When it comes to building a brand, you should look to Google for best practices. Yes, Google. The search engine. And no, I’m not talking about their brand identity. I’m talking about their actual search algorithm.
Stay with me.
Branding, as it turns out, is fairly complicated. Or rather, we’ve made it complicated—just look out into your Linkedin thread and you’ll see any number of branding experts peddling their strategies.
But essentially a brand is simply the embodiment of a corporate culture complete with a promise of value to the customer. The brand identity is developed in a way so that the intended audience pays attention to it, remembers it, and acts favorably.
- Just Do It.
- Nothing Runs Like a Deer.
- It’s Hard to Stop a Trane.
- Think Different.
Building a brand requires tactical thinking, deep research, instinct, and guts. Hero-level guts. Because the most resonant brands establish trends, they don’t follow them. I get it–it’s far easier, more convenient, and way cheaper to look at what you see in your market that you consider effective and say, “Let’s do that, too.”
Don’t do that. “Us too” is a cowardly marketing strategy and your audience can see right through it.
However, assuming your product or service is tight, even the best branding in the world is meaningless if it’s not authentic. Which is to say you can dress a clown in a business suit, but eventually the clown starts juggling. That’s why the work of building a brand requires asking hard questions. The kinds of questions that require honest answers. And honesty takes guts.
So here you are willing to build the best brand possible. You have the guts. Kudos. Now you need to look at Google as the way to do it right.
We all know Google as a search engine. But they do a lot of other things—including being one of the world’s largest, most reliable free email clients.
Only, free email doesn’t pay the bills. For Google, advertising pays the bills. Advertising revenue is how Google can afford to give all these other things away—things that we rely on and trust. This trust reinforces Google’s promise of value as a digital life partner and has helped Alphabet Inc. to become one of the most successful businesses on the planet.
Back in the middle ages of search (mid-to-late 2000s), search had a problem: black hat marketing. If you knew how to do it, you could could get virtually any site on the first page of search for any keyword. And these guys were making money hand-over-fist.
The problem with that, of course, is that if you, as someone doing a search, were to query Mango Smoothies for example, you might get search returns that take you to knock-off Rolex watch sites.
By 2008, human beings in developed countries had access to the entire digital world at the blazing fast speeds via computers and even phones—and search was at the heart of all of it. Of all the players in the search space, long after Netscape and AltaVista faded away, Google was doing it best. The brand name Google literally became synonymous with search. That’s called pwning. As a result, competitors tried emulating the Google search algorithm, which, because it was top secret, was just a best guess.
But the thing is, Google had the same problem with black hat marketing tactics (such as keyword stuffing), and they knew that even though they were king of search, if they didn’t make an adjustment to their algorithm people would eventually move to other brands for queries. And you know what that means? Yeah, less eyeballs. And less eyeballs mean less ad revenue.
And, as we all know, advertising rules the world.
So in 2013, Google rolled out an algorithm change and told everyone about it. It was called Hummingbird, and you can read about it here, but essentially this is what happened—Google told the world to be more authentic. To stop trying to game the system. Just be who you are.
And that, my friends, is the branding lesson here.
Furthermore, with the rollout of Hummingbird, Google began to penalize sites containing black hat tactics. No longer were they going to return search queries with crap. Their customers deserved better.
Google likes ad revenue. So they forced the world to become more authentic. And if you didn’t, you’d pay the price.
Hummingbird did a lot of things to help reinforce Google as the king of search, but mostly what it did was give us a clear path to how brands can rank higher in organic search. And the path is lit with authenticity. Finally.
Which is why authenticity is how companies should think about their own brands.
How to Brand like Google
- Be real. This is basically the core. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Be you. And be proud of it. Then tell the truth about who you are in a way that your audience notices, remembers, and acts favorably.
- Be patient. There’s no light switch to rank higher. Or to build a brand. Sure, you can advertise your ass off to glean traffic above the organic cut, but again, if you’re selling one thing in your advertising and don’t fulfill on it, people will know. The clown will begin to juggle. Be ok with being you and develop a branding strategy that stretches out over time. Commit to it. Trust it. Patience pays off.
- Reinforce your promise of value. Often. While the actual Google algorithm is “secret,” it’s really not. We’ve come to learn what it takes to rank well (the black hat guys sure did.) And one important variable we know is that if you routinely post content that reinforces who you say you are in all your other content, it matters. If you sell Mango Smoothies, and you talk about how great Mango Smoothies are often enough in published content on your site, search bots will pick up on this and report back to the mothership that you are indeed authentic to Mango Smoothies and you’ll start to rank higher (NOTE: This is essentially the foundation of content marketing that yields better organic search rank.)
- Provide real solutions. With the advent of Hummingbird, Google not only smote the bad guys, but rewarded the good guys—and in the end it was Google customers who won. This sincere concern for your customers is critical to any brand.
- Tell the truth. Some brands rely on tricks to get their point across. Puns. Overly clever design. Stuff like that. And while there’s nothing *wrong* with these tactics, every audience is unique, however, what you do/make combined with your audience’s needs is all you need. I promise that there’s enough good stuff within your organization that you don’t have to rely on tricks. Rather you should focus on telling your brand truth in an interesting way. (Again, another tenet of effective content marketing.)
- Don’t cheat. Everyone wants to be in the fast lane to revenue, right? Hell, when social media went mainstream, too many brand managers actually believed that “getting a Twitter” meant instant success. They inevitably discovered, however, that social media was just another distribution platform and if the content wasn’t interesting or engaging, no one would care. Focus on your product or service. Do that well. And then build a marketing and branding strategy around that. Around the Truth.
- Be real. Engage. I threw this one in last because it’s important—although I don’t know for sure whether it matters to the search algorithm. I suppose it does when enough people are talking about you favorably (and don’t forget that WOM goes both ways, so make damn sure you fulfill on your brand promises.) Still, whether developing a brand from scratch or breathing life into a mature brand, you want to engage your audience via the miracle of connectivity currently at our disposal. Social media to a brand is what all forms of advertising leading up to now always wanted to be. Don’t be afraid to engage. Embrace the opportunity. It matters.