To build and market your brand, you must make a series of small decisions—from names, to features, to furniture—that add up to send an overarching signal to customers. While some decisions may seem inconsequential, ask yourself how they contribute to the signal your brand sends.
In a memorable passage of Alchemy, a fun and enlightening book by advertising executive Rory Sutherland, the author paints a picture: He asks readers to imagine walking or driving by a coffee shop with tables and chairs out front. Sutherland, an expert in behavioral economics, points out that the presence of outdoor seating subtly communicates the shop’s operational status—even without realizing it, you know the café is open because the owners would have moved the furniture inside (or stacked it) before closing up. That’s more than a matter of outdoor seating—it’s a signal.
Likewise, branding is all about sending signals. Consider a product’s packaging, for example. High-end packaging—luxurious materials, unique aesthetics, or a well-designed unboxing experience—can suggest superior product quality. So can a high price. Graphics and copy that accompany a product or service can also suggest a brand’s position in the market, its unique style, or even its target demographic. All these elements are carefully chosen elements that, when combined, help define a brand’s meaning, relevance, and value in the minds of potential customers.
Names are signals, too
What about company and product names? I recently came across a video in which Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful entrepreneur, author, and speaker, makes one of his typically provocative statements: “Names don’t mean sh*t.”
He continues, “What’s ‘McDonald’s’? What the f*ck is that? … ‘McDonald’s’ sounds like an Irish pub in a small town. But they f*ckin’ made it huge. What the f*ck is ‘Google’? What the f*ck is ‘Nike’? Nothing, until it’s executed.”
Given I recently authored an entire book about naming, you won’t be surprised to learn that I disagree with Vaynerchuk’s comments. But not in the way you might expect. In the introduction to my book, I concede that “a brand name can’t save a failing company or product,” that “many business success stories begin with dubious naming decisions,” and that “we can’t easily assign value to a good or bad brand name in isolation.” So, I agree with part of Vaynerchuk’s point—that great businesses and products can thrive in spite of a bad name, and vice-versa.
But does that mean names are worthless? No more so than Sutherland’s outdoor tables and chairs or the high price on a premium bottle of wine. Because the name, too, is part of the signal. To borrow a line from professor and Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson, “Gary Vaynerchuk is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.”
What the f*ck does Gary Vee mean by “execution”?
Speaking of Ritson, he recently reminded me of an important fact about execution in marketing and branding: it’s part science, part art, and it’s all connected. It’s a series of interconnected decisions based on imperfect data.
I just completed Ritson’s fantastic 12-week “Mini MBA.” For the final exam—my favorite part of the course—we were asked to create a marketing plan for a fictional company based on limited information. The incomplete data provided in the exam workbook forced students to make educated guesses (just as marketers do in real life) about how to execute a strategy. By what percentage would a nationwide billboard campaign increase brand awareness? To what degree would that higher awareness translate into higher win rates for salespeople? Would those additional sales improve overall perceptions of the brand? Each estimate affected the next—a small mistake at the beginning could lead you farther and farther astray as you moved through the exam.
As the exam demonstrated, to “do marketing” is to push, pull, and tweak points in an ever-changing network in hopes of finding an optimal balance that leads—at least temporarily—to the best possible results for your business. No decision exists in isolation. Seemingly small choices can have ripple effects, sometimes compounding, leading to far greater-than-expected outcomes.
Building and sending your signal
Right now, we are all witnessing one of the most significant brand upheavals in history: the shift from Twitter to X. The rebrand has prompted a handful of heated discussions within the branding community, some focused on the name and logo, others on changes to the underlying platform. On their own, the name, the logo, and the decision to create a “For you” tab in users’ newsfeeds may not make much difference. But taken together, the countless changes Elon Musk is making—big and small—send a relatively consistent signal. Some see the changes as visionary and disruptive (in a good way). Others (including me—and Mark Ritson, for that matter) interpret them as blunders that convey a lack of seriousness—the equivalent of damaged, rusty tables and chairs chaotically strewn across the sidewalk in front of a coffee shop.
Every star in the branding constellation is one in a series of decisions that, taken together, will send a signal to your customers. Determine what signal you want to send, then arrange the stars accordingly. Each decision might seem inconsequential when looked at in isolation, but in branding and marketing, every choice can have weight—it’s all connected. The aim isn’t to make every decision perfect, but to make more good decisions than bad, ensuring you send an appealing, coherent signal to would-be customers.