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Brand Happens – With or Without You

Some vendors do a good job at this outwardly: smart-looking website, classy logo, etc. But on the “little things,” they miss the mark. Think about what each of the following would say to you about the Grey Matter Research brand if this is what you saw about us.


By Ron Sellers

It’s a very old adage that the cobbler’s children often go without shoes.  (So old that many people don’t even know that a cobbler was a shoemaker.)  In the research and marketing world, the same thing is frequently true.

Researchers often help organizations with more effective branding and marketing.  Marketers, of course, are even more intimately involved with these efforts.  Yet too often, our efforts are primarily geared to helping internal or external clients rather than our own companies or departments.

Case in point:  a marketing company I’m aware of promotes a brand image that is extremely high energy and active.  Yet for years, a call to their firm was answered with an automated system featuring a nasal, wavering voice that sounded like it belonged to a spinster librarian with adenoids.  Total misfit with the brand.

There is a truism we all need to be acutely aware of:  brand happens.  Whether you are a research vendor or part of a corporate research or marketing department, your brand is being communicated to your clients all the time.  What you have to decide is whether it’s going to be communicated randomly, or in a consistent manner that you control.

For vendors, the importance of your brand should be obvious.  How will potential clients perceive you?  Everything they see, read, hear, and observe about you impacts that perception, from your logo to your e-mails to your proposals to how your phone is answered.

Some vendors do a good job at this outwardly:  smart-looking website, classy logo, etc.  But on the “little things,” they miss the mark.  Think about what each of the following would say to you about the Grey Matter Research brand if this is what you saw about us:

  • I send you a quick e-mail note providing my costs on your RFP, rather than a professional proposal
  • I spell your name wrong in my e-mail or letter
  • I send you an invoice that looks as though it was put together by a third-grader using WordPerfect
  • I send you an invoice that is wrong, and you have to work out the figures yourself and correct it
  • I send you an impersonal holiday card with your address on a label and “Ron” as the only handwritten thing inside
  • You just read the insult-laden bomb I dropped on someone in response to a comment they posted on LinkedIn
  • You spend five minutes trying to navigate my maddening automated phone system, and ultimately never can reach a real, live person

Each one of these “little things” can have a huge perceptual impact, suggesting a brand that is careless, impersonal, or incompetent.

If you’re part of an internal research or marketing department, how your brand is seen by your internal clients is just as important.  You’re not just covered by your corporate brand, but your Consumer Insights Department (or whatever it is called) has its own perception inside your organization.

A couple of decades ago, while working in the research department of a major bank, I learned a very valuable lesson.  I set up a screensaver in my own office that read, “If all else fails, manipulate the data.”  It was intended as a tongue-in-cheek statement, and it was on my own computer in my own office.  My boss quickly advised me what a bad idea this was, because someone from outside of the department could easily take it seriously and figure that’s what we actually do.

When I was at the bank, we had a tracking study that was reported quarterly.  I created a full brand for this report, with its own name, logo, and even a slogan.  Internal clients came to recognize it immediately, and know what to expect when they received it.  It stood out from everything else they got from everyone else, seeking their attention.  A number of very senior managers came by my office specifically to tell me what an impact it had – and yet it took only a simple effort to make the study something purposeful and recognizable rather than random and haphazard.

How is your department’s brand perceived internally?  Do the materials you give to clients have a consistent and appealing format and approach?  Does each one of your staff have their own format for e-mails and memos, or is there a consistent style?  Are your communications filled with statistical lingo and research jargon, or are they user-friendly?  Are your recommendations given as soft suggestions or as solid pronouncements (and which is more appropriate for your corporate culture)?  Is there attention to detail in your internal communications, or is the attitude, “So what if the e-mail has typos – it’s just a quick note to the marketing director”?

Your departmental brand is particularly important if you work in a company where your internal clients have the option of contracting with research vendors directly, or even attempting DIY research.  How they perceive you will influence whether they use you as a resource.

Remember, brand happens.  It’s going to happen with or without your control and guidance.  Much better with than without.

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3 responses to “Brand Happens – With or Without You

  1. I once received a proposal for a company and I asked to review it before a panel looked at it. The company said they would rather have the energy of presenting to the whole team. I told them if I did not see the slides first they were not presenting. They send me the slides and and I click on the file… they had the wrong company logo for our company on their first slide. Needless to say that was a lasting memory.

  2. I once had a vendor send me a proposal – with typos in their LETTERHEAD. They couldn’t understand why that mattered to me.

    Yet while it’s amusing to recount stuff like this, it’s important to note it’s not just the absence of mistakes that makes a difference, but the intentional defining and building of a brand. It’s a lot like parenting: just because I don’t beat or abuse my child doesn’t make me a good father. I try to parent intentionally at every moment, considering even banal, everyday happenings to be teaching opportunities. For a brand to be truly successful, we need to brand the same way.

    Thanks for the smile, Mark – nice to know I’m not the only one who has experienced some of this stuff.

  3. I can vouch for the 5th point regarding the holiday card. Beautiful, appropriate, personal, and very much appreciated. Thank you and happy holidays!

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