Building a brand is not an event

Every week I see the stories trumpeted across the pages of the business press. “Brand launch”, as if it is a space shuttle shimmering with unspent force just waiting for lift off. “Rebrand”, complete with (at least) a shiny new logo, clever tagline and assorted related items. Box ticked, event done – until the next time. Following on from my “Deep Work” blog from last week, it’s time to break that fruitless cycle.

When I work with organisations interested in the deep work of building a brand the question they ask is “how do we make what we care about tangible”? They understand that unlike the examples above, brand is not an event but an ongoing labour, one action and decision at a time.

This is the unsexy and enduring work that truly builds a brand. And it is the number one struggle for every organisation I work with and talk to. They understand they need to bring their purpose and values into every action and decision. But how?

I’ll assume for this blog that you know your purpose and values. That they are what you care deeply about. That they are non-negotiables you won’t walk away from when the going gets tough. And it will get tough.

Because doing this deep work nearly always involves a trade. And learning to think about and weigh that trade is where the real work of building a brand lives. Here are three examples of navigating that trade – what you care about (purpose and values) and how to demonstrate, not just talk about them.

Not short changing purpose

Granite Rock is a more than 110-year-old company that sells rock for construction use. It also prides itself on and believes in delivering the best service to customers. What emerged from that belief is one of my favorite business examples of ‘deep brand’.

A lot of companies say they think customer service and product quality are important. Few take it to the lengths that Granite Rock did. As a way to make that commitment visible and tangible for customers and staff every invoice the company issued contained the following:

If you are not satisfied with any item on this bill for any reason, don’t pay us for it. Simply scratch out the item, write a brief note about the problem, and return a copy of this invoice along with your cheque for the balance.”

I’ve told this story many times to groups when talking about what putting your purpose and values into action can look like and I universally get either horrified gasps or nervous laughter followed by muttered “we’d go broke” comments.

Now I’m not sure if Granite Rock still uses what they called “short pay”. But the very fact that they did at all helps to explain the dozens of awards the company has racked up for quality, for being a great place to work, for providing great customer service. Although I’m equally certain that awards aren’t the reason they did it.

To even come up with an idea so outside the norm, you have to have done the kind of deep work I’ve been talking about. Because doing that work is what provides the confidence that you won’t go broke. Because it’s not just a veneer; it comes from being willing to stand behind what you care about and the desire to make that tangible.

Sure there was always the chance that a customer would take advantage of it. That’s the trade they knowingly made. However they obviously felt the trade was worth it.

Purpose in packaging

There’s an online retailer I love called Once Was Lost. They sell sustainably sourced, beautifully handmade things. And while their products are gorgeous, I also really appreciate getting their packages.

Handmade is not just how their products are made, it is what they value and how they think. No shoving things in a post-bag and calling it done. Each purchase is individually wrapped by hand and comes with a lovingly handwritten note of thanks for your purchase and continued support.

Of course outsourcing shipping to a generic distribution warehouse is out of the question. And as the business grows, handwritten notes will become harder to do for every purchase. But when your purpose is wrapped up in handmade products that celebrate the simpler things of life, it’s hard to imagine those aren’t deliberate trades to make what they care about that bit more visible. This of course turns customers into evangelists who will tell everyone they know about you (with apologies to friends who are likely sick of hearing about them).

Values in hiring

Teacher and author of Good to Great Jim Collins applies absolute rigor to finding people to work with him on his research. As he described when in Australia last year, “first who” is one of the key drivers for building a great organisation (and brand – my addition). His team also recognises that liking someone doesn’t necessarily make them the right “who”, which for him encompasses a mix of curiosity, irreverence and hard work, or that the earlier in the process they meet someone face-to-face, the more likely they will fall into like over right.

So they go to extraordinary lengths not to meet people face-to-face – using written correspondence and phone calls until they are almost certain the person is the right “who”. And only then do they sit down with them in person. Does it take longer? Yes. Does it annoy applicants? Maybe, but they don’t care. The right “who” is more important.

As a bonus Jim has also written about what it takes to align actions with values. You can read that article here.

These different examples of embedding purpose and values all share one thing. They didn’t take the easy way out. They recognised the tension between what they care about and the landscape – and found a way. Not perfectly. Accepting the trade as worth it. And with conscious deliberation.

The conscious deliberation is the difference. For organisations intent on building a strong resilient brand that people care about, there is no such thing as “because other people do it that way”. Best practice is a cop out, they demand “us practice”.

Once you have purpose and values in play, that is the continuing deep work of building brand. Take the time to think through even the small stuff like how to make service meaningful, wrap a package or find the right “who”.

What things can you apply this deep work to for your organisation?

See you next week for “Stop Calling it a Gift”.


Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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