What is a brand? We have seen how difficult it is to create a brand and how it is not reducible only to its graphic expression, such as the logo or brand guidelines.
Creating a successful brand is difficult, and it is an activity that involves the whole company: not only communication but also sales, after-sales, the company, internal processes, personnel, shops, products, social media, and interviews with managers.
And the customers, their values, and their emotions because anything that speaks of a company or product can be considered a branding activity.
So can the logo in itself exhaust the definition of a brand? Of course not, not even in a dream. The questions we want to answer in this article are: What is a brand for? How did the brand concept come about? What is the definition of a brand? How do you build a successful brand?
Brand: definition and meaning
A brand is a distinct and recognizable construct that identifies a company’s offer and embodies the values it has been able to build among a specific audience. In other words, a brand is a tool through which companies create and consolidate the relationship of trust with their customers and convey their reputation about their commercial offer.
As mentioned, a brand is a complex system that is almost alive. Alive because it is constantly changing, perpetually in pursuit of a change defined by virtually every corporate decision: Everything the brand does is read by every customer, who builds their mental representation. This idea that each of us builds defines the positioning: we pigeonhole that particular brand in a hypothetical map that contains information on products, the market, needs, competitors, and emotional and value aspects.
Your brand is a serious business; always take it seriously. A strong and successful brand is not built in a day, but it is a long process to devote thought, strategy, resources, and energy. The brand is a fundamental asset of your company and contains various perceptive nuances, including at least the following:
- ability to solve problems
We talk about perceptual nuances because, as Jeff Bezos correctly describes it:
“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
Your brand is not your decision but what your customers or prospects think.
You can do all the marketing, communication, or corporate storytelling activities you want, but in reality, what matters most is people’s perception of your company. Furthermore, it must be remembered that any corporate behavior can be considered “branding,” from a Christmas gift to a meeting between your salesperson and a customer, from a company brochure to reviews on Amazon, from a post on a social media site to customer service.
Every action and activity of the company affects the minds of your customers and forms the idea that everyone has of your company; the result of this process is the positioning of your brand in a mental map that each of us has and within which there are also your competitors. Whoever emerges best wins.
According to the American Marketing Association, the brand is:
“a name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or any combination thereof, intended to identify the goods or services of a seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors.”
The definition is correct but didactic for what we are currently trying to define. A brand is how your customers or prospects perceive your company based on their direct or indirect interactions.
Positioning (or positioning) defines a brand as more reliable, nicer, relevant, and suited to my needs than others. That’s why I choose Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, and Reebok when I choose one or the other. The product, yes, obviously, is important, but there are other aspects that matter as much, such as the habit, the company philosophy, the customer experience, and the after-sales service. That’s why I choose iOs or Android.
In short, positioning is a personal thing. I can have an idea about that brand that doesn’t necessarily have to be the same as yours. It is up to the skill of those who manage the various aspects of each brand to ensure that the perception of their brand is as uniform as possible.
So to close this chapter, in the end, your brand is not what you say it is but what your customers perceive: your brand is the idea they have of you.
The difference between brand and brand
There is a lot of confusion around this topic. There are those who talk about brand and brand as if they were different things, but, as far as I know, they are exactly the same thing.
There is, therefore, no difference between brand and brand,” but we are talking about the same entity, called in Italian or English. A brand, or trademark, is the way in which a company manages to differentiate itself from the competition and establish a connection, often based on values and emotions, with its customers. It’s a company’s way of giving its potential customers confidence so they can buy without asking too many questions. On the other hand, if it’s Apple (or Nike or Lego), I know the type of product and level of service to expect.
What’s important to understand is that branding is primarily a matter of perception, not reality. The positive or negative values that a brand can convey to its customers, mainly thanks to its communication activity, are more important than what the product is or does (I’m not saying it, I’m paraphrasing Kotler).
Brand, make, and brand: the difference between the three terms.
As seen by the company, a brand is a way to identify and describe its offer. From the consumer’s point of view, a brand is equivalent to each customer’s idea about that particular offer; therefore, it is a set of beliefs, emotions, and values that contribute to creating a positioning. From the customer’s side, the brand is only a matter of perception.
The brand is the Italian version; it’s the same thing. In the marketing world, Englishism is simply more frequent.
