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Making a Lasting Impression: Live the Brand

Building identity through small, pervasive actions

October 2006

When you hear the word brand, what do you think of? A distinctive logo or catchy tagline? Celebrity endorsements? Showcase events?

Though each may be an important element of a brand, a successful brand is much more.

It is not just about logo placement or a one-time program. A brand is a lived experience, an impression created by all of the interactions between an organization and its constituencies. A strong brand accrues over a series of interactions, great and small, and thereby leaves a lasting impression.

The best way to promote your brand, in short, is to live it – day in, day out, in all the activities of the business and in every interaction with those inside and outside the company.

Not all the world’s a stage

To be sure, businesses invest in branding programs with good reason. But are they making all of their investments in the right places?

When companies seek to reinforce their brands, much focus is put on big, conspicuous events. We see them in the retail space all the time, as in Macy’s widely televised Thanksgiving Day parade and 4th of July fireworks. Sponsorships are also a popular brand-builder. Dutch beer-maker Heineken boosts its profile by hosting a popular annual rugby tournament. And Austrian caffeinated soft-drink maker Red Bull has put its logo in front of millions of consumers across Europe and America – by not only sponsoring sporting events, but even funding its own professional soccer clubs in New York and Austria and subsidizing racecars on the Formula One circuit.

Such brand exploitation is generally consumer-oriented, but high-end financial purveyors invest in flashy events, too. Early in the summer of 2006, Albourne Partners, a U.K. alternative-investment consultancy, organized the first “Hedgestock,” a “festival of networking for the hedge-fund industry,” complete with polo and cricket matches and veteran rock band The Who live in concert. The well-attended event was co-hosted by several hedge funds and even merited a front-page writeup in The Wall Street Journal.

While big, visible events are important, they are not enough. Just as Red Bull’s soccer teams and racecars won’t matter if its beverage isn’t appealing, hedge-fund advisors and managers appearing at Hedgestock will produce little more than empty hype if their investment strategies don’t generate good returns and exhibit thought leadership.

Beyond the show: small, pervasive actions

Big events and promotions must be complemented by and borne out in the small, pervasive daily actions that occur at all levels of the organization, and with all audiences. Such interactions build relationships, differentiate in a crowded space, and reinforce what the brand stands for in the client’s or customer’s mind. It is these daily actions, perhaps more than the one-time events, that have the power to advance the brand – or erode it.

Shipping powerhouse UPS underwent a major rebranding earlier this decade. In the process, the company discovered that the most powerful vehicle (no pun intended) for its brand equity was “the UPS man” himself, whose friendly, capable demeanor embodied reliability and quality service to customers.

Even in the arcane world of high finance, small, pervasive actions can be powerful. Again, take hedge funds: having started as a bastion of exclusivity for savvy investors, they’re now mainstream and face mounting pressure to distinguish themselves in a more crowded field – where quality strategies, capable managers, and strong performance have become baseline.

To create a new level of client affinity, leading hedge-fund managers see frequent communication with investors, as well as increasing transparency, as a means to stand out. Some funds, and fund-of-funds, are going even further, providing investors virtually unlimited personal access to managers. Since so many hedge funds market themselves around the cult of a particular manager or market strategy, the ideal hedge-fund brand maintains the vision but loses the cultishness; investors think of the hedge fund as an accessible thought leader, rather than a black box. A single one-on-one phone call with a manager could provide all the brand identity the client needs.

Don’t “promote” the brand, be the brand

What we aim to suggest here is that the true experience of a brand lies not in what the CEO says, in pie-in-the-sky marketing concepts, or in meticulously planned corporate soirees. Branding at its best is an expression throughout all levels of the organization. From a phone call to a client retreat, the organization’s core identity is made visible through clear, consistent communication and simple, repeated actions.

Don’t just say it – be it.

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