Your Brand Is Not What You Sell

 In Content Marketing

One of my core beliefs of effective content marketing is to deliver content people actually want. Publish stories they actually will enjoy – to read and to share.

To do this you have to follow a very small set of simple rules:

  1. Make it interesting. A great story. Relevant to your audience. An important lesson or a key trend.
  2. Make the reader the hero of the story. Don’t sell. Connect on a human level. Tap into emotions.
  3. Take the brand out of the story. Don’t promote the brand. Be the platform. Not the story itself.

Some iconic consumer brands like Coca-Cola can break these rules because for many, there is already an emotional connection. I mean who doesn’t want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. And almost all of you know what I mean without even clicking the link, or watching the video.

Take the brand out of the story? Don’t promote our products? Yeah, right!

I know this is tough. Whether you are with a large company or you work for yourself, we all work for businesses that want to see results. We have limited budgets and even shorter attention spans. We do not have the time to prove ROI.

How many of you have been asked the question “Oh yeah? But how does this help me sell some stuff?”

So we are constantly fighting this instinct to talk about our products or promote our brand.

I recently saw this video, simply called “IBM on Brand” by Jon Iwata that provides some amazing and heartfelt perspective. Jon is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communication at IBM. He is also a 30-year veteran of the company so I think he knows a little bit about the tradition of the IBM brand. Here is a summary transcript:

  • In the video, Jon talks about how there is not much formal documentation in all the 100-year archives on the IBM brand. And yet it has grown into a “globally recognized, respected and valued” brand.
  • They don’t try to manage the IBM brand they try to manage their “character as a business.” And they’ve never “defined IBM by what they are selling.”
  • Jon continues that they’ve learned that “if you make that mistake, you will have to go through a lot of expense and trouble” to change people’s minds once whatever it is that you are selling, is replaced by something new. Jon used great examples from punch cards, to mainframes, to PCs, to cloud and analytics.
  • So what defines the brand if it isn’t defined by lots of documentation and brand guidelines and what you sell?
  • His answer is corporate character which he defines as your “belief system, purpose and mission.” Jon suggests that “if we take care of that, the brand takes care of itself.”
  • He also suggests that this drives them to change but also to maintain the things that should never change.

Check it out here. I really suggest you watch the 2:15 minutes.

What do you think defines a brand?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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Michael Brenner
Michael Brenner is the CEO of Marketing Insider Group, former Head of Strategy at NewsCred, and the former VP of Global Content Marketing at SAP. Michael is also the co-author of The Content Formula, a contributor to leading publications like The Economist, Inc Magazine, The Guardian, and Forbes and a frequent speaker at industry events covering topics such as marketing strategy, social business, content marketing, digital marketing, social media and personal branding.  Follow Michael on Twitter (@BrennerMichael)LinkedInFacebook and Google+ and Subscribe to the Marketing Insider.
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Showing 6 comments
  • Chef LeeZ

    Good Stuff! It’s similar to fishing in that presentation of the hook is what truly matters. The wrong presentation in a school of fish won’t catch any fish.

  • Chris Goward

    This is a good thought, Michael. Thanks for sharing. I think it’s appropriate when thinking about a corporate brand like “IBM” that must endure beyond the products. But, would you agree that products and services also have brands, which are more related to the customer experiences and value proposition?

    I recently attempted to define the purpose of branding and wrote about it here:
    What is the Purpose of Branding?

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Always respect your opinions.

    • Michael Brenner


      I love it! great thoughts in there across the board, not just on the branding question. And I agree with you 100%. Having started my career in sales and following my frustrations into a marketing career (mainly in demand generation btw), I have always believed that marketing needs to produce a quantifiable result. That doesn’t mean it is always going to be easy to quantify, but the objective should be quantifiable. So I really like your definition.

      Now, on your question about products and services. I think products and services are almost always “branded.” But that sub-brand needs to be managed as part of the larger portfolio. The iPhone and iPad exist as children of the Apple parents. I think many large, complex businesses sometimes forget that you have to support the parents and let their “wealth” accrue to the children.

      Not sure if this analogy is working for me but I think you get the gist!?

  • Teri Sun

    Great Post! Branding really is all about an emotional connection. Science shows that people make decisions with emotion first. Then they use logic (features and functions) to justify their emotional decision. You’re absolutely right that branding is not about what you sell. It’s a personality that consumers can form that emotional connection and trust with.

    • Michael Brenner

      Thanks so much Teri and great to see your name pop up here. I hope all is well! I wanted to write this post for a long time and was pretty excited to get this off my chest.