Brand Matters

The way to establish a strong brand is highly sought-after knowledge for any company or individual, but fundamental branding concepts are often misunderstood. A strong brand is not simply a well-designed logo or a catchy tagline. Branding is also not the same as marketing. It encompasses much more than these individual elements to establish a worthwhile and relevant offering in the minds of consumers. So what is a brand? Well, for starters, it’s a promise.

A Promise
Apple1To simplify branding to its core function, successful brands aim to keep a promise. Branding promises certain guarantees, such as quality level or price point or customer service expectations and brands were developed to differentiate one product from the next. If you choose to purchase Nike shoes, you will expect them to perform to the promised level. If your new purchase fails to live up to the expectations that Nike set, it’s less likely that you will turn to this same brand for advice, expertise, and ultimately, their products again. Similarly, if when you purchase Nike shoes the sales staff is rude or unhelpful, this reflects negatively on Nike’s brand and lessens the value of the overall business in your mind. This is one of the reasons that successful and sustained branding is so difficult – it takes an army to establish a strong brand but a lone soldier to discredit all of the work that others have done.

Furthermore, branding helps companies differentiate themselves from the competition, especially in a commoditized market where a product is virtually the same as a competitor’s product. Bottled water is a perfect example. There are approximately 100 brands of nationally advertised bottled water in the United States (as of May 2012). How is a consumer to decide which bottle of water to buy, as water is virtually the same across all brands (and it’s available at home, practically for free)? Apple2

Branding, of course!
Although most consumers have an opinion about the type of bottled water they prefer, when everything is reduced to its lowest common denominator… it’s all just water. What consumers really have an opinion about is the packaging, advertising, celebrities that endorse the brand, distribution, and availability… because the product is just water.

So we’ve established that a brand is a promise companies make to consumers and it’s also a way to differentiate one’s product, but isn’t branding the same as marketing? They are related but, in fact, quite different. Marketing is about getting the ‘word’ out, whereas branding is about knowing what the ‘word’ is. This is a very subtle, yet important, distinction. Marketing teams can say anything they want about their company, but brands are formed in the minds of consumers as they experience the product or service. Therefore, a brand is the consumer’s perception of a company. Through marketing efforts, companies will place ideas in their consumers’ minds about their product or service, but ultimately, the opinion of the brand is formed through a customer’s experience with that product or service, and with the company as a whole. Uniform brand voice and stable action at all levels of the organization, as well as living up to product expectations consistently over time all help to establish strong brands… but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first have a look at how the formal notion of branding began fewer than 150 years ago and how it has evolved since then.

A Short History of (Branding) Progress
It was not until the late 1800’s that the first modern brands took shape. At this time, brand attributes and promises were tied to an individual. Mr. Kellogg is a perfect example of a real person who promised high quality products to his customers. Aunt Jemima, on the other hand, was simply a figment of marketing experts’ imaginations. It wasn’t until the Trademark Registration Act in 1876 that branding made the leap to where it has ultimately landed today, because this act allowed a brand to exist as its own legal entity. The first registered trademark through the act was for Bass & Co. Beer.

Since that time, branding has evolved into the complex and profitable business we know today. Based on the work of branding guru Debbie Millman (President of Sterling Brands, author of six branding books, and co-founder of the world’s first graduate degree in branding), below are the five waves in brand evolution that have brought us from 1876 to today. In each period, there are unique nuances that distinguish one wave from the next.

Wave #1: 1875-1920. Late in this era, radio became the primary marketing medium and brands were tied to individuals. The primary function of a brand was to guarantee a high-quality product that was safe for use. The brand leaders during this time were Coca Cola and Campbell’s Soup.

Wave #2: 1920-1965. As communication technologies developed, black and white televisions were introduced after WWII and became the marketing medium of choice. This wave was marked by a variety of “copycat” products that were created to follow in the successes of the originals. Because there was very little difference between the actual products, brand owners responded by anthropomorphizing their brands (making them resemble a human form) to establish greater consumer connection to the products. Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima are classic examples of linking a (fictitious) human form to a product in order to establish an emotional connection with consumers and sell more units.

Wave #3: 1965-1985. By this point in history, colour televisions were introduced and were quickly becoming the norm in homes throughout North America. During this era, brands acted as self-expressive statements that came to mean something about the person who used them. Examples of brands that dominated during this time include Levi’s, Volkswagen, and Marlboro. These brands told a story about the individuals who wore, drove or smoked these products.

Wave #4: 1985-2000. Televisions had a prominent place in most homes by this point and cell phones were introduced to consumers. Successful brands during this time focused on creating an emotional experience for consumers, in order to make them feel different or individualistic. Brands like Disney, Starbucks, and Apple exemplified this trend through custom vacation packages, custom drink orders, and custom hi-tech computing.

Wave #5: 2000-Today. This is where we stand today and mobile computing is a part of everyday life for most consumers. Furthermore, social media has changed the way in which consumers connect with the people and brands they love. Facebook is the primary example of a company and a brand that helps to establish global connections between individuals, as well as individuals and organizations. Exhibiting social proof through “liking” photos, businesses or news stories is an important part of a socially connected economy. The term “limbic branding” has been used to explain this phenomenon and it can also be described as a “neuromarketing-oriented approach to branding”. The limbic part of our brain is what controls basic emotions and drives (including the need for connection), and social networking sites are capitalizing on this psychological phenomenon to keep users on their sites for as long as possible.

So the question remains: What will be the next wave of brand evolution and when will it take hold?

