If I said this article is all about branding, you probably have a decent idea of what it might be about. So yes, it’s about branding, but I actually want to dig into this and perhaps challenge your thinking on what branding actually is, what it isn’t, and ultimately encourage you to step back and think bigger than just branding.
This article is as much for me as it is for others — to provide clarity, to sharpen my understanding and thus help improve my execution. I hope it does the same for you and hopefully, it might ‘click’ and trigger something to make you want to dig deeper into whatever brand you work with, or have influence over.
Where it all begins, and ends — a Brand
A brand is commonly associated with organisations, businesses and products, but could also be a personal brand. So a brand begins when an organisation, product or personality is created. But a brand is formed over time, so a brand is also the end result of strategy and branding activity.
You’ve probably got an idea of what a brand is, but perhaps it’s still a little abstract and hard to fully grasp. Let’s for a moment drop the term ‘brand’, and perhaps work with some more common terms that are more relatable. How about identity, purpose, promise, culture, vision, reputation, trust, perception — all these encapsulate some of the essence of what a brand represents.
Global brand agency Millward Brown offers us some helpful insights on what a brand is...
These are helpful I think, but still these might still be hard to grasp. That’s ok. There’s tangible elements of a brand, and also the intangible elements.
Take Nike for example (I know, I know, what a cliche example, but nonetheless useful!). The fact that you immediately know the name Nike means they’ve done a great job of creating a brand. So you know the name. You know the logo - the famous ‘tick’ symbol. You know Nike products. These are just some of the tangible elements of the Nike brand, and you might say this is what makes up the brand. But there’s also all the memories, feelings and experiences of the millions of people who know of, and interact with Nike - the intangible elements that also shape and define the Nike brand.
It is therefore a combination of the execution of the tangible elements by the brand owners, and build up of the intangible elements over time for the brand customers, that define a brand.
Time is necessary to build a brand, but it can also easily erode a brand, especially if it is not properly cared for — a brand is certainly not a case of set and forget. The 2019 AON Global Risk Management Survey lists ‘damage to brand and reputation’ as the number one risk facing Australian businesses (reference).
Talking of risk & reputation, let’s think about banks for a moment. The big 4 Australian banks have held dominant market position for decades. I don’t have to name names because you already know each one — they’ve built strong brands over time. What has been one of the major cornerstones of their brand equity? Trust. As much as people don’t really like banks, they generally trust a bank will keep their money safe which in the banking & finance sector, is one of the major things customers are looking for.
Along come the disrupters in the industry over the last few years — new lenders with innovative products, and most recently neo or digital banks are causing a huge disruption in the market. These guys are all shiny & new, have amazing offerings which are very hard to ignore, and some have exceptional brand execution. What do they lack? Time & trust.
To illustrate my point here, let me share another example which may be relatable. I was recently looking for business finance, and my current big 4 bank had a product which looked very suitable — so I applied. It all sounded straight-forward…but unfortunately, it was far from that. Long story short, it took weeks to get anywhere and overall it was a dreadful experience.
While I was waiting for the bank to fluff around, I naturally looked elsewhere. Within a couple of days I was approved by another one of these new lenders… not a bank. Their whole experience was sensational!
So who did I end up going ahead with? The bank. Yes, the bank. After it all, I questioned why… I could only come back to the fact that I already have a long history with that bank, and while this last experience was nasty, it wasn’t enough to erode my pre-existing trust.
On the flip side, the experience did certainly erode my overall perception of the brand, and at the same time, opened the door to the competition. Previously I had very little awareness and no association with this lender, but the great experience I had has established their brand in my mind. They have a long way to go to earn my trust like the bank, but I assure you next time I’m looking for finance, I’ll be checking them out.
The banks are depending on trust over time, but this will continue to erode if, like any brand, they don’t pay close and constant attention to caring for and protecting their brand.
We’re all busy with branding
‘Branding’ is a commonly used term, and is often misused to refer to things that it actually isn’t — I can’t say I’m innocent of this. There’s many interpretations and definitions of ‘branding’ around, so let me either add to the noise, or perhaps provide some clarity.
Branding is the process of intentionally forming a brand, and the ongoing process of building, nurturing and protecting that brand. It should all be an overt expression and overflow of the brand strategy (I’ll come back to strategy in a moment).
