What is a brand?

Don’t worry, I’m not angling to argue over the definition of that slippery little word. What I mean is that I don’t think there is such a thing. Not anymore.

It has to do with the way our expectations have shifted, the increased transparency of corporate operations, the way social media places brands side by side with friend posts and breaking news, how brands elbow their way into our lives and how there are so many digital windows into their world.

It seems brands have become more like people. At least, I’d argue, that’s how we relate to them. We take them as seriously and their actions as personally. Think about who you choose to become friends with. What criteria must they meet? What will you put up with? I expect you treat brands the same way—keeping a few close, some a bit farther out and ignoring the rest.

Fortunately or unfortunately for brands, I hold people to a very high standard. Especially those I let into my life. And I expect a brand, like a close friend, to hold itself—and me—to a higher standard. That’s tough to live up to for a brand represented by a collection of employees, stakeholders, partners and, in many ways, their consumers.

And yet, c’est la vie.  You’re a brand … you’re a person.

So, how do you become a brand that people want to befriend?

1. Care about something worth caring about.

There’s an opportunity to be something beyond a product or a service. Imagine a friend introduces you to a new phone charger.

YOU: What’s that?

FRIEND: Check it out. It’s really cool, charges my phone faster than ever.

YOU: Where’d you get it?

FRIEND: On Amazon.

YOU: Huh. Have to remember that next time I need a charger.

Or it could go like this:

FRIEND: Seen one of these before?

YOU: A phone charger?

FRIEND: Yeah, it charges my phone fast. And they’re a really cool company.

YOU: Oh yeah?

FRIEND: They make them out of recycled ocean plastic, and part of the proceeds go toward protecting and replenishing sea life.

YOU: Whoa. I’m looking them up now. How cool. I’m sharing this!

A brand can be the kind of person who goes to work every day and does his job. Or a hardworking person who also has passions and a galvanizing point of view.


2. Share your humanity.

Imagine a product and a millennial go on a date. They’re attracted to each other and picture what spending time together will be like. It seems like a perfect fit. And yet, what do people spend their first few dates doing?

“What music do you like?”

“What do you binge on Netflix?”

“Where are you from?”

“Any brothers or sisters?”

“What were you like before I met you? What are your dreams for the future?”

They seek to know each other, personally. Their aspirations and imperfections. They want to know what the other is all about. (Hint: It better not be, “You know, I really just want to make a truckload of money.”)

In world where brands are the new people, having a point of view isn’t just helpful; it’s essential. Your date doesn’t want to hear about your financial status or your workout regimen. Dig deeper. Bring more of yourself to bear.


3. Be heard, not herd.

It may feel risky to take a stance. But isn’t it riskier to temper our passions or pretend we don’t have opinions? It’s not only consumers. More and more, investors want to know who they’re getting involved with and demand more than ROI.

Most brands, once they’re doing well, feel an impulse to blend in with their audience. To feel accepted and safe. But that’s not how to continue cultivating a unique point of view. That’s trying to please.

Be there for your audience, but as yourself. Say what you want to say and do what you feel should be done. Let that point of view inform your purpose, shape company culture and make your message more relevant.


4. Do things.

We trust people whose actions speak louder than their words. Only then can we truly discern what they care about.

So, act on your convictions. And let your walking do most of your talking. Even when no one is looking—because that’s what defines character.


5. Be your best self.

How many brands—or people, for that matter—have you given a second chance? Some, surely. But how hard did they have to work for it?

I know the closer I am to a brand, the more likely I am to give them a second go. Which, of course, means they had to do something to earn my love in the first place (see 1–4 above).

Good purpose and good behavior go hand in hand. Be a brand of your word. And be sure those words back up your actions. Be worthy of being more than a brand—be a friend.