13 Mar What Exactly Is Branding?
It’s an understatement to say that there’s a lot of discussion of the importance of “brand recognition,” and “building a brand” in business. According to CMI and Marketing Profs, B2B marketers have consistently cited brand awareness as their top goal over the last five years. The idea of brand awareness or recognition being crucial extends beyond the business world into the larger society. The advent of internet culture and social media has brought with it the concept of branding oneself as an individual, even if you are not rich, famous, or representing an organization that would require you to present yourself in a certain way. We even refer to peoples’ mundane behaviors as being “on” or “off-brand.” But what exactly is branding?
The term “brand” in the wider culture can more or less be thought of as self-representation. That’s true for businesses too but the concept of branding in business refers to something slightly more complicated, and the fate of much more than one person hinges on the quality of the branding. We recognize the importance of branding and know that if our brand is recognizable and represents us accurately, this will lead to sales, which may translate to further recognition, which will lead to even more sales. But achieving this is harder than it sounds.
That’s because fundamentally, a “brand” is not really a concrete thing, or even a collection of things. A brand is not a logo. Or a mascot. Or a spokesperson. A brand is not a website.
It sounds sort of scandalous when you say it outright, but a brand is a feeling.
It is the feeling that our customers or potential customers have about the sum of their interactions with our business. It’s the emotional real estate we occupy in their minds.
So when we talk about “building a brand” we’re not talking about making sure our pens have the same logo as our business card, though that could be part of it. What we’re talking about is controlling the complicated interplay between our customers’ desires and how we meet them, as well as how we anticipate and echo their values. That’s an in-depth process and it takes time, but it’s not magic. Below, we’ve tried to break out some insights that help give us a bird’s-eye-view of what branding is and what we should be considering when we’re trying to build one.
Brands are built around customers
We’re fans of Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand here at Iconic. The idea that brands tell stories is not original to Miller, but what is unique about Miller’s book is that the story being told is about the consumer and not the brand. The potential buyer is the main character, and their goals and aspirations are at the forefront of the story. They need or want something to complete their quest (they want to feel alive or they want to feel accepted by their peers, or they want a really good sandwich). The brand is always the guide who helps the hero out (like Yoda or Cinderella’s fairy godmother). Once the customer gets to their goal, everyone celebrates and the brand watches from the sidelines.
How does marketing tell a good brand story then?
Good marketing presents the customers’ story so they can see themselves in that story. Before designing logos, writing ad copy, or figuring out what a website should look like, we create a foundation that addresses the questions of who the customer is, what they want, what great things will happen if they get it, and what less-than-ideal things will happen if they don’t. By answering these questions, we can see our main character’s story, and how we fit into it.
Only at that point can we can start to make decisions about the language, design, and mediums through which we can best tell that story.
Brands are consistent
This is the one part of branding that perhaps goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway. Brands are consistent in their messaging. The design elements (imagery, colors, fonts, etc.) and the content (brand voice, persona, word choice) all line up with the message you want to relay, and is consistent across platforms. You can recognize a Coca-Cola campaign from a hundred miles away. Is there red? Is there friendship? Then you don’t need to see what’s in their glass. You know it’s Coke. You’ve seen that message so many times, the imagery and values of the brand are instantly recognizable.
But also, brands are not static
It’s true that the copy and imagery across every platform (from social media posts to pens) must convey the same message and represent the same values. But that doesn’t mean that the brand can’t change its tone depending on the circumstances. For example, Arby’s wildly successful social media campaigns that capitalize on geek culture are quite different in tone than their “We have the meats….for sandwiches” television and radio commercials. In both, the logo is the same, and in both mediums, the brand is basically playful, casual, and familiar in terms of its voice. But Arby’s targets its content on social media to people who may or may not be hungry by appealing not to their desire for food, but by appealing to their sense of identity. It turns out geeks are ALL over social media, and they are dying to share and engage with well-played representations of their fandoms.
Arby’s flexibility across platforms is the key to their success. As president of PeopleDesign Kevin Budelman puts it, “effective identity programs require enough consistency to be identifiable, but enough variation to keep things fresh and human.”
Branding is both art and science
Creating a good brand involves a lot of research. Looking at what’s worked for our brand in the past (if the brand has a history and isn’t completely new), studying trends, and looking at the market for similar brands that have done well (or brands in a whole different area of business that use successful branding techniques we might emulate). This is the “science” on the front end. On the back end, we continue gathering data by keeping track of the way a brand is performing; checking web traffic, monitoring engagement with social posts and emails as well as leads and conversions. In these ways we can diagnose how well our brand is resonating with audiences.
Humans are complicated beings, though, and sometimes predicting how they will respond to something can be a challenge. So branding also involves what marketing maven Seth Godin calls “the art of projecting.” This is only a part of the branding equation but it’s an important part nonetheless. We said earlier that a brand is a feeling, and creating a feeling involves a good bit of imagination and empathy at any given point in the process. To engage this dimension of branding, we often write profiles of our-brand-as-a-person: who they are at a party, the car they drive, what they like to eat and drink…this really helps us get a good sense of what kind of interactions the market is going to have with the brand, and the feelings they might have during those interactions.
Branding is crafted, but honest
Brands are crafted carefully and strategically, with consideration to what the customer or potential customer wants. We try to connect with them by getting them to feel the way we want them to feel about us. But, at the end of the day, if we can’t deliver real value to a customer then even the most consistent, buyer-aware, dynamic branding strategy will fail. Established brands might be tempted to take advantage of their reputation, and cut corners that compromise what the brand stands for to increase profit. For example, a grocery store or restaurant might build their brand on ethically-sourced foods, but stop sourcing their food ethically when they have a solid customer base and want to cut costs. Eventually, even loyal buyers will realize that their expectations are not being met. The brand won’t sustain something it doesn’t genuinely represent.
If we build our relationship on trust that we will be the guide that brings them to victory, we must deliver our hero victory as promised. Get them that unique engagement ring. Get them that high quality sandwich. If we don’t, they will notice. They will find another Yoda.
Good branding has a real impact on sales
When we are immediately recognizable to a customer, and they know our part in their story, we have a greater chance of selling to them.
According to Forbes Magazine, consistent brand presentation across all platforms increases revenue by 23%. Good branding results not just in individual sales, but in customer loyalty, and 43% of customers spend more money on the brands they are loyal to (Tailor Brands). So all the work of producing a consistent, relatable brand that guides customers to their goals is absolutely worth it in terms of the bottom line.
That’s the direct impact. But there’s also the less-direct impact that branding has on profit. Branding also increases employee confidence and loyalty as they see themselves as part of something that has a defined set of values. At its core, branding creates trust and identity, and that extends to everyone involved with the brand, from customers to employees to business partners.
Now that we’ve talked more about what “branding” really entails, here’s the real plot twist: whether a business has worked on it or not, they already have a brand. Customers and potential customers form opinions and have feelings about companies and their projected images all the time. Every business is always building their brand. The trouble is, if we are not building it strategically, people might think of their brand not as “genuine” or “fun” or “generous,” but as “confusing” or “unprofessional.” They might think “oh, that brand is a barbershop” when in reality, your brand is “the barbershop supply.” Branding is not only important–it’s vital!
We hope this has been a helpful way to think about your own branding if you are strategizing or re-strategizing. There’s a list of questions at here that we think is a great starting point for thinking about your brand. And if you’re interested in getting into the nitty-gritty or checking out some examples of the components and process of branding, you can read more here.
Until next time!
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