What’s the difference between a BMW and a Kia automobile? Unless you are a mechanic and have spent some time under the hood of vehicles manufactured by these companies, then you are likely basing your judgement on the difference between the two brands rather than the difference between their cars. Which is fine, of course, because that is what brands are for – that is their purpose.
Branding is arguably one of the most overused and misunderstood terms among people outside our profession. Part of the confusion likely comes from the fact that brands can refer to both a company as well as its products and services. Another part of it may stem from the fact that the term can also be used both as a noun and as a verb.
And even within the profession, there are people who talk about branding as if it were a stand-alone business. We do not build and manage a brand for the sake of having a brand. There is a reason we want a brand, and that is the same reason why branding is meaningless on its own.
In its simplest form, a brand is what distinguishes a particular product, service, or company from others. Branding is the process of actively defining and drawing attention to these distinctions – and, ultimately, positioning them as advantageous for the target audience. And brand equity is the value that this brings to the company and its products and services, often fostering customer loyalty and commanding premium pricing. That is the purpose of cultivating a strong brand, leveraging its value to advance the company’s interests.
Branding is a tool we use to satisfy that purpose, not a goal unto itself. If branding did not advance a company’s reputation or help sell its products and services, then we wouldn’t even be talking about it. The reason we spend time and money building a brand is because that identity, recognition, and reputation serves, enriches, and advances the rest of our communications efforts – just as our communications efforts work to advance our business efforts.
I have amassed a wealth of branding experience over the years, both in-house and on the agency side. I have launched new brands, such as Blue Moon for Coors. And I have built brands from scratch, such as Magnet Communications.
In the case of Magnet, I worked with outside consultants and designers to help select a name and create a logo for the new company. Based on those selections, I went on to develop the company’s corporate identity, also referred to as a brand identity, encompassing everything from its name, logo, and tagline along with a style guide that included specific colors, fonts, and logo variations as well as how and when to use each. And, of course, I also had to deal with all the related trademarks, copyrights, and domain registrations necessary to secure and protect that identity.
While brand identity is what most people think of when it comes to branding, that is only part of the equation. In addition to these visual elements, the brand also encompasses a set of attributes, benefits, and even values. When a customer sees that logo or hears that name, they should immediately think of what that brand represents to them, whether that be value, service, savings, prestige, expertise, integrity, reliability, etc.
I find it easier to think of a brand in terms of a person. The identity is the face you recognize, the shape of the body, and the style of clothes being worn. And the attributes, benefits, and values associated with that brand are the personality that goes along with its appearance.
How do you determine what your brand is, or should be? How do you define what attributes, benefits, and values your brand represents? That requires a thorough understanding of your company, its products and services, their value proposition or unique selling point, the market in which you operate, and the audience you are targeting. I discuss this all in greater detail over on the strategic planning page, as you need to define these things in order to develop the company’s positioning and key messages as part of the overall communications plan.
Once you have established a brand, defining both its identity and personality, then you can focus on increasing brand awareness and recognition, leveraging communications to reinforce the brand’s position and reputation among the target audience. For example, you can use advertising and POP displays to increase awareness and recognition, particularly of the brand’s identity, while using public relations to increase awareness and understanding of the brand’s attributes, benefits, and values – the brand’s personality.
You can use these same methods to redefine a brand. For example, I have rebranded struggling companies, such as Creamer Dickson Basford, with great success. And I have also helped transform existing brands, such as elevating Advanced Elastomer Systems’ thermoplastic elastomers from raw materials to design elements and repositioning AST Computers from a PC manufacturer to a technology partner for small businesses.
But keep in mind that, just as you can redefine your brand, the brand can also redefine your business. For example, if the brand develops an overwhelming negative perception, even through no fault of the company, it may very well reshape customers views of the brand – and the company as a whole. I discuss this in greater detail on the reputation management page, though I also raise it here because this is another reason why companies should dedicate resources to ensure effective brand management. A brand is not something you simply design and are done with. It needs to be nurtured and managed.
One Brand, Multiple Audiences
Unless you are rebranding or repositioning the company, the core elements of your brand should remain constant. However, it is worth noting that the way you present your brand may differ ever so slightly if you are targeting different markets and audiences.
For example, at Asphalt Green, we would often emphasize the green in our brand’s color scheme when targeting field sports customers and then favor the blue in our brand’s color scheme when targeting aquatic customers. Both markets viewed us as providing superior facilities, training, and instruction for athletes of all levels – which was the core essence of our brand: world-class, whatever your speed. But these subtle tweaks in the way we presented ourselves to individual audiences were designed to appeal directly to their specific interests, making each of them feel as if they were our sole focus, and thereby adding additional value to the brand. The soccer customers saw us as the city’s preeminent soccer program whereas the swimming customers saw us as the city’s preeminent swim program – world-class, whatever your speed for that specific sport.
It is the sort of nuance a company like BMW will use when marketing an SUV to families and a convertible roadster to carefree speed-freaks like me. The logo on the hood remains the same, as does the overarching message, but the marketing is tailored for each model’s target audience.