It’s The Real Thing

I have always been interested in branding and marketing. Done well, branding can create a recognizable identity that carries very complex messaging within very simple symbols and icons. I recently visited The World of Coca-Cola, a museum of sorts dedicated to the Coca-Cola brand. Asa Griggs Candler bought the formula and the brand for the non-carbonated sweet medicinal beverage in 1889 for $2,300. Candler was good at marketing and branding, overseeing the franchise bottling and distribution system and the use of merchandise in marketing that resulted in Coke rapidly taking over the majority of the cola market. To this day, the Coke brand is graphically one of the most recognized brands in the world.

Interestingly, the museum is very clear that the product itself is only a part of the Coke brand. Through their involvement with almost everything in modern culture, Coke has become synonymous with much of what makes us feel good. We see Coke branding elements just about everywhere we go to have fun, watch events, or participate in leisure activities; therefore, we associate the feelings we have during those times with that brand. When we drink Coke, we are reminded subliminally of those previous good feelings and our enjoyment of the product is enhanced. Coke says, “It’s The Real Thing,” but it isn’t really. It is just an image that was created using actual real things in our lives to make us want a product.

Branding is not morally good or bad. There is nothing wrong with creating a clearly identifiable set of symbols to easily communicate a complex environment. However, branding can be used to do or promote bad things. The Marlboro Man was a branding device said to be one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns of all time. From the early 1950’s till almost 2000, the Marlboro Man offered filtered cigarettes to men by making them seem rugged and cool. (Previously, women had been the target audience for filtered cigarettes.) The use of filters was in response to clear information that cigarettes were bad for you, however, the filters didn’t really reduce the harm, and the Philip Morris company knew that.

Eventually, bad products and bad intentions will be discovered, regardless of how great the branding and marketing are. Companies with good brands can lose the faith of their customers if they repeatedly fail to live up to their claims or the customer’s expectations. Take Wells Fargo for instance, a company that’s almost 100 years old but is currently rated the worst bank in America due to their breaches of customer trust over the last few years. Conversely, companies with poor reputations can repair them and build good will for their brand by consistently meeting their customer’s expectations.

So why am I relating all this to you? It’s simple. The reason one of our core values is “Maintaining A Good Name” is that a good name is something that requires effort. Our brand is recognized throughout our industry and even far beyond. The question we should ask every day is, “What is our brand recognized for today?” What it meant yesterday is irrelevant unless those things are still fundamentally true today. These include how we act corporately, how we treat our team members, how we treat our customers, our integrity, and the reliability and quality of our product. These things are all represented in our brand, but they can be replaced by less positive things if we fail to continue to be true to our core values and the foundational beliefs that created our brand.

This is also true in our personal lives. Who we are internally will eventually be what we are known for externally. Regardless of how many “perfect” pics we post to Insta and despite our efforts to show the world a different version of ourselves, the real version will come through. Branding is like paint. On good wood and well-finished surfaces, it enhances the appeal. On rotten wood and poorly finished surfaces, it somewhat conceals but does not completely cover the underlying issues.

Our brand (corporate and personal) should reflect a deep reality, not paint a false picture. This means being honest with ourselves and the world about who we are. This means admitting our mistakes, making amends when we are wrong, and being humble. This means under promising and over delivering. This means doing what we say regardless of the cost to us. This means being real.

That seems to be difficult these days. COVID has put more distance between us and given us less opportunity to relate in person. It is hard to fool someone about who you are when you are in a close relationship with them. Conversely, it is easier to misunderstand and misconstrue what is said and done when we are not seeing each other in person every day. In recovery, we learn that isolation is our greatest enemy. We are not our best selves when we are alone for extended periods of time. Community, transparency, and vulnerability are the fertile ground where our best selves can flourish.

It is my hope that we are very close to being able to be together again in person. This will be better for our small community and, in turn, for the larger world. We must continue to be vigilant in being our authentic selves personally and as a community. Then our brand will be the representation of what is honest and best about us, not a façade that we are attempting to hide behind. Only if we are honest with ourselves and others can we make a difference in the lives of the people we live and work with. That is the real thing, and it is The Kimray Way.