Why We Love Branding (When We Don’t Hate It)

angry birds   The majority of people who don’t work in marketing never think about things like ad buys, press releases and Marketo reports. But one thing that everyone seems to love to talk about is branding. So let’s look at why it’s such a hot topic, even among non-marketers.

When most of us think of a company’s brand, it’s in the context of a highly visible element such as a logo or advertising campaign. While these are certainly elements of some brands, there’s a lot more to branding than meets the eye. As a first step, it’s important to define what brand is. A good brand answers three questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What is our focus?
  • What is our goal?

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t really explain how a brand really functions. There are plenty of good definitions out there – here are a few of our favorites that some giants in the marketing industry have come up with over the years:

  • “[Branding is] the sum of all the characteristics, tangible and intangible, that make the offer unique.” (Landor)
  • “Branding establishes the direction, leadership, and clarity of purpose for a company.” (CoreBrand)
  • “The fundamental aim of branding is guiding customer choice and building lasting relationships with them.” (Allen Adamson)
  • “The corporate branding process affects all forms of communications, from advertising to public relations to product packaging. It is the intentional declaration of who you are, what you believe, and why your customers should put their faith in your products.” (Branding as a Business Tool)

So what does all of this look like in the real world? In practical terms, brands can manifest themselves in the following ways:

  • Graphic image “look and feel”
  • Slogans and taglines
  • Advertising
  • Logos and color schema
  • Creating an anthropomorphic corporate “persona”
  • Customer promotions and premiums
  • New promotional materials
  • Direct marketing

While some of these may be relevant in certain cases, they are uses of branding, not the brand itself. Campbell Soup’s brand isn’t, “Soup is good food,” even though it’s probably the most recognizable part of their identity.

Branding, like an iceberg, is 90% below the surface. Most people never see the behind-the-scenes stuff, but the elements that are visible to the public often become common point of discussion. On the surface, this would seem to be a good thing for companies that are trying to raise awareness of their products and services. After all, what could be better branding than having millions of people standing around their proverbial water coolers talking about an advertisement they saw on TV, or a publicity stunt that went viral.

A great example of this was when Taco Bell put their logo on a raft in the middle of the ocean in 2001, and announced that everyone in the world could get a free taco if the Mir space station (which was flying out of orbit) hit the raft. Of course, it didn’t even come close, but for weeks people were buzzing about the possibility. From a branding standpoint, that’s a home run.

The downside of this, of course, is when a branding element fails. This happens more often than one might think, and perceived failures aren’t always terrible. Exhibit A is the new logo for The Gap that the company rolled out in 2010. The logo wasn’t awful, but you’d never know it by the wave of negative reaction that led the company to quickly scrap the identity and revert back to its old look. This kind of thing happens all the time – people get used to a certain set of brand elements, and changes can make them feel uncomfortable. That’s why companies that decide to adopt new color schemes, change their logos, or change their names often find themselves on the defensive.

There’s an old saying that, “all publicity is good publicity,” but that’s simply not true. Brands are a critical part of any organization’s reputation, and perceived faults with the brand invariably lead to questions about the company itself. That’s why organizations spend top dollar on focus groups and A/B testing before rolling out any changes that might impact the overall brand.

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