I write a lot about branding on this blog since it’s what I do for a living, but I don’t blame you at all if you’re getting sick and tired of hearing this word all the time.
A lot of my friends are entrepreneurs in the healing/therapy/spirituality/yoga fields. I too self-identify as a sensitive tree-hugger. (Also: INFP and Enneagram type 4. If you know what that means, let’s be friends.)
See, I’m literally hugging trees. But in a totally platonic way.
That is to say, I know how these “sensitive types” feel about business, marketing and branding. Most of them hate it. It sounds scary, complicated, useless. Like something that the 1% invented to keep us competitive and distracted.
In a way, I agree with them. Much of the “rules” we’re taught about business are unnecessary. Many tactics that are popular today are manipulative and short-sighted. It’s too easy to throw away the baby with the bathwater, when a lot of conventional business wisdom seems like a steaming pile of crap.
Seriously. I’m on your side.
Maybe I hadn’t been clear enough on this in the past, but I intend to change this.
These “systems” and “frameworks” I talk about? Really, it’s not about it having to be a certain way, and I don’t think you’re a loser if you do it differently.
I’m not a fan of having to follow a certain process. I’m often distracted by random bursts of inspiration (like artists do), and I recognize it as a strength. I like to let things evolve organically, serendipitously, unexpectedly. My best work often comes from experimentation and doing something other than what I should be doing.
And yet, I have this tendency to craft neat visualizations, systematize things, and optimize processes – create clarity and structure where there was once confusion and chaos.
That’s pretty weird for an artist, but I never was just an artist. I don’t buy into the left-brain right-brain thing. All activities can be “whole brained” if we allow them to (and I have some tips on doing that).
Here’s why I choose to use systems, processes and frameworks in my work:
Visually organizing information makes it easier for me to understand, memorize and apply.
Whenever I need a better understanding of a complex idea, I draw flowcharts, Venn diagrams, mind maps and four quadrant matrices to see how the elements interact and influence each other. When you only have a hammer, all problems look like a nail. In my case, the “hammer” is a sketchbook and a pen.
It works for me. I see relationships that I wasn’t previously aware of, and immediately realize how I could relay this understanding to other people. Other people may use journaling, group brainstorming, or any form of meditation to get fresh insights. I experiment with those as well, but sketching feels the most natural for me.
I’m aware that life is messier than that, and cannot be boiled down to a simple 1-2-3 process.
It’s just easier for me to digest information this way.
The side-effect of this tendency is that I start looking at things through the lense of neatly-ordered-elements-in-a-chart, and that’s how I communicate it to others. (Even if it’s not the “objective truth”.)
I get that not everyone will respond well to this approach. What’s worse, some of my favorite people don’t respond to this because they resist the artificial sense of order I’ve created, and rightly so.
Let’s try something different today instead. Let’s drop all pretense of there being any system or formula that you need to know or follow in order to succeed in business. It’s going to be organic, full of detours perhaps, and very long, but that’s what tends to happen when you remove the intentional structure.
Let’s deconstruct the word “branding” first.
In ye olden days, branding was the process of marking cattle with a heated metal stamp (called “brand”). (It’s also a body modification thing that some people like to do to themselves – not that you needed this picture in your head. You’re welcome.)
No wonder we don’t like this expression – it’s loaded with a history of animal cruelty, and we don’t want that kind of energy anywhere near our shiny purpose-driven business.
The old school brand represented ownership: “These cows are mine.”
Again, the idea of living creatures being owned by other living creatures is not very humane, and certainly not a model we want to mimic. We need to rewrite that concept so it works for people like us.
Why do people claim “branding” is important?
Back in the day, when people lived in small villages, you only had a need for one bakery, one cobbler, one metalsmithing shop, one tailor, one barber, one midwife, one priest, one tavern etc. for the entire population of the village. Sometimes you didn’t even have all the facilities in your village, so people traveled to nearby towns to buy and sell goods.
When you needed your shoes mended and you couldn’t do it yourself, there wasn’t much choice. You went to the only cobbler that was there.
Industrialization changed everything. Suddenly we had the ability to produce much more physical goods than was realistically needed. There were tens and hundreds of thousands of people living in a single city (who moved there for the work opportunities in factories). We could travel farther with our gas-guzzling vehicles, so we weren’t limited to what our small town could provide.
We’ve gotten access to so many choices.
