Human Centered Branding: Filling the Gap between Personal & Corporate Branding

Published by Nela Dunato on in Branding

Most books on branding (at least the ones I’ve read) are focused on corporations and startups. They offer a bunch of different elements and tools that your brand supposedly needs in order to be successful in the marketplace. When you read one of these books, you may want to throw it at the wall because it doesn’t sound like anything you could do on your own, so why bother? You’d need a team of in-house brand strategists, designers, and brand managers in order to pull it off.

I read these books out of professional interest, but they’re not written for the average small business owner. They’re written for the creative team, or sometimes the CEO or a marketing director that has access to a creative team.

You may not have a creative team. You may be the only creative person in the room.

Then there are books that talk about personal branding. These seem better for the average consultant. If run your own business without any employees (except maybe a virtual assistant), you are the brand. But what if you do have employees? Or what if you gag a little every time you hear the words “personal brand”? Is there something else out there for a business like yours?

I asked myself the same question, and when I didn’t find it, I decided to create it.

Human Centered Branding: Filling the Gap between Personal & Corporate Branding

Enter: “The Human Centered Brand”

Let me tell you a bit about my new book “The Human Centered Brand”, which is coming out on July 30th.

As I was researching and learning about branding so I can become a better brand designer for my clients, I noticed a problem: the information I was finding was inapplicable for the clients I was working with: small service based business owners and creatives. They didn’t have the budget nor the capacity to implement branding on such a scale. They didn’t need to do it on such a scale.

Other type of information that I’ve found sounded like muddy spiritual hippy wisdom, which seems great when you hear it, but it leaves you wondering “How on Earth do I do this?”

Yes, some of the information was excellent. I learned from it and I became better, and started developing some ideas of my own. I’ve combined things in my head that I didn’t see explained in such a manner before, and I thought I had something here. Over time, these ideas grew into a framework that I now teach.

But you may be skeptical, why did I go through all this trouble? Why do I think The Human Centered Brand has any merit?

Allow me to explain by comparing the 3 different approaches. Let’s meet our first contender:

Conventional (corporate) branding

Branding as we know it was first invented to mark products. To prevent people from selling counterfeit goods, barrels and crates of product (usually food and drink) were marked by the producer (like a brewery). This way the customer knew they were buying the real thing.

In the industrial age as producing goods became faster and cheaper, and products started appearing more and more alike, companies needed a way to differentiate from their competitors, so they started using things like clever slogans, nice typography, and distinctive colors to appeal to the public.

Corporations were pushing the evolution of branding, making it more and more complex as technology progressed, and that’s how we’ve ended up where we are now.

Corporate branding considers the company as a single entity and develops a “persona” of this company which has clearly defined qualities, similar to personality traits. Every single employee who communicates with the public on behalf of the client takes on this persona. This is done to ensure that the customer always receives a consistent experience, no matter which retail location they’re buying from.

Corporate branding is all about the bottom line. Sure, you’ll hear a lot about customer loyalty and reputation management. You’ll see tricks like a company sending you an automated birthday greeting card. All that because getting a new customer is more expensive than upselling the existing one. If the bottom line says “we need to keep people from switching to a different provider”, the business will attempt to create a relationship with the buyer, and use every psychological trick in the book to fool them into thinking that someone on the other side really cares about them.

This is why many people who sell branding services to corporations are hitting the “bottom line” note. They position branding as a means to earn more money. “Our agency focuses on business results” they say. (I’m not quoting any particular agency, many of them do this.)

I’ve got nothing against business results, and I must have at some point used the same wording because some guru told me I need to frame my services as a means to make more money so I could make more money selling to people who want to make more money… And I thought that was what I had to do. I don’t think that anymore.

But let’s move on for now to the next type of branding:

Personal branding

Personal branding originated with celebrities. Typically celebrities were famous performers, artists, sportspeople, scientists, journalists, radio and TV presenters, and other prominent figures. Even in niche circles, professionals could rise to a certain level of fame if they did something notable, or if they made a huge impact on their industry.

With the Internet, everyone got the opportunity to turn five minutes of fame into decades of fame and fortune if they played their cards right. Obscure coaches could become thought leaders through clever positioning and lots of online marketing. Personal branding became almost unavoidable, even if you’re an employee, because improving your personal brand meant better job prospects.

Personal branding focuses on the individual, and how they’re perceived in the media. Personality brands focus on building trust with their audience and present themselves as an expert. Tending to your personal brand can look like:

  • Taking professional photos.
  • Polishing your LinkedIn profile and Facebook page.
  • Publishing articles in relevant publications.
  • Speaking at events.
  • Becoming a spokesperson for a cause or an organization.

Your personal brand follows you around regardless of the company you work for. CEOs have their own personal brands irrespective of their companies, as do employees. This is why when Stephen Colbert left Comedy Central and joined the CBS Late Night show, he brought his audience with him. People who are loyal to a personality follow them wherever they go, which makes this person very valuable to the company.

