When we ask three different people what branding is, e.g. a strategist, a marketer and a designer, we will get three completely different answers to this question. Most people use the term imprecisely or even incorrectly, and often simply narrow it down to its own specialty. Perhaps much of this confusion stems from literal translations of English phrases or from a poor understanding of what an overarching category is and what is merely its resultant.
Branding is not the same as the visual identification of a brand (although we will return to this later in the text and I will focus a little on this aspect), it is not the same as marketing or communication, and branding certainly is not only a logo or a name (although some understand it this way).
So to describe what branding is I will use the words of an undoubted authority on the subject, Marty Neumeier:
“Branding is not what you say about your brand, but what others say about it.”
The conclusion that can be drawn from this is that the perception of a brand by its recipients is the essence of branding. It is an overarching concept that treats the brand in a larger context. To find an example closer to our everyday life it can be compared to a kind of reputation. As it happens with reputations, everyone has their own on different topics and this is exactly the same with brands! It is also clear that in being the owner of a brand we do not have any way to directly control such a reputation (although it is very tempting and would make our lives easier) – after all we cannot force someone to have this or that opinion about us. So it is the same with branding, we cannot freely shape it, but we can influence it, depending on our needs, although usually to a limited extent, and the effect of these influences will not be the same for everyone.
Since branding is a complex notion, there are many methods of projecting it, e.g.
- Identity and graphics
- CX (customer experience)
- Our employees and representatives
- Our products
- Copywriting / branding
- Communication & Marketing
As you can see from the examples above, optics, the visual perception of a brand, plays a big role. Cognitive scientists believe that more than half of the brain is responsible for the reception and interpretation of visual stimuli, so we can imagine that such information reaches us first like a tsunami flooding us with the first image of what we are dealing with. Therefore, when thinking about specific features and designing a brand identity system we should definitely pay attention to make it expressive and stimulate the recipient’s brain when they look at it. Stimulated and encouraged to be active, the brain will better remember the information it receives, thanks to which there is a greater chance of associating that identity with our product, service or name and thus building a tenuous link (perhaps even creating a new neuron in our head) between the visual codes and our brand.
In the traditional approach to design, we have a few immutable goals that any design should meet in order to be considered good. Of course, almost all of us have our own eyes and see what we like and what we don’t like, but putting subjectivity and developed taste (or the lack of it) aside, our design, in order to be beneficial to our brand, should inform the recipient what a given service or product is. It should identify it unambiguously (a brand with a logo confusingly similar to the one of the competition would be of little use to us), it should entertain it (or at least be able to hold its attention) and finally it should convince or even persuade it. When it comes to influencing the brand, which is a much broader concept, there is an additional feature that we have to take into account, namely that we have to stand out or even stand out against others. As we all know, today’s society suffers from the opposite problem to the one we faced when there was only vinegar in the stores, which is way too many choices. We have thousands of products and services on the market occupying every area of life and we, as consumers, are forced to make hundreds of sometimes subconscious decisions. Our brains are very fond of taking shortcuts, simplifying and grouping similar things together to keep us from going crazy and overworking ourselves. Distinguishing yourself and standing out from the others therefore becomes a very important part of building brand identity.
This also translates into easier outreach and more effective marketing. Before anyone decides to buy our product or service, it must first be seen. Of course, we can still rely on the system of recommendations and referrals, both of people from the immediate environment and influencers who are eager to present our offer in the very superlatives. But to have a chance to be found by a lost user, we must first be noticed. Ways of communication or final design may vary depending on the product category, target group or even time in which we run the sale. But some principles seem to remain the same. Well juxtaposed and used colors, clear and bold typography perhaps clever use of facial images used in the design. Only when we meet these basic conditions there is a chance that someone will reach for our product lying on the store shelf among many others and then will start wondering – what exactly is it? Here we get one unique chance to convince a potential customer who, having a number of doubts, wonders whether it is interesting for them at all, whether they actually need it? This is not an easy task – is it?
As you can see the situation is very delicate and it is easy to miss such opportunities. Of course, the system is very complex and the reputation that someone makes about us is not given forever – it’s more like a relationship and you have to take care of it. Hence the touchpoints mentioned earlier where our brand should be consistent and focused on its audience, message and form of communication. What comes back to me once I’ve gotten to know it, how and how often it reminds me of itself, how it presents itself in other places and what opinion others have of it.
