That whole "Brand DNA" thing - Part 1

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I've noticed that the term "DNA" is finally starting to turn up in a lot of marketing and branding discussions on some of my favorite blogs. That's good. That's very good. We're making progress. If anything, the semantic shift from the term "brand" to the more contextually appropriate concept of "identity" must have gained enough acceptance to warrant a further shift. We're finally getting to the core of the subject here.


By now, almost everyone in the marketing world should be helping business folks understand that a) in order for brands to be relevant and effective, they have to be authentic, and b) in order for brands to be authentic, they have to be - at their core- nothing less than the articulation of their companies' identities.

If not, shame on you. If so, so far, so good.

Following the same logical path a little further, it shouldn't take anyone long to figure out that a company's identity doesn't just appear out of nowhere. A company's identity has a blueprint. That blueprint is itself formed by a variety of elements - or building blocks. Genes, if you will. Among the most common:




Business models.


Cool packaging.


The list goes on.

A company's DNA is the organization of these elements into the blueprint that will define its identity.

Still with me? Good.

Okay... Here's where it gets a little tricky: DNA is the foundation. It comes first. It is what defines everything about a company. DNA is not an afterthought.

You don't ever want to try and reverse-engineer a company's DNA. Trust me. That's just not the way to go. But I digress.

Check out this exerpt from one of Spike Jone's latest entries in the Brains On Fire Blog:

"In phone conversations over the past few days, I have found myself saying (almost yelling) that word of mouth HAS TO BE built into the very DNA of an identity."

Spike is 100% right: Identity crafting and brand-building find their roots at the very core of an organization's DNA. For our work to be effective, the most important building block of a client company's DNA must be this: Its principals have to be completely commited to - and passionate about - their company's raison d'etre. Their company's mission. Its purpose.

Put in perspective, it means that they have to be passionate about their customers.

Their core users.

Their true fans.

If they aren't, if all they want is cool ads, stunning creative and expertly crafted PR, they're going to spend a lot of money on what will equate to very short-term (call them "one-time") gains.

Now... there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Short-term gains are great. They can be worth billions in sales. They can help a company push back layoffs yet another quarter. There's something to be said for that.

But stringing together expensive short-term solutions one after the other like a barrel of monkeys isn't something any company can afford to do indefinitely. Without real substance binding cool ad campaigns and promotions together, (like fantastic customer service, cool products or top-notch quality,) the best anyone can hope for is just to keep pushing back the inevitable: Sooner or later, you just run out of monkeys.

There's a better way. A more cost-effective way. One that builds the foundations for stronger, better, WOM-worthy companies. One that focuses on turning their customers into fans. One that focuses on making these customers come back again and again without having to lure them with lame gimmicks and profit-cutting promotions. One that is more about building relationships than it is about buying the next big superbowl ad.

(More on that in a couple of days.)

In the context of this particular discussion, it begins with people at the core of these companies deciding to take something that's already pretty good and - with your expert help - turning it into something extraordinary.

Think Starbucks.

Think Michelin.

Think Pixar.

Think IDEO.

You want to find out what's so special about these companies? It isn't their advertising. It isn't their logos. (Okay, yeah, maybe a little... but those are just extensions of their core identities.) Everything that makes these companies extraordinary (and unique) is burned into their DNA: You can start with their obsessive dedication to excellence. Their passion for research and innovation. The importance they place on not ever disapointing their true fans.

(DNA also forms the building blocks of that thing we sometimes like to call company culture.)

But back to the point: DNA isn't something you can easily change. As I've said before, it isn't an afterthought.

A company's DNA is in a very real sense its soul. Some are open to change. Most aren't.

If you're a consultant, a marketing firm (or an identity company) and your professional mission is to help companies craft strong, unique identities, you have to learn, early on, to weed out the posers and focus on the companies whose principals truly have in their own DNA the drive, insight and passion that their companies will draw upon to become great.

Ultimately, that - above all else - will be the secret ingredient to your success... and theirs.

(Wasting your time on corporate bureaucrats who don't get it is... well... a waste of your invaluable time.)

Sorry, but you can't save them all from themselves.

Truth is, if you're lucky (and really, really good) you'll only save a few dozen in your lifetime.

The thing about a company's DNA is that not all companies have "change", "curiosity" or "innovation" in their bag of building blocks. You have to accept that. (All it takes is new blood in the skipper's chair, sure, but even that isn't a guarantee. Not by a longshot. And who wants to wait around for that anyway?)

My advice: Seek out kindred spirits. They're rare, but they're pretty-much everywhere. When you find some, get to know them. I mean really know them. Hang out with them. Let them introduce you to their friends, their colleagues, their business partners. Let them guide you to your next client. (Word-of-mouth, remember?) That's where you have to start. They'll enrich your lives, grow your business, and help you spread the good word, one little fire at a time. That's how the revolution begins.

Remember: It starts with people and ideas. Why look anywhere else?

In tomorrow's "Part 2", we'll look at how to a) become a brand DNA profiler, and b) how to use that new skill to save yourself a lot of grief.

Meanwhile, for some additional insights, check out Alycia Perry's "Before The Brand: Creating the Unique DNA of an Enduring Brand Identity".

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