Get the Hint

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

David Vinjamuri’s book Accidental Branding provides a great hint to what drives great branding.

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t come from marketers.

Vinjamuri writes in an "I was there" style, giving us case histories of business successes along with his own experiences researching them. He visits with a list of entrepreneurs, from Burt’s Bees to Craigslist, and reports on the personalities responsible for the company stories.

His angle is that by understanding what made/makes these people "tick," others can learn how to apply similar innovation and action to their own businesses. These stories are about branding that’s accidental because the founders never set out to invent brands, per se, but they possess very emotional, committed desires to build things.

What’s consistent in his vignettes is that these great brands weren’t built by marketers, but rather built as businesses that prompted (or delivered, or sustained) great branding.

It’s a great read, and an important point. And it continually blows me away that most marketing canon gets this chronology reversed.

There are far too many books (and consulting services) that boldly declare that great branding comes first, and through it great businesses are built. This perspective acts as a full-employment act for marketing agencies and branding gurus.

Vinjamuri gets it absolutely right when he explains how that approach is pretty much bankrupt these days, if not outright wrong…

…it’s businesses that enable great brands, not the other way around.

I say he gives great hint, however, because it’s still up to the business to figure out how to walk the walk. The take-aways from his case histories don’t apply verbatim to other businesses, however entertaining and directionally relevant his color commentary on founders and CEOs might be. And it would be a mistake for a reader to assume otherwise, even though Vinjamuri gives the prerequisite 10 rules. 

There’s a popular conceit, especially in America — the inspired, rock star business-person — and a presumption that businesses (and, thus, brands) are built by the dedication and guile of individuals.

They’re not, of course. At least not by them alone.

Behind our most celebrated exec successes and failures are groups of people, and processes of operation that achieve things, or impede them. Consider the stories of Jobs, Branson, Gerstner, whomever…and the real payoff is to be found in how their enlightened and collaborative teams functioned (or not), and how institutional processes helped (or hurt) said collaboration.

This is the less-than-sexy stuff that is tougher to get at, less entertaining to read, and harder to duplicate in other situations. But it’s the giant kahuna behind great businesses and brands, in my humble opinion. If you need a great visionary to relentlessly pursue a vision, you really need the people and processes to help guide, cushion, and deliver it.

I think this is what Vinjamuri is hitting on in his book; great branding really isn’t so accidental after all, and it doesn’t just emerge from the imagination of great marketers (so they are more often surprised by it, vs. being responsible for it). Instead, certain leaders have subjective experiences that, quite literally, allow them to step in it, or deliver it, within widely varied contexts of people and processes.

Accidental Branding‘s subtitle is "How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands." The real take-away is that ordinary people — from leaders to the lowest member of their teams — are responsible, together, for creating great businesses…and great brands. You can’t copy what others have done, but you certainly can learn why they did it, and then invent your own case histories.

If you haven’t already read Accidental Branding, you need to get the hint.

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