After 20 years of writing this column, I’ve decided it’s time to step aside and let someone else share their wisdom. My final four columns will be focused on what I believe are the four most important elements of marketing. Get these four correct and the rest is just details.

The four cornerstones of marketing are:

  • Your brand.
  • Your audience.
  • Giving first.
  • Surrounding yourself with the right people.

This week, we’ll tackle your brand. I’ve probably written more about brand over the past 20 years than any other topic. I believe it is the single most important element of your marketing, and for most companies it is woefully misunderstood or ignored.

Until you deeply understand your organization’s unique perspective on the world and how you want to show up for your employees, customers, prospects and community, you will forever be a commodity and have to compete on price.

A brand is often expressed through a logo, tag line, core values or public mission statement. But your brand is none of those things. Instead, your brand is the essence of your organization. It’s the shorthand that people who know you use to describe you. It’s all about how they experience you.

Your brand is the manifestation of how you behave, what you stand for, how you connect and create relationships, and how you serve your employees and customers. One of the biggest issues with brand is that many companies will profess a brand in their marketing, on their website or in their corporate literature, but the actual experience of interacting with the company and its employees paints a very different picture.

Every organization has a brand, whether you thoughtfully choose and communicate it or not. If we don’t tell our audience who we are and how we show up, they’ll simply decide for themselves. And we all know that actions speak louder than words. So whether you don’t say a thing or you profess to be something you’re not – in the end, it’s how you show up. 

And let’s not forget that it’s rarely the C-suite that interacts with the customers. It’s your rank-and-file employees. The people who probably have the least exposure to what your brand is or why you chose it. They probably cannot articulate what the brand means, how they should or should not behave based on the brand, or how to use your brand to make good decisions on the fly.

No wonder so many consumers are calling out organizations for their lack of integrity and transparency today. The disconnect between our words and actions actually creates mistrust and disloyalty, when we’re working so hard to do the very opposite.

Deciding on what the essence of your brand should be isn’t the end of the process, it’s the very beginning. In fact, solidifying and codifying your brand is work that never ends. If you do it right, it just becomes more and more entrenched into your culture, policies, behaviors and reputation. It’s the theme of your stories and your customer experiences. It’s at the heart of your decision-making and traditions.

But none of that can happen if you can’t articulate it in a simple sentence or two, and even more so if you don’t teach it and preach it every day. Your employees will need consistent reinforcement and training if they have any shot of living out your brand. 

The best part about a strong brand is that it is a living entity. It can grow bigger and stronger with the right nourishment and care. Your employees and customers will begin to build upon your brand story and help you add layers of meaning that you might never have considered.

Get your brand on straight and continue to nurture and grow it, and it will serve you for decades to come.