Branding is what imbues businesses with personalities. It’s what drives loyalty, recognition, preconceptions, and at the fundamental level, business. A brand is what enables companies to express their values, interests, advantages, opportunities, and purpose in the marketplace. Consider two grocery stores, both equal distance from a hypothetical consumer – we’ll call him Bob. Why should Bob choose one grocery store over the other? The answer is simple: brand.
Branding: It’s More Than a Logo
It’s important to realize that your company’s brand extends far beyond its logo, typography, and color palette. Everything about your company’s business model is an extension of your brand. Consider Whole Foods Marketplace, the national eco grocer, and Ralphs, the famous Southern California supermarket chain. When one looks at two grocery stores on paper, both equal distance from our shopper, Bob, there appears to be little drawing him to one over the other. But attach names to those two hypothetical grocery stores – Whole Foods and Ralphs – and we suddenly have much more to work off of. Because those brands carry with them values.
If Bob is young and affluent, or a proponent of clean-eating, it can be reasonably expected that he will make the trip to Whole Foods. And this is because Whole Foods, as a brand, represents the organic, whole foods movement. They sell less processed foods and have built their business around differentiating themselves from supermarkets like Ralphs. This brand identity is so strong that if Bob is the young, affluent, socially conscious shopper that we think he is, he would probably still shop at Whole Foods even if it was farther away than Ralphs. That, ultimately, is the power of branding.
A brand encompasses everything about a business: its products and services, its approach to customer service, its philosophies and more.
The Difference Between Brand and Brand Identity
Too many people make the mistake of believing that branding is limited to the visuals. This simply isn’t true. It’s important to make the distinction between a brand – see above – and brand identity, which is the manner in which a company presents itself, through various mediums, to consumers. Let’s take a look at what we’re talking about.
This Is Your Brand
What does your company stand for? Who does it serve? What products or services does it offer? Why does it exist? How does it differ from competitors and why is their a need for its presence? The answers to these questions all inform your company’s brand. A brand is a personality. It is, in part, shaped by the following principles:
Your business’ vision statement expresses clearly and concisely who your business is, what it does, and what it aims to accomplish in the present and future. It is one sentence and to the point. For purposes of illustration, let’s look at this vision statement for a company we just made up – we’ll call them Luna Airways because we don’t want to talk about grocery stores for the entire article:
Luna Airways is committed to helping humans reach the stars.
Without knowing anything about Luna Airways, you now get a sense of who they are and what it is that they do. Remember this company, as we’re going to come back to it.
If a vision statement is a statement of a company’s most lofty intentions and goals, a mission statement expresses how those goals are going to be reached, and with what approach. A mission statement can be longer than a vision statement, and should be more detailed as well. In effect, it lets consumers know who you are, what you do, why you do it, and how you do it. Let’s look at Luna Airways’ mission statement:
The mission of Luna Airways is to promote the continued exploration of the solar system and commercialization of space by quickly, safely, and reliably providing transportation services from the Earth to the Moon and beyond.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Merely by reading Luna Airways’ vision and mission statements, you are likely already conjuring up a picture in your head of what the organization looks like, how it operates, and what its beliefs are. (And, perhaps, a picture of the author’s interest in space travel. Guilty. Now where’s my jet pack?)
Here’s where it can start to get tricky. Whereas your company’s vision and mission statements are controlled internally, your company’s essence is not. It is arrived at by public consensus based on the public’s perception of your brand – not necessarily anything steeped in reality. When developing your brand, think of the essence as the end goal.
How do you want your business to be perceived? This should drive the essence that you’re trying to sell. If you could summarize your business in one word, what would it be? If consumers were asked to summarize your business in one word, what would it be? That is your brand’s essence.
Consider this thought exercise. We’ll throw out some famous brands, and think to yourself what their essence is. This should help inform what you want your brand’s essence to be. Let’s start. Coca-Cola. Apple. UPS. Ralph Lauren. Exxon. General Electric. Ford. Ferrari. Starting to get the picture?
One could argue, and we basically have, that your business’ brand is its personality, and vice versa. But here, we’re discussing personality in the sense of how consumers perceive your brand. Is it fun? Is it hip? Is it conservative? Is it old-fashioned? Is it a trend-setter or a follower? An up-and-coming juggernaut or an aged powerhouse?
