Should You Brand By What Prospects Look For…
Or By What You Want To Stand For?

How should you position your brand when others sully your category through poor execution or worse?

How can you re-invent yourself  using yesterday’s terminology?

Why in the world would we let search engine optimization (SEO) drive our Brand’s identity?

Brad Shorr, president – Word Sell, got me asking these questions through a lively conversation at his blog asking, “Should Consultants Call Themselves Consultants?”

Brad explores the conflict in web-world between what you want your brand to mean and how prospects search for you, or in his words “When Brand and SEO Collide.” Separate yourself too far from the most common search tactics and you become invisible to revenue drivers like Google. This dichotomy seems especially vexing among those of us who ‘consult’ for a living because that word has become associated with negative triggers in the minds of some prospects. Of course the terms Dentist, Lawyer, Car Sales and Banker may offer similar shivers.

A quick aside and evidently my confession: I have consulted, do consult and plan to continue consulting – therefore I am a consultant. (Please feel free to shudder, however realize the following is neither a defense nor an accusation of the category consultus-conspiritus. More important issues at work here.)

Negative Triggers Versus Prospect Visibility

Should we let traffic be king and submit our brand to the rule of the most common search terms? I was glad to see Brad suggest otherwise: 

“Branding has to take priority over search engine optimization (SEO). You can trust my sincerity on this point, since I provide SEO copywriting services. So why do I say this? A person has to be true to his brand,  otherwise the brand is just so much hype. If you position yourself as a consultant on your website, you may attract lots of search traffic. But what happens when the searchers get to know you? They’ll see that your website and you don’t mesh, and that will be the end of that.” — Brad Shorr,

Ok, put away the ‘Hilton-Spears-Apple Consulting Group’ idea – because a strategy that brings the wrong people to your door is not a viable Brand strategy. 

Don’t Hide From What You Are –

Most unique selling propositions have power because the listener intuitively understands what you are unique from. If there is nothing to compare yourself to, no existing category that you are replacing, no critical need that needs filling – then the marketing job just got much more expensive and time consuming. (You’ve also thrown some doubt on your product – but let’s just assume the value is there.) In trying to look so unique that you avoid even positioning against a concept you can end up with no positioning at all.

Karen Swim commented:

“The trend to creative titles is “cute” but not effective.  People try to differentiate themselves by coming up with alternative labels but it is confusing to consumers and as you pointed out does you disservice in search.” – Karen Swim,

Dead on. It is essential to pick words that describe what you actually do, but if prospects are not familiar with the terminology it causes confusion EVERY TIME SOMEONE SEES THE TERM.  This doesn’t just hurt search results it can cause difficulty in any communication environment.  (You don’t want a customer having to ask, ‘Are you a Dentist? What is a Smile Doctor, anyway?’) 

Terry Heath followed with:

“…Maybe that’s because we’re more worried about selling ourselves by using labels than we are about focusing on how those who already know and love what we do, and how they could tell someone else about it. Maybe we’re asking some label to define us to the world because we are afraid of being who we really are and allowing that authenticity to come across. Maybe we’re just afraid and we think words are the solution.” — Terry Heath, Life on Words

As marketers we come up with language to ‘better describe’ (hmm, hide?) what we really are trying to say and the end result is failure on multiple counts.  If what I do is product management consulting and I try to hide my association with the consulting world by calling myself a product design wizard, am I fooling anyone but myself?  

But if a strategy that attracts the wrong people is not viable, then certainly – a strategy that brings nobody to your door is also not a Brand strategy. Brad offers several strategies to get SEO to work with your brand strategy instead of fighting it in his complete post (here).

Companies look at the great brands and want their logo or name to have the same communication and draw power. They sometimes focus so much effort on differentiating their communication, they end up forgetting to differentiate their product. They look for design to establish fabulous emotional connections — forgetting the three pillars that most great brands stand on: First – product execution; Second – time to build reputation; Third – wide spread communication. Prospects can see a Swosh and know it is Nike, they can see the arches and know it is McDonalds. But if you are new or small, your name and communication has to drive action by a target audience even when they don’t know who you are. In professional services that usually means — wait for it — integrating those same key search terms that seem to be causing so much trouble into your entire communication strategy. 

Turn Negative Triggers To Your Advantage

SEO can Drive Competitive Advantage, because it is another way for you to be reminded HOW YOUR CUSTOMER THINKS.  If you try to position yourself outside of your customers’ framework not only will Google ignore you, but customers looking directly at your selling statement will ignore you. Changing names may sometimes be necessary, but if you don’t attack the underlying reasons for negative impressions everyone figures you out sooner or later.  If those negative triggers are keeping you from closing business they need to be addressed directly – to show how your business model is better and solves those problems.

At Hallmark I loved the agencies and departments I worked with. Fabululous amount of expertise in every area of product design, marketing programs, merchandising – you name it. But over time I got tired of hearing solutions that seemed always filtered through the particular specialty of the person talking. (I say: ‘Sales are down’…The direct mail guy says send postcards, the merchandising guru says new display, the creative screams “Yellow is this year’s Green!”, the ad agency says run ads, the webmaster….) My wife’s and my response, “We wanted to set up the agency we could never find.”  I was shocked at how that simple statement resonated fifteen years ago. We elevated the value of our small consulting business by focusing on the core failing of others we had been exposed to — Tunnel vision — and by adopting a word (agency) that was struggling with it’s own set of negative impressions.

