The term “brand” gets thrown around all over the place, especially on social media. Maybe that’s the reason very few people understand what a brand actually is. I aim to remedy this situation.
Brands used to be powerful symbols where I grew up. In post-communist Bulgaria, they were status signals used to elevate the nouveau riche above the rest. It was a time of civic and economic turmoil, but some people gained a lot from it, and their prize was prancing around the place like they were better than everyone else.
I was a kid back then, so I didn’t know much about the socioeconomic changes that were happening. But what I quickly learned were the unwritten rules.
If a kid was wearing “branded” clothes, had a PlayStation (while the rest of us were happy to get an NES knockoff), and their parents bought Coca-Cola instead of the cheap soft drink crap, that was a clear sign they were “doing well”.
I’m not even talking about fancy brands. Any well known brand had that effect. And since my parents could never afford to buy me branded stuff, I grew up resenting brands. In my mind, there was no real difference between “branded” items and their “non-branded” equivalent, except the price. People were paying for logos, and how sad was that, I thought. Sour grapes, my friends.
In an ironic twist, I grew up to work with brands. I help build brands. I even began to admire and appreciate what some brands have accomplished (without necessarily becoming a fan).
So what changed? Was I finally seduced by the Dark Side? Did I decide to sell my soul for a pair of Nikes? Am I a hypocrite?
The truth is, as it often turns out to be, a lot more trivial. I merely educated myself. Understanding what a brand is, sparked a fascination in me.
I learned that not all brands are greedy, faceless, power hungry corporations. Even a small business can (and should) create a brand.
This revelation changed everything. So much so, this is what I decided to do for a living.
And since I, too, constantly talk about brands on this blog, let’s dive deeper into what a brand actually is.
What is a brand?
A brand is a mental space a business, organization, or even a person holds in people’s heads. It’s a perception, a feeling. But also a promise. If people buy your product, they do so with a set of expectations. No one buys an iPhone expecting it to break down in two weeks. Apple promises that won’t happen, and they keep that promise to a reasonable enough degree.
Brands are living, breathing entities. They live in the mind of the people who experience them and gain power from their mental energy.
A brand is not a name, a logo, or a color scheme. It’s not a store, a website, or even a product. Those are manifestations of a brand in the real world. People’s perception of what those elements mean – that’s the brand. That’s why people are willing to pay premium prices for a brand – they perceive more value.
As Marty Neumeier eloquently put it, “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”
Because they’re abstract, psychological constructs, brands are immensely powerful and constantly evolving. As times change, people change. And as people change, brands change with them. Those that don’t fall into the pit of obsolescence, soon to be forgotten and thus erased from existence. This is the worst fate that can befall any brand.
People have the collective power to destroy brands, because they are the ones who give brands life. The more passionate people are about a brand, the more powerful that brand is.
This passion about things outside of ourselves is a natural consequence of our deeply ingrained need to connect. We need to be a part of something that’s bigger than we are.
That’s why some brands can evoke a sense of belonging, forming a tribe around their shared values. Fans can begin to identify with the brand, much like they align with their sports teams.
Don’t think only big brands are capable of achieving this result. Small businesses are just as capable, but the first step is to get people to like you. People connect with and buy from brands they like. This is what makes building a brand such an important part of any business. A business without a brand is doomed.
OK, but how do we build a brand? First, we need to understand the anatomy of one.
Anatomy of a brand.
If we want to truly understand what a brand is, we need to break it down into several core elements. We’ll start from the abstract elements and work our way out towards the tangible elements.
Purpose tackles one of the most difficult questions – the infamous “why”. Why is your company in business beyond making money? What’s the passion behind the work?
Of course, you need money to sustain the business, but ideally the cheese is more of a means than an end. Money should be a result of pursuing something more meaningful. Your purpose needs to be something deeper than “stacks of cash”.
Purpose is the soul of a brand. It shows what drives you as a business. This is where you will derive your values later on. I mean your real values, not the bullshit most companies slap on their walls which no one believes in.
Apple was founded because Steve Wozniak liked building cool shit and the late Steve Jobs knew how to bring it to the public. The purpose of the company was technological innovation.
Your vision shows what kind of a world you’re trying to create. It should be embarrassingly ambitious and wildly audacious. After all, your brand is trying to change the world.
Focus on what problem you’re trying to solve and then picture a world without it. This is your vision. It’s the change you want to be in the world.
This vision should be something both employees and customers can get behind. Something that inspires them and rallies them under the same flag.
The brand vision should be to the point. It should have substance more than anything else.
Apple’s vision is “to make the best products on earth, and to leave the world better than we found it.” Ambitious, wouldn’t you say?
The mission deals with the tactical side of things – how are you going to achieve your vision? While the purpose and vision can be abstract, the mission should start dealing with some specifics.
What do you do? How do you do it? Whom do you do it for? How are you going to achieve your goals? All pertinent questions in the mission statement.
Apple’s mission while the late Steve Jobs was still at the helm was, “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” When you unpack it, it implicitly answers many of the questions above, while still being short and punchy. This was the genius of Steve Jobs.