Ingredients of a Successful Brand

Before we look too far into the future, let’s have a look at three timeless components of successful brands. Unfortunately, a set of standard ingredients for baking the perfect “brand cake” does not exist, however, there are a few common elements in all successful brands that help make them digestible.
Authenticity. An informative TEDTalk by Joseph Pine entitled What Consumers Want established that consumers ultimately desire authenticity. Pine states: “Everyone has this desire for the authentic and authenticity is therefore becoming the new consumer sensibility – the buying criteria by which consumers are choosing who they’re going to buy from and what they are going to buy. [It’s] becoming the basis of the economy.” This is a pretty powerful sentiment but one that makes sense. Be who you say you are. Don’t allow for a disconnect to occur between what you say and what your customers experience, because your customers will see right through it. Work to create an authentic emotional connection to which customers will be drawn. “Rendering authenticity” means enabling your customers to see your offering as authentic by being true to oneself, as well as by being what you say you are. It means making a promise in line with your company’s values and holding strong on that promise.

Clarity. A strong brand communicates a clear message. This helps a product or service stand out from the competition and inspires action from the consumer. A brand is a company’s personality, voice, and ultimately, what makes it memorable. It is representation of who and what a company believes in. For example, Apple promises innovation, sleek design, functionality, and customization. Whether through print or digital media, Apple’s messaging always clearly communicates these core promises (no pun intended).

Individuality. “If you’re speaking to everyone, you’re speaking to no one” is a classic truism about what happens when a company’s messaging is too broad. The same holds true if a marketing message is too similar to a competitor’s message. A strong brand understands and communicates its core competencies to the world. Brand owners have found a gap in the marketplace that is not adequately being serviced and they can communicate exactly how and why they are different from everyone else. Brands that spark a connection to the consumer foster loyalty and in a world full of copycat products; strong brands stand out from the crowd. As CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, Kevin Roberts articulates, “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything”.

Social Media Has Changed Everything

Love it or hate it, social media has changed everything. From a brand owner’s point of view, social networking sites have moved influence and power away from business owners and placed it in the hands of consumers. No longer do companies have complete control over how their business perceived in the media, which has historically been achieved through carefully planned advertising campaigns. Now, any Tom, Dick or Harriet can post their thoughts and ideas in real time on a variety of social broadcasting media, such as Twitter and Facebook. As mentioned earlier, establishing a successful brand is so difficult because it takes an army to establish but a lone soldier to discredit all of the work that others have done. This notion is becoming ever more difficult as social media enables all consumers to broadcast their experiences 24/7, consequently influencing other consumers based on their experiences. A positive message spreads slowly (it’s not news if a company does what they say they will), whereas a message containing a negative experience tends to spread like wildfire (they didn’t do what they said they would? Now that’s news!). This can, understandably, be cause for concern for some brand owners whose products and services are inconsistent with their marketing messaging.

For companies that deliver on their brand promises and successfully manage product and service expectations, social media can act as an exciting springboard for growth. Brand evangelists begin to take shape and spread the good gospel about your product or service, potentially exposing your business to new customers. For these brand owners, social networking sites provide an infinitely exciting opportunity to educate, interact with, and reward loyal customers for their business.

How Printers Can Help

Printers can help visually communicate the core messaging of a brand, but first, they must understand what their customers value most. Why are they in business? Who are their customers? What is most important to them? Printed collateral should exist as an extension of a brand. By digging deeper into the core elements of the brand, printers can employ true consultative selling and offer unique solutions.

An example from last month’s issue of Graphic Arts Magazine is the natural products company, Lush Cosmetics. Even if Lush’s environmentally-conscious attitude towards wasteful packaging makes it appear as though they don’t have much of a need for printing, a closer look uncovers that there is a great printing need: from boxes to paper wrappers, fabric, labels, publications, and beyond. Understanding what drives customer decisions can help printers sell solutions (a sought-after offering), not printing (a commoditized offering).

Additional Resources

If you have a keen interest in the art of branding, there are excellent resources available both in print and online. A few of my personal favourites paperbacks are described below:

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman – Debbie Millman is the mastermind behind Sterling Brands where she has been involved with the redesign of over 200 global brands. Her book, Brand Thinking, is a compilation of interviews with over twenty of the world’s top creative, strategic, and design-focused minds. Interviewees include Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Seth Godin, among others. An insightful read, indeed!

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath – The Heath brothers wrote Made to Stick to answer one fundamental question: Why do some ideas thrive while others die? Focused on drilling down to the core of what makes an idea “sticky” (memorable), this book uncovers the “SUCCESS” principle that can increase an idea’s traction. The authors’ areas of expertise marry seamlessly throughout the book. Chip Heath works as a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, while Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, supporting social entrepreneurs.
The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier – This publication helps close the gap on branding literature by encompassing both brand strategy and customer experience (the sender and the receiver). Both strategic and creative approaches to brand management are addressed to reach the goal of establishing a “charismatic brand”. The Brand Gap can be read in a couple of hours, which makes it the perfect companion on your next short-haul flight.

Just Do It.

As we have explored, branding has evolved from its humble beginnings in the late nineteenth century to the complex, far-reaching, consumer-driven place where it stands today. Remember that a brand’s image ultimately exists in the minds of consumers, not in the mouths of well-paid marketing executives. A brand is the amalgamation of both the company’s marketing (what they are telling their customers they are all about), as well as the way in which the consumer actually experiences the brand. Only when both perception and reality are equal (and consistent over time) can a company hope to establish a strong brand.

As you can well imagine, brands take time to develop – it’s not something that happens overnight. As much time as they take to build, they take even more time, effort, and money to maintain. Every decision a company makes affects their brand, whether for better or for worse.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.