Branding: This word gets thrown around a lot, but it’s not the easiest term to define, let alone create a strategic plan around. In this post, I will distill branding down into a simple and definable term, as well as guide you so you can help strategize your company’s branding.
First, an anecdote:
Picture this: It’s 1997 and Steve Jobs walks into a small presentation room at Apple HQ in front of a small collection of top executives. This is happening weeks after being reinstated as CEO of Apple. Steve is about to remark on his roadmap for “getting back to the basics”, setting a course to define the brand we all know today. As he begins to introduce the now famous “Think Different” campaign for the first time, he prefaces with this thought:
Jobs knew how important it was to communicate a single, uncomplicated brand identity to Apple’s customers. Moreover, he saw how powerful a brand’s retention could be when integrating both product and marketing. Jack Trout and Al Ries, authors of “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding” call this the “Law of Contraction” where brands are strengthened as their focus narrows.
What branding is (and isn’t)
One of the biggest misconceptions is that branding boils down to visuals: logos and brand colors. While that is a part of it, branding relies on how you make people feel through a collection of micro brand-interactions.
The relationship companies build with their customers through a small collection of these micro brand-interactions over months, years, and decades is what branding is really constructed from. These micro interactions are often the length of just a few seconds (if that) before customers move on to more pressing matters in their lives. This is an important reality brands must begin to reconcile: customers have cognitively heavy, over-communicated, and time starved lives. Zain Raj, author of “Brand Rituals” calls this reality the “Sound Bite Society”, a byproduct of the information era. Good or bad, these brief bits of time are what you have to work with in building your brand in the mind of the customer.
What are the common pitfalls?
Effective branding in itself is not a difficult concept to execute – underestimating how long it takes to adequately develop brand equity, misplaced leverage of existing brand equity, and non-unilateral brand strategy implementation are some of the biggest reasons branding efforts miss their target.
Within the digital realm, it often can be hard to see the value of branding in the first place, resulting in little to no resources allocated to these types of endeavors. The value of branding can be extremely difficult for stakeholders to grasp as they are often measured through soft metrics. These qualitative metrics often counter the everyday, data-driven decisions leaders in digital are accustomed to basing decisions off of. Jonathan Salem Baskin, author of “Branding Only Still Works on Cattle” notes:
“Just revel in all that broad, ill-defined doublespeak: risk profile, considerations, market leadership, stability, global reach, ability to cross borders. All these assessments and rates are qualitative estimates. This isn’t math, it is religious scripture, created to reaffirm belief to the flock while ginning up enough obfuscation to dissuade non-believers.”
How to introduce customers to your brand
Remember to keep in mind that customers don’t compartmentalize brands in the same manner you may compartmentalize your corporate structure – your brand is a single concept in the customer’s mind.
It’s helpful to think of all the different ways customers can be introduced to or be reminded of your brand. Such touchpoints include: Your mark, website, app, brick & mortar, print and digital marketing, partnerships and sponsorships, swag, hardware, customer service; The list goes on and on.
The most important thing is that you’re consistent across all these touchpoints. Consistency is key in building familiarity with your customers, which leads to understanding and trust. Thus establishing the expectations of the relationship you’re going to have with them and value you can offer.
If you’re a startup, definitely factor what message you want to convey to your customers when creating your logo, color scheme, etc. but recognize that building your brand doesn’t have to be rushed or set in stone early. Your young company has the luxury to let your brand evolve with time. In most startup instances, brand exposure – amount and diversity of brand touchpoints – is relatively low in the beginning, affording the flexibility to mature branding or even completely redo it with little consequence to the market’s perception of a brand. You probably wouldn’t recognize it if their mark wasn’t a logotype, but this was Twitter’s initial logo in 2006!
Just remember: the more exposure your company has, the more consequences you’ll have to manage with a big brand change. This is not to say that older, highly exposed brands don’t have similar flexibility if they’re looking to shift away from their current brand equity – think Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC.
This allowed KFC to maintain some of it’s old equity: people were already shortening their name anyway), while leveraging the ambiguity of an acronym, to evolve the brand with an ever-growing health conscious US market [Business Insider].
Cohesiveness drives brand retention
When thinking of the value of cohesive branding, it’s helpful to frame it to a convention ubiquitous in the human experience – a friendship. Ask yourself, what kind of relationship would you expect to have with a friend who constantly goes back on their word or is continuously shifting their mood? You’re not sure what to expect from them. You probably can’t trust them and tire from the effort it takes to figure them out. Similarly, your customers will wane if you serve them a fragmented brand experience. They simply don’t have the time to care about your brand as much as you wish they would.
Who’s doing this cohesive stuff well? It’s no surprise, but Apple continues to be a leader in this field.
Think of Apple’s iPhone photo campaign. From their website’s landing page, to their billboards, tv ads, print ads, retail stores, etc. – it’s a single, narrowly-focused campaign and identity that extends across their entire brand touchpoint portfolio. It doesn’t hurt that they have the budget support these efforts, but it’s important to remember that it’s a budget size relative to the number of brand touchpoints they have to manage.
At a smaller scale, Trello offers an elegant brand identity solution that reinforces and supports the core interaction model of their product – project boards. Some may see this as limiting possibilities in future iterations of their product’s designs, but I see their setup as a recipe ripe for brand retention.
Putting it into action
Here at DT, we get a chance to work with a lot of different types of companies – B2B, B2C, SaaS, Startups, and Enterprise Companies, to name a few. Many have a brand identity, but few come with a brand vision strategy. While many have a general idea of what they want, they are often unsure on how to execute or where to start.
When thinking of the UX of a marketing website or digital product, it’s important to remember that it is the sum of many different parts (or brand touchpoints) – copy tone, design, brand mark, imagery, product, color, interaction, motion, and so on. For your UX, are these all currently speaking the same language? Does each element on your site/app feel like they’re communicating the same message? What about the next iteration of your site? How does your brand now translate to an event your company is holding, or a new product feature you want to launch?
A brand vision strategy is the north star companies need to set the guardrails to connect with customers in a consistent manner and build a relationship companies can manage. It extends past the visual identity of your brand and into the emotive, relation-based qualities you have with your customers. The goal is to set the vision, believe in it, institutionalize it, live and breathe it and most importantly, stick with it (key leadership buy-in will be especially important here). Without it, companies will continue to inundate their customers with disparate servings of information, expectations and experiences, resulting in their brands getting lost in the noise of everyday life.
As Steve Jobs said – Above all else, make it easy for customers to remember who you are and what you can do to improve their lives.