What a Brand Isn’t—And What It Is

First to the myths. There’s so many. Hasn’t branding taken on a kind of mythical status of late? It reminds me of such catch words as Zen or Tao a decade or so back, when you simply had to append it to sell more titles, workshops, etcetera.

It’s Not Just Visual

Let’s look at one piece, a common one with graphic and web designers. Branding is often thought of as the visual piece that can be appended to an existing structure. The conversation goes as such:

“We need to brand your website. Send over the logo and colors.”

“How does my branding look?” Meaning: How’s my logo?

Corporate ID oftentimes comes up in these conversations. By this, many are referring to the specifics of how the logotype, colors and such are composed for such things as business cards, letterhead and such. For many, Corporate ID is synonymous with branding. This comes from a certain “pre-branding-buzzword” type speak, when it was the responsibility of corporate design departments or outside ad agencies to design such pieces as companies merged and morphed.

It’s Not Just Awareness Either

Remember K-Mart? How about Michael Jackson? Do they have awareness? Sure, but what is the actual value of having awareness of a has-been? How many products do we deliberately filter out regardless of how many ads we hear, even over years and years of campaigns? I’m just pointing out the obvious, but how many times have we heard such ideas bantered about?

The same goes for “Standing Out.” This boils down to the same thing. Sure, I can see one pink elephant amongst a bunch of gray ones, but is that enough for me to take action and actually engage with that pink elephant in any meaningful (and profitable) way? Am I actually going to talk about that elephant with my friends? Does that elephant actually provoke something meaningful enough in my own life that it deserves inclusion? All great questions. Novelty and standing out are great, but these can burn out all the same—and as quickly as a child’s attention span.

Brands are filing systems

Now that doesn’t sound very sexy, I know, but think about it. If I say luxury car, you might say BMW or Lexus. You’ll have very positive associations likely with either of these. There will be emotion from having driven or ridden in one. There will be the tangibles of how the door closes or how the leather feels. There will be an image of the car, perhaps associated with the logo or an ad. All of these things come into play. Credibility? Yes, a lot. Performance? Of course? Everything comes into play, but at the end of the day, when you are thinking about a car, and you must find a particular kind of car, you’ll think of that one—whatever that is for you.

Then you’ll go dog food in the next instant and a brand will come to mind for all the reasons that are important to you. If you think healthy, organic dog food, you’ll get an image just for that sub-category if it’s important to you.

In each case, it’s the file in your mind that you can clearly come up with for each product category. This is exactly why you don’t mix brands well. You might pay twice as much for a Harley as for any other motorbike on the road, but Harley Davidson BBQ Sauce does not have much credibility, no matter what kind of brand equity, design, or awareness Harley has. Simple as that.

Thus with branding, all the pieces matter, but above all else: How do you dominate your category? How can you get into your customer’s filing system?

Great brands inspire journeys

Taking the lead on the topic above regarding meaning, great brands inspire the customer to participate in a journey. Think about a place you’ve aspired to travel to. Be it Machu Pichu, the Great Wall, the Pyramids of Giza, the monasteries of Tibet, the remote beaches of Fiji. No matter the spot, each are places that you would be willing “to work” to get to. In fact, part of the exclusivity is that not everyone can get there and the journey to them is not easy, requires some sacrifice and much more expense than typical destinations.

A great brand should evoke that same power of aspiration towards participating in a journey towards joining the brand and the associated tribe. In fact, isn’t that what separates a brand from a commodity? The level of accessibility? A level of value, connected to a meaning that requires little “selling” in the typical sense of the word of needing a push. Rather, the customer will even make the sacrifices necessary because no other competing brand evokes the power of this aspirational brand—even it’s just a three-dollar cup of coffee or two-dollar hamburger.

Is your brand evoking an aspirational journey in your customer’s mind?

When to Start Branding/Rebranding?