lot and we can, maybe, talk about that in a minute. It’s a really good way to meet your audience where they are. If you can develop a unique personality, especially in a stagnant market, you’ll come across as fresh, you’ll come across as memorable, and you’ll stand out compared to that competition.

0:08:44 Deanna: Another area that I think is really important to think about from a brand perspective is also consistency. As marketers are going out there, and they’re putting things on different channels, time is passing. It’s really easy to get off track and not maybe have the consistency across things, and from a perspective of a buyer or prospect, if I’m going in and I’m looking at those different channels, I may see it as disjointed when, from the marketing side because time has passed, or because they’re going into different channels, they don’t realize the puzzle pieces don’t fit together well.

0:09:22 Chris Outlaw: Yeah, so one of the things is a really good test, actually, for anybody who’s listening, with your company is to take the last five pieces of marketing collateral you’ve done and lay them out; print them out if you need to print them out, or lay them out, if it’s signage or brochures, next to each other and see if they look like they come from the same brand, and if they don’t, then you’ve got an issue. There’s a thing that people always talk about. It takes seven to eight touch points for a brand to metabolize. For you to take on board a brand, you have to interact with the brand seven or eight times to remember that brand, but what people never say is that has to be consistent. If you’ve got seven to eight touch points that are inconsistent, then it’ll take far longer for you to metabolize that brand. You’re not going to take it on board because the inconsistency essentially creates this disconnect with your audience, and a confused brand is a confused audience. And one of the things that you see a lot is people, again, when they follow trends or follow the competition, they start to emulate the competition, they change who they are and they lose their identity. We call this a brand identity crisis, essentially.

0:10:17 Deanna: A confused brand can potentially cause more harm than good. Let’s talk about some of the things. I mean, you see it in your work all the time, probably, Chris, where the red flags go up and you’re like, ahh, this is a confused brand.

0:10:31 Chris Outlaw: Yeah, so again, you can see it from the visual side of things, so if you’ve got marketing that’s inconsistent across those different channels, so whether that’s your social channels, or if you’ve got some advertising campaigns that are completely different from what the brand stands for, that’s an inconsistency. Visually, you’ll have inconsistencies, whether it is through there’s no guidelines, you’ll see some companies that don’t have brand guidelines, and therefore they’ll use different fonts, or different color, and different elements of graphics, and things like this, which creates confusion.

0:10:58 Chris Outlaw: There’s an inconsistency, sometimes around, if you don’t understand who you are, and what you stand for, and where you’re trying to head to if you haven’t got your purpose, vision, mission, and value set. You can have confusion both internally, from an employee standpoint, from a culture perspective, where people don’t know why they’re going to work, but you also have a confusion externally, because a lot of the things that you would do on the back of that, when you’re creating marketing campaigns, collateral, doing storytelling, they end up being confused because they’re not entirely sure on who they are, so they don’t know who they are intrinsically at the core; they haven’t found out what makes them unique, and therefore it’s reinventing the wheel every single time. So, when I used to work in sort of corporate, one of the reasons that got us to develop the unified brand framework was you’d sit round a table with the management team or the leadership team, and everybody would be on a different page when it came to the brand.

0:11:49 Chris Outlaw: They’d all see it slightly differently; they’d all be confused by it. Meetings would go on longer; you’d end up having difference of opinion quite strongly between different members of the team, and that’s a real telltale sign that there’s an issue at the core that people don’t understand what the brand is. And you’ll see it a lot with people when there’s a high turnover of staff in management positions; you see it when you have a high turnover in the marketing department because people come in, they want to make their mark, so they’ll change something up that’s previously been there just to make their mark, but the problem with that is you’re changing something that potentially has been built up in the brand over a lot of time.

0:12:23 Chris Outlaw: So, people that don’t understand brand will come in and the equity will be lost in the brand, and you see it a lot of times with companies that are being acquired and merging; they bring it together and they lose who they are, or the core of those individual brands separately, and how that comes together and what that new story looks like. So, you have to be really careful, and a great example of that is the recent rebrand of Twitter to X. It’s a great example of how not to do something in terms of rebranding. There was a very, very quick transition there and it could have been so good if there was a story wrapped around it; if there was a reason for the rebrand, it could have been really good, but that wasn’t there, and for anybody else who wants to emulate the way that Elon Musk did that you need to have the backing and the financial backing that Elon Musk has in order to do something like that, because if you did that and you didn’t have that financial backing, it’s going to cause a lot of issues.

0:13:10 Deanna: If you’re a smaller company and you’re trying to do that and you change your name, nobody’s going to be like the company formerly known as XYZ. Everyone still is saying the company formerly known as Twitter, right, because Twitter had such a large brand and global presence. That’s a great example of where there were some missteps, obviously, on that rebranding. Most companies probably aren’t going to have that level of a change to a confused brand, but I think a lot of companies will unintentionally end up creating a confused brand for different reasons and always with good intentions, but when you step back and look at it, it’s like, here’s where the misstep was. So, for example, shiny object syndrome, you saw some kind of marketing style or personality that you really liked and you’re like, that’s awesome.

0:14:02 Deanna: We want to be just like that. Let’s try that, and all of a sudden you’re off track from what your brand is and what it’s represented, and it’s not that you can’t make a shift in your brand, but there’s got to be more steps and thoughts behind it or it ends up being like a mini case like Twitter now X, because they didn’t do the due diligence to make that transition so that it seemed like there was a reason behind it for prospects and clients out there. If you’re trying to stand out and be different, or you’re testing out different approaches and tactics to uncover what works, it’s a slippery slope.

0:14:42 Deanna: And we’re not always looking at it as marketers from the brand perspective, and I think that’s where sometimes organizations take those missteps or get a little lost.

