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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 organisation.
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.
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 and iPhone. 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.
IKEA: the big idea
IKEA is good example of a company with a big idea. Its brand is based around the notion that good design is for everyone, not just design snobs. Past campaigns have urged us to ‘chuck out the chintz’ and fit out our homes with well-designed furniture and products at affordable prices.
Their branding plays on this central idea of the democratisation of design. In the last few years they have created advertisements featuring house parties in IKEA homes, campaigns where customers could appear on the front cover of their own IKEA catalogue and in 2013 they demonstrated their commitment to providing design for everywhere even the smallest spaces with the smallest IKEA store in the world.
In stores, products are given individual names and customers stack up their trolleys from the warehouse themselves (saving IKEA money in the meantime). This is all in keeping with the idea that you don’t need specialist, privileged knowledge to go out and buy good design.
Generating a vision for your company means thinking about the future, where you want to be, looking at ways to challenge the market or transform a sector. A vision may be grand and large-scale, or may be as simple as offering an existing product in a completely new way, or even changing the emphasis of your business from one core area to another.
Although corporate visions and mission statements can often appear to be little more than a hollow dictums from top management, a well-considered vision can help you to structure some of the more practical issues of putting a development strategy into action. If you’re clear on what you’re aiming at, it’s obviously easier to put the structures in place to get there.
An example of vision on a large scale comes from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who knew exactly where he was going with his company even in the early days:
We started with a vision of a computer on every desk and in every home… every day, we’re finding new ways for technology to enhance and enrich people’s lives. We’re really only just getting started
Bill Gates, Microsoft Chairman
And this comes from a company which until 2013 had never actually made computers. The vision lies in seeing where the market is going and asking where you want to be: in this case, providing the operating software for the computers that sit in offices and homes around the world.
The Microsoft brand which resulted is inextricably linked with computing. Most PCs come with Windows as standard, even though the computer hardware can be run with a number of different operating systems.
Like the word brand itself, the term brand values is perhaps a little over-used in design and marketing circles, but it does relate to important aspects of how people see your organisation. It’s what you stand for and it can be communicated either explicitly or implicitly in what you do. But imbuing your company’s brand with a set of values is tricky for a number of reasons.
Firstly, everybody wants the same kinds of values to be associated with their business. A survey by The Research Business International (now part of Synovate) found that most companies share the same ten values, namely: quality, openness, innovation, individual responsibility, fairness, respect for the individual, empowerment, passion, flexibility, teamwork and pride.
Secondly, it’s not easy to communicate values: overt marketing may seem disingenuous, while not communicating your values in any way may result in people not seeing what you stand for. And lastly, any values you portray have to be genuine and upheld in the way your organisation operates. Branding and design consultants can help you clarify what your organisation or business stands for and then they can develop ways for you to communicate that effectively. This might be through graphic design, language, advertising, staff training, the materials used in product manufacture and so on.
Branding and design consultants can help you clarify what your organisation or business stands for and then they can develop ways for you to communicate that effectively. This might be through graphic design, language, advertising, staff training, the materials used in product manufacture and so on.
Pret A Manger: values
Pret A Manger makes a big play of valuing fresh food and minimising wastage. So, all its food is made on location each morning (with no sell by dates) and any left over at the end of the day is given to homeless charities and shelters.
In this way the company has laid out a value and has followed it through with the way it runs its service.
Burberry: rediscovering values
Burberry is an example of a brand that for a while, lost it’s core values and was beginning to underperform.
Originally a luxury manufacturer of raincoats it had become near ubiquitous. The famous Burberry check was appearing on everything from dog leashes to t-shirts. Consistency of the brand had been lost, with customers around the world getting a different experience. In 2006 new CEO Angela Ahrendts brought luxury firmly back to the agenda, appointed a single creative director to oversee the brand worldwide and ruthlessly cut away the baggage that had begun to attach itself to the brand reducing the product line back to the luxury, high-end of the market. Coupled with a creative and considered use of new technology this has resulted in the revenue of the company rising from $1190 million in 2006 to over $3000 million in 2012.
