One of my favorite phrases is “Deeds, not words.” It’s the 1903 motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WPSU) in Manchester, England. The Union and its leader, Emmeline Parkhurst, came up with the motto to capture how they were planning to fight for women’s right to vote in England: through vandalism, violence, and civil disobedience.
In other words, these women had had quite enough talking, thank you very much, and now it was time to act. While the movement, and the phrase itself, eventually gave up the more violent forms of protest, the concept that “actions speak louder than words” was a powerful rallying cry.
It also explains what so often goes wrong with branding.
First, let’s define some terms. Your brand is the sum total of people’s experiences with you. Everything a brand says and does contributes to your thoughts and feelings about it. It’s why I agree with Jeff Bezos’s definition, that “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.”
Branding, on the other hand, is the group of activities associated with trying to capture what a company wants its brand to be, usually in the form of words (tagline, ad copy, etc.) and visuals (logo, colors, and so on). It’s how brands try to shape the narrative of what people tell themselves, and others, about the brand. For example, United Airlines and their long-standing tagline, “Fly the friendly skies.”
Especially if you want to “build a better brand,” do you start to see the problem? Here it is: there’s often a big ol’ gap between the narrative a brand tries to shape and the narrative the brand actually lives—how it acts.
United wasn’t exactly friendly to Dave Carroll’s guitar. Or to Dr. David Dao, who got dragged off an overbooked United flight. For many of us familiar with those stories, or any others that seemed to fit the pattern of “not-so-friendly skies,” experiences like that start to make United’s brand of “friendly” feel, well, fake.
And that’s a problem because how you act affects what people think about you just as much, if not more, than what you say. My good friend and colleague Dr. Nick Morgan talks about how this applies to humans in his book Power Cues. When someone’s words don’t match their body language, we believe the body language.
In almost every environment, actions speak louder than words.
What do you do about that gap? The answer seems obvious: “close it.”
…But that’s not exactly helpful.
The more specific answer is to “do what you say and say what you do.” Psychologists call that “behavioral congruence,” where there’s “consistency between the aims, attitudes, and values professed by an individual or group and their observable behaviors.”
Achieving that, though, requires knowing what the actual “aims, attitudes, and values” of a brand or person are. Not the ones the brand professes in its branding—the ones driving the “observable behaviors” that drive the brand.
Beliefs drive behaviors that define the brand. When you understand the principles that set the patterns of how you act, you gain the power to understand what’s actually shaping your brand and how you need to adjust your actions, or your branding, accordingly.
Note something incredibly important here: these are not aspirational beliefs. These are not the “aims, attitudes, and values” that you wish you had or that you think will play well in the market. They’re the deep-seated, core principles that already guide your day-to-day decisions and choices, often unconsciously.
My new book is all about helping both individuals and organizations drive change and expedite impact by surfacing these underlying beliefs and principles.
You can get started today in a few different ways:
- Work backward from one of your own ideas or offerings. First, what are its (ideally two) core components? Now, ask yourself why those components are critical to achieving your ends? Note: beware of any answer that’s essentially a version of “because they achieve the ends” — you’re looking for why those means achieve them. Assuming you avoid that trap, your answers will give you hints about the principles behind that particular part.
- Mind your mantras—those little phrases you repeat to yourself, or that you use to explain yourself (or others) in certain situations. “The early bird gets the worm.” “The second mouse gets the cheese.” “The third pig gets the house.” One of the reasons proverbs are so powerful is they often capture our rules for living. So, the ones you use or agree with most often are likely to reveal some of your bedrock beliefs.
- Mind your mentors. Most of us have other people we respect and whose advice we generally tend to follow. Almost always that’s because their belief system and ours aligns—our ethos overlaps. What mantras do they repeat? Which of their quotes do you repeat?
- Analyze your fandom. Are there brands that are your absolute go-to? Organizations whom you deeply support? Why? What about what they do—and how—aligns with how you see the world? How do they describe what they believe? For example, one of my favorite brands, Eileen Fisher, has only two navigation items on its homepage: “Shop” and “Circular by design.” The “circular by design” is a statement of principle—one they hold strong enough to give it equal status with buying their products. They both say AND do.
- Find the friction. Are there people who just absolutely rub you the wrong way? Brands who you simply will not or cannot do business with? Organizations or bosses you’ve left because you couldn’t see eye-to-eye on something? What did they think or do that you disagreed with? Why do you disagree with it? Your answer will again indicate the underlying principles and beliefs that drive your own behaviors—and that you think should guide others’ behaviors, too.
Since the problem with branding almost always lies in that gap between deeds and words, fixing it comes down to focusing on “deeds”—actions and behaviors—then on the words that describe the beliefs and principles behind them.
What brands and organizations do you think do both parts well? Which ones don’t? Email me and let me know. I’d love to include your example in my new book (with full credit to you, of course!).Since the problem with branding almost always lies in that gap between deeds and words, fixing it comes down to focusing on deeds—actions and behaviors—then on the words. Click To Tweet
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