Trademark: A trademark is a concept that has more to do with law than marketing. There is a legal definition of the term (which I leave to those who are more competent than me on the matter), but let’s say that as far as we are concerned, the brand is Everything that can be represented on a graphic level and has the purpose of differentiating the offer of a company from that of another. The brand is usually a logo, but it could also be a pictogram (like Apple’s apple), a product, or packaging. The trademark can (and should) be registered.
When and how the brand concept was born
The concept of brand has always existed in any culture and time and has always been closely linked to the demonstration of belonging to something: it’s a way to show you who I am, what I fight for, and who I work for.
For hundreds of years, artists have signed their works to work on their reputation; knights in the Middle Ages had banners, colors, and crests to define their faction; the military has the ranks that define the line of command. And we’re not talking about the pirate flag raised on the masts of ships being boarded.
The word “brand” probably comes from the branding of cattle that was applied to horses and bulls, which in 19th-century America defined membership in the related stables.
The need to “brand” through a differentiated and ever-wider communication strategy arose more than a century ago when the Industrial Revolution somehow opened the market beyond the confines of its own restricted territory. In a world where Everything is local due to obvious logistical difficulties, word of mouth is the first source of new business. As this restricted world becomes more global, reputation must travel through different channels than the simple referral generated by customers (which, despite Everything and with different media, still remains one of the main levers today).
In this context, a recognizable brand that has been able to build an important reputation stands as a guarantor of quality and trust and keeps alive that relationship with customers, which, before the industrial revolution, was the prerogative only of direct relationships between people.
Added to this is that the industrial revolution has led to a decrease in the differentiation between products; nowadays, many products are almost identical, often made with components that, upstream, are made by the same supplier. The brand, therefore, also becomes a way to differentiate oneself from the competition; this is why a brand is not just a logo but also works on emotional levers, communicating one’s values and essence.
That’s why the brand helps its consumers to choose: I choose Apple because I embrace its philosophy, not so much. After all, the product is necessarily better. The same thing goes for Nike, Coca-Cola, Ferrari, and any other brand you can think of. Another clarification: I am talking about iconic brands that we all know, but they are examples. Many brands, even small or very niche ones, are examples to follow for consistency, communication, and relational skills.
Quick recap. What has a brand been used for in history (and for what is it still used today)?
- A brand anticipates your reputation (think, for example, of the flag of pirates).
- A brand allows you to emerge from the crowding of the market (think of the Nike swoosh).
- A brand defines belonging (think of bulls being branded, a street gang tattoo, or, for a more fitting example, any fashion brand).
- A brand defines an alliance, be it in a medieval battle or a partnership pact between a company and its consumers.
Advantages of having a brand
The brand helps your customers choose. As we will see later, the branding activity comprises direct actions (a communication campaign, for example) and indirect actions (a customer review on an external marketplace such as Amazon, for example), which lead each of us to form an opinion of that company.
This idea works in everyone’s head and helps us not leave important decisions to chance, such as choosing a partner who can help us solve an imminent problem.
When is it good to start a branding journey? There are several moments in which it is appropriate to think about building a strong brand:
- In the start-up phase, the business model is constructed during the creation of a new company. This is the phase in which the three main assets of a brand are defined: vision, mission, and values. Distilling these topics means creating, rethinking, or adjusting the concept on which the company itself is based.
- In the start-up phase, during the go-to-market phase, when it’s time to build the first relationship with your customers In this phase, it is essential to understand who your buyer personas are and correctly define the communication methods suitable for them (not only the media but also the tone of voice and storytelling).
- In the company relaunch phase following a change in the market, the context in which it operates (customer, product, competitor), or following the management of a crisis (reputation problem), A traumatic event in the market, or a big change doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of a company; on the contrary, it must be the moment for reconstruction and an adaptation to the new scenario. Adapt and evolve.
What are the functions of the brand?
We discussed the importance of the logo, which is the first asset of a successful brand. The logo not only defines the brand but also makes it recognizable to its customers by generating a sense of trust that will translate into a purchase at a certain point in the customer journey.
But exactly, what is a brand? A small clarification At OFG, we are big fans of the lean marketing approach. We have talked extensively about it, addressing the theme of design thinking. Still, it is good to remember that an inter-functional work team has the potential that each component can never reach alone. It is about sharing information, listening to everyone’s ideas, and adapting and evolving them.
