What do we mean by the word brand?
The words brand and branding are thrown around liberally by all sorts of people in different contexts and with different meanings in mind, so it may help to start by asking: what exactly is a brand?
The simplest answer is that a brand is a set of associations that a person (or group of people) makes with a company, product, service, individual or organization.
These associations may be intentional – that is, they may be actively promoted via marketing and corporate identity, for example – or they may be outside the company’s control. For example, a poor press
review for a new product might harm the product manufacturer’s overall brand by placing negative associations in people’s minds.
To illustrate the idea, let’s take what is arguably the best-known product – or brand – in the world: Coca-Cola.
Although essentially just a soft drinks product, Coca-Cola the drink is eclipsed by the sheer might of Coca-Cola the brand. This phenomenon is best summed up by the following quote from a Coca-Cola executive:
“If Coca-Cola were to lose all of its production-related assets in a
disaster, the company would survive. By contrast, if all consumers
were to have a sudden lapse of memory and forget everything related
to Coca-Cola, the company would go out of business”.
In a 2007 survey of the value of global brands by branding agency Interbrand, Coca-Cola’s brand equity was valued at US$65.3bn, just under half the company’s true market value.
So what are these all-powerful associations? For Coca-Cola, typical perceptions might be that it is the original cola drink (‘The Real Thing’), that its recipe is secret and unsurpassed, that it’s all-American or maybe global, that it’s youthful, energetic, refreshing and so on. Visual associations might include the unmistakable red and white logo
and corporate colours, or the unique shape and tint of the original glass bottles.
These are mostly positive brand associations, but there may be negative ones too. For example, Coca-Cola may be seen as unhealthy, or as a symbol of global imperialism by American brands. What is seen as a positive association to some may be unpleasant to others and negative perceptions could become attached to a brand’s identity even if the company strives to present a different character.
Of course, brands aren’t limited to the food and drink category. If a brand is just a set of associations then practically anything could be said to have a brand, even individuals – think Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay.
In fact, Ramsay’s own brand is so strong, that in 2007 he leant his weight to a major advertising campaign by Gordon’s Gin. He was chosen not just because of his name, but because his association with a sense of quality and exclusivity mirrors the drinks manufacturer’s own brand values.
Other high-profile examples of recognised brands include Toyota, British Airways, Tate, Amazon, Save the Children, Burberry, HMRC or even London. From services to cities, products to publications, each carries a strong set of associations in the minds of a large number of people.
What is branding?
If a brand results from a set of associations and perceptions in people’s minds, then branding is an attempt to harness, generate, influence and control these associations to help the business perform better. Any organisation can benefit enormously by creating a brand that presents the company as distinctive, trusted, exciting, reliable or whichever attributes are appropriate to that business.
While absolute control over a brand is not possible due to outside influences, intelligent use of design, advertising, marketing, service proposition, corporate culture and so on can all really help to generate associations in people’s minds that will benefit the organisation. In different industry sectors the audiences, competitors, delivery and service aspects of branding may differ, but the basic principle of being clear about what you stand for always applies.
How brands are changing
In the last few years the digital communications revolution has completely transformed this balance of control. The consumer’s voice has become louder and much more public. Consumers can publish their experience of a brand and compare it with the experience of others. The ability of a brand to respond to this can have a profound affect on the way they are perceived. It’s also affecting the types of brand that achieve prominence. There is even a thriving market in brands whose primary strategy is to champion the consumer’s voice, Tripadvisor is one of the most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) of these.
Let’s return to Coca-Cola briefly. After 13 years of dominance in 2013 they were knocked off the top spot in Interbrand’s influential listing of the leading 100 global brands. The two brands that overtook it were indicative of the way the world has changed. At number one was Apple, and at number two – Google. Both companies rooted in technological innovation, but perhaps more importantly both brands that are focussed on providing a products and services, that make people’s lives easier.