Once you have established your ‘big idea’, vision and values, they can be communicated to consumers through a range of channels. The way you decide to present this communication – the tone, language and design, for example – can be said to be the personality of your company.
Personality traits could be efficient and businesslike, friendly and chatty, or perhaps humorous and irreverent, although they would obviously have to be appropriate to the type of product or service you are selling.
It need not have anything at all to do with the personalities of the people running the company; although it could, if you want to create a personality-driven company in the way that Richard Branson is very much the figurehead for Virgin.
And for smaller companies, the culture and style of the business can often reflect the founder, so its values and personality may be the same.
Here are a few examples of how you can start to control the elements of your company’s personality, conveying certain aspects to customers in different ways:
- Graphic design: The visual identity – hard corporate identity or soft, friendly caricature?
- Tone of voice: Is the language you use (both spoken and written) formal or relaxed?
- Dialogue: Can your users or customers contribute ideas and get involved in the organisation? Or is it a one-way communication?
- Customer service: How are staff trained to communicate with customers? What level of customer service do you provide?
As companies grow, their personality and values are reflected more in internal culture and behaviour than through the characteristics of the founders. This personality then defines how the companies express their offer in the market.
John Smith’s: personality
A few years ago John Smith’s Bitter built its brand almost entirely out of personality: in this case the traits of a bluff, ‘no nonsense’ straight-talking Yorkshireman. This ‘no nonsense’ strapline and sentiment carries through all the company’s communications with customers. The use of the celebrity Peter Kay to front recent campaigns was a natural fit.
Putting it all together
Using the key ingredients that we’ve outlined here – and bringing in consultants to help you define and implement them – will give you a solid understanding of your organisation’s brand, as well as strategies on how to present it to people.
Starting with the big idea, you can then go on to refine and set out your company’s vision, values and personality. And once these are all in place, you can think about hiring designers to turn your brand blueprint into tangible communications.
Brand management techniques
Once your encompassing brand ‘promise’ is in place, you need to consider how you will communicate it and then how you will manage and develop it over time.
When it comes to communicating your brand to the public, there are a few techniques and issues that are worth considering:
An established technique in branding a business is to tell its story through communication elements such as corporate identity, packaging, stationery, marketing materials and so on. This can be quite low key, but it paints a picture of the provenance of the company and its products.
Sheffield butcher John Crawshaw, for example, hand-picks the meat sold in his three shops, whilst most of his competitors have their meat delivered in vacuum packs from an abattoir.
So, to illustrate this aspect of his service – or brand offer – a logo showing a butcher carrying a carcass over his shoulder was designed for Crawshaw’s business.
The credibility of your brand’s offer must also be solid. For example, a Yorkshire drainage company called Naylor launched a range of lifetime-guaranteed flower pots, but the Naylor brand was inappropriate to market this range because it was associated too directly with the drainage side of the business. So the company set up a new brand called Yorkshire Flowerpots, with its own tone of voice, personality and visual identity so that it could sell the products with greater credibility.
A great deal of branding is about defining and presenting a point of differentiation in the sector you’re operating in. Get this right and your organisation will stand out brightly against your competitors.
Construction company Hilti provides an example of differentiation in a sector. Whilst most other construction companies use technical images of buildings and products in their communications, Hilti emphasised its relationship with the people involved in construction, showing black and white photographs of workers using Hilti tools, which are highlighted in the company’s corporate red.
Engaging with customers
Part and parcel of creating differentiation is engaging with your customers or users. If you stand out of the crowd for positive reasons and your tone of voice and communications are credible customers will look at what you’ve got to say.
When Orange launched in the mobile phone market in 1994, its identity, language and offer were very distinctive from its established rivals. It presented an optimistic vision of the future based on technology, but from a human rather than technical point of view. Its logo and name were abstract, creating stand out against BT Cellnet, T-Mobile and Vodafone, and its services were organised into simple talk plan packages.
