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October 11, 2011 » 12:11 pm

Branding = Story + Community

My big angst about the Wikimedia Strategic Planning process was that we didn’t focus enough on story. We did a great job creating space, building relationships, guiding conversations, and structuring the process, all of which was why we were successful. But our only-okay execution on storytelling still sticks in my craw to this day.

This angst led to a heart-to-heart with Jelly Helm shortly after the project. Jelly is all about story, and he continues to inspire my thinking. It also led to bringing Gwen Gordon onto a subsequent project in a very outside-the-box role, an experiment that I loved and plan on continuing. Gwen is all about story and play, and she brought life to a project that involved a traditional IT department at a large, global company.

My angst also led to several conversations and a collaboration with Chris Grams. This post is about Chris’s recent book, The Ad-Free Brand, but in order to talk about the book, I first need to talk about Chris.

His title suggests that his book is about branding or marketing. It is, and if you’re interested in those topics, you should read it. But the title doesn’t really do justice to what this book is really about: Engaging with your community, and telling your story.

I first met Chris while leading the Wikimedia strategy process. He convinced Philippe Beaudette and me that we had a great story to tell, and then he pushed us to tell it.

A few months ago, I knew that Groupaya’s launch date was drawing near, which also meant that Blue Oxen’s time was coming to a close. Neither of these were secrets to those with whom I interact often, as I’ve been very open about both of these things. However, I wasn’t sure how to deal with it at a broader level.

I was strongly leaning toward the Big Reveal. You all know what I’m talking about: A cryptic note, all in black, with a mysterious gnome in the background, and the words, “Coming Soon….” Or something like that.

Chris talked me out of it. We spoke for about an hour, kicking around ideas and discussing philosophy, and it amounted to the following advice: Be yourself. Tell your friends the news when you’re ready to tell it. Keep the conversation going.

I know this stuff. It’s what I do. But somehow, when I put on a “marketing” hat, I started getting these crazy ideas about the way it’s supposed to be. I needed to take off that hat and throw it in the incinerator.

Which brings me back to Chris’s book. The Ad-Free Brand is a field guide for how to tell a story and how to engage with your community. That is what branding is truly about. This may not sound as sexy as the gnome-in-black reveal, but it’s much more important, and it’s at least as hard.

The conceptual essence of his book is contained in Chapter Two, entitled, “Ad-Free Brand Positioning Basics.” If you only have time to read one chapter, read that one. In it, he distills the basic framework for ad-free branding into four points:

  1. Competitive Frame of Reference. In which market are you competing? The answer may seem obvious, but it may also be worth deeper exploration. Starbucks isn’t actually competing against other coffee shops, it’s competing against “third places” — places you go outside of home and work, such as parks, restaurants, the mall, the library.
  2. Points of Difference. What makes you unique from your competitors?
  3. Points of Parity. What makes your competitors unique from you, and how do you counter? You’re not going to be better than your competitors at everything, but you should be at least good enough. Target is not as cheap as Wal-mart, but it’s still pretty cheap, and it’s stronger in other areas.
  4. Brand Mantra. This is the essence of the first three points in a few words. It should not only say who you are, it should say who you’re not. Nike’s brand mantra is authentic athletic performance. You will never see a Nike dress shoe.

If you’ve worked out these four points, then you’re halfway there, because you’ve articulated the key points of your story. Of course, how you work these out and what you do with them afterward is hard. That’s what the rest of the book is about.

Chris tells a lot of great stories and provides a lot of tools. If there’s a weakness in the book, it’s that he tries to offer too much advice on how to do certain things well. For example, in his section on designing and facilitating a brand positioning workshop, he starts by introducing design thinking, a worthy philosophical frame, but, when presented in such a short amount of space, one that may detract from the tactical aspects of throwing a successful workshop.

His stories are the great strength of the book. He tells countless stories from both his own experience at Red Hat and from others (including our Wikimedia strategy process) that reinforce his central premise: Building an ad-free brand is ultimately about engaging with your community.

I’ve shared his book with the rest of my team at Groupaya. It’s already proven invaluable in helping us figure out our story, and it will serve as a great field guide as we work with our community to tell that story.

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