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Branding: A Publisher’s Riff

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I awoke to Paul Simon singing “Kodachrome” the other morning. The verbal imagery brought new ideas to me on the subject of branding. Simon was singing, “Momma, don’t take my Kodachrome away.” He used a brand name in a song to tell his mother not to take the color from his life. To leave him room to blossom. To not make him live a black-and-white life. And we understood his meaning because we recognized his intent in using Kodachrome.

Successful branding does that. Show you the name and you see the associated image or colors. Show you the image, you know the name. Kodak started in the late 19th century. Kodak was a camera with film. Then it was a camera or film. Then a film. Now a camera with no need for film. The original brand has expanded and been applied to new products for over a century.

Branding follows us through every step of our lives. Certain images bring up particular words, emotions, smells. And vice versa. Some are universal and some local. There’s inadvertent branding, unintentional branding, intentional branding, brand awareness, and there is brand failure and brand destruction.

We brand our companies by naming them. We can hang them with a moniker that no one can remember or say. We can choose names that roll off the tongue. We can make nonsense have meaning or we can turn intelligent terms into garbage. It seems wise to think clearly and into the future when we provide titles for books. We are branding them.

Growth Patterns

Brands are like habits. Good ones can be built on for years while bad ones must eventually be broken and replaced with good ones. Good brands will be extended beyond their original intent. They literally take on a life of their own. So much so that brand owners are extremely guarded about how their brands are used. Paul Simon’s song extended an image of color that was consistent with the brand interest so I doubt he had any difficulty with Kodak.

Extending brands is a natural business function simply because the life of any product or group of products is finite. For a business to survive for any length of time, it must constantly be remaking itself. Movement is essential; inertia is intolerable. Each generation will have a different image of the brand.

In the beginning of a business, there is all sorts of movement. You could call it musical chairs or bed testing. You are looking for anything that works. You have inventory. You have debts. You must move inventory to pay off debts. You are screaming to anyone for a life jacket. You are inventive, creative, and maybe even downright disgusting in your panic. Time passes and you don’t drown, even though you swore you would.

Small openings in the clouds provide hope. The seas don’t part, but you survive. A way to safety appears. It may not even be your intended direction but it will work. You find a niche that doesn’t make you rich but pays the bills. People begin to depend on you. When your name is mentioned, a pleasant image appears. Your calls are returned. No time to rest though. Cash flow is a business necessity and having a single product is limiting.

More products create broader markets, which means you are moving into areas where you and your dependability are unknown. You will make new vendors and customers comfortable and growth will be continued. Now comes the hard part.

Big Decisions

You reach a breakpoint and little you do will cause any real forward motion. You must move to new ground either with your products or your methods. You must introduce new lines of products, take different directions to the existing market, or move into a different market altogether.

The agility to make a move, then realign it, then change its direction slightly, then reverse its course, then bring it back into line is what business is about. Can you or do you want to extend your current brand to the new direction or new products? Do you incorporate your present brand into a new brand that more fully covers the new business? Do you keep them as separate brands?

Nothing works forever, thus you must constantly be looking for the next movement, what it implies, and how you can make it work for you.

Johnny Hamilton is a Partner in Construction Trades Press. He is part of the legion of proud, former members of the PMA Board.

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