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The IP™ Gets Branded

I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.
-- Lily Tomlin

A few years back, a clever Malibu-based IP named Ken Girouard started a fashion crazelet when he gussied up plain old flip-flops (those cheapie rubber sandals you schlep to the beach in) with plastic grapes, teensy oranges, and mini-apples, and sold them as Fruit Flops. People scarfed those babies up -- until textile giant Fruit of the Loom® got wind of it and had a conniption. The underwear maker sued, claiming -- get this -- that the funky footwear horned in on their trademarked brand name, one they've been stitching into T-shirts and briefs since 1856. They duked it out in federal court, and the little guy actually won. But litigation is costly, and Girouard's pockets weren't nearly deep enough to fend off the appeals he knew would follow. And so now, unhappily, those delectable, distinctive Fruit Flops are no more. Lucky for me, I picked up a few pairs before F. of the Loom ("Every body loves fruit™") stepped in, because otherwise I'd be so giddy with brand confusion that I'd probably go out for underwear and come back with fruit-festooned footwear instead.

As Ken Girouard could tell you, big-time brand management is serious business. It's not just for packaged-goods megastars like Friskies, Frosted Flakes, and Froot Loops (better watch out, guys). Look at the way wage slaves in companies everywhere are being urged to go in search of their inner brand by no less an authority than my friend and co-author Tom Peters (who has lately amped himself up into Tom Peters!). The idea, as Tom -- a human exclamation point who no longer needs his last name -- says in Reinventing Work: The Brand You 50, is a full-throated declaration of psychic independence, a wholesale transformation from wage slave into a "brand that shouts distinction, commitment, and passion!"

You go, bro! And never mind employees. In fast, crowded markets, it's IPs who should be sweating over branding themselves, or else -- and the "or else" ain't pretty. It will, however, take some dedicated head time to come to grips with what this branding notion means to you and your odds of survival. You'll have to tackle some tough ones: Who am I? What am I really good at? What do I stand for? What makes me worth buying? Am I cutting the mustard? How will I package and sell myself? There's more, but you get the picture. Forward, march! Let's go straight to the heart of the matter and concentrate on what a brand is all about, and why you, too, should be taking branding oh-so-seriously.

What is a brand, anyway? Depends on whom you ask. I consulted a couple of dictionaries, my trusty old B-school marketing text, and the American Marketing Association, and came up with these: Brand (noun): 1.a. A trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer. b. A name, term, symbol, design, or a combination, which is intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors. Like most definitions, these have precision going for them, but they're bloodless, soulless, and more than a little mind-numbing -- the very last things you want your business to epitomize. What's missing is what really matters: a core strength, a bone-deep understanding of who you are and what you stand for.

Branding works from the inside out, not the other way around. It means the first thing you notice is substance; style comes later. That's why this branding thing is no cakewalk. Before you start dreaming up trademarkable logos and slogans and fancy brochures, you've got to be able to describe, in a few well-chosen lines, what you, my rugged individual, are all about. To jump-start the process, Tom (!) Peters suggests this exercise: Compose a Yellow Pages ad, where you are the product. In twenty-five words or less, describe what your solo business excels at. (A no-brainer? You wish!) Your answer must be short, snappy, and sturdy. "Imagine people are shopping for your service," Tom (!) says. "What can you offer them . . . that no one else is offering?"

Nobody does it like you. Now that you've grappled with that devilish little exercise, you'll rip out the rest of your hair over this big question: How do I set myself apart from my competitors, anyway? What, in other words, makes you extra special? What unique portfolio of skills do you bring to the table? Do you occupy a distinct position -- a niche -- in customers' minds? Important though it is to dwell on this, don't go and overdo it on the theory that merely being "different" is by itself enough to open doors and reel in prospects. Sorry, but no. Points of distinction must be grounded in real substance (there's that awful word again), which is to say you have to be more than a pretty face to make it as a brand.