You may have been wondering when I’d pull out the term ‘logo’ — well here we go — yes, branding is where a logo is created. But interestingly, a brand can exist without a logo. The logo is part of the ‘visual brand’ which also includes the colour palette and the (design) style. But there is also many other elements such as the messaging, the (writing) style or language, plus execution with campaigns, collateral, communications, social media, and so on…
Branding is where all the cogs turn, where lots of functional work takes place. Branding happens whether you know you are doing it or not — yep your organisation is busy branding everyday! Every single communication, interaction and touch point is building memories, associations, and perceptions of your brand in people’s minds. All this branding activity is either building your brand up, or bringing it down.
Given this, I suggest that letting your branding activity go on without much thought or intentionality is risky at the very least. We’re all too busy branding and not paying enough attention to what is really most important.
There’s one last vital piece to all this, for branding should be"the external expression of your strategy that you use to appeal to, and create fruitful relationships with your customers" (reference). Let’s talk strategy for a moment...
Let’s talk about strategy
Now we are getting into the meaty stuff. Here’s the interesting fact — you can have a brand, or do some branding without any brand strategy. It’s not required, but it is absolutely vital. It’s vital if you want a meaningful, mature and successful brand. Your branding efforts will truly lack authenticity and only produce shallow things that may sound great and look pretty, but have no great purpose or direction.
Let’s be honest, brand strategy is the hard part. It’s no wonder so many skip over it straight to the fun branding part where you can get busy and creative. But in reality an effective brand strategy may actually be well within reach for many organisations.
If you have a vision and or mission, you’re already way ahead. If you’ve got some core values… great, throw them in. Know your customer or target audience? Got a strategic or business plan (even some ramblings and bullet points with some goals and objectives)? You can use all this information to help shape and inform a brand strategy.
Liz West from Dunham & Company gives us some helpful advice here - “Brand (positioning) has nothing to do with your logo or corporate IP and everything to do with releasing your organization’s full potential through a clearly defined brand promise.”
I want to focus on the ‘clearly defined promise’ here — your brand strategy is essentially about defining your promise to your customers. If you have a clearly defined promise, which is rooted in your vision & mission, and clearly expresses your identity, then you have purpose and something definite to aim at with your branding activity.
The promise isn’t necessarily explicit, like ‘we promise that we will…’ — no, it comes out of your purpose, your core values, and is expressed in your branding. If you don’t get the best brand at the lowest price from JB Hifi, they aren’t keeping their promise. If you aren’t jumping for joy with good feelings after buying a Toyota, they have failed to deliver on their promise. If you are licking your fingers after eating KFC, they lived up to their promise (ok maybe that’s too literal, but you get the idea!).
What about your brand? What promise are you expressing through your branding? You don’t need to say it explicitly to everyone, but you do need to articulate it internally to your stakeholders and employees, and then find authentic ways of communicating it to your customers and community.
You see promise is directly related to trust. This isn’t rocket science really — deliver on your promise, and you will build trust, and trust is the key driver in building a brand.
So brand strategy about articulating this promise, outlining who you are making this promise to (your target audience), defining your place in the market (brand positioning), and then detailing actionable strategies to express and deliver on this promise (the branding activity). The result, executed well, should be a brand that consistently delivers on this promise over time.
Switch focus to strategy
If you've read this far then I'm guessing you have some sort of role in your organisation that can influence the brand. And perhaps you're keen to now dive deeper and put something into action. So what next?
If you have an established organisation then you've got a brand. That part is done, congratulations. You're also already doing some branding with any and every interaction you have with your customers, community and also staff. The only thing I can't tell you right now is if you have any sort of brand strategy. You may have a marketing strategy, but let's not get confused - brand strategy sits above marketing strategy.
So my tip would be focus less on branding and more on strategy. If you don't have a brand strategy, start today. If you've got one, don't let it lie dormant… revisit it regularly and don't let time erode your brand. Get your strategy right and it will overflow to guide all your branding activity and give it real purpose and clarity. This in turn will start to shape your brand into the brand you want it to be, because it should be creating the right memories and experiences for your customers and community – and all the while build trust.
There are methods, processes and practices to help you develop your brand strategy. I'd suggest you talk to your marketing agency and ask them about brand strategy - if they skip straight to the branding activity, I might suggest that it's time to talk to someone else. If you don’t know who to talk to, then get in touch.
I wonder if at the start the title may have seemed vague and perhaps unrelated, but hopefully now it makes a little more sense to you. So to end, let me encourage you to start by working out your purpose. If you have this crystal clear, everything else will flow. Next, define a brand promise, and work out what it will take for your organisation to deliver on this promise. Your customers, community and staff will be the judge as to how you go at this - if you get it right you'll be creating great memories and meaningful experiences which will etch positive brand perceptions in their mind, build your brand and ultimately help fulfil your vision and mission.