Brand has arguably become as important as function and quality in the world of products and services. The craft and skills of branding experts are tuned to a high pitch. But that’s not to say there have been no missteps. And there’s been a backlash too.
So, let’s have a look at the big idea that is branding.
Why do Branding?
If you were a rancher, you’d want to protect your property. The problem is, horses and cattle roam over wide areas of unfenced land. And they are pretty gregarious in mixing with the livestock of other ranchers. So, you put your brand on your property to label your ownership. A distinctive brand is easy to recognise, and that kind of branding, with a red-hot iron, continues to this day.
Then, in the late nineteenth century, the term ‘branding’ was co-opted as a metaphor for the name and image associated with a company. They became a symbol of that business. And we need those symbols for the same reason ranchers do – to recognise who owns a product. But now, that betokens more than ownership: the trust, desire, and ambition that go with that owner.
What is Branding?
The meaning of branding has morphed over the last 150 years. Before sharing that history and the different meanings of branding, let’s start with where we are today…
Definition of Brand
Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.
Jeff Bezos, CEO, Amazon
The Early Years of Branding
James Walter Thompson was an early pioneer of much that we still recognise in the world of advertising. He founded the massive ad agency that still bears his name. His drive to create symbols and slogans for his clients was the start of modern logos and taglines. This ‘trademark advertising’ was the forerunner of the visual and lexical branding we see all around us today. Arguably, the biggest changes have been in the design ethics: the principles have merely evolved subtly.
The birth of radio added a third element to the branding toolkit: sound. From the 1920s onwards, every brand seemed to need a jingle. Nowadays, jingles too have become more sophisticated, with brands sometimes opting to co-opt the brand values of global artists, by using their music. These can be anyone from Beethoven to Lady Gaga.
The Madmen Era – Modern Branding
In 1955, anthropologist Burleigh Gardner and behavioural scientist Sidney Levy published ‘The Product and the Brand’ in the Harvard Business Review. It talked about the nature of the brand being separate from that of the product itself. What matters, they argued, is the customers’ perceptions of the brand; the ‘brand image’.
So, increasingly over the last 60 years, branding has been about associating a product or company with qualities or values that will appeal to its target consumer. These qualities include:
- quality and luxury
- modernity and technology
- reliability and durability
- sustainability and eco-friendliness
- fun and quirkiness
Therefore, branding summarises the qualities of the product in a shorthand of:
- musical phrase
Branding experts use a largely visual language to evoke associations that consumers believe they can rely on to gauge the qualities and values of the companies and products they patronise.
Branding and Customer Loyalty
Arguably, in many cases, customers buy a brand not a product. This is certainly true of loyal customers, and branding is about building customer loyalty for the brand.
Why does this matter? Because loyal customers:
- buy the product with little marketing, sales effort, or friction
- advocate for the product, delivering free marketing
- adopt new products early, creating sales momentum
The strongest brands lead their markets. Think of: Apple, Coca Cola, Ford, Kellogg’s, Gillette…
Branding adds value to a strong brand. This is called ‘brand equity’ and companies can charge a premium for this. So, branding adds to profit margin through premium pricing, with low marginal costs.
I suppose that the ultimate aim is to make the brand itself the product that people want to buy. Think Apple. It allows the company to ‘leverage’ the brand, and expand the range and type of goods or services they sell, under a popular branding.
With enough brand equity, loyal customers will buy new products just because of the brand. The masters of this are Virgin – the brand started by Sir Richard Branson, as a record label. Now Virgin is behind everything from cola to condoms and from spas to spaceflight.
Branding as Relationship Building
I guess the acme of branding today is building a relationship with a brand. Through branding, customers can believe the brand cares for them, and they reciprocate with their loyalty. Purchases become a way to fulfill wishes and desires. We see this in the launch of new Apple products, where loyal fans queue for days to be the among first to own a new product.
How to Build Your Brand
Space (and lack of expertise) forbids a detailed look at how to build a brand. But I do want to point you to an outline of the key steps.
- Define the vision, values, personality and big idea behind your company or product
- Determine the personality traits that go with that
- Find words and language that describe it – product name, tagline or motto, phrases, tone of voice
- Craft a visual identity – colours, fonts, graphic style – that symbolise it
- Set out the behaviours and cultural norms that will reinforce the brand
- Use it all consistently in physical spaces, online, and in marketing and advertising
- Be true to your brand, in your attitudes, interactions, and decisions
The Problems with Branding
Brands go Bad
There is a downside to branding. The stronger the public awareness of and emotional attachment to your brand, the harder it will fall, if something goes wrong. Examples are legion. Think of Shell Brent Spar, Nike slave labour, United Airlines forcible removal of a passenger. Press opprobrium leads to activist boycotts and customers fleeing the association.
The Backlash against Branding
Naomi Klein led the charge with her book, ‘No Logo’ (US|UK). In summary, it covers the misbehaviour of the big brands that exploit the economic clout their branding has created for them. It became the trigger for a whole strand of the anti-capitalist movement of the early 2000s.
What is Your experience of Branding?
We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.