Successful branding depends on where you stand

When I was younger, my uncle asked me to explain the difference between two simple concepts.

“What is the difference between this,” he said, putting his finger on the table, “and that?” he added, stepping backwards and pointing to the table instead.

The answer (which I failed to grasp at the time), is proximity.

How we perceive things changes according to our relationship to them. “This” is something you can hold in your hands, something clearly defined. “That” is something out of our reach, distant from us.

I remembered this lesson recently when I was considering the challenges facing some prominent Toronto-based organizations: the arts festival Luminato; MaRS, the government funded Discovery District; and even the CBC, our country’s struggling public broadcaster.

Each of these institutions is facing something of a crisis brought about by the disconnect between how they perceive themselves internally – the core mandate around which they were formed – and their failure to communicate that purpose effectively to the outside world.

This failure is one of brand, a problem that isn’t going to be fixed without a serious reorientation for each of the above organizations.

There is a lot of discussion about successful branding, but less analysis given to the ones that don’t work, despite the great resources often at their disposal.

At Pilot, we understand brand as the intersection between the story you tell and the story customers, employees and stakeholders choose to believe, remember and share.

Brand isn’t something you can just declare, people actually have to buy in, even from a distance.

Luminato, MaRS and the CBC each have a strong internal mandate. They were created for a reason. But they have failed to articulate that purpose to the outside world in a way that’s convincing – in a way people believe, remember and share.

Just having a big name doesn’t guarantee that people will understand what you do, and the long term impact of failing to communicate your purpose can be devastating.

To me, this is an issue of this versus that. Each of these organizations is so focused on its internal ideas that they have neglected to consider how they are perceived by the public.

Luminato, which just wrapped up its eighth year of programming, is running dry of its $15-million reserve of government funding, according to The Globe and Mail. But Luminato’s long-term success will not be ensured by government support. The festival needs to establish itself as an event people understand, attend and talk about.

“What is Luminato, does anyone even know?” an editor from Maisonneuve magazine recently tweeted.

Luminato has a dynamic leader who draws in big names from around the artistic world, and holds a series of events in locations around the city each June.

The website pronounces its programming under the varied categories of “music, visual arts, literary, talks, dance, performance, film, food, theatre, magic and education.”

Luminato explains its core mandate as celebrating creativity – a noble cause but an ethereal concept to package for public consumption.

As for MaRS, a public-private enterprise founded in 2000, incubating talent has recently become a secondary consideration to damage control.

A favoured location for government announcements, its actual role in commercializing research is a topic of much debate in the VC and startup communities, and a controversial government bailout will now see its new tower occupied by bureaucrats rather than businesses.

Those closest to the organization passionately defend its role, but its success will be born out in the type of residents it appeals to over the long term.

The CBC, likewise, is a workplace where employees feel strongly about what they do. They believe deeply in the service they provide to their audience, and yet the broadcaster struggles to maintain its audience, a fact that has now manifested itself in a large round of layoffs.

Recently, I talked to a CBC employee about how to publicly explain the changes to a beloved show. A career journalist, she told me that she struggles with how to handle this external scrutiny.

“It’s what you do every single day,” I told her. “You have to tell a story.”

At times, our proximity to a product clouds our ability to see it clearly, to describe it to others or to explain its purpose. We hold it close, and interfere with the public view.

Brand is something that must convey the same strong, clear message from every vantage point. But it requires companies to put their finger on the central message, and then take a step back and look at it from afar.