Most companies have recognized for some time that branding is of paramount importance to the success of their business. Building a strong brand, it is believed, will make it easier for over-stimulated consumers to make buying decisions. More importantly, it will increase the likelihood that one company's product or service will be chosen over another's. But what, exactly, does it mean to build a brand? What is a brand, anyway?
While there is overwhelming consensus on the value of branding, and of owning a strong brand, most of us would be hard-pressed to define these concepts in no-uncertain terms. Even if we tried, it is likely that no two of us would articulate the same understanding. When it comes time to plan and execute an effective branding strategy, then, one that will lead to the emergence of a cohesive, enduring brand in the minds of a business's audience, this confusion is often made painfully - and expensively - apparent.
The purpose of this white paper, then, is to bring some clarity to this nebulous concept known as "branding." By examining what some of the business world's foremost branding experts have to say, and by taking a look at some real-world examples of branding, readers will perhaps be better prepared to undertake their own branding initiatives with greater hope of success.
One of the most common misconceptions about branding is that it is something one chooses to do, as if it were a project one could start and finish. But branding - the process through which a cohesive, enduring impression of a business, product or service is formed in the minds of your audience members - never ends. Branding is ongoing, a process that takes place constantly in every interaction between a company and its audience come whether a company intends it to or not.1 This includes interactions between a company truck driver and the woman who passes him on the freeway, between a man and a product's instruction booklet, even in a short conversation between a receptionist and someone who has called the wrong number.
All of these interactions with a company, its products or its services leave impressions. Over time, these impressions - along with whatever associations they bring to mind - accumulate to form a "living memory"2 in the minds of individuals and a "collective perception"3 across a wider audience. A brand, then, is the unique sum of impressions associated with a particular company, product or service. If the impressions are overwhelmingly good, if individuals desire a steady affiliation with the brand, the brand will endure and become an important - perhaps the most important - asset to a company.
The greatest asset you'll never see
The idea that a "unique sum of impressions" can be a business's greatest asset may seem counter-intuitive at first. As David A. Aaker points out in his book, Managing Brand Equity,
"Everyone understands that even in bad times a factory must be maintained, in part because of the depreciation term in the income statement and also because maintenance needs are visible. An intangible asset, by contrast, is more vulnerable, and its 'maintenance' is more easily neglected."4
Ironically, it is the very intangibility of a brand that gives it so much potential value. While individual experiences with a product or service are usually transient in nature (indeed, products and services themselves may change or disappear altogether), the brand endures in the minds of audience members in the form of a unique set of feelings and impressions. In this way, a strong brand can remain so even if the product or service fails occasionally to deliver on its promise and meet audiences' expectations. A strong brand becomes a trusted friend, and brand loyalty arises not so much out of rational consideration, but more on the basis of an emotional affinity or personal connection.
For instance, while you may have experienced a flat, warm Coca-Cola at your local mini-mart, you will probably continue to associate Coke, the brand, with a cold, bubbly and revitalizing drink you first guzzled as a kid. The Coca-Cola brand is strong; it endures because one (or two or three) negative experiences cannot displace our overwhelmingly positive impression - our "living memory"-of what Coca-Cola means. Unlike Coca-Cola's tangible assets - its bottling plants, delivery trucks and corporate headquarters - Coca-Cola, the brand, was built up over decades. It cannot be rebuilt in a few months, even years: its value is inestimable.5
Branding begins at home
"Branding is not based on what goes on, but on what goes in...It should be an investigation of [the brand's] very substance-the facets of brand identity."6
Planning a branding program thoughtfully has benefits beyond the formation of a strong, cohesive brand in the minds of audience members. It can also force a business to think about important internal and strategic issues, such as its vision, its immediate and long-term business goals, its corporate values, and its unique position relative to competitors. This is especially true if a business understands that branding begins at home - with a thorough examination (and refinement) of its identity.
As Veronica Napoles points out in her book, Corporate Identity Design, one of the most valuable functions of an identity program is its "catalytic effect on organizational thinking."7 Using an objective framework to define the various elements of identity and determine how these elements relate to one another can help a company articulate what sets it or its product apart from the competition. This differentiating message can then be distilled to its core essence, giving the organization a solid, substantive and well-defined foundation on which to build a cohesive brand.