Whatever the brand, whatever the preferences of its customers, a successful and strong brand on the market have distinctive and recognizable traits that we can summarize in this little playbook. Remember that to build a successful brand, you have to look inside the company, be aware of what your customers want, and try to find insights that help you build your value proposition.
Remember that the ultimate goal is to build a relationship with your customers through a memorable brand experience.
A successful brand is recognizable and differentiating.
Are you clear on the role you want to play in your market? How does your company intend to distinguish itself from other companies offering the same services or products and operating in the same sector as you? What do you want to be recognized for on the market? Remember that “branding” means “deciding”: if you don’t have clear ideas about positioning and want to be Everything to everyone, you risk becoming little to nobody. A clear and well-defined positioning helps your customers associate you with the need they have at that moment. Many aspects define positioning; the first to work on is the core brand.
A strong brand is built on a clear “why.”
Simon Sinek used to say that customers don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. Considering why you do what you do not only helps consumers decide but also helps you and your organization have guidelines for organizational and business decisions. Always remember the “why” means having a guiding star, a point on the horizon that defines your course.
A great brand is a story to tell friends.
Nothing bonds people more than a good story. It is better to be appropriated and retold to others who can share it. Building your brand around a story, mission, insight, memorable moment, or someone who inspired you has a sense of epic that can be shared, making it memorable and relevant. Stories pave the way for sharing.
A brand must be clear in its communication.
A strong brand needs a clear and defined brand identity. Clarity on the selling proposition, the values on which it is based, and clarity (and consistency) in the messages it transmits to its customers and prospects. You can only think of attracting new customers or prospects if you cannot clearly explain what you can do for them and what problems you can solve. It sounds trivial, but it’s more complicated than saying it.
A successful brand is a living, evolving, but a coherent brand.
A brand is not just a logo, colors, a set of images, or a font. A strong brand is constant (over time) in its why and consistent (on different media) in its messages. A speech, a blog article, an interview, a podcast, a press campaign, social media, personnel management policy, and customer service. Everything has to be consistent to be believable.
A brand must be realistic and trustworthy.
Your brand will be judged on every aspect that intersects with the customer experience. The customer experience is your brand’s way of keeping all the promises it has made to its customers: be careful not to promise what you can’t guarantee and not to underestimate your product or services.
Your brand helps your customers decide.
Finally, I want to emphasize the concept of decision. At the beginning of the article, I wrote that the brand helps your customers make decisions. Let’s take an example: what leads me to choose, I don’t know, running shoes?
I have to tell you the price. Yes, it’s important. But my health is at stake; do I want to buy cheap shoes that don’t guarantee me high safety performance, and after a month, I have tendonitis that keeps me still for three months? I doubt.
So I try them on and see which ones look best on me. But here, too, aesthetics are important, but only up to a certain point. Then I take the ones that fit better. Yes, of course, but this is the only pair that fits me well in all the shoes I’ve tried. I do not believe it.
Okay, to say what? That I buy a pair of shoes from a limited range of brands that trust me, that I know and know that they guarantee (or that I believe they can guarantee) the desired performance. I’m already excluding what I don’t know, even if that doesn’t mean there aren’t better brands that are less known. But what can you do? The human mind thinks in categories and tends to lean on a superstructure of thought that leads us toward what we already know.
All this has strictly to do with brand awareness: if my brand is already known, I start from a position of advantage. Brand awareness concerns not only the knowledge of the brand but also, in a certain way, its reputation. “Doing well or doing badly, as long as we talk about it” doesn’t always make sense: playing ethically always pays off.
Here, the brand is this. And this is why it is a fundamental asset of your company, and you have to work on it: it is the way to get into your customers’ heads and be there when they are looking for someone who can solve a problem for them (see the Jobs to be them (see the Jobs to be Done theory).
Your brand helps the company decide.
The brand is not only an asset aimed at consumers but also something that is aimed internally. As we have seen, a brand is born from a corporate vision, mission, and values. It isn’t a coincidence that these assets are the basis of corporate decisions and communication activities.
From this point of view, a brand somehow defines the company’s behavior towards the outside world: how talent is chosen, the choice of headquarters, the relationship with suppliers, the relationship with collaborators, events, the storytelling, the products, the production process, and so on.
