Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Power (and Pitfalls) of Being an 'Inside Out' Brand

Having worked for many years in upscale travel & hospitality as an employee or consultant for some of the world's  finest companies (Mountain Travel Sobek, Virtuoso, TCS Expeditions, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Wildland Adventures), I  confess to having a love/hate relationship with 'inside out' brands. Nearly every adventure travel operator and boutique hospitality company are inside out brands, built from scratch driven by the spirit and personality of a founder (or founders) and a unique internal culture that evolved over the years. Contrast this with brands that are built mostly—or sometimes exclusively—on marketing. The dot-com's in the heyday of Silicon Valley being perhaps the most extreme example.

The inside out brands I've been associated with all have wonderfully unique brand stories, defined by vision, passion and purpose. Some inside out brands literally created new categories or product lines; a great example dates back to 1969 when Leo LeBon, Allen Steck and Barry Bishop founded Mountain Travel and introduced trekking in the Himalayas to North Americans. As a marketer and brander, that's the part I love. You've got so much work with. And as your company grows and you meet and exceed the expectations of your customers, you begin building a true brand tribe…people who are passionate about you and love to talk, blog and Twitter about you.

But the reality is many inside out brands don't really understand their brand story and thus cannot define or describe it, let alone communicate it in a way to be meaningfully different and truly stand out in an increasingly crowded and digitally noisy marketplace. The fundamental essence of a brand—essentially a brand's DNA—is where the real buried treasure lies, waiting to be uncovered. Until you discover it, your branding and marketing efforts might still be good, possibly great. But you will miss the big opportunity to truly set yourself apart and build an iconic brand. It's like looking at a beautiful iceberg and thinking you're seeing it all when in reality the majority of it is hidden from view.

If you're an owner, founder, CEO or senior marketing person with a company that has an inside out brand, I urge you set aside some time and reflect on your brand story. Do you honestly know it, understand it…and live it? Equally if not more importantly, do your customers get your brand story? Too many companies have shallow or unfocused brand stories, or they continue to operate with a brand story that needs to be refreshed or they think is being sufficiently communicated when in reality it's not. Chances are, your true brand story is deeper and more vibrant than you realize and it is waiting to be unearthed.

Investing the time, resources and money to do this type of brand research 'archeology' can pay huge rewards. If done right, every aspect of your business—operations, traditional marketing, social media, sales, PR, training, partnerships & alliances, etc., will be enhanced significantly. You might update (or re-do) your web site, change your tag line, revise your product offering, re-think how you train your office staff, field staff, etc. By translating your brand DNA into creative and strategic marketing, you will be different, you will stand out and stand a much better chance of building enduring emotional bonds with customers.

I started by saying I have a love/hate relationship with inside out brands. Truth is, there's a whole lot more to love then hate. But I'd hate for anyone running a travel or hospitality company that has an inside out brand to not fully leverage the incredible power comes from really knowing who you are, where you're going, why you are meaningfully different and then communicating it to the right people.