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Steve McKee’s “Power Branding” and why brands can’t forget about humans

5 min read

Brands & Campaigns

“Branding” has a way of bringing out the cynicism in people, especially when it comes to personal branding (see how the not-so-similar sites Gawker and Harvard Business Review recently gave the side eye to Tom Peters’ manifesto “The Brand Called You“). Branding from a corporate standpoint doesn’t necessarily fare much better, with consumers considering most brands to be nonessential and lacking in honesty.

Part of this is that branding often comes across as impersonal. It’s not an exchange; it’s a tactic marketers use to separate you from your dollars. The target is just a data point, or a collection of data points, a thing to be acquired or ignored depending on how it matches the brand’s goals. It’s an exercise ostensibly involving humans but lacking humanity.

Steve McKee‘s book out this month, “Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World’s Best Brands” (January 2014, Palgrave Macmillan), isn’t going to solve those problems — that’s up to us. But his book rightly aims to refocus branding and brands on the importance of humans and humanity. Throughout, you’re reminded that humans are doing the marketing, brands are a reflection of human effort, actions and emotions, and that brands are worth nothing if they don’t connect with and excite humans — and do so in legitimate ways that are respectful of the customer’s intellect and boundaries.

So, what does the book actually say about branding? McKee starts with the value of brands, how they can appreciate over time despite being intangible, and how B2B brands such as IBM and Cisco can be as valuable as the better-known B2C brands such as Coca-Cola.

If there is a thesis statement for why a book on better branding — and better branding IQ — is needed, McKee provides it in the introduction:

Branding is anything but lightweight, but too few companies intentionally manage their brands as the valuable corporate assets they are. Sure, all organizations do their best to be honest, to offer high-quality products, to provide responsive service, and to do whatever else will enhance their reputation, knowing that the way they do business affects the value of their company. But not all understand that the way they manage their brands can significantly impact the value of their business.

The book is heavy with examples of branding done right — or wrong — but generally avoids the common mistake of leaping from the specific (this company did this!) to the general (all companies should do this!). If you’re skeptical of anecdotal accounts, you may object to certain examples, but the leaps are small and infrequent, and the citing of data and research is plentiful.

The book is also helpfully divided into the main questions of journalism — who, what, when, where, why and how. McKee reorders them, starting with brands asking the question “Why?” and divides the book into sections on the other questions. Each section has short chapters to address the wide landscape of branding, specific best practices and examples. And if you are prone to schadenfreude, the last section, “Whoops,” details plenty of big-time branding mistakes — as well as what lessons you should take away after you’re done laughing.

The layout of themed sections with short chapters is a good tactic and helps smooth the read, though when I saw there were 70-something chapters, I initially felt a bit overwhelmed. In a sense, this may not be a book to read cover to cover in one sitting; it’s a book that’s available as situations arise or as you reach different stages of your own branding process.

I’m not a salesman or a marketer, and so I can’t evaluate the book or the arguments as an insider. But like millions of other professionals, I’m not divorced from those camps. Every day, my job is, through my editing, to persuade audiences of professionals to open SmartBrief e-mail newsletters, to click on the links (and the ads!) and to continue to trust that when you get a SmartBrief newsletter, you’re getting the best selection of need-to-know news, and quickly. That is a relationship of trust in a brand, difficult to gain and more difficult to regain if lost.

Marketing may be a necessary evil; branding may be a buzzword. But what I got from McKee’s writing is that marketing and branding can be more than that. Done right, they can be the expression of people’s actions and values, of product quality and business intelligence. After all, we all want customers, we should want the right customers, and we need them to not only repeat their business but to want to tell others about us. If we can’t convey, intelligently and honestly, our excitement and belief in our brand, how can customers advocate for us?

With that in mind, approach”Power Branding” as a book about building great brands and relationships that will help you properly deploy strategy, data and tactics not just with effectiveness and efficiency, but also with empathy.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability, among others, and is quite curious to learn what SmartBrief’s sales and marketing teams think of this review.