What is branding anyway?

To large organisations branding represents a radically different collection of strategies, beliefs, assets and ideas than it does to an owner operated small business. In fact some would argue that true branding remains irrelevant for organisations until they reach a certain size. We think this is nonsense.

At its simplest a brand is an identifying mark; a logo. The practice of branding itself literally comes from the act of burning identifying marks onto cattle so livestock can be easily identified. The indelible permanence of such a practice resonates in today’s idea of branding; in that every organisation strives to attain indelible permanence in their marketplace.

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It’s a significant oversimplification however to regard a brand as just a logo. True the logo is a symbolic representation of a brand but the essence of it is much more than this. The more investment that is put into a brand the more its characteristics will be embedded and evident throughout an organisation and its practices. It is the norm for initial brand investment to be placed into the most superficial areas like corporate stationery. From here consideration is given to other superficial areas such as product labelling, product packaging and then onto brochures, websites and beyond. I say superficial not as a negative but to underline that, for many organisations, the process of branding is not viewed holistically from the outset. Quite simply the brand itself is not viewed as the overarching asset requiring investment, nurturing, management and strategy. All too often the product (or service) is seen as the be all and end all of the business.

The difference can be summarised as either product orientation or brand orientation, for example ‘we want customers to love our product’, or ‘we want customers to love our brand’.

Investment in areas of product and brand development are not mutually exclusive but we see time and again that very strong brands out perform competitors even when products are cheaper, better or in fact both. So what does this tell us?

Well if nothing else it underlines the potential rewards of successful branding. Customer loyalty to brand is significantly stronger than customer loyalty to product. It also points to the fact that strategically managed brands are not merely a collection of superficial components. Real branding is about the entire customer experience, the relationship that exists between your company and your customers. Not in a single engagement, such as product experience, but all engagements. Whether a customer service call, a billboard ad, a corporate event, an in-store purchase or glossy catalogue all of the discussion that takes place between you and your customer can be called the brand experience. You don’t just identify with your customers through brand; they identify with you. The strength of this brand relationship can be particularly evident with lifestyle or luxury brands. In these sectors it’s sometimes ‘the brand’ the consumer wants to be associated with, more than it is any measurable product quality or value.

So can we just make poor products, offer a poor service or rob our customers blind? No. I don’t deny there are examples where mega brands have profited from extremely poor products or services, but this usually comes by erroding their brand equity. In other words, a brand’s past successes can build enough momentum to sustain future revenues but over time this equity, or good faith, is diminished and that’s when the profit warnings start (see Tesco).

So how do we build a great brand? The simple answer is with time (and money). A great brand cannot be created over night, contra to what the tech startup industry might suggest. Brands like CompareTheMarket as lovingly embraced and entrenched in our collective conscious were not the first, best, nor last comparison website. Instead with a little creativity and a considerable and sustained TV ad campaign they have become the biggest.

Is it the logo? No. In fact I bet most people couldn’t describe the logo, just Baby Oleg. Starbucks first logo was hideously detailed and made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Likewise Apple’s first logo was a quaint yet cumbersome illustration of Newton sat under an apple tree, not the beautiful simplicity of today’s icon. There are many other examples highlighting that brand and logo are not one in the same. A great logo is a great asset but it’s not going to be the reason a business succeeds or fails. Phil Knight famously took a look at the swoosh logo presented to him by a graphic design student and said something like ‘Not that keen, but it will probably grow on me’.

We specialise in bold, distinctive logotype design and work with our clients to create brands that are strongly differentiated. We do this because we consider image an important component in building a successful brand and it helps to set the tone for all further development. But we also urge our clients to firstly not judge logos from a point of personal taste, or convention. And secondly to think holistically about how this logo may grow to embody the broader characteristics of their brand; now, tomorrow and ten years down the line.

In considering your brand, think about your total customer experience. Think about how you want to be perceived, how you want to be different. When you have answered those questions put your investment into ensuring all customer interactions are designed to reinforce those perceptions. When this achieves measurable results your logo will identify and embody the essence of your brand. Until then it’s just a logo. That, in simple terms, is branding.

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