Now there wasn’t only one shoe shop in town, there were dozens. Since proximity was no longer the governing principle to base our buying decisions on, other factors became more and more important. Like quality of craftsmanship. Price. Reliability. Aesthetics. Exclusivity. Convenience.
Instead of one regular, undifferentiated shoe shop, you had the poor people’s shoe shop (cheap!), the rich people’s shoe shop (exclusive! fashionable!), the shoe shop that made military and working boots (durable! reliable!) etc.
You had to distinguish yourself as a business in some way from other people who offered the same products or services in order to attract enough clients. If everyone does the same thing the same way, then people will buy the cheapest option, right?
But we know from experience that people don’t always want the cheapest option. Sometimes we’re prepared to pay more, because the business addresses a specific need we have, that other businesses don’t.
Nowadays, the competition is tighter than ever before. Through the technological magic that is the internet we’re able to order stuff from literally across the globe without leaving our house. Every single one of us, no matter what our profession, has thousands or potentially millions of competitors.
Yikes. That’s not very good for business, is it?
We experience the “only cobbler in town” effect with every new industry.
In 2005 when I started freelancing as a web designer, finding clients was easy. I never once had to apply for a job or pitch anyone. Somehow word got out that I was making websites (my own website and blog had something to do with it), and I started making money.
I wasn’t a super awesome designer at the time. I was okay. But that was enough, because the marketplace looked very different from today:
- Web design was a new profession, and there wasn’t a lot of competition.
- There were no freelance marketplaces like Elance, oDesk, Toptal or Fiverr so most of us found clients locally.
People starting out now have a more difficult time than I did getting a break in the industry. I kind of stumbled into this profession instead of intentionally crafting my career.
Back then, I didn’t need a “brand”. I had no idea what a brand is. I thought it had something to do with logos, color palettes and typography. I wasn’t “strategic”. I was just fooling around in my free time after classes, and somehow it made me money. I’m still pretty amazed when I think about it.
If you happen to be one of the first people in a completely new, never seen before industry, you won’t need to bend over backwards to prove how you’re different and better. The fact that you’re doing something original and unique is enough.
This happened with social media marketers. And life coaching. And group business coaching programs. And the first people who sold online courses. And with the guy who crowdfunded a potato salad.
People who are the first at something don’t need to work hard to differentiate – their newness is their difference.
Sometimes people throw money at you just just for the kicks (like the potato salad guy). It’s refreshing and ridiculous, and we want to take part in a historical moment. Never before in the history of mankind have thousands of people from across the world put their resources together in an effort to make a potato salad.
Originality sells. Finding a unique angle, one that no one else has pursued before, sells.
For some industries, it’s a challenge to find a new angle. Some of us have hundreds or thousands of competitors just in our city. We need other criteria for differentiation.
That’s where the need for a concept such as “branding” comes in.
The main purpose of branding is differentiation from others in your field of work.
The second purpose of branding is connecting with the people you most care to help.
The effort to create a brand may seem contrived and dishonest. It can feel like you’re building an image designed to portray you in the light that the largest possible number of people will appreciate. Corporate and startup branding can have that feeling, yes, because they’re putting the product at the center.
That’s not how we do branding here.
As I’ve been working mostly with service providers over the years, as well as learning about how to present my own creative work, I’ve realized that branding works very differently for service businesses and artists. There are many reasons why that is, but I find that the most important reason is that maintaining a constructed, synthetic brand is exhausting when communicating with people is a big part of your business model.
What I mean by communicating can be literally talking to people – writing emails, consulting over phone, attending meetings, writing reports – but also creating other forms of communication such as visual art, videography, commissioned crafts, theatre plays, performance etc.
For a micro-business owner, artificially manufactured brands are not sustainable.
After a while, you start hating your business, resenting the people you work with and feeling like you want to quit.
The purpose of the approach to branding I subscribe to is to avoid that, and to enjoy your career as much as possible. Because if it’s not fun, why bother? There are easier ways to make money than running your own business.
For service-based businesses, maintaining an artificial, synthetic brand is exhausting.
The Human Centered Brand approach
The Human Centered Brand is the name of my book I’ve settled on after realizing that Authentic Branding (which I’ve used before) sounds tacky. People started dragging the word “authentic” through the mud. Apparently some marketing bigshots overused it and turned it into a dirty word. Which is sad, because I still feel it’s a correct description of the concept, but hey, moving on.
What Human Centered Branding is about is identifying your unique strengths and quirks, and relying on them to create the feeling of distinction (“I’m not like those other folks who have failed you”) and belonging (“If you like what I’m saying and doing, we’d get along great”).
