Andrea Learned

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Brand Building and Creating Shared Value: An Interview with Denise Lee Yohn

Denise Lee Yohn

Denise Lee Yohn is a brand building expert who has been blogging, speaking and teaching clients how to “operationalize their brands” for twenty-five years.  We first met in 2009 by way of Twitter and, though yet to meet, we have long valued each other’s perspectives and learned from one another’s specialties.  Recently, she has been focusing in on the topic of corporate social responsibility (CSR) with an interest in shifting the conversation for brands toward creating shared value (CSV). Following is summary of a conversation we had about just that:

Andrea: There are always questions and fine-tuning about the language communications professionals use in talking about things like sustainability or corporate social responsibility.  It starts with the words used to name the topic. Are there problems in using the term CSR, and how does creating brand strategy around CSV, instead, change things?

Denise: Not to knock CSR, but I see an opportunity to shift people from seeing responsible business practices as something they “have” to do (as in – it is your responsibility) into something they “want” to do, where a business can create shared value. Business leaders may be more motivated by a positive creating shared value instead of having to work their way back from a negative, as in “giving back.”

Especially in recessionary times, smaller companies may feel resource-constrained and think that they will “get around to CSR when we can.”  Instead, they should be seeing the opportunity, and seeing CSV as something they want to do – proactively.

Andrea: Since I’m focusing in a bit on nonprofits in my current work, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what nonprofit communicators can learn from corporate communicators.

Denise: It starts with understanding what great brands do.  They think big, but sweat the small stuff. If you take Apple, Amazon or Chipotle, for example, you see that it starts inside. Those companies all have a strong corporate culture, they focus on employee engagement and also excel at customer engagement.  Because nonprofits are mission-driven and focused on the communities they serve, they understand most of this too.  The disconnect, or where nonprofits can learn from great brands, is in the customer, or in their case the “donor,” experience.  Of course, nonprofits are especially resource-constrained these days, and that can result in a lack of attention to the way the brand is expressed and experienced. But the details are so worth attention.

A great example of a nonprofit that does get the details of brand expression and donor experience right is To Write Love On Her Arms . This nonprofit works to help young adults who are depressed and possibly suicidal. TWLOHA branding is amazing. Their messaging is consistent, the experiences they promote (music, events, videos) are targeted very directly to their specific audience, and all of this combines to do a great job engaging people with the brand.

The Starbucks Create Jobs for USA  program in partnership with the Opportunity Finance Network is a great example of a corporate/nonprofit relationship that is consistent with brand.  Starbucks realizes it is dependent on the communities where its stores are located, so helping local businesses stay healthy helps their store customers. The Create Jobs for USA effort reflects a social consciousness around the shared purpose of helping community members get or stay on their feet.

And sure, corporations could just “check off” that they have done their cause marketing as though it were a one-time and isolated task.  Would it make sense for a company that serves young adult males to promote a breast cancer cause?  No. Instead, when corporations partner with nonprofits with which they have true share value, they tap a significant opportunity to advance the cause.

Andrea: Finally – and maybe we should have started with this – I’m interested in the example you use with your clients and speaking audiences that gets to the heart of what brand really is. From my experience, it still seems to be fairly common for business decision-makers to think of brand as a logo, tagline and color palette for their web site. How do you train their brains to think beyond that?

Denise: I typically talk about Apple, because it is ubiquitous – and it is safe to say that no one is an Apple fan because of the logo.  People are Apple fans because of exquisitely designed products and incredible store experience, among so many other things that have nothing to do with the logo. THAT is what Apple stands for.  They could change their logo and no one would care.  The same goes for Nike. If you notice, they have backed off their swoosh logo in the past few years.  It is so clear what they stand for, that their customers don’t need to see the swoosh to know a product, store or experience is Nike brand.


For more on Denise’s perspective on corporate responsibility and brand-building, see her post on Level 5 Relevance.

*Denise recently did a podcast interview with me on the sustainability-conscious buyer, the challenges corporations face in pursuing corporate responsibility and what social media means for better communicating around all of it.