Take the Brand Oath: Cut the crap and get to the truth

Sean Masters, creative director & partner, Masters Allen, discusses how brands can get to the truth of their business and build a truly compelling story.


If, like some SMEs, you think that branding is just another exercise in marketing mumbo jumbo, you’re most likely missing a trick.

The value of a strong brand is as indisputable as it is intangible. In cluttered markets where competitive advantage can hinge on the narrowest nuance, a clearly defined brand identity can communicate the uniqueness of your business. It can help you differentiate your products and services in ways that set you apart from your rivals. And it can be the difference between a loyal customer relationship and a one-night-stand; short-lived revenues or long-term growth.

The three pillars

Despite this, brand building is often undervalued, overlooked or misunderstood. It’s a missed opportunity. So here’s the thing: a brand is much more than a name, a visual identity or a clever slogan. It’s grounded in your entire business. Moreover, the most successful brands aren’t made from buzzwords and marketing gimmicks – they’re built on three pillars; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In a world where so many brand promises turn out to be little white lies, the truth always stands out. So can you.

Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz once said that “authentic brands don’t emerge from marketing cubicles or advertising agencies – they emanate from everything the company does.” He’s right. Your point-of-difference – that sweet spot that propels you from the crowd – is rooted in the truth of your everyday operations. It’s linked as much to your culture and your values as it is to your products, your people, your innovations and your marketplace. So, while modern businesses understandably extol the virtues of customer-centricity, the process of identifying a differentiator that becomes your brand DNA should always begin with comprehensive self-evaluation.

By looking within and deconstructing every facet of your business, you can unlock the secret of what makes you unique – and translate it into a brand promise that everyone in your organisation believes – authenticity speaks volumes. As Mark Twain wrote, if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. An authentic brand narrative that everyone buys into plays by the same rules: it can be clearly communicated without doubt or hesitation – and replicated consistently across multiple channels. Everyone feels better when they’re telling the truth.

It goes without saying that your point-of-difference must also speak to your customers’ needs. If it’s relatable, relevant and useful to them – and your promises mirror their real-world experiences – they’ll keep coming back for more. Strong, truthful narratives can win the hearts and minds of your employees and your customers. That can only be good for business.

The brand journey

So what do you need to build a compelling brand? The first requirement is patience. Brand building is an investment in the future that will pay dividends over time. But it’s also a long-haul journey. Plan it properly and you’ll be rewarded with the voyage of a lifetime. Rush it and your customers may disembark at the first port. In dynamic markets where the winds of change can be rapid, it’s tempting to look for quick wins to keep your ship on course. But there are no short-cuts to building an authentic brand.

A common mistake is to bypass the strategic narrative and lurch straight for short-term tactics. Recent advances in digital technology have provided an obvious catalyst for quick-fix approaches, with many SMEs lured into thinking ‘channel-first, message later’. It doesn’t work – there’s too much noise out there. A stylish new website, some social posting or an all-singing app is worthless if the content flowing through it is not anchored to a clearly defined, authentic brand narrative. You need to know where you’re heading – and why – before you decide the best form of transport to take you there. Alongside patience, purpose is a prerequisite of successful brand building.

Defining that purpose – and getting to the truth of your brand – is a complex exercise. But it’s important to take a hard look at what you have and honestly answer the tough questions. What is your product and why is it relevant? Why is it better than the competition and how do you substantiate that? Where does it fit within the market? How can it be adapted to respond to change and harness opportunities? Who is it for and why should they care? What are their drivers, barriers, pain-points and motivations? And how do you satisfy their needs? It’s only by building a granular understanding of your organisation’s ecosystem that you can develop a narrative that clearly enunciates your point-of-difference. Brands need a distinctive character to stand out, and that is encompassed in your tone of voice, culture, qualities and values – these human elements that, if you get them right, can make a crucial emotional connection with your customers and employees.

The final requirement for effective brand building is methodology. It’s important to have the right processes, capabilities and tools in place to unlock the truth within your business. It’s hard to do this on your own. SMEs know their businesses intimately but can sometimes struggle to articulate it in ways that capture, connect and convert customers. A branding and design agency can bridge the gap between a SMEs sometimes complex strategic understanding of its business and the clarity of a brand narrative that’s grounded in truth. And they can join the dots between design and delivery. A good consultancy will have a breadth of experience of overcoming communications challenges in diverse markets and an understanding of the approaches that may translate to yours. The very best will act as a brand compass, helping to navigate the journey and steer you in the right direction – forwards.

Brand oath

Fundamentally, we’re all in the business of storytelling. And a great brand is a story that’s always being told. The question is: do you want to tell a tall story or the truth? The truth wins every time. So never mind the marketing b*llocks – the best businesses really are built on three pillars; the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Take the brand oath. We swear by it.

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