If you hang around the business world for a while, you’re bound to hear a lot of different platitudes about branding. Every company is trying to create a unique brand for themselves that stands for who they are and what they do. The idea is that this brand lives in the heads of their customers and prompts different buying decisions that might not have been made if consumers were simply comparing price, features, or other traditional criteria.
Brand represents the intangible goodwill you build up in the market that keeps customers coming back again and again (hopefully). When consumers compare products in a specific niche, brand is that little voice in the back of their head nudging them in a certain direction. It’s the convenience of not having to make yet another decision because you can trust a loyalty you’ve relied on in the past.
From a strategy perspective, a lot of the long-term work to build a successful business is around establishing a strong brand that carries you through good and bad times. If your core audience can relate to the type of company you’re trying to build and you occupy some of their limited mental bandwidth, they are much more likely to remain loyal to you.
From the point of view of a consumer, it’s a tribal thing, at the end of the day. We associate with brands that we like because we think it says something about us. The canonical example here is Apple that has managed to create its brand as a status symbol. The Apple fanatics value the perceived status that these products create in their social circumstances and that means that Apple can continue to sell products to those people year after year. It’s a superpower when done right.
And the way you build that brand is through shiny marketing right?
The Big Misconception
One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to brand is something that Matt Ryan recently brought up when speaking at the 2021 Cascade Strategy Fest. Matt has immense high-level experience with branding and marketing at Starbucks and Disney respectively, and made the following statement during his talk:
“Brand is not a marketing campaign. Brand is the totality of actions.”
This really got us thinking. Because one of the assumptions when it comes to brand is that it’s for the sales and marketing team to create. They are the ones 'responsible' for ‘branding’ and we just leave it to them, while the rest of operations just gets on with the job. In fact, many of us think of our brand as our logo, our website, our letterhead, and all the other visual aspects of a marketing strategy.
If you think about this for just a second, you’ll realize that not only is this a big oversight, but it also represents a significant missed opportunity when you silo such an important business component in this way. Your brand is more than just what you claim in your advertising campaign. It’s a living, breathing thing that receives a wide range of different inputs every single day.
It’s tempting to believe that you can sit around a conference room table, dream up an idealized version of what you want your brand to be, and then just hand that to your consumers saying: “Here you go!” We like to think that we have a lot more influence over the mind space of our consumers than we actually do. We overestimate the impact of our carefully crafted brand messaging and underestimate a range of other factors that play a big role.
As Matt says, brand is not just a marketing function.
What is Brand Then?
If brand isn’t something that we can cook up in the marketing department, then what is it actually?
“Brand is not just how good your logo looks – that’s graphic design. It’s what exists in the hearts and minds of customers when they see your logo. It’s what you stand for. It’s the meaning you have in the marketplace.”
As we’ve alluded to above, your brand represents the emotions and feelings that are evoked in the minds of consumers when they see your company name or logo. It’s about so much more than the direct and explicit messaging that you try and communicate. It actually comes down to how you run your business. For example, when you consider a brand like Starbucks, it’s not the ads that change your opinion of the company, but rather it’s the experience you have in the store, when you drink the coffee, and so on. That’s where the brand is built.
Let’s break that down into a few different examples to give you a sense of what we mean:
- Customer Service. When your customer has a problem and comes to you for a solution, the way you treat them says an awful lot about the business you’re running and its overall philosophy. You can have all the right buzzwords in your marketing, but when it comes down to it – your customer service needs to uphold the values that you’re trying to communicate in order to deliver a consistent image of the company itself. This is even more important in today’s world of social media where one bad customer service interaction can cause a significant ripple effect if things go pear-shaped.
- Operational Efficiency. In order for your brand to be memorable, you want to remove as much friction as possible from the buying experience so your customer is only thinking about the product and the value it provides. If your operational standards are not up to scratch and it’s too difficult or fidgety to access what you’re selling, then your brand is going to suffer. The best of the best are able to make the entire process feel seamless, with all of the complexity hiding under the surface – being taken care of internally. These efficiencies can feel like magic to the customer – allowing them to focus only on the product itself.
- Pricing. Humans exhibit strange psychological habits when it comes to pricing and so the pricing of your products should also be considered as an important branding tool. For the most part, we tend to associate price with value and in a lot of cases, the prices can be completely detached from the actual cost of production, just because there are other intangible factors that make that particular item more or less valuable.
We’ve seen entire industries built on the premise that the higher-priced items are more popular because they give an illusion of exclusivity, flying in the face of basic economic theory. In a world where purchases act as status symbols, your pricing methodology actually plays a more significant role in your branding efforts than you might have previously realized.
- Transparency. We all hate to feel that we are being misled, and when we have that feeling of skepticism or that pit in our stomach, it creates a negative connotation in our mind regardless of whether there was actually deception or not. As such, a key part of your company brand is how transparently it does business.
Are you honest with your customers when something goes wrong?
Do your stated values actually play out internally?
Are you holding yourself accountable to certain standards that are in the best interests of the consumer?