What is meant by “brand identity”?
Companies, like people, are guided by values and ideas. How a company thinks defines its behavior; whether it decides to speak or express itself through images or videos, it already has a way of saying something according to a specific style. What is “brand identity”? It is the way this thought becomes action: its ultimate goal is to give character to the brand, make it recognizable, different from the others, and possibly loved by its customers.
Successful brands know that Everything the brand does is communication and affects positioning: the big brands communicate uniformly on all occasions, by all means (from the coordinated image on the business card to the convention company, from the site to the customer service call center operator).
We all communicate in different ways; the important thing is that the alignment between thought and action is maximum.
How is the brand’s identity composed?
- Brand name
- Tone of voice
- Storytelling (what and how you say it), see examples of storytelling
- Logo, pictogram, payoff
- Brand guide: images, videos, colors, and style
What is the brand identity?
- Translating words into deeds: giving a real-world follow-up to the beautiful intentions that move the brand.
- Build positioning: help your customers choose during the purchase phase.
- Differentiate yourself from the competition and create recognition.
What is brand image?
The brand image results from the brand identity, i.e., how the market and its customers perceive the brand. Elements and characteristics such as quality, consistency, values, and reliability are perceived through the brand image, i.e., the brand’s public image.
Just for simplicity of exposition: the brand’s identity is how the brand wants to be perceived. Brand image is how the brand is perceived.
We are talking about something highly subjective, closely related to the personal perception and experience with that brand.
Brand core: what it means
The brand core (the most thought-provoking part; I can’t find a decent translation into Italian) is what guides behavior. As in Everything, when there are clear ideas and business and communication objectives, Everything else also comes easier. The core relates to how we want our impact on the world to be perceived; it is therefore linked to the company’s vision, mission, and values. Your brand must be able to promise what it can deliver.
The core brand defines the foundation on which to build your brand. We are talking about the most classic questions: who? What? Why? Let’s remember that often, the why is why people choose a brand, and it is often more important than the what.
How the brand core is composed
What is the brand core for?
- Defining behavior and driving the brand
- Create a shared purpose with your customers.
- giving the tools to make an informed purchasing decision
- Convey values that define the brand itself and that customers can share.
- Shaping corporate storytelling
What is a brand? The brand experience.
A successful brand is only successful as a result of the efforts you made to make it successful. How does your brand come to life and get transmitted to your audience? As we have seen, every action is communication and affects positioning; Everything is experienced, and your customers’ experience defines your brand’s idea. This is why, today, the brand experience is the most important and complex factor to manage: as we know, it comprises communication, marketing, sales, and after-sales actions. And it only takes one misstep to lose credibility or trigger a social media crisis after an epic fail.
So it’s all about the customer experience; this is where your customers figure out if you are who you say you are, or, to quote one of my favorite movies, “you’re just talking and distinctive.”
How the brand experience is made up
- Communication and media
- People and their behaviors
- Places and events
- Products, services, sales, and after-sales processes
- Production line
- Collaborations with third parties
What is the brand experience for?
- Govern the idea your customers have of your brand: confirm your positioning.
- Prove that you are made of pasta by transferring your values and vision into a real experience.
- Retain your customers through successful customer experiences at all touchpoints.
Ps. The model on display is taken from a very interesting book, Brand the Change, which I recommend.
Creating a brand: how to do it, steps, and strategy
If you’ve read the article up to here (and you’ve already done well), I would have understood that building a brand is an undertaking that costs time, consistency, attention, effort, and money. So it’s a challenging feat. To create a brand, the steps are as follows:
Study the target.
Obviously, it starts here. You are not building the brand for yourself, but for your customers. The brand, being almost exclusively a matter of how your customers perceive it, is nothing more than the result of your consistent efforts and how good you are at conveying your values. But it’s only partly up to you: perception is variable, and you can’t afford something to ruin all your efforts up to that moment.
Study the competitors.
Understanding what is happening in the market is essential. Both to study your offer and to understand how to improve the customer situation. Who does things better? Is there any point in the customer experience that needs to be turned in? Who makes things worse? What are the best practices? Who is the most famous or appreciated by customers? Why?
Choosing the personality of the brand
Brand personality is a theme that comes directly from how you want your brand to appear in the eyes of your customers. And given that the brand is a matter of perception, it is a fundamental choice. Personality derives directly from a series of upstream choices, such as mission, vision, and values.
