This post was co-written by Julie C. Lellis, Ph.D.
In 2009, whether you were a golfer or not, you likely heard about Tiger Woods. It started with a drama-filled Thanksgiving night with his wife. It ended with a public apology the following February. The superstar’s wholesome image unraveled publicly as one mistress after another came forth. Soon his marriage was lost, sponsorships gone, and fans bewildered. We were left wondering: Who was the real Tiger Woods anyway? Was everything we thought about him just a sham?
Woods didn’t need a consultant to help him with his brand. He needed a therapist. He stated this himself in a somewhat bizarre 14-minute public apology. He also could have benefited from a crisis communications expert. But most importantly, Woods needed to figure out his identity – who he was and who he wanted to be. Identity is the foundation for authentic living.
Many companies need to refocus on identity as well. When companies don’t have a clear sense of identity, they often act to some degree like Woods. We call this “going zombie.” Just like zombies, companies are often confused about their identities, haphazard in their behaviors, and sometimes downright scary. This leaves customers wondering who these companies really are. Rebranding isn’t a solid fix for this problem.
A solid foundation built on identity
Here’s how we describe identity in our recent book, The Zombie Business Cure. It differs from brand. Identity is constructed from core values. It’s the foundation that informs both an organization’s culture and its brand(s). When identity is unique – or clear and distinct– an organization will attract an audience that shares its core values.
It’s easy to confuse identity with brand, especially because the words are often used interchangeably.
The word “brand” has become somewhat tarnished – especially outside the communications industry. For example, in focus groups we led, participants often associated the word “brand” with “spin” or some kind of artificial superiority. This perception has created an additional barrier. It’s now between the group of people who comprise the company and the customers it wants to connect with. Why add an extra layer of complexity if it’s unnecessary?
Whether the word “brand” has a positive or negative connotation, it makes a company less human. This can affect customer experiences. Do we want employees thinking about “our brand voice” or just “our voice”? Should we say “Our brand stands for …” or simply “We stand for …?” We think the latter is more powerful and connotes true ownership.
People who are interacting with you and buying from you want to know who you really are. Your audiences want to know your identity – not just your brand idea.Your audiences want to know your identity – not just your brand idea, via @julie_lellis @melissaegg. Click To Tweet
Companies that do not have clear, responsible sets of core values applied effectively come off as inauthentic and inhuman. It doesn’t matter how creative and flashy their branding efforts are. You’ll avoid being a zombie if you refocus on your identity.
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How identity intertwines with content strategy
Content strategists determine more than how to position a product or idea. They need to know how to get the right message to the right people at the right time in the right format. Part of that right message includes identity. Two identity-driven principles are most useful to content strategists: consistency and originality.
Consistency in identity is essential to build trust with customers. Audiences should easily recognize who you are. They should be able to form realistic expectations about what you offer. The specific communication messages and channels you choose may adapt and change. Your identity should not. If you craft consistent messages with your core values in mind, you show audiences that you know who you are. You show that they can trust you to stay in line with your identity. Developing a published communication plan that details your core values will help everyone on your team. Even those outside of the marketing or PR department will benefit. Everyone can stay consistent in messaging, tone, voice, and style when producing content. This will increase consistency even when explaining the company to others. Whether they’re at an internal meeting, a networking event, or even the charity golf tournament, your employees represent your company and its values.A published communication plan that includes core values will help everyone on team. @julie_lellis @melissaegg Click To Tweet
Your communication efforts must have some form of high-level oversight. This ensures that the same identity comes across in all channels of communication. Are all of your communication efforts supervised by different people? If so, how might you create some way to check for uniformity?
Remember lululemon’s botched communication related to its sheer yoga pants? In media interviews at the time, lululemon’s CEO seemed to blame the size of women’s thighs for the see-through fabric. His response didn’t match well with lululemon’s public manifesto about the importance of friendship, kindness, and love. The gaffe left us wondering: What kind of company was actually behind these pricey yoga pants?
Moo, the design-focused printing company in London, focuses on being human and friendly in all its communication. From order confirmations to website content, the company feels like one cohesive unit with a clear identity.
Content strategist Margot Bloomstein shares an extensive case study of Moo. Check out her excellent Content Strategy at Work book.