Identity: who, what and why you are
As we've just suggested, branding is ideally the second phase of a company's brand building strategy. Before a business can successfully portray itself to its audience, the business must first establish what comprises its individuality - in other words, its identity. Although in marketing terms "identity" is commonly understood to mean the visible symbols of an organization, product or service, it consists of much more than just a logo, a name, and a unique palette of colors. Indeed, these elements are only the outward expressions of an organization's core identity, ideally representing all that an organization stands for - or hopes to stand for.
Before an identity can be expressed, then, it must first be defined, and this requires a business to take a good look at itself. The process begins with a candid assessment of how the company, product or service fits into the larger business context. This gives a business perspective, allowing it to ascertain where it is presently (in terms of its product or service offerings, industry segmentation, organizational values and philosophy, customer/prospect profile, competitive landscape, and so on) and where it wants to go in the future. Having established exactly what it already knows about itself, a company can now concentrate on articulating what makes it different.
Articulating a differentiating message is perhaps the most critical step in an identity program, for it establishes what makes the company, product or service unique and distinctive - unlike anything else out there. A company's message answers its audience's questions, "Who are you, what do you do, and why should I care?" It has many components, including:
- Key Messages - the two or three facts or assertions (and their attendant support points) essential to audiences' understanding of your business. Because audiences cannot be expected to remember everything a company may want to tell them, businesses must decide which two or three points best convey their individuality, or what makes them different. By focusing on only two or three carefully crafted messages, businesses make it easier for their audiences to retain essential information and thus form a coherent-and accurate-picture of the company, product or service being promoted.
- Position Concept - the one essential idea you "own"-or want to own-in the minds of your audience.8 In Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, Al Ries and Jack Trout argue that in our "overcommunicated" society "the best approach to take...is the oversimplified message." In order to cut through the communications clutter and leave a memorable impression, they explain, "[y]ou have to jettison the ambiguities, simplify the message, and then simplify it some more."9 The goal here is to lay claim to a single quality, attribute or benefit that no one can - or will - dispute, such as "safety" for Volvo, or "less cavities" for Crest toothpaste. A business's position, then, is a kind of abbreviation for all that makes it unique within its market segment. An expanded version may be included as one of the business's key messages, or it may be implied by one or all of the key messages.
- Brand Promise - what the customer is assured of receiving, and the emotional and practical value that the customer can expect to enjoy as a result. This can be illustrated by a cause-and effect sequence that begins with a business's key messages and ends with the unique advantages or benefits its audience enjoys as a result.
- Personality - the human qualities and/or the persona that best reflects the character of the business. In determining how best to articulate what sets it apart from its competitors, a business may find it helpful to imagine how it might be personified. By asking such questions as "If our business were a person, how would he or she dress? What kind of car would he drive? How would she speak? How old and what sex is he or she?" a company can begin to understand itself in human terms. This then allows a business to put a face on what is otherwise inanimate, to humanize itself through its branding efforts and thereby increase the likelihood that its audience will identify and connect with it on a personal and emotional level.
A business may also find it helpful to determine what role the personification of its company would play in a model social context. Archetypes are classic personality types that people recognize quickly and to which they attach symbolic meaning. With bold monikers such as The Outlaw, The Sage and The Healer, archetypes can not only provide strong direction for the branding process to come, they can also help to solidify a business's personality by encapsulating a variety of human traits and characteristics.
- Competitive Differentiation - the unique benefits that set the company, product or service apart from the competition. Although each component of a business's identity is integral to what Joan-Noel Kapferer terms "creating a difference,"1o it is often useful to delineate exactly how a business, product or service differs from the competition. In this context, competitors and their offerings are cited by name so that direct comparisons can be made. A simplified statement of competitive differentiation, then, might look something like this: Unlike Company X (a competitor), which does such and such, Company A (your company) offers you these advantages...
Working from the inside out
Just as a successful branding campaign cannot be undertaken without first defining exactly what is to be branded (i.e. a well-defined identity) so, too, will the most effective expressions of a business's identity be grounded in its core message. Once the various messaging components of a business's identity have been fleshed out - the foundational elements described above - logos, names, slogans, and other outward expressions of this identity can be developed with much greater fidelity.
Working from a solid, carefully crafted foundation, a business also has the freedom and flexibility to express its identity, to present and portray itself to the world, in the most strategic way (or ways) possible. As Jean-Noel Kapferer observes in Strategic Brand Management, "Knowing the brand identity... allows a certain freedom of expression, since it recognizes the preeminence of deep identity over the strictly formal features"11 of visual identity.