Apple’s transformation from a computer manufacturer to a media giant didn’t happen just because of the introduction of the iPod andiPhone. It happened because they developed revolutionary new services around those products – iTunes and the App Store. They thought very hard about their customer and what would make their life easier. Whilst Google has started to develop hardware products its brand is rooted in its incredibly popular search service.
Both those brands are resolutely customer-focussed, and great branding and responsive behaviour allowed them to build the right kinds of connections with the their customers to thrive. Although eclipsed by the two technology giants on that particular chart, Coke too continues to use its brand clout to create the closer connections with people that today’s communications landscape demands. A great example of that is the ‘Share a Coke’ campaign they launched in the Summer of 2013, allowing people to buy a bottle of Coke with their name on.
Why do you need a brand?
Branding can help you stand out from your competitors, add value to your offer and engage with your customers.
Branding is a way of clearly highlighting what makes your offer different to, and more desirable than, anyone else’s. Effective branding elevates a product or organisation from being just one commodity amongst many identical commodities, to become something with a unique character and promise. It can create an emotional resonance in the minds of consumers who choose products and services using both emotional and pragmatic judgements.
Rachel’s Organic Butter, for example, chose black for its packaging design so it would stand out from the typical yellow, gold and green colours (representing sunshine and fields) used by competitor products. The result is that the brand appears more premium, distinctive and perhaps even more daring than its competitors.
People are generally willing to pay more for a branded product than they are for something which is largely unbranded. And a brand can be extended through a whole range of offers too.
Tesco, for example, began life as an economy supermarket and now sells a wide range of products, from furniture to insurance. But a consistent application of the Tesco brand attributes, such as ease of access and low price, has allowed the business to move into new market sectors without changing its core brand identity.
This obviously adds value to the business, but consumers also see added value in the new services thanks to their existing associations with the Tesco brand. Of course, this can work in reverse too: if consumers don’t like the Tesco brand in one product area, they’re less likely to choose the company’s offer in another product area.
Connecting with people
Creating a connection with people is important for all organisations and a brand can embody attributes which consumers will feel drawn to.
Apple’s original launch of the iPod, for example, catapulted the company from computer business to mass-market entertainment brand, with iPod marketing drawing heavily on people’s emotional relationship with their music.
By moving into music and film, Apple redefined what the company did and shifted its brand association to something that connects with larger numbers of people outside computing or creative community. They continued this shift with introduction of the iPhone, iPad and App Store bringing portable computing and its software into mainstream consumer culture. In doing so the brand has become more and more entwined on the lives of consumers making it incredibly powerful.
The key ingredients of any brand
In this section we outline the four cornerstones of any good brand using examples from the business world.
Defining your brand
If you’re thinking about how to rebrand your business, its products or services, or if you want to assess where your brand stands at present, there are a few key aspects you should consider:
The big idea – what lies at the heart of your company?
Values – what do you believe in?
Vision – where are you going?
Personality – how do you want to come across?
If you can start to answer these questions with clarity and consistency then you have the basis for developing a strong brand.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
The big idea
The big idea is perhaps a catch-all for your company or service. It should encapsulate what makes you different, what you offer, why you’re doing it and how you’re going to present it. The other ingredients are slightly more specific, but they should all feed from the big idea.
The big idea is also a uniting concept that can hold together an otherwise disparate set of activities. Ideally, it will inform everything you do, big or small, including customer service, advertising, a website order form, staff uniforms, corporate identity, perhaps right down to your answer machine message.
To pin down your own big idea you will need to look very carefully at your own business and the marketplace around you, asking these types of questions:
How can you stand out?
What is your offer?
What makes you different?
What is your ‘personality’?
What do consumers want or need?
Is there a gap in the market?
To aid this process it’s usually very helpful to get an outside perspective on things too, so consider working with a management consultant, business development consultant or design consultancy. Once decided, the articulation of these ideas can be put into action through branding techniques such as design, advertising, events, partnerships, staff training and so on. It is these activities that set up the consumer’s understanding and expectation of your company; in other words, its brand. And once you’ve set up this brand ‘promise’, the most important thing is to ensure that your products and services consistently deliver on it.