Originality in communication combines creativity with identity. Originality is about being creative within the identity you’ve already determined for yourself. You should be unique, unusual, and – most of all – you! Any content you produce – be that on your website, in digital ads, or wherever—should not be mistaken for anyone else’s.Any #content you produce should be unique, unusual, and – most of all – you! @julie_lellis @melissaegg Click To Tweet
It might be creative and newsworthy for an insurance company, for example, to blog about the perils of unicorns. They may share how the company protects customers from unicorn damage. But if that fun idea isn’t in line with how the traditional company normally operates, the idea may confuse customers or fall flat.
Discount broker E-Trade Financial achieved originality with its popular baby commercials. The E-Trade baby discusses investments and makes online trades.
And nobody will mistake the billboards touting spelling-challenged cows. We know the company behind them is Chick-fil-A. Both E-Trade and Chick-fil-A use distinct strategies and can be easily recognized.
Original communication is unusual – either in its style or in offering a new idea. Babies trading stocks … cows trying to convince us to eat more chicken. These are absurd ideas that don’t quite match reality, so of course we will remember them.
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Being mindful of identity in content strategy
To be mindful of identity in your content strategy, consider these questions:
- Are our company’s core values reflected in all our content? If not, why not?
- Do customers know who we are and what we stand for? Do customers trust us? How do we know?
- Is our communication consistent? Do we look and sound the same in all our channels? Whose responsibility is this at our company?
- Do we have something original to say? Or do we just sound like our competitors?
- Do we use both qualitative and quantitative measures to see if our communication is accurately portraying who we are? Or are we just guessing?
Your answers to these questions will show how well you’ve wrapped your identity and content together. Consider your identity in all communications for lasting success and customer loyalty. As we’ve seen with Tiger Woods, after you go zombie, it can be hard to get back on track. But it’s better to step up to the challenge than live among the undead.
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Mindfulness of identity pays off
Charles Schwab, the San Francisco-based financial services firm, stands out. Since the start, Schwab challenged the norms of its industry. Since he began the company more than 40 years ago, founder Charles “Chuck” Schwab and his employees have served investors big and small. They distinguish themselves by prioritizing customer needs and keeping costs low. Over the decades, the communications teams at Schwab have supported the business as it has expanded throughout the globe. The company now has more than 330 branches worldwide and more than 16,000 employees. As we interviewed Schwab CMO Jonathan Craig, he struck us as uncommonly dedicated to staying true both to Schwab’s identity and to continuous improvement. His suggestions for success include:
- Keep everyone aligned on core values. In a small company, employees may easily be on the same page, but a firm of Schwab’s size requires more attention. With Schwab onboarding new employees every day, the company has developed special training. Recent hires are trained on Schwab’s purpose, story, and values. For example, employees take part in workshops in which they discuss how they personally define Schwab’s values. They also practice how they might explain the company to outsiders.
- Consolidate for consistency and oversight. In 2015, the company consolidated all of its communications departments. Its marketing, public relations, employee communications, and executive communications became one large group. Previously, though they worked closely, they were spread out. Craig and others believe that being in one physical space facilitates stronger cooperation.
- Innovate and change even in good times. Schwab’s memorable “Talk to Chuck” campaign performed well for many years. But in 2012, Craig knew it was time for a change. He explained that he “looked again to our core values to see how we could connect with our audience.”
Crispin Porter + Bogusky, an advertising agency based in Boulder, Colorado, helped Schwab develop a new marketing theme. “Own Your Tomorrow” launched in 2013. The language came straight from the mouth of Chuck in the 1970s. The new theme focuses on the power of engagement.
The Own Your Tomorrow platform emhpasizes Schwab’s values of transparency and low cost. It has raised awareness and consideration of Schwab by prospective customers to the highest levels in the history of the company. The company reported mid-year results in 2016 that indicated it was on pace to gain $100 billion in net new client assets for the fifth year in a row.
The book excerpt and Charles Schwab case are adapted and reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THE ZOMBIE BUSINESS CURE © 2017 Julie C. Lellis, PhD, and Melissa Eggleston. Published by Career Press, Wayne, New Jersey. 800-227-3371. All rights reserved.
A version of this article originally appeared in the February issue of CCO magazine. Subscribe for your free print copy today.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute