Maya Angelou is right: Branding is how people feel about you
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When Maya Angelou said those words, she probably didn’t have public relations or branding in mind. Angelou was simply speaking the truth about life. However, those who work in PR and marketing should take her words to heart. Without even knowing it, she was speaking the truth about brands.
In strict terms, branding is the process of giving specific meaning to an individual, company, or product. But, in the end, a brand is basically the gut feeling about that individual, company or product — how we associate it in our minds. Fiji Water may be “clean” and “healthy” (and “expensive”). Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts may be “classy” or “luxurious.” McDonald’s may be “quick” or “cheap.” Depending on your perspective, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may be “intelligent,” “greedy,” “ambitious” or all of the above.
I have spent my entire career — more than three decades — working in public relations, which is a critical part of branding. Most people think that a brand is essentially the “mark” that a graphic designer creates to illustrate a product or service. To others, it may be a small business owner’s business card or the company’s logo. The heads of a startup company may seek to create a “cool” brand by incorporating hip graphics to represent their products or services.
But the “mark” is only the frosting on the cake. Those “hip graphics” represent the cherry on top of the sundae, but they have nothing to do with the foundation of the brand. The actual ice cream is the gut feeling in the customer’s heart. A small business owner may associate his company with “cool,” but his client may see it differently. In the end, the perception of the end user matters more — much more.
People who work on branding need to reorient their thinking to focus on feeling. Whether in PR or in marketing, the most successful branding experts put themselves in the shoes of clients and customers, analyzing individuals, companies and products through the lens of the end user. They try to determine how the buyer (i.e., a client or customer) feels, how the seller (i.e., a small business owner) feels, and how branding can bring those feelings closer together, if they’re not already. If the seller feels “cool,” but the buyer doesn’t, then branding needs to be executed better so those feelings can mirror each other.
It’s important to think of end users as brand ambassadors. In fact, clients and customers are the ideal brand ambassadors, since they have no hidden agenda. They are the raving fans who help spread word of mouth about a brand, bringing others into the fold. According to Nielsen, more than 90% of Americans believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising, so you want clients and customers to essentially do the branding work for you.
Because word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing, identifying and nurturing brand ambassadors is of critical importance. Understanding how brand ambassadors feel about their brand (and why) can take PR and marketing to another level. You want the rest of the world to hear it from them — your brand ambassadors.
PR plays a pivotal role in branding because it helps shape public opinion about individuals, companies and products — from celebrities to tourism destinations and Starbucks’ newest coffee beverage. However, PR is most successful when it responds to market research and builds on the established feelings of clients and customers, cultivating them for a better brand experience. Branding is complex, but the top priority is to determine the target audience and what it is that attracts them to the brand in the first place.
Ask yourself: How do my clients and customers feel, and how can I make them feel better? Then, find your brand ambassadors and spread the word. Pass the positive feelings on. Get rid of the negative ones.
And never forget Maya Angelou’s words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Nancy Marshall started her PR agency, Marshall Communications, in Maine 30 years ago, initially focusing on media relations in outdoor recreation, like skiing, whitewater rafting and sailing. Today, her agency also focuses on economic development and health care, and handles large state and corporate accounts. She hosts the PR Maven podcast and has written two books, the latest being “Grow Your Audience, Grow Your Brand.” Her advice is time-tested and based on real-life experiences.