Saturday, April 12, 2008

I recently wrote a three-part series on branding for Business People magazine. The first column, shown below, appeared in the March issue. The April issue, which came out this week, includes the second segment. I'll post parts two and three here, too, after they're published.

Understanding Branding
Knowing what branding isn’t helps you define what it is

Branding is one of the most misunderstood aspects of marketing—and that’s unfortunate, because branding is integral to every company’s success. In this first of three ProSpeak articles, I’ll discuss some of common misconceptions about branding and define what it is by explaining what it’s not. In the process, you’ll learn how your company can use the different components of your brand to tell a story that cuts through in today’s cluttered, chaotic communication environment.

Let’s start with the most common misconception about brands.

Your brand is not just your logo. There’s a good reason why logos and brands are often confused with one another. The marketing definition of “brand” is derived from the “brand” that ranchers use to identify their cattle. It’s a mark of ownership, a distinctive visual clue of what belongs to whom. Your logo has a similar function, but as a result it’s limited in its ability to tell a comprehensive story. You should think of your logo, then, simply as a tap on the shoulder that reminds people your company exists. But the impressions they have about you go well beyond the logo itself.

Your brand is not just your company name. Your name should be just as distinctive as your logo, but it doesn’t always tell a story—nor should it have to. As brands change over time, it often makes sense to change your tagline, your logo, or your advertising, but it’s rarely a good idea to change your name. Why? It takes a long time for a name to gain traction, and you don’t want to squander the equity you’ve earned unless your name has a strong negative connotation (one example: the change from “The Phillip Morris Companies, Inc.” to “Altria Group, Inc.”). Also, your name no longer has to be descriptive in and of itself: after all, does the “A & M” in “Texas A & M” have any meaning today? Is the scope of IBM’s products and services limited to the manufacture of “business machines”? Today, it’s just as likely that a successful name—“Google” or “Starbucks,” for example—says very little on its own about what you offer, until your audience is informed by the larger context provided by the brand.

Your brand is not just your mission, vision, or values statement. Mission, vision and values statements should be written for your internal audience (if they’re written at all). They are the traffic signals that tell your people what you stand for and what they should focus on. However, they won’t—nor should they intend to—replace well-crafted marketing messages designed to make an emotional connection with your audience. That’s where a tagline comes in. However...

Your brand is not just your tagline. Nike says “Just do it.” For McDonald’s, it's “I’m lovin’ it.” And for Target, it’s “Expect More. Pay Less.” These taglines often summarize a larger message about the brand, but they’re merely a jumping off point. The tagline often creates a question in the consumer’s mind (Just do what? I’m loving what? Expect more of what?), with the answer inherent in the context provided by the brand.

Your brand is not just your advertising. Advertising certainly helps you tell your story, but it’s a one-way conversation. Think of your advertising as the first thing you would say when introducing yourself to your customers, and your brand as the rest of the dialogue. One important note about advertising: even if it’s great, there’s no guarantee your audience will continue the conversation. That’s because...

Your brand is not something you control. Today, the consumer is in charge. As suggested above, your advertising, your logo, or your tagline may start a conversation with your customers. But their experience with your product or service—and the experiences others have shared with them—are what gets them to either continue the conversation or end it on their own terms. This word-of-mouth is what truly defines your brand. And while you should do everything you can to make customers speak well of you, they alone have the final say.

Now that you know some of the things your brand isn’t, let’s move on to what it is. First of all, your brand is everything mentioned above, and more. It’s the colors you use in your marketing materials. The media coverage you receive. The way your employees dress, speak, and respond to concerns. Perhaps the best definition is that your brand is a promise—the net impression that your customers have based on what you and others have told them, and what they’ve learned from their own experience. If they see the value in that promise, they’ll interact with your product or service. And when their experience is consistent with that promise, that’s branding at its most powerful. That’s when you start turning your customers into advocates for your brand, and when they become your most valuable asset.

So, how do you build a world-class brand? Next month, I’ll discuss some brands that have succeeded by making, and keeping, differentiated promises. What you’ll discover is that it doesn’t take an enormous marketing budget to build a great brand—but no matter how much you spend, it’s worth every penny you invest.

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