What's in a name? Everything
"The most important branding decision you will ever make is what to name your product or service... All other factors being equal, the brand with the better name will come out on top."12
As a company moves from defining and refining its corporate, product or service identity into creating (or finding) the best expressions of it, the development of a name usually comes first. As Al and Laura Ries point out in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, "[i]n the long run a brand is nothing more than a name."13 While this may strike some as an over-simplification, it's undeniable that a name is perhaps the most critical expression of identity.
Names are the most concise distillation of an organization, product or service's essential messages, personality and brand promise. In a single word a name speaks volumes-about who and what is behind the name, and about what the audience can expect to receive in exchange for its patronage. Together with its visual manifestation, the logo, a name signals that this is an organization that merits attention, and over time it becomes a distinctive "memory tag" for storing and triggering recall of brand impressions.
The logo: identity made visible
A logo is the most succinct visual expression of identity. Like a name, it speaks volumes in a single utterance, and through its continued exposure at all points of contact, it too becomes a unique signifier or memory tag of all that an organization, product or service stands for, and all that it promises. As an expression of, among other things, a business's personality, a logo "helps to 'humanize' a company by presenting a face, a personality, in the form of a symbol."14 This humanizing function can aid in the eventual formation of a trusted relationship, like a name, its appearance triggering recall of positive brand impressions.
To illustrate this point, imagine that you've been away from home for some time-too long. It's been a fun trip, but you're really starting to crave that certain something that's only available back home. Be it a burger from a regional chain, a cup of coffee from your local bean roaster, or perhaps the ride of your old Buick Special, when the visual symbol of whatever you miss so badly comes into view (a sign, a logo on a coffee cup, a hood ornament), you will likely experience some degree of emotional elation- or at least relief. The point is that, even before you take that first bite or sip or ride, the symbol triggers a flood of associations, memories built up over time, which, when taken together, add up to your personal conception of that particular brand. The logo has done its job.
Putting identity into action
As discussed earlier in this paper, branding is the process through which a cohesive, enduring impression of an organization, product or service is formed in the minds of your audience members.
Because it occurs constantly, "in every interaction between a company, product or service and its audience," the trick is to control as much of it as possible. Initiating the branding process by defining-and then refining-your identity allows you to do this.
A methodical identity program gives you the opportunity to determine exactly how you want to portray your company or product to the outside world. It allows you to examine your business more objectively, to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding that brings clarity of purpose-and message-to your branding efforts. The result is a brand perceived in a similar way by many, a living brand that accurately reflects who you are, what you are, and what you promise to deliver.
- In Power Branding: Building Technology Brands for Competitive Advantage (San Francisco, CA: IDG, Inc., 1997) Marty Brandt and Grant Johnson point out that "branding happens, and it happens every day": "With every communication to the outside world, the brand is happening, whether or not a company chooses to focus on and consciously manage it." Page 1.
- Jean-Noel Kapferer, Strategic Brand Management (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992). Page 12.
- "A brand [is]...the collective perception of a product or company based on experience. The aggregate of [customer] experiences, accumulated across all audiences over time, creates a collective perception." From Digital Branding: A perspective for building & leveraging online brands by James R. Gregory (Stamford, CT: Corporate Branding/Business Week, 2000). Page 5.
- David A. Aaker, Managing Brand Equity (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1991). Page 14.
- Actually, BusinessWeek magazine, along with Interbrand, has estimated Coca Cola's 2001 brand value (i.e., "the figure that comes closest to representing the true economic value of that complex array of forces that make up a brand") to be $68.95 billion. (BusinessWeek Online: McGraw-Hill, 2001.)
- Kapferer, page 32.
- Veronica Napoles, Corporate Identity Design (New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988). Page 32.
- "If you want to build a brand, you must focus your branding efforts on owning a word in the prospect's mind. A word that nobody else owns." From The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al Ries and Laura Ries (New York, NY: Harper Business, 1998). Page 39.
- Al Ries and Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1981). Pages 7-8.
- Kapferer, page 9.
- Ibid, page 35.
- Ries and Ries, Page 60. Al and Laura Ries go on to say that "Shakespeare was wrong...[ for a] rose by any other name would not smell as sweet...which is why the single most important decision in the marketing of perfume is the name."
- Ries and Laura Ries, page 73.
- Napoles, page 19.