Any artist or solopreneur has a personal brand, but if you ever plan to grow beyond one person, personal branding is not enough.

Human Centered Branding to the rescue!

On one side, we have stiff, synthetic brands that hide behind the “we” language, even if it’s only a one-person operation. On the other end, we have personality brands with huge retouched photos of their face plastered all over the website.

If none of these seem appealing, there’s a third way.

Human Centered Branding can be used both by individuals and service based businesses with employees who are personally in touch with their clients. People have a difficult time pretending to be a certain “persona” if they’re communicating with their clients often. It’s better to just be who you naturally are, and use your individual strengths to power up your brand. (I wrote more about this in my post: Who the Hell needs “branding”? Here’s how to get noticed, your way.)

But how do you create a brand for an agency made up of different people who all have different personality traits? The trick is to employ people who share your core values. This way people will each be able to nurture their own personal style of communication and approach, but they’ll be aligned with the core mission of their company, and act in the best interest of the group.

Core values are at the foundation of a Human Centered Brand, and starting from them will lead to a healthy company culture where all the team members feel empowered and appreciated.

Your brand is greater than the sum of its parts

I recently talked to someone who used an analogy that I just loved and immediately understood what they wanted to achieve with their business. They saw their agency team as a music band where everyone was allowed to be themselves, instead of wearing the same T-shirt with a company logo.

In a band, each musician is being their best self and playing their own instrument, but the end result is harmonious music that makes sense to the listener (hopefully). Sometimes each of them has their own unique fashion style, while in other bands the members have a coordinated style, or use costumes.

If you remember 90’s boy bands and girl bands, each member had to have a personal brand of their own that a portion of the audience could see themselves in (or with). That’s why A.J. was the “bad boy”, and Mel C was the “sporty rock-ish chick”, to capture the audience that couldn’t relate with blonde cuties like Nick and Emma. (I never thought I’d talk about 90’s pop music on this blog, but here we are.)

These pop bands were a part of the machinery and much of their public personalities were a fabrication in order to cater to the masses, but this just proves you can have a mix of different people in the public eye and still have an alluring brand.

All of your clients should ideally share your company core values. If your team consists of dramatically different personalities, then you as the business owner need to play the matchmaker. Fit the right client with the right team member, and ensure that the client always gets to work with the same person (unless circumstances outside of your control make that impossible).

If we take this band analogy further, you can’t have people in the team that aren’t interested in making the same kind of music. If you swap one boy band member with James Hetfield, you’ll likely get chaos. (But it would be an interesting experiment.)

“The same kind of music” in the business sense is adhering to the same professional standards, and working toward the common goals.

You can use Human Centered Branding as an individual

There’s no reason why you couldn’t create a brand based on your core values right now, when you’re still on your own. You can use it even if you never plan to employ anyone else in your business.

You can use it in tandem with any other business, branding, and marketing program you like. I’ve actually found some great resources that are compatible with this approach, many of which I’ve mentioned in the book.

I wrote before how the value framing around corporate branding is the bottom line. Invest in branding, and you’ll make more money.

The value framing I use with the Human Centered Brand is relationships.

I don’t want you to create a better brand just to make more money. Do it because you want better relationships with yourself, your clients, your team members, and your wider community.

The side-effect may well be more money! But that’s not the angle I’m using to sell it. This work is not for the bottom-liners because I can’t guarantee the financial result. I don’t think anyone can. Brand is dependent on senses, emotions, memories, impressions, and personal experiences, and these are fickle. The best I can promise to you is that you’ll enjoy your business a lot more, and connect with your dream clients on a deeper level. How does that sound?

Here’s the best thing about the Human Centered Brand: many people are already using it without even knowing it. To paraphrase a famous Montenegrin musician Rambo Amadeus:

I didn’t invent Human Centered Branding, I just named it.

I observed great examples of businesses and creatives around me, and reverse-engineered a framework that teaches people how to do that. That is all.

One beta reader has told me she has already started implementing some of the things from the book that she wasn’t even aware she’s learned. That’s because none of this is esoteric, complex stuff. It’s really straightforward. It sticks with you.

If I had to sum up the key theme of the book in just seven words, it would be: “Be yourself and don’t work with jerks.”

(I should have made that the tagline.)

In any case, if you don’t like someone’s approach to branding, don’t hate on branding in general. Branding has many different flavors, depending on who is teaching it. If you don’t like my approach either, I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone who teaches it in a way that suits you better. Don’t give up.

The Human Centered Brand by Nela Dunato: A Practical Guide to Being Yourself in Business

Become your own brand strategist

The Human Centered Brand teaches you how to create a magnetic brand in a way that’s natural for you, and easy to implement. If you still haven’t read the free sample chapter, you can do it now. (There’s a download form on the book website, and at the bottom of this page.)

If branding has been on your to-do list, this is the perfect resource to get started. Learn more about the book.

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...

Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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