The benefit of this is two-fold:
- People start associating you with your unique strengths and quirks, and
- People start associating those specific strengths and quirks with you.
Which means that if your thing is mindful gardening while humming Slavic folk songs, whenever people encounter anything you create online they think “Hey, that’s the chick with the gardening and Slavic folk songs”, and whenever someone mentions anything relating to gardening, mindfulness or Slavic customs they’ll immediately remember you.
Your unique combination of skills, interests and personality traits becomes a point of resonance with people who appreciate those same things.
“Branding” is resonance.
Resonance is a phenomenon in physics where object A can cause object B to oscillate with a greater amplitude (or intensity), if it hits the object B’s natural frequency.
I think this is a great metaphor for what happens emotionally in people when they encounter other people and businesses whose essence mirrors their core values and worldview. Resonance comes from a match of the broadcasted frequency in person A and natural frequency in person B.
Here’s a little graphic to illustrate this (I told you I like charts):
Here’s the interesting part: in Human Centered Branding, the “frequency” you’re broadcasting at is also your natural frequency. Essentially, finding the clients you want to work with is a search for people whose natural frequency matches yours.
(“Frequency” is a metaphor for the person’s mental and emotional state. If you subscribe to the “everything is energy” worldview, you can also understand it literally as a person’s energy field vibrating in a certain pattern.)
Don’t develop a “brand strategy” – create conditions for resonance.
Imagine that every single person in the world has a string of tiny golden bells inside their hearts. Each bell has a different tone, and each person has a different combination of bells. (Hint: these bells represent the personal core values.) There are literally millions of different combinations available, so no two people have the exact same set of bells.
But some people share some of the tones with you – some only one, some share quite a few. You go around the world, dangling these bells like you’re Santa’s freakin’ reindeer. When you come close to someone whose bell matches one of the bells you have, theirs starts vibrating in response. Now you’re making music together, and it’s louder and brighter, and it attracts even more people who share that tone to join you.
Creating your work and publishing it, appearing on the stage, talking to the people you meet at events are all you ringing your bells. Listening to other people’s stories, watching other people talk, and following other people’s creative work is being quiet in anticipation for their bells to ring.
Somewhere in that process, resonance happens.
You can’t force resonance.
It’s not like you know precisely what the specific person’s frequency is, and then you go crafting your message to strike at that frequency. That’s not how it works. It’s not sustainable. Each time you’re in a conversation with someone, you’d have to pretend in order to adapt to their expectations.
It’s not about adapting, pretending, or hiding behind a mask.
It’s about being clear, unapologetic, and natural.
It’s about self-knowledge.
Really, all branding is is a dance between self-knowledge and knowledge of the other. The knowledge of the other serves to better know yourself (through the contrast). You learn where the boundary of your identity is. “This is me. That is not me.”
And from this point on, it’s about claiming the space for yourself in the world – for proclaiming:
“This is who I am,
this is what I care about,
this is what I do,
and this is who I help.”
The branding and marketing principles for service-based businesses are actually the same principles we use in making friendships and romantic relationships.
You make sure to look presentable, which at a minimum means showering regularly and not wearing a stained shirt. You go out to places where like-minded people hang out. You introduce yourself. You conduct entertaining and meaningful conversations. You gather impressions on whether the person shares your personal values and seems like someone you’d like to spend time with. When you feel the atmosphere is right and the other party is receptive, you make the ask: would you like to have dinner some time?
In a business context we make up all sorts of rules to follow. This is how you do marketing. This is how you do networking. This is what a sales conversation is supposed to look like. When really, “just fucking be a decent human” is the thing that matters the most.
The corporate types can have their SWOT analyses, their business model canvases, their KPIs, their 9-block models or whatever. You can use it if it helps you to find new ideas and feel safer, grounded and more prepared, but you don’t have to.
Showing up in a business context the same way you show up in a friendship/romance is enough. The reason people aren’t generally doing that (apart from not knowing it’s an option) is that they aren’t conscious enough in their personal relationships to apply the same to professional relationships. It’s hard to reproduce something if you don’t know what that is.
What my framework does is that it guides you through a series of questions that encourage you to think about this and learn more about who you are, what you care about, and who you most want to help.
You don’t need my framework. You could go on a weekend hiking trip and do some thinking while surrounded by fresh mountain air and a gorgeous view, and still come up with the same realizations on your own. I just wanted to create a tool that helps you do this at home, while investing a minimal amount time.