For over a decade, this approach has remained more or less unchanged. For instance, the 2008 Orange campaign revolved around the slogan ‘I am who I am because of everyone’. Adverts featured a series of individuals (including recognised entrepreneurs, artists and writers) listing the people that have most influenced the course of their lives.
By appealing to everyone’s sense of individualism and focusing on the value of human interaction and communication rather than competitive price plans or the latest technology, Orange are able to extol the benefits of their service without ever having to mention mobile telephones.
Focusing your product portfolio
If you have a number of different products or services it may help to consider how you can streamline or organise them to make the offer easy for consumers to understand. Sometimes, the logic of internal company structures can dictate how a product offer is organised, but this does not necessarily make sense to an external customer. So think carefully about the best way to present what you do, even if it means setting things up differently from your internal organisation.
Rationalisation of products or services might also allow you to focus your investments more efficiently. After working with Design Council, household cleaning product manufacturer Challs shifted its focus to four key products, rather than the 92 it had previously been promoting.
Multiple brands and brand ‘stretch’
If your company operates in more than one sector you will have to consider how you present the business in each area. One approach, as illustrated by Virgin, EasyGroup and Tesco, is to have a single brand identity which is applied to sub-brands for the areas you operate in. So we have Virgin Money and Virgin Atlantic, Easy Pizza and Easy Cruise, Tesco Entertainment and Tesco Finance and so on.
Just how far you can ‘stretch’ your primary brand in this way depends on the core ideas, values and associations you have to start with. In some cases it may actually be more effective to develop a completely distinct brand for the different sectors you want to operate it, rather than stretch your existing brand to meet new markets. As mentioned above, for Naylor’s flower pot business it made more sense to set up a dedicated brand called Yorkshire Flowerpots than to associate it with the existing Naylor drainage business.
There have been some notable and high-profile failures when it comes to brand stretch. A natural cleaning vinegar launched by Heinz bombed as a product because people associate Heinz with food, not cleaning. Harley Davidson (over-)extended its range to include perfume. This failed because it was perceived as being at odds with the Harley Davidson brand values of masculinity and strength.
A slightly more sophisticated possibility is to set up ‘endorsed’ brands. This is where you create a new brand in its own right but allow the ‘parent’ brand of your main company to feature as an endorsement of the new brand. Playstation, for example, is a powerful brand in its own right, but it has always been endorsed as Sony Playstation, leveraging the reputation of Sony Corporation.
Reinvigorating your brand
Whatever sector your work in, keeping your communications fresh is essential. Using designers to help reassess your designs, language or identity every few years should be seen as an ongoing investment in your company rather than a costly extra.
All successful companies revisit their communications periodically, even the world’s most recognisable brands. But reinvigorating your brand doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start from the very beginning, reconsidering your big idea or vision and so on.
Take Coca-Cola for instance. They are constantly reviewing all aspects of their brand and refreshing them. In 2007 they commissioned design agency Turner Duckworth to produce a range of new packaging designs that would breathe new life into the cornerstones of Coke’s visual identity; the classic logo, the contour bottle and the use of red and white. In 2009 they launched a new strap line ‘Open Happiness’ and in 2013 they created personalised labels for their bottles.
If you’re happy with your company’s big idea, vision and personality, these things can remain the foundations of what you’re doing – but the implementation of your brand should be refreshed to keep things on track and ensure it remains relevant to your target audience.
Brand names are an important aspect in setting the tone and personality of your brand, as well as being a key element in marketing activity. Along with design and tone of voice, a name can be a means of differentiation and should reflect the overall brand strategy you’ve developed.
Choosing a name can be a difficult task in itself, but it’s made even harder because so many are already in use and trademarked. By sure to check carefully that any names you’re considering for a company, product or service aren’t already in use and protected by law.
On the whole, a name falls into one of a few types, which can be arranged along a kind of spectrum of attributes.
-Read more: http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/power-branding