A good example is the pro speaking circuit, my old stomping grounds, where competition is ferocious and wannabes outnumber headliners by, oh, say, 20-to-1. If a prospective client looking for a keynoter gets one chinwagger mixed up with another, it's all over, and every podium pounder knows it. So presenters try all sorts of cutesy gimmicks in a misguided effort to stand out from the pack. Very few pull it off, but they can't seem to help themselves. Some hurl magic tricks into the middle of a starchy business talk. Others rig up enough whiz-bang electronic gadgetry to communicate with Neptune, and still others go Hollywood: They make an egregiously elaborate entrance through stage smoke or dancing laser beams. What they ignore, of course, is the ironclad requirement to deliver something not only diverting, but worth paying for.

Gloriously marketable skills, that's the ticket. Tom (!) is an American original whose incendiary style has been aped by some of the best consultants around. He's justifiably famous for his fireworks, and he gets away with it because this guy is good, damn good. When he tells would-be Brand-You-ers "you've simply got to know a lot about something of significant value to a bunch of Potential Clients," it's tempting to let the weighty implications of that statement slide right on by. But he's talking from a boatload of personal experience. He stays stunningly sharp by never losing sight of his core strengths, and by leaping out ahead of the curve thanks to obsessive study, solid research, a unique perspective, and an insatiable curiosity. It's hard work being Tom (!).

Just as Intel or Merck or Colgate pour millions into R&D to make sure their products are as advanced as possible, IPs ought to invest in themselves in the same way. Every IP needs his or her own R&D Lab; think of it as a Test Kitchen for the Mind, where you can try out new ideas, experiment with unusual combinations, hone your skills, and get the first whiff of the new. As a rule of thumb, fund your Test Kitchen to the tune of two percent of your net income -- bump that up to five or even ten percent if your industry moves at warp speed -- to cover books, conferences, software -- that kind of thing. Set aside a proportional number of hours each week for studying, learning, practicing, polishing. Then (be brutal, be brave) size up your talents, passions, and aspirations. Now concentrate your investment in the one area where you've got the best shot at creating true professional distinction, and go for it.

You're nobody 'til somebody loves you. A strong brand connects in a flat-out emotional way with a potential buyer: It reverberates. You can be chock-full of core competencies, a regular brainiac, but if you leave prospects cold, who cares? Might as well face it, you're not only a potential business partner, you'll be an emotional partner, too. Call it chemistry or kismet, would-be clients need to trust you and your judgment. They want to like you as well as learn from you.

This is where some IPs bungle it. They love to whine about moronic, short-sighted prospects who lack an ounce of appreciation for their particular brand of genius. If only those dolts had enough sense to recognize greatness when it's staring them in the face! The twenty dollar word for this is hubris, but you can substitute arrogance or stuckupness and end up in the same place: Clientless and clueless. I've seen pompous IPs flame out dozens of times. Avoid the same fate by learning to put across the benefits of your service or product, on its own merits, without denigrating the dopes who didn't have the sense to buy from you. Keep in mind that a strong brand is the whole enchilada -- distinctive features, relevancy, consistency, benefits that people want to buy, superior technical expertise, and an emotional bond -- wrapped up in you.

Build buzz for your brand. Everything you do says something about your brand. The idea here is to put busy talk to work in your favor. If you haven't already, construct a formal buzz plan, i.e., write it down. (Don't get crazy, the back of an envelope is fine for starters.) What you want to do is identify the marketing metrics that you'll track seriously. How about testimonials and endorsements? Thank-you letters? References? How will you go about catalyzing good buzz about little old Brand You? Maybe a variation on the classic giveaway gambit -- if you're a writer or designer, package one piece you're proud of and send it out. It'll whip up interest and get noticed, though not always right away. Just remember that real buzz cannot be faked because it does not lie. It just keeps moving, another reason to stay sharp.

To paraphrase Madonna, it's a waste of time to do anything average. So don't. Stoke the brand. Be somebody special. Sell something!

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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