By Rob Starr, Big4.com Content Manager
Julie Cottineau, author of Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands (Panoma Press), is founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy, and creator of Brand School Online, a premier learning program that teaches small business owners, entrepreneurs and non-profits how to create more distinctive and powerful brands that break-through crowded markets. Prior to launching her own business, she was vice president of brand at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Cottineau also served as executive director of consumer branding at Interbrand, as well as a VP management supervisor at Grey Global in both the US and France, helping to build leading global brands in diverse categories such as Intel, Pantene, Avon, Virgin and Kool-Aid. She has been an adjunct professor of Integrated Marketing Communications at Columbia and Cornell universities and a frequent commentator on brand strategy and innovation in top business media such as Forbes.com, Entrepreneur Magazine, CNN, and American Express Open for Small Business.
How is branding a business leader similar to branding a candidate?
Branding is essentially storytelling. Whether you are branding a company, a business leader or a candidate you need to engage the listener. I believe the best way to do this is leveraging your twist. I define “the twist” as the key ingredient in creating a unique brand story. It involves identifying the tangible and intangible differences that you bring to your business, knowing what sets you apart from other companies that offer the same basic products and services, and how your personal experience and personality bring your brand and business to life.
How is it different?
In business, focusing on a specific ideal target is actually the best way to grow your business.
Often I hear business owners tell me they don’t want to alienate anyone or turn them away if they get too specific in their target customer. But the irony is that this is exactly what you are doing by targeting too broadly. People need to recognize themselves in your brand and really picture themselves benefiting from what you have to offer. In order to do this, you need to pick one ideal target and delve deep into what that target wants, needs and values so you can speak to these needs and connect with them.
The same is true in principle for candidates. They need to really connect with their ideal targets. But the way the electoral process is set up in the U.S., there is the added complexity of needing a very specific number in order to get enough delegates. So candidates need to reach their core audiences as well as those people who might be one step removed. The undecided or the voters that agree with them on the key issues- but maybe not everything their brand stands for.
What can business leaders learn from the GOP candidates?
Whether you agree or disagree with Trump, the GOP frontrunner, you can’t argue that his message has been clear, consistent, and it’s breaking through. I think too often business owners launch a campaign and then shy away from it or get bored and move on to something else before the customer really has had a chance to understand what it’s about. Repetition is key in branding and storytelling. You need to repeat things multiple times. You can’t find new, and fresh twists of the same story. But I believe you should be faithful to your core message. Look at Coke and other great brands. They change their packaging and taglines from time to time. But the core message that coke brings enjoyment, not just carbonated water and flavor, has remained constant.
What can they learn about branding from the Democrats?
There is an attitude towards competition that I believe the Democrats have handled really well. They have managed, for the most part, to respectfully disagree in debates and to also give credit where credit is due. I think this is a good policy in business as well. When you come out trashing your competitors I think it shows a lack of good taste, a certain volatility that might make your customers question your judgement and stability. I think it’s much better to focus the conversation about what’s different and better about your brand, your twist, rather than spend so much negative energy putting down your competitors.
What needs to improve about the way business leaders brand themselves?
I believe business leaders should share some of their personal twists, what makes them who they are as people – not just as executives. It really goes a long way to helping people connect with you. One of the things I loved about working with Richard Branson when I was the VP of Brand for Virgin Management for 5 years, is that you really get a sense of who he is as a person. The things that he is passionate about –whether it’s kite surfing, his family, or climate change. You know he is a deeply committed person who loves to shake things up. And this really supports the Virgin promise of helping consumers get a better deal in the markets that Virgin goes into and challenges the status quo. Branson is also not afraid to talk about his failures, he talks about “failing harder” and learning and constantly improving. That attitude is embraced by the troops and I think its what makes Virgin a company that is constantly brining new ideas to the market.
What trends for branding do you see in the future?
There is a big trend with social media to more visual branding. Many brands are vying for prime real estate with apps on our iPhones, and consumers are sharing their brand experiences on visual channels like Instagram and Pinterest. So it’s helpful to have brand names and logos that translate well into a visual icon – like Twitter and Waze. It’s also important to have what I call “word of eye” elements. Pictures and symbols that represent your brand that people can share socially. Trump’s red “make American Great again” baseball cap is a good example of this. It sums up his campaign in one image.