All of these questions are examples of where transparency can play a role in branding your business – because we want to work with companies who are honest. It’s amazing what a little vulnerability can do to build trust – especially in a market where so many are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
- Expectation Management. Another key aspect of branding is being able to effectively manage the expectations of your customers. In any competitive space, your company needs to be constantly evolving in order to stay relevant – but there is a fine line here. You don’t want to over-promise and under-deliver. You need to be able to show that you are on the cutting edge of your industry, without promising something that you can’t deliver on. When you break a promise too many times, you lose the trust of your audience and it becomes very difficult to rescue that brand.
However, when you are too conservative with your expectations, you leave yourself vulnerable to other brands who are willing to take more risks and show that they are innovating on their offering. You’re looking for the sweet spot, which will depend on the type of company you want to run. But don’t underestimate this as a key part of nurturing the right feelings in the minds of your customers.
- Company Alignment. As your business gets bigger, it gets harder and harder to have everyone pulling in the same direction because there are so many competing interests. However, this alignment is crucial for building a loyal customer base that understands what the mission of the company is. You need to have consistency here across your organization, otherwise, your brand becomes diluted. If different customers are having varied experiences based on who they deal with, you’re never building any compounding assets, but rather you’re starting from scratch every time. It’s up to you to ensure that every single person in the company, regardless of function is on board with the mission and is bringing those core aspects to the table – so that it feels like a unit. Consumers can sniff out broken ranks very easily and so you want to make sure that you show a united front on every occasion.
- Product Quality. Of course, the quality of what you provide to customers is also going to make a significant impact on company perceptions. Actions speak much louder than words here and nothing is more powerful than a product or service that exceeds expectations and validates the money that a customer has spent. This is the core of word-of-mouth marketing and this is how you get the wheel turning. But it’s not only the quality itself, it’s also about the experiential aspects that come along with it. Everything from the unboxing experience to the after-sale support plays into this perception and drives the brand home for every individual customer. This is why it’s worth taking the time to make sure that you’ve carefully crafted the entire experience to emphasize the value proposition that you are offering. The more attention to detail here, the better.
We could go on and on here, but hopefully, you can see that every single function within your company is responsible for the brand on a holistic level. It’s not something that should live solely within marketing itself. This needs to be an enterprise-wide focus because every single cog in the wheel has a role to play.
Brand isn’t dictated from the top-down. Rather, it emerges from the bottom-up, bubbling up through every interaction, every delivery, every conversation. And that’s what makes it so challenging to get right. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Long-Term Brand Building
This is the key thing that strategists often get wrong. True brand building takes a long time because you don’t have the luxury of just changing minds in an instant. It is something that emerges from the chaos of day-to-day business, you have to accept the fact that it’s going to take a long time.
There will be marketing consultants who will tell you that with a carefully crafted campaign you can pivot the mind space that your company holds in a short space of time, but that’s not actually the case. Sure, you can make a dent with some well-timed messaging, but if those changes don’t seep through the entire organization, then they remain hollow and ineffectual.
You have to be committed to this over the long term. Both from a financial and a time investment point of view – this is an evergreen project that you should always be working on. It’s not something that lives and dies on a content calendar – it must become something that breathes life into every corner of your business day after day.
But the good news is that all that hard work compounds. With every strong move that you make in the right direction, it cements those perceptions in the minds of your customers, and over time, that brand starts to work for you. By slowly chipping away at things, you create the space that you want to inhabit as an organization. And with time, those accumulated benefits pay dividends. It’s an exercise in delayed gratification, for the most part.
This long-term brand focus is what sets apart the 100-year companies from the 10-year ones.
Making Brand a Strategic Priority
Coming back to Matt Ryan’s talk for a moment, he shared some really great stories about his time at Disney – and one of the key things he mentioned was how they transformed the idea of branding from the inside. For a long time now, they have gone against the grain and stripped the brand responsibility from marketing, instead choosing to make it a strategic function.
They have gone out of their way to make the responsibility inclusive in such a way, that every person working at Disney feels responsible for how Disney itself is perceived. The strategic vision of the aspirational brand that they’re building plays a leading role in every decision, whether it's client-facing or not.
This is something that we can all learn from. Instead of paying lip service to brand as just another bullet point in our strategic planning, we should be doing the work needed to incorporate that brand accountability on the ground in as many places as we can. We need to be inculcating this mindset shift with every tool we have in the box – so that it becomes a part of the company culture.
One thing to note here is that because brand building is difficult to measure, it can very easily be swept away in favor of other more tangible metrics. It takes a certain resolve and management buy-in to see the long-term value of these activities to hold fast to the cause, especially when it doesn’t seem to be delivering any tangible ROI.
But then again, that’s what strategy is all about. We chart the course that we think will give us the best route forward and then we get to work to manifest that vision. When brand is a key part of that equation, you set yourself up well to build a loyal customer base that will keep you going through the good, the bad, and the ugly. If we’ve learned anything from the past 100 years, it’s that brand always wins.
Brand is action, not design.
Brand is holistic, not siloed.
Brand is culture, not advertising.
Brand is in the minds of your consumers, not in your marketing campaign.