Why do some brands grab our hearts while others leave us looking around the room to see who else is there? Don’t blame (or credit) the marketing department. At least, not entirely.

Take my recent visit to a Blockbuster store. Like you, I rarely visit the blue and yellow branded stores anymore. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, Midnight in Paris is currently unavailable for streaming or rental through iTunes or even Blockbuster’s website. My wife and I had heard great things about the movie and with a long weekend road trip in front of us, it sounded like fun to take it along. So I trooped off to one of the few remaining Blockbusters in my area.

Yes, they had the DVD in stock. But where Blockbuster used to trumpet “no late fees,” now their rental program was for 1-night rentals with additional charges of $.99 per night.  When I had that disappointed look on my face, the cheerful cashier said, “It’s just like Redbox!”

I don’t think that’s the message the marketing department intended for Blockbuster’s brand. What they blast out in their ads is, “Total access.” What I heard from their employee is, “We are an obsolete company that can be replaced by a box outside your grocery store.”

Normal brands are built in the marketing department.  While they may be flashy, funny, or sexy, they pretty much stay in the marketing department.  They represent what a few people wish were true about the company or how they hope customers, competitors or investors will see them. But in the end, they have no integrity. They’ll collapse under their own weight.

But brand isn’t advertising or logos. Brand is behavior. It’s the cashier equating this once-dominant player to a box that sits outside your grocery store and making me feel like they don’t care about my experience of their service.

Here’s another example: A United Airlines flight attendant confided at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, “Oh yeah, we used to have a great reservation system. But with the merger [with Continental], we’ve totally ruined that and no one in management cares.” This is behavior a customer internalizes. And instead of seeing the United brand as being a great way to travel from point A to point B, it turns into a bad marriage: “I used to love you and I committed to flying you, but you don’t care about me anymore and if I can find an alternative I will.”

For anyone whose company provides a service–and I’d argue that nearly every company has, or should have, a service element included in its offering–your brand is whatever a customer would say about you if she didn’t read your marketing materials.  If your front line sales and service providers believe you’re sacrificing customer experience (and therefore their daily dignity as they get reamed by customers) for the sake of profits or ego, good luck selling your brand. Brands that are plainly at odds with reality do more damage than good, which makes me glad that United no longer sells itself as the “Friendly Skies.”

Some companies actually get this.  They invest in the hard work required to sync their behavior with their brand.  As a result, their brand has integrity. It holds together. It’s solid and believable.

Take one of my personal favorites: Icebreaker merino wool clothing. I own an embarrassing quantity of this insanely expensive outdoor gear.  What started out as a lone hiking shirt has turned into a cedar chest full of high performance wool.  If merino wool garments were shoes, I’d be Imelda Marcos. (Though I deeply regret it, Icebreaker is not a client, sponsor, or supporter of Noonday. Consider this both full disclosure and an open invitation to the fine folks at Icebreaker to call me any time.)

Why do I love Icebreaker? Icebreaker’s brand Integrity Quotient pegs the scale. Not only do their products do what they say they will do, they have a commitment to sustainable agriculture.  They use merino wool from New Zealand because of its superior performance qualities, but they go beyond performance. They partner with local sheep farmers to provide a steady supply of merino wool and a sustainable business model for farmers.

So when you get an Icebreaker garment, it usually carries a Baa Code which allows you to trace the wool in your product back to the actual farm where the wool was grown.  When you plug that code into their website, you can see more about the farmer and the operation where the sheep live.  A lot of us who use high performance wool outerwear (i.e. outdoor geeks) would care about local and sustainable agriculture.

But don’t stop with the website and what might be an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. When I’ve called Icebreaker’s US service office, my interactions with them totally match their brand. I usually confess (sheepishly) how much of their stuff I own. They have my record in front of them, after all, so it’s no secret. And in a very understated Pacific Northwest way, the person on the other end of the line says, “Cool!” These people dig the outdoors and have a natural connection to someone who is preparing for their next great adventure. And yes, they’re helpful too.

So if the way you’ve set up your company gets people to behave in ways that actually reflect the brand you’d like to have, advertise away.  If not, maybe it’s time for a re-think of your strategy, what drives your behavior, or your brand.  Otherwise brand is hype. And no amount of advertising can cover up cracks in your brand’s integrity in the stark light of reality.

Here are a few questions to think about:

  • If our customers never read our advertising, what would they say we stand for based on our behavior?
  • What beliefs about our customers, our competitors, and our overall company drive those behaviors? Where do those beliefs come from – and are they helping us or hurting us?
  • Beyond intellectual beliefs, what’s the vibe in our company about customers? Do we get energized by them and display genuine curiosity about what makes them tick? Or do we see them as tools for us to achieve our goals – or worse yet, nurture contempt for them, rolling our eyes when they act like… customers?
  • What behavior should we absolutely not tolerate if we want to live our brand? What behavior should we celebrate?

Building a high integrity brand is never easy. But its value, while hard to quantify, is on display every day for the smart organizations who nurture them.