Everyone at some point considers leather pants. They make you feel like you've got it going on, like you're your own person, rebellious and sexy.
Some people will even purchase leather pants, and some may even put them on and walk around the house. But ultimately, few will actually go outside in their leather pants, because they're hot (literally), they make noise when you walk in them, and we all know leather pants aren't something that just anyone can pull off like a rock star.
Brands, too, often aspire to be seen as rebellious and sexy rock stars, and want their branding and design to be admired, beloved and iconic. They look at the leather pants worn by Nike, Apple and HBO and think they can strut their stuff all the same.
The truth is, not everyone is a leather pants person, and not every brand need be an iconic brand. Whether it's wearing a prairie dress and clogs, or some type of avant-garde look, every person and every brand has an outfit that's right for them, one that highlights their personalities, purposes and idiosyncrasies.
Branding isn't performative―a paint-by-numbers exercise where by checking the boxes of visual design, social media, etc., you've produced a brand that, left on autopilot, will become beloved. Branding is expressive and takes investment; it's the embodiment of points of view, values, and, dare I say, soul.
The exciting challenge is both finding out what kind of brand you are and then finding what kind of branding "outfit" fits you perfectly over time.
How does a brand find itself?
There's a maxim, "If you don't tell your story, someone else will," which is equally true for branding. There isn't a single brand that doesn't have a personality and purpose to express. Even if the business exists only to make money, the people in the organization will always have a certain style and the meaning of the product/service to the consumer will always be the brand's truest purpose.
That is where brands can start to find themselves. Ask (perhaps literally to your colleagues and partners) what your business' personality is and understand what your product or service means to the customer. It's the same as getting measurements ahead of buying an outfit, self-awareness to open the door for self-expression.
When you find your core authentic self and understand what others like about you, you discover your tribe, the people who value the same things. Many brands try to be everything to everyone, and so they become nothing to anyone. It's different when you speak to and belong to a community, which frees the opportunity to stand for something, think independently, and evolve.
How does a brand choose its right outfit?
Maybe you've found your brand is sexy, cool, iconic and wears leather pants. Maybe you found your brand is earthy, breezy, caring and wears clogs. Maybe your brand is approachable, funny, unexpected and wears rainbow suspenders. Maybe your brand is driven, fearless, risky and wears a motorcycle jacket.
Once you've identified who your brand is, make sure it's consistent. Just as the perfect outfit will match, the way your brand appears in the world should match too. This doesn't only mean visually, though of course that's important; it also means making sure that what you're saying is useful to your audience. Since your audience is your "tribe," you can be thoughtful and empathetic to what they will be interested in and find value from. If you're not consistent, you will create confusion, devalue trust, create a crappy customer experience, and your audience will leave.
The last piece of the equation is that brands need to be built to evolve. This doesn't mean being terribly inconsistent over time, per my last point; instead it means that finding your right brand outfit is a continuous process. Whether it's Wendy's finding its way to express itself on Twitter, Gillette finding its way to express itself in our current cultural climate, or, more generally, established brands behaving like startups and startups behaving like established brands, your brand's outfit will modify as you constantly re-evaluate what "clothes" make you feel cool and comfortable.
Not everyone can be a leather pants person, but whether you're the rainbow suspenders person or the motorcycle jacket person, or someone else entirely, not everyone can do your thing, either. So strut your stuff and own it.