Values are the founding principles of your brand. It’s your code of conduct. And it’s one of the brand elements that will resonate with your customers the most.
Beyond mere words, you embody your values with your actions. This is what you stand for and you wouldn’t compromise it, even if it does end up costing you money.
Straight from the Apple website, their values are:
- Inclusion and Diversity
- Supplier Responsibility
Each of these values has a dedicated page on their website.
Positioning is one of the most important concepts in marketing. It’s also one of the most important elements of your brand. Your positioning will determine how your customers classify you.
In Obviously Awesome: How to Nail Product Positioning so Customers Get It, Buy It, Love It, April Dunford shows us the power and importance of positioning. It’s one of the best ways to cut through the noise and outmaneuver your competition.
The more clearly you position your brand, the more likely it is you will succeed (as long as there’s enough market demand for your product).
To position your brand on the market, you need to figure out what problem you’re solving, for whom, and how you’re different from your competitors. Then communicate this clearly through your messaging and brand identity (more on this below).
Here’s an example of Apple’s positioning: “For individuals who want the best personal computer or mobile device, Apple leads the technology industry with the most innovative products. Apple emphasizes technological research and advancement and takes an innovative approach to business best practices — it considers the impact our products and processes have on its customers and the planet.”
At this point, they’re big enough and they can afford to be a bit more generalistic. But if you’re just starting out, it’s not the best idea to generalize.
Brand personality is a set of human characteristics ascribed to a brand. Now we’re walking into Black Mirror territory.
Every known brand has a distinct personality. Brands serve to personify the purpose, mission, vision, and values of your business. If you’re doing something real and sincere, then your brand will inevitably embody a distinct personality.
This personality is the character your customers will associate your brand with. It’s what they’ll relate to on an emotional level. Once you establish an emotional connection with your customers, you also increase their lifetime value.
Do not take this as an excuse to be an asshat and manipulate people! Everything I’ve talked about so far needs to be the genuine article, including your brand personality.
Creating a brand strategy is about taking all these elements, structuring them, and presenting them in an appealing way. It’s not about trying to lie to your customers. That never works in the long run (thank goodness).
Having a clear brand voice allows your audience to connect with you on more than one level. If you hide your logo from your website, will people still know the message is coming from your brand?
If they see your content on different channels, will they still know it’s you? These are important questions to ask. And having a powerful brand voice helps.
Clever copywriting isn’t just about selling (although it’s mostly about that). It’s also about differentiation. Having a different tone of voice from your competitors can be a huge advantage (read more moolah). Especially in industries where copy is more sleep-inducing than your high school biology textbook, you have a real shot at standing out by not being mind-numbingly boring.
If you want to cut through the noise of your industry like a hot knife through butter, you need a damn good copywriter. Do not underestimate the power of a brand voice.
Brand name and tagline
A cool brand name isn’t going to save your business if everything else is bad. However, the brand name and tagline are still one of the most direct points of interaction between your customers and your brand.
Having a memorable brand name is a benefit. But you have to make sure it resonates with your target audience. If you’re trying to sell something to the elderly, some cool, hip name is not what you want.
Along with the brand name, we have the tagline, which encapsulates the essence of your brand in as few words as possible. The brand tagline, too, needs to be catchy and resonate with your intended audience. Furthermore, it should both differentiate you from your competitors and communicate value to your customers. None of this is easy to achieve, which is why most brands suck more than a heavy-duty Dyson cordless vacuum cleaner.
If you don’t think your tagline is important, “Think different.”
Finally, we take all the abstract, conceptual stuff from above and manifest it visually. This is what the brand identity is all about.
Your brand identity includes design elements, such as your logo, your colors, typography, product packaging, and more. It’s the symbolic, visual representation of your brand. Something your customers can learn to recognize. Like putting a face to a person. The face is not the person, but you recognize the person thanks to their face.
If you ever need an awesome brand identity developed, Alexander Petrov from Embrand Studio is the best designer I know. The guy has mad skills in both conceptual and design work. His work is truly breathtaking. Go check him out.
Where does brand strategy come in?
Brand strategy brings brands to life. It takes all the elements from above and combines them so you have a living, breathing brand.
It’s the process of taking the ore that is your business concept, melting it down, and then smithing into something relatable to your customers.
That’s how trillion-dollar companies are made. I own zero Apple products, but their branding is so good, I can’t help but use them as an example.
Brand strategy helps you figure out who your customers are, how your product helps them, and how you can appeal to them. It’s consciously choosing how to present your different brand elements so they work together like an actual living organism. The last thing you want for your business is to be the brand equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster at a beauty pageant.
Of course, none of this matters you’re not selling a great product.
Brands do a lot more than demonstrate wealth or status. They’re among the most powerful entities in the world and, for better or worse, they’ve become a part of the culture. Brands are here to stay, so we might as well make the most of it.
You don’t need to have a big business in order to build your brand. Small businesses (especially those in competitive markets) can greatly benefit from building a brand, too. And, if you need help with that, I know a guy.
Remember: “Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”
Till next time.
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