Think of your group of friends, and how each person has his or her own personality. There’s the fun one and the shy one and the crazy one and the one that you guys merely tolerate because he or she was grandfathered in through high school or college. Consumers will think of your business in the same way. Who do you want your business to be?
Finally, we get to market position. Unless your business holds a monopoly on the marketplace, in which case it’s either a despot-owned energy conglomerate or a telecom company in the United States (zing!), the odds are good that it has competitors. In fact, it might have numerous competitors. This brings us back to our grocery store analogy above. Where does your business fit within the marketplace and why?
Your brand informs your customers of why, and in what ways, it differs from competitors offering similar services or products. In many ways, market position is one of the most important aspects of your brand, as it is one of the facets that most clearly dictates shopping habits. You may define your place in the market by price or services or customer satisfaction or quality – any and all of these factors can come into play. If you don’t know where your business sits in the marketplace, it’s important that you find out!
This Is Your Brand Identity
Brand identity is what most people think of when they hear the term, “brand.” In simple terms, it’s what your company looks, sounds, and feels like. Your brand identity is the visual and audio representation of your business. This is accomplished primarily through the mechanisms below:
People will argue that there are fundamental scientific principles at play when it comes to logo design, and that some logos are inherently better than others, but the truth of the matter is that the only way to evaluate and judge visuals is subjectively, not objectively. Sure, it can be objectively shown that certain colors offer greater contrast to each other, and that such contrast may help with legibility, but this doesn’t make a logo objectively better. Logos are symbols and symbols aren’t governed by science.
But this is a good thing, because it frees you up to be creative and unencumbered when it comes to designing your company’s logo. Embrace the subjective nature of colors, typography, graphic elements, and run with these things. You want people to feel something when they see your logo – to have an innate and intuitive reaction to it. This can’t be accomplished with a slide rule. The chances are good that if your logo gives you that reaction, consumers will react in much the same way.
At some point, people will read what you have to say. What sort of message do you want them to come across? If you’re reading this article, you’ll see that we’re trying to inject some humor into the subject matter to make it a bit more palatable. We don’t want to be boring, but we know that the content must be substantive, too. Thus, the article is quite long (thanks for getting this far!). We’re trying to start a conversation with the reader, or at least approach our writing as if we were conversing. How does your business want to reach its customers and potential customers?
Make no mistake, a distinct sound can play the same role that a logo can. Think of the start-up chime of a Mac, the four-note soundmark for Intel, or the audio hum of the old THX sound system – they are unmistakable and completely unique, and each is done and over with in a span of time lasting mere seconds. They’re just like logos: concise but with a lasting impact.
Now, it’s important to note that a signature sound is not going to apply to every business. Lunar Airways would likely not need such an element as part of its branding (though some sort of NASA countdown would be cool). But for some companies, there is the need for an audio logo. And for these companies, it is important that they put as much time and effort into its development, and place as much importance, as a traditional logo.
Your company’s visual identity might be informed by its logo – but it doesn’t have to be. True, UPS has adopted brown and gold across the board and Coca-Cola has done the same with red and white, but think of retail stores like Bloomingdales, J. Crew, and Apple. The relationship between the visual aesthetic of those stores and the respective corporate logos are tangential at best. In fact, Bloomingdales and J. Crew have simple wordmarks that by themselves mean little. Along the same lines, Apple’s apple logo does not immediately lend itself to the assumption that the company’s retail centers look like sets out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I told you I love space.)
A visual identity is a clear choice made by a business as a means of representing itself to consumers. And it applies to all types of businesses – not merely retail stores. All businesses have some amount of corporate collateral – think business cards, letterheads, envelopes, stationary, brochures, billboards, advertising, delivery trucks… the list goes on – and this collateral must have a visual identity that is as clear and distinct as the logo is. Establishing your company’s visual identity means thinking beyond the immediate needs of a logo and color palette.
What’s the State of Your Brand?
Building a brand can take time. And whether or not the public accepts and embraces your brand is largely out of your control. But it’s an essential part of building a business, and is something that you should put a great deal of thought into. And not just for vanity, mind you, but because it can give your company a competitive advantage over your competitors. All because consumers know who you are, what you do, and what you stand for.