LAST UPDATED: 24 February 2023
Brand Building for Events 101
What is a brand? How can I come up with a solid mission statement? And then what? Race branding expert Peter Abraham explains.
Every brand or organization needs a point of view. That’s what drives your product, your community and your marketing. This also goes for any kind of event, whether it’s a business conference or a marathon. Here’s a guide to building the brand foundation for your event.
What is a brand, anyway?
A brand is the sum total of all of its different touch points. Think of a brand like Nike; they have thousands of touch points. It’s not only the product, but it’s also their retail stores, their advertising, the athletes they sponsor, how they speak to their employees, the buildings at their headquarters, their apps, all of that.
I started working in advertising in the 90s, when I was making television commercials and, honestly, a brand didn’t have that many touch points. There was television, print, radio, maybe billboards, or maybe they were in a store — there just weren’t that many places for a consumer to interact with a brand.
Now it’s all changed. You think of a brand like Starbucks, it’s the cup, it’s the person behind the counter, it’s the sign on the store, it’s the advertising, it’s the coffee, the social media channels, what the CEO says. Like, there are so many different things.
So, that’s number one — there’s no one thing that makes up a brand. So, when a brand says, “Hey, we’re gonna redo our logo. We’re a new brand now,” you’re not really a new brand, that’s just 1 of 100 things. So, that’s why a brand has to be thought of holistically. I think what is really, really important — particularly, in a world where you have hundreds of different touch points to manage — is that you need a point of view.
If you don’t already have a mission statement, then create one
You don’t need a mission statement for the sake of having a mission statement; you need a point of view. You need an organizing principle, an angle on how you see the world, and how you manage not only your customers, but your product and your employees.
Events sometimes say to themselves, “We’re not a brand; we’re just an event.” I disagree with that analysis. Any event is also its own brand, and it also needs the guardrails that a mission statement provides. When I see brands that don’t have a point of view— you can see it, because they’re all over the place. If you look at a brand like Apple, everything Apple does feels like Apple. If you walk into the Apple Store, if you see an ad, a billboard, if you look at their product, it all feels like Apple because they’re so disciplined about their brand and how they show up in the world. That’s basically how I would describe it.
I was part of the team that managed the LA Marathon after it was purchased in 2008. It had been left for dead. It was almost gone. It was almost in bankruptcy. We decided we needed to start with a mission statement. So Russ Pillar, the President, and I would go every Friday afternoon to his house and just start working through, like, “What would our mission statement be?” Where we ended up was, “We inspire athletes and we connect communities.” And that drove everything we did.
We needed a new route for the marathon, because the route they were using was terrible. So we decided to start at Dodger Stadium, which is near downtown, go through downtown and all the landmarks of Los Angeles, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Strip, Rodeo Drive, and end at the Santa Monica Pier — one way across the whole city through all the landmarks. And you could go, “Hey, that will inspire athletes and that will connect all these communities of LA.” So just the route was living up to the mission statement. Everything we did, we would first go, “Wait, does that match the mission statement? Does it inspire athletes and connect communities?” And that’s how we used it. The shirts, the expo, and everything had to live up to the mission statement first.
One of the things I’ve learned about in decades of working with mission statements and brands is that the mission statement is as important — maybe more important — for your own employees as it is for your customers because your employees, your staff, and your team want to know what you stand for.
At the LA Marathon, not only did we use the mission statement as a way to orient ourselves with our own staff, but when we went to a meeting with the Beverly Hills city council or city government in Los Angeles to get permission to go down Hollywood Boulevard, I’d walk in, and start with, “Okay, here’s what we’re about. We’re about inspiring athletes and connecting communities.” Then, I would give an example of that. I’d say, “Let me explain how we connect communities. We’ve got 3000 kids and students around LA who are mostly below the poverty line. These middle school and high school kids— 3,000 of them — get a free entry to the marathon. They train for six months then they run the full 26.2 miles in the LA Marathon. Of those kids who finish, 92% go to college. That’s what we stand for. Do you want to be a part of that or not?” And it was really hard for the city government to say “No” to that point of view when you back it up with those kinds of statistics.
So the mission statement can be used as a tool. It’s not just for your ads for customers — it can be used with brand partners, sponsors, city governments, employees. You can use it in so many ways.
A good mission statement contains two things: what you do and how you do it. And it’s critical to work hard and get it down to a short, memorable sentence.
Patagonia’s new (re-written a couple years ago) mission statement is, “We’re in business to save our home planet.” That’s something that every employee, partner and customer of the business can easily remember and recite. If the statement is long and unwieldy, nobody remembers it and it’s rendered meaningless. But also know that the mission statement is not a tagline, which is a consumer-facing communication that can change all the time. For example, Nike’s mission statement is not “Just do it.”
Why event directors are actually experience designers
Another mistake I see is that a lot of events are trying to be all things to all people — just being generic. It’s far better to be the most amazing race for a smaller group of people and an amazing experience as opposed to just an okay experience for a bunch of people. Because then what happens is you’re nobody’s favorite race.
When you think about building a running event you’re in the experience design business. If you think of just a 5K, let’s say it’s $40 a person, let’s say a married couple comes to your event, they’re spending $80, plus maybe parking and something to eat after, that’s $100 that they’re spending on that Sunday morning. You’re competing for their dollars with them going out to dinner, or movie the night before, or to the theater. Whatever it is, you need to make your experience compelling and amazing.
So, I would start by thinking about, “Are you creating a remarkable experience for people?” When I say experience, I don’t just mean on race morning, I mean, starting with the website that they might go to a month before, are you clear about the parking, the results, and the photos after and that whole lifecycle?
People want consistency from the brands they interact with. And this goes for events as well. It’s not only your point of view, but customers want to know that you’re repeatedly bringing that point of view in everything you do.
I was talking about Starbucks, Apple, and Nike — they’re very consistent in any communications — the signage, whatever it is. Their product is very consistent and I think that is important. People want that. Look at Ironman Triathlon, in which you really know what you’re getting there. It’s incredibly consistent, not only in terms of distance, whether it’s a 70.3 or Ironman distance, the websites they use, the results, or even a lot of the athletes — like, super consistent.