0:14:54 Chris Outlaw: Your brand lives in an ecosystem, and in that ecosystem, you’ve got your employees, you’ve got your audience, you’ve got the wider market as a whole. You’ve got the industry that you sit in, you’ve got your competitors, you’ve got your partners, your distributors, you’ve got this whole ecosystem that is fragile, and it changes; it fluctuates, the market changes, buyer choices change; people get more mature in their buying habits in that industry.

0:15:18 Chris Outlaw: And as people change and the market changes and your competition changes, you evolve as a brand; you’re constantly evolving, things are happening, technology is changing, new channels are coming in, and it can be really easy, like you said, shiny object syndrome, to just go for something. When I used to work in corporate, one of the things we did with one of the clients that I was working with, he would always be like, there’d be a new thing coming out; a new advert; a new type, and he’d say, can we do this thing? And the target audience was in their 60 plus, and he was wanted to do stuff like Apple were doing, or stuff like really funky and groovy, and really cool sort of stuff that’s really exciting, but the target audience at the time, what they wanted, especially from the brand, it’s not necessarily you can’t do those things with whatever type of audience you have, it’s more what the brand represents to them.

0:16:02 Chris Outlaw:  And that’s where archetypes is, quite often, misused and misunderstood, and can be really good for creating memorable, impactful brands. So, if I give an example of Harley Davidson, for example, so if you imagine somebody who’s been working in a role for sort of 40 plus years in the same role, same cubicle, same thing, clocking in, clocking out on a routine every single day, they start to crave liberation; they start to crave freedom; they start to crave these things that they really want internally. They might not even be able to express it, but they want these things.

0:16:32 Chris Outlaw: So, brands that talk to them, where they are, in that point of their life, in that way, reach out to them, so Harley Davidson do it really well, because they end up using iconography like wings; they’ll use images of open roads; they use slogans like the only rules are meant to be broken, so brands that embody the outlaw archetype will reach out to people who are screaming for liberation. If you’ve got somebody who feels out of control and feels like everything’s going overboard, and they’re really struggling with things, then a ruler comes in, somebody that can be a leader; can be a ruler for them, is what they look for.

0:17:07 Chris Outlaw: So, if you can embody the personality type of the character that your audience is looking for and build a brand around it, you can actually then reach them where they are. You can do that through visuals, through messaging, and through positioning, and a lot of brands miss that whole step out.

0:17:22 Deanna: So, Chris, what steps should a marketer take to avoid a confused brand?

0:17:27 Chris Outlaw: So, what I would say, to avoid a confused brand, there’s a few things you can do. So, there’s a process you can take to avoid a confused brand, but one of the things we always look at first is doing an audit, which is taking stock of where the brand is, so it’s almost like you look at where your brand is strong, where it’s weak, and where you could improve. And one of the ways to do this is you take an inventory of everything that you’ve got, so you look at your visual identity, you look at your marketing, and you look at your printed collateral; everything to do with the brand. You look at where it’s strong, where it’s weak, and where you can improve, and also look at your competition, and one of the things that you can do, which is a really quick way, it’s not failsafe because it won’t tell you what their positioning is, but it’ll give you a rough idea of how they see themselves, is to look at their social bios across all different channels, and see what they’re saying in their bios on their socials. Because you’re limited to a short amount of characters, what most businesses will do is they’ll try and boil down what they do into that statement. It’s a really quick way to see how they see themselves, or what they’re trying to lay claim to in the market, or stake to. If they’ve got confused with that and they haven’t effectively got across anything that makes any sense, so, you see it a lot of times where companies will say, we’re number one or we’re the best in our industry.

0:18:31 Chris Outlaw: That’s great for you because they are not really saying anything; they’re not communicating anything. We’ve done a number of audits where we’ve looked at an industry, and you’ve seen a couple of people who’ve said, well, we’re the oldest in our industry, so one of them is not correct on that, or other people that have said we’re number one. There’s been three people that have said number one in an industry we looked at before.

0:18:48 Chris Outlaw: So, things like that where you can have a look at the competition and see how they’re positioning themselves, and then to avoid a confused brand, some of the things you need in place are you need to understand who you are. So, you need to decide on and define what the brand stands for, what makes you unique, who you’re trying to reach; what the brand is, so you need to outline what the brand is, essentially.

0:19:08 Chris Outlaw: And then you also need some guidelines for the visual aspects, and also some things to put in place in terms of your marketing strategy and brand strategy going forward, but you need to define who you are in order to then carry that forward throughout everything you do. A few things to watch out for essentially are, just like you said, shiny object syndrome; focusing too, on thinking that target audience is either everybody or too many different types of segments; being able to be strong and focused in who you are; what makes you unique, and celebrating that uniqueness because it can be really easy to think, I’m just going to drift and do what the leader is doing in this industry, or this market, and actually, if you can stand out and be authentic to who you are, celebrate your uniqueness and double down on it, then you’ll find your tribe.

0:19:52 Deanna: I think the key takeaway here is that brand matters. How your company is perceived in the market is so important and the HR tech industry is very, very crowded. It is hard enough to stand out, so don’t let a confused brand get in the way of creating demand for your company, and your products and services. Chris Outlaw thanks so much for joining me with the conversation today. For those who are interested in learning more about brand, be sure to follow Chris’s podcast, the Unified Brand podcast.

0:20:23 Chris Outlaw: Thanks very much for having me. It’s been awesome!

0:20:26 Jenni : Thanks for joining us on The Demand Gen Fix, a podcast for HR tech marketers brought to you by GrowthMode Marketing. We sure hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to subscribe for more perspectives on demand generation and B2B marketing strategies. Plus, give us a like; tell your friends. We’ll see you next time.

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