“who we are” defines “how” we want to communicate. Values are one of the ways you decide who your customers are. If you have done Everything correctly, the brand personality is a consequence and should be aligned with your values. Which are those of your customers?
Creating the brand name: how to choose it
The name is as important as anything else. It can be a fantasy name, a crisis, a personal or invented name written in another language, whether or not it has real meaning. To create a brand name, you stick to a few simple rules: it must be short, easy to pronounce, business-related, practical, perhaps with an available domain, but above all, unique.
Even the logo is a more delicate matter than one might imagine. The feel of the logo is important, so you have to like it. So there’s a subjective part.
Then there are a series of more objective logic, which are important to follow. It must align with the values you want to convey and be able to convey them. It must perform its fundamental task; that is, it must be recognizable and differentiating in shape, color, font, and pictogram. Finally, it must be clear and versatile, usable in all required formats without too much difficulty.
Choose a payoff.
The payoff is that little phrase occasionally seen under some logos. It’s important but optional. It is important because it identifies the values or the business for which the brand is proposing itself on the market. Help your customers better identify your company.
Launch the brand on the market.
This is the last step. Here we are talking about two things: launch strategy and budget. The strategy depends heavily on the budget available and includes all brand awareness tactics that imagination and money can buy. Obviously, the strategy must be consistent with Everything that has been studied up to now.
Open a brand online: what’s the difference and how?
Open a brand that works only online, and one that works in the real world are not different jobs. Indeed, the process and strategy of building and maintaining an online brand are the same as we have seen.
Of course, to open an online brand, we have to imagine that conversions will only and exclusively take place in the digital world, so Everything that revolves around the brand will have to be online, from the store to customer relationship management tools (the newsletter or customer care) to the media that we are going to use in the communication plan.
However, this does not prevent the brand, for example, from communicating in the real world through classic media, which makes fewer conversions (to be demonstrated in any case) but certainly works on brand reputation.
What are brand ambassadors?
As far as I know, there are two types of brand ambassadors: the ones you pay for and those who are so satisfied that they tell everyone.
In the first case, we are talking about testimonials or influencers, more or less famous or influential people, who the company pays to tell true or false experiences or interactions with the brand. Not that it’s a bad thing. They help a lot because people already trust them; they are a trusted intermediary.
Happy customers are another thing. Those who are just happy with the product and the service. So happy that they tell friends about it, write about it on social networks, write enthusiastic reviews, write about it on their blog, and I don’t know what else.
Is it possible to start a company without building a brand?
This is a difficult question, and we risk falling into the philosophical. Being a brand, the question of how your customers perceive your offer is one to which I cannot personally respond.
It is not possible to start a company without building a brand because, whether you make efforts in one direction or another, whatever you do, whatever the way you behave, whatever the product or the level of service, you cannot prevent your customers from forming an idea of your offer and evaluating their experience as positive or negative, good or bad, rich or poor, whole or partial, expensive or balanced, satisfactory or not.
What is a brand? The anatomy of a successful brand
So a brand is a living thing, always changing and, for this reason, very delicate: the attention and care reserved for its development must be almost obsessive.
To close, let’s think of a brand as a human being, therefore made up of 3 major components:
- One’s “I,” the thought (or the soul if we want to stay on a metaphysical level, defines the character, beliefs, values, and emotions.
- One’s own body, which defines its aesthetic part and its visual and verbal expressions
- The context in which he lives, where there is Everything external to his body, but that helps to define his character: relationships with others and how these relationships occur,
The first two elements somehow shape the way your brand interacts with the outside world: just like a human being, a brand can be more or less likable, more or less attractive, or more or less willing to help others based on how it relates to customers and stakeholders.
Its values, character, and the way it communicates or sells define how it will be perceived and, therefore, it is positioning: each potential customer’s opinions of your brand derive directly from their interactions with it.
And that’s exactly what you want your brand to do: build relationships with your audience. Warning: It’s not just about raising awareness and making your brand known. Here we are talking about the content, not the medium: whatever the medium, attention to the message must be maximum.
And to have behaviors consistent with one’s messages, it is necessary to take care of one’s thinking and how the brand positions itself about the world: a brand identity (brand identity) that makes us different and recognizable.