So, imagine I am on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and right now I’m sitting across the desk from Colbert.
One thing that people don’t know while they’re watching on television or streaming, but you discover when you’re on stage under the lights, is that there are production people offstage wearing headphones, talking into microphones with their handcuffed over the mics, eating sandwich halves or peanuts, and toward the audience the lights glare into your face so that you can’t see anyone (also, Colbert has something hidden under his desk that no one is ever supposed to talk about).
There’s a stage light behind Stephen Colbert’s head as he says this, “So tell me. What’s this branding thing all about?”
“What is a brand anyway.” He gestures with his hand as if swatting away a fly.
“— am I a brand?”
No time to breathe. “Yes, Stephen, you are definitely a brand,” I say. “And, believe it or not, I can improve your brand in about 60 seconds.”
Stephen leans back in his chair and perks. “Really?”
He looks out beyond the cameras, into the audience. For a split moment, I wonder if can actually see them out there because, you know, he does this all the time.
He turns back to me. He cocks one eyebrow to the northeast in disbelief or sarcasm, there’s always some inside joke happening inside Stephen’s brain and you’re never really sure of the punchline. The audience laughs. They always laugh.
He leans forward and gives me his Stephen Colbert grin, “Let’s go!”
So I ask, “When you were growing up, did you have a family pet?”
“Did you have a favorite aunt?”
“A favorite food?”
He shakes his head. “Uh uh.”
“What about a favorite ice cream flavor?”
Really? I know what’s happening. Colbert has worked decades of comedy improvisation. He’s had years on the road playing at bowling alleys, spit joints, nobody comedy clubs, basically low-laugh immersion training.
He’s playing with me.
So I play, too.
Favorite movie? No.
Favorite superhero? No.
Favorite musician? No. A pause.
Colbert suddenly exclaims — “My favorite musician is Flea!”
Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. Random, but we’re onto something.
“That’s terrific — you have just improved your brand.”
“Not by much — we would have improved it a lot more if you’d said your favorite ice cream is strawberry or your favorite movie is ‘Hocus Pocus.’ But you did good.
“Now you’re aligned with the whole group of people who also like Flea. Not all of them may connect or feel closer to you — but some will, and so will some Red Hot Chili Pepper fans, and people who like 1980s rock. It’s all additive.”
“So, that’s a good thing?” asks Colbert.
“Yes,” I answer. “You like fans?” I quiz.
“I love my fans!!!”
It’s a done deal. In their heads, people are thinking, “I like Flea, too!” Or, “I didn’t know he liked Red Hot Chili Peppers — cool!!!!” They may even like other bands of the same era, all included in or surrounding the cohort of “people who like Flea.” (There might also get some orthogonal “Likes” from people who don’t have a favorite color or ice cream.) Good job.
The end result is many thousands more people attracted to the Stephen Colbert Brand community — and, over time, as word of mouth spreads, “Hey did you see that thing with Stephen Colbert the other night?” the result becomes algorithmic.
"Branding" is a word loaded with mystery, fog and value judgment. According to everything we read: we are a brand, we need a brand, branding is dead, brands are fake, branding is more important than ever.
Paradoxically, we don't even like brands. Rather, we don't like the notion that an anonymous someone can wield their black arts and persuade us to act against our baby-faced will.
Just shut up.
Brands are nothing more than communities. Fans. People who give people, places and things a "thumbs up."
You can start your own brand just by having a conversation. During that conversation, tell someone the following things:
- Where were you born? Where did you go to high school? Where do you live now?
- What do you believe in?
- What's your favorite thing to wear?
- What your favorite thing to do?
- What do you hate, or never want to become?
- What's your favorite word?
- Do you have any mentors? Someone who inspires you? Like who?
OK! Already I feel better about you than I did a minute ago.
Because as human beings we are hard-wired to respond emotionally (and rationally) to a series of inputs that make us "feel right" about people, places, or things.
If you tried out the above, you hit on each of those emotional (and rational) touch-points (the actual list is: creation story, creed, icons, ritual, lexicon, nonbelievers, and leader) albeit in a quick, “ready-mix” way, in just 60 seconds.
Although short, it was enough time for you to give us what we need for your brand narrative to “make sense" to us. We feel that we know you now, and maybe we even know you better.
Ask those same seven questions of a friend or co-worker. Don’t be surprised that, when you’ve finished, you'll find that person wrapped in a sudden glow of, well, let's just call it "likability."
Thumbs up. These seven pieces of code are your root code.
This construct of 'primal code' is why brands like Apple, Nike, and Coke are more likable, preferred and hit the list of "most loved brands" each year.
Use this method to brand yourself, to kick-start your new project. You can also use it to create a better culture inside your company. Or start a movement -- create your own Burning Man or #resist!
Brands are not logos or websites, they are belief systems. No matter how big someone makes their logo on their new sweater line, it doesn’t make us feel better about them. It just emphasizes their meaningless. (Hint.)
To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, humankind is nothing but the sum of its stories. These stories outline, describe, explain, define and steer our lives. They provide credence, vision and hope. And the most remarkable notion of all is our power and ability and responsibility to create our own stories.
This system of parts clears the fog and lets you level-up your branding skills.
As Zeke Muwaswes, a former marketing executive at Twitter, explains, “Primal branding creates consistency with your message, which is huge. But it also creates efficiencies, because you can create this template so it’s not daunting every time you go to Instagram or send a tweet out. It makes everyone’s lives easier so they can do everything else they’re doing.”
Asa Siegel, chief executive officer of beauty wellness company STAMBA says, primal is “designed to make deeper connections, identify the larger context and bring resonance and truth to the thing that is most enduring — your brand.”
Once you create a belief system, you attract others who share your beliefs. People who opt in become your activated, socialized community: they are your “family,” whether actual or surrogate.
People who believe also belong: they become passionate, excited advocates. They speak for you and expand your networks. (They are the screaming fans on Stephen Colbert night.)
They become your brand community. Your brand is your best friend because your community is filled with best friends.
So stop thinking of brands as esoteric entities, only for people with marketing degrees.
Now you know how to create one in 60 seconds.
Question: What can you add to your story that can attract others to your brand?
Patrick Hanlon is CEO of primalbranding.co and THINKTOPIA®, a global brand and strategic innovation practice working with Fortune 100 companies such as YouTube, Microsoft, Levi’s, J&J, Kraft, PayPal, Experian, etc. He is the author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots For Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future," the seminal book on the evolving role of brands as belief systems, which is set for re-release by Simon & Schuster. He is also the author of "The Social Code.” This column is based on the two books.