The conversation over at Word Sell is worth a look. As you can see, it really got me thinking about SEO as an additional tool in the upfront brand positioning process. The tools are comparatively inexpensive and offer the hope of a quantifiable picture of how consumers think about your category. So often branding floats into the areas of theory (just check out the Pepsi creative brief for a hint of that type of fun) that having effective tools to bring your thought-process back to ground level is welcome.

Echoing Terry’s comment, my wife/partner LaVonn likes to say: Your Brand is a promise delivered.  Branding is the process and tools you use to get there. Don’t confuse the two.

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12 Responses to Should You Brand By What Prospects Look For…
Or By What You Want To Stand For?

  1. LaVonn says:

    Great post Fred! Branding is tricky no matter where you are. Two examples that I use to illustrate what you said (and I believe in wholeheartedly): 1) Coke is coke because they have delivered the product they promised for more than a century — not because they do great advertising; 2) did great advertising (remember the sock puppet!) but couldn’t deliver on the promise they made to their customers. They were gone in just a couple of years. Putting first things first matters in building a brand.


  2. Brad Shorr says:

    “SEO can Drive Competitive Advantage, because it is another way for you to be reminded HOW YOUR CUSTOMER THINKS. ”

    Brilliant, Fred. I’m glad our post/discussion inspired you to these very important insights. Business is very fast paced these days. If you have to start every new conversation by explaining your business model, if your title invariably leads you into a monologue about your value proposition, most people are just going to tune you out. We don’t have time for mystery or games. The more I think about our discussion, the more I’m thinking a clear, common title is the way to go. Give prospects something familiar, something to latch on to. Once they’re engaged, they become receptive to your message, whatever it is.

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..Should Consultants Call Themselves Consultants?

  3. Thanks Brad. I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really thought too deeply about the connection between SEO and top level branding before your discussion started. It really reinforces what you said here about being clear and on track due to attention being scattered.

  4. So right, LaVonn. If I recall, at one point the ad agency involved claimed they had created a successful brand because everyone loved the sock puppet. (Of course no one bought the pet supplies, but no matter.)

    This is one reason I enjoyed Brad’s post. The SEO perspective may really help you get back to the transactional component of awareness.

  5. Oh, and I managed to catch and correct the spelling of your name… I’ll have to let the spell check program go I’m afraid. Sorry.

  6. Brad Shorr says:

    Fred, No problem. My name is easy to misspell. Have a great Friday!

    Brad Shorr’s last blog post..You Are Now Entering the Customer Service Twilight Zone

  7. Terry Heath says:

    I have two alternating thoughts on brands and SEO. They tend to play leapfrog with each other. On one hand, SEO brings traffic.

    A large portion of my own blog’s traffic each day comes from literary essays living in my archives. I do well for terms like “structural criticism” and my posts on The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights are steady Google performers. Newer posts on the various structures of poetry are beginning to do well too. But as of yet I haven’t found an effective way to monetize this traffic and they almost never leave comments to contribute to the blog like you do.

    On the other side of things, the focus I’ve taken for about a month has been catching on and building a readership base. My subscriber count is growing and more importantly to me, people are leaving wonderful contributions in the comment sections. There is a trickle coming from the search engines, but mostly it’s a case of the “right people” finding and sharing the content.

    As far as branding, the second group is more relevant to my goals. I suppose in the end a combination of the two, SEO and “right people” is important. But it goes to show SEO isn’t everything. I’ve been asked to guest blog on two fairly large blogs, and that is because I’ve focused on being authentic. I know the guest blogger opportunities will outperform what the search engines bring in, at least for now.

    All that to say, I guess the approach has to match what your site’s goals might be. As Frank Lloyd Wright has said, form follows function.

    Terry Heath’s last blog post..Win-Win Thinking For Multi-Talented Fairies and Mortals

  8. Funny how in this high tech world success is still entirely about building relationships. And that there is no single right way to initiate or strengthen those relationships. But as you say, being authentic is essential and knowing your own goals is part of that authenticity.

    The other point I find interesting is the change in commenting and subscription behavior you mention. I wonder if SEO strategies can help predict that or if other tools are needed. When I’m defining target markets for manufactured products we look at all sorts of qualities including likelihood for repeat purchases. It costs so much more to get a new customer than encourage repeat business this has a direct effect on success.

    Thanks for your insightful comment Terry.

  9. Don’t only explain, show by actions as well.

    One thing that sometimes slips by folk regarding SEO and such is that it’s (and customer perceptions) a long-term proposition. If you can demonstrate time and time again that you walk the walk you talk….it can go light-years towards demonstrating the quality of service you provide.

    Data points, Barbara

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach’s last blog post..Launch your affiliate signup page into the stratosphere Part 1

  10. Nice point Barb. delivering on your promise always needs to be top of the list.

  11. Ruth Setlak says:

    Really great article. Companies can get so distracted. It is great if you can fill an under-served position in the marketplace, but you still need to provide a great product/service. “Live your brand” is much more than a catch-phrase or advertising strategy. It is a critical business strategy.

    Integration is more relevant than ever, so great comments on how to maximize that. But, agree that the authentic brand experience is still the driving force. Even if customers like your personality, they will still choose not to buy if the experience is sub-par. Digital marketing is a new tool, but not a magic bullet to sales.

    Ruth Setlak’s last blog post..Integrating Twitter

  12. ‘Companies can get so distracted…’ Love that. Sometimes it seems as if folks are so anxious to jump on the next bandwagon, they get distracted from key customer experiences that are already in place. Thanks for your comment.

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