Mark's Big 5: Ways brand building is like making friends

Originally published in the Forbes Industry Council Jun 10, 2019.

As a brand strategist of more than 20 years, I’ll be the first to tell you: Brand building isn’t easy. I’d be out of a job if it were. But we strategists also have a tendency to overcomplicate things, when, in fact, simplicity is the strategist’s best friend. And when it comes to successful brand building, one of the most rudimentary life lessons can act as a guiding force for how your brand should behave. That lesson? How to make friends. Because, in so many ways (or at least five that I can think of), building a brand is an awful lot like building a friendship.

Here are five important lessons in building brands (and making friends):

1. Know yourself.

To be fair, this is easier for individuals than for organizations. As people, we can look inside to be reminded of our own beliefs and allow ourselves to be guided by them. For an organization that has many stakeholders — and often, shareholders — this becomes a balancing act of different experiences, preferences and belief sets, all of which are ultimately influenced by profit and loss. This is where a neutral, outside perspective can provide some much-needed clarity.

The job of a good brand strategist is to hold up a mirror to an organization that reveals what their brand truly is at its core and what it stands for so that employees and consumers alike can fall in love with their brands all over again. There are many reasons this can get muddied over the years — with leadership changes and mergers and acquisitions being some of the most common — but outside branding help can clear the way to reveal what was there all along: a brand built on belief.

2. Find friends who share your values.

You may be the friendliest, wittiest and most charming person on the block, and chances are, you’ll still have a neighbor who you just don’t click with. That’s OK! You’re not a match for everyone. The lesson in branding is: Don’t try to be. Not everyone has to like you. Positioning is the art of sacrifice. Something not resonating? Drop it. Competitors jumping on a trend that doesn’t align with your brand beliefs? Let it go; there will be another one (likely tomorrow).

When you have a clear understanding of what your brand believes in — and, just as crucially, what it doesn’t — your position gets stronger. Your audience sees their values reflected in your brand. And the relationship between brand and consumer gets stickier.

3. Be a good listener.

We’ve all had that friend who begins every sentence with “I,” never asks anything about your life and who dominates every conversation. Those people are no fun to be around, and eventually their friends stop spending time with them. Because a good relationship is based on discourse, not lecture. The conversation has to go both ways.

Likewise, if you want to build loyalty with your customers, you have to listen more than you speak. True friends don’t just wait for their turn to talk; they genuinely want to know what’s on your mind. And a smart brand knows that no amount of market research can beat an engaged audience when it comes to learning what consumers want.

4. Be a good communicator.

Relationships are a lot of work, especially long-distance ones. We maintain those relationships by keeping in touch — often, and in meaningful ways. You don’t just reach out when it’s time to talk about your fantastic vacation or your great dinner; you also chat about your day-to-day — the TV show you watched, what your morning commute was like, the weather. Without frequency and transparency, you lose authenticity and intimacy.

For brands, this means going beyond a 30-second TV spot and an occasional Facebook post. It means consistently creating and sharing content that communicates your brand’s beliefs, personality and values. Focus on creating content that feels authentic to your brand and fosters genuine engagement with your audience.

5. Most importantly, be supportive—even selfless.

If they are to be valuable and lasting, friendships must be two-sided. Give and take. You don’t build a relationship by making demands or setting unrealistic expectations. You simply love and care for your friends, and they reciprocate. But just like in real life, not all friendships are built to last. If a friend uses you or takes more than they give, you find better friends. As they say, there are many fish in the sea — and there are even more brands.

What separates truly great brands is the value they provide above and beyond the product or service they sell. Remember, you are in a relationship with each of your customers. If you don’t clearly demonstrate your value and offer genuine support, your customer will find another brand that better suits their needs.

It may seem simple, but ultimately, the qualities that connect customers to brands are the same as those that connect people to one another — shared values, interesting conversation and some good old-fashioned give-and-take. Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll likely find that the connection between your brand and your audience only gets stickier.