If you already know how to resonate, and are successfully reaching the people you want to help, you’re fine. That’s all there is to branding, really. My tools are just a path to get you to this place faster.
Don’t develop a “brand strategy” – create conditions for resonance.
Getting the “ick” out of strategy
Strategy is a term used in wars and competitive games. Again, perhaps not the connection we want with our business, so we say “Fuck strategy, I don’t need it.”
Yes and no.
If you’ve anything like me, you could be changing your mood a dozen times a day, or an hour. Maybe you carry a whole lot of emotional baggage from years past, and it has no place in your business. There are moments when you’re vulnerable and cranky and say things you don’t mean, and later regret.
We aren’t always able to uphold our most grounded, centered, loving presence.
While displaying some flaws is perfect and natural (yay for being human!), making decisions based on a temporary crisis can set you back.
One of the tenets I try to live by is: if I feel crappy, I don’t make any decisions. If I’m able to get some time for myself, I apply self-help techniques until I feel better. If outside obligations make this impossible, I keep on truckin’ down the path that past me (who was in good spirits) has charted.
The point of “strategy” is to have a path laid out for you so you don’t need to overthink it when you’re having a less-than-stellar day.
If the word “strategy” bothers you because of its war-generals or old-school-businessmen-in-suits or Silicon-Valley connotations, just use a different word.
(The only reason I still use the term “brand strategy” is because I want people to be able to find me through search engines. After that, we never have to mention that word again.)
So here’s another metaphor for ya.
The compass always points to the North.
The compass doesn’t care what people think. It doesn’t care which direction you want to go. It doesn’t depend on data or popular opinion. It just states the fact: “Earth’s magnetic North is that way.”
Your inner compass, rooted in your core values, always points in the direction toward fulfillment.
People call this compass “intuition”, “inspiration”, “Spirit”, “inner wisdom”, or “purpose”. Whatever you want to call it, it’s there for you at all times, and it will show you the way if you stop shaking the damn thing and get very still and quiet.
The problem is, when things are horrible, it’s difficult to get still and quiet and feel the compass.
That’s why we make maps, intentions and action plans. When we’re in a good mood and good health, our vision extends farther – like being at the top of the mountain, and seeing clearly where all the meandering roads lead, and where the rivers and lakes are. We can chart a route we trust will take us to where we want to go the fastest.
Once we get down to the valley, or get lost in a thick forest or a swamp, it’s hard to see past the nearest turn. The mapped route and our travel plan is the only thing we can rely on.
Theoretically, if you could get calm, quiet, present, and centered at any moment, you would never need any plans. Never, ever. You’d just check in with your inner compass and know: “This is the next step.”
Strategies, maps, action plans – they’re just tools for when we feel lost and want to keep going instead of being stuck. Sometimes they save you from wasting your time and second-guessing yourself.
You don’t need a strategy. It’s just good to have something written down for when you feel like nothing is making sense, and you need a reminder that you know what you’re doing, and it will be okay.
Sometimes just the reassurance it will be okay is enough to kick us into gear.
You can use any words you like.
You don’t have to use the words I use, unless you happen to like them. There are other terms that kind of mean the same thing.
Your unique value proposition can be your “special sauce”, or your “secret jewel”, or any other reference to a unique artifact that only you possess.
Brand voice is a style of self-expression. Some people call it voice values.
Your ideal client is also known as your target audience, your Right People, your tribe, or as Paul Jarvis calls them “rat people”. What does your audience have in common? You can use that signifier instead of the boring “ideal client”.
Visual brand is also called visual design or visual style. You can use any architecture or fashion related metaphor that works for you and represents belonging and intentionality. Danielle LaPorte calls her website “the temple”, and while normally I’d cringe at that, it is very appropriate for her approach as a modern day digital priestess. It just makes sense.
(That’s what this is about, really – you hear someone using a certain word, and it makes sense that they would be using it because it’s in sync with the parts of their personality that you’ve already experienced.)
So that’s my essay on the “soft” side of branding. I hope it helps you to approach your right people in a way that works for you.
Who the Hell needs “branding”? Here’s how to get noticed, your way.
I still believe my book The Human Centered Brand is the best way to find the points of resonance with your right people and design a visual brand that will glow with meaning. If you want to ground this information into practical steps, check it out and download the free sample chapter and bonus resources.
I look forward to hearing your bells ring clear and strong.
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...
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