What appeals to me in a TV ad or on packaging will not necessarily appeal to me elsewhere. The form must therefore be adapted to the medium. An unreadable and unusable website with terrible navigation and illogically arranged content? We already heard this someplace before – the problem of many brands is inadequate communication and bad use of their assets in various channels. In particular digital channels, where the traditional approach to brand building often fails (www, social media). Fortunately, the situation is relentlessly changing, the market regulates itself and often the competition forces brands to better organize and manage their communication. Product owners and CEOs, even those less progressive, realize that in order to build the expected branding they need highly specialized employees, partners and subcontractors who, colloquially speaking, know their craft. And although I appreciate the witty saying of Mr. Filipak, the founder of Comarch, that “every specialist can be replaced by a finite number of students,” here I will simply say no.
For every new medium, every new technology, a new specialization is created, a position or even a branch of science that treats the needs of a given environment and the principles of efficient movement within it.
Take, for example, designers specializing in Web design, mobile applications, or even newer trends like Virtual Reality[VR] or Augmented Reality[AR], interaction and user experience designers, etc. The potential of the computer (or console) games market and the purchasing power of its users probably does not need convincing. The times when you could play Super Mario at your neighbor’s house are long gone. Photorealistic characters, cars and entire virtual cities (Cyberpunk 2077?) may be a previously unavailable advertising space, which, if cleverly and elegantly managed, may have enormous branding potential. Herein lies the great temptation for all marketers to pounce on this and grab the biggest piece of the pie for themselves. But it is said that good design is almost invisible and the real art of building good branding is subtracting what is unnecessary and leaving only what is absolutely necessary. Minimalism in form is one of the ways to achieve this goal which can be seen in many brands that decide to “slim down” their brand identity and logotypes to better fit into the modern world of the 21st century.
What else can we do to make our branding better?
Obviously a significant role is played by the brand strategy we choose. Long-term goals, how we will react to potential environmental and how we want to be perceived in the future change. I think it will be more important to match the objectives that the brand represents and aims for than to match the messages to a specific audience. Today’s users are much more aware and can immediately spot inconsistencies and falsehoods, so authenticity and following one’s own path can be also crucial in terms of branding. However, remember that a car will not go anyway without fuel. Strategy is our foundation, but it will do nothing without proper execution. No one will remember a brilliant, advanced or even innovative strategy if advertising, communication or finally identification do not stand out and affect our emotions. It is images and volatile words that stick in our minds.
I think we can all agree at this stage that working on branding is an advanced and often tedious process. A fragile relationship with our recipient, for which we look after and strive towards. So it is not a closed process and should be consistently improved. An efficient and effective way to do this is to work on prototypes and mockups. A trend that also works here. Such an agile approach allows us to introduce fast and low-cost changes and not to stick to not necessarily good solutions. After all, we can always say that it’s just a prototype and start the whole process over again. We have to accept at the beginning that all attempts will be burdened with a kind of error resulting from subjectivity, because branding is the designer’s (or team’s) personal sense of how the brand should be perceived, and not necessarily a guarantee of how it will be perceived by specific people. Nevertheless, this type of workshop approach in the development of, for example, visual brand identity, but also other aspects of branding, allows for better mutual understanding during work and a freer exchange of ideas describing sometimes hazy visions, but also to develop a holistic and coherent image understandable for a wider group of people.
So are there any objective indicators that allow us to consider branding as good?
First of all, as we mentioned above, branding should be consistently improved. We see it on a micro scale with every new product, new campaign as well as on a macro scale. We have all heard about rebranding of well-known, often very big brands, even after many years of activity. Such a process is incredibly expensive and difficult to carry out, although sometimes necessary. So what makes companies decide to make such a move, thus exposing themselves to a wave of criticism from staunch supporters or the specter of losing their top-of-mind position among a given group of customers? Do the values of these companies change? Not likely, or at least in principle they shouldn’t. But the reality in which they operate, the context, the aforementioned media and touchpoints, and the recipients themselves (their awareness and perception of certain issues – e.g. ecology) are changing. All this requires a change of paradigms to be able to see new opportunities and open up to change.
Both design and copywriting in branding are subject to modification. Although it is said that the best designs are timeless, a slight tuning or simplification of an overly complicated form can bring many benefits in the long run and prepare the brand for the future. Also, names of great companies are not protected against rebranding. This does not matter if it happens in the early stages of the activity (did you know that e.g. Google used to be called Backrub? ), but such changes also happen when the position of the company is well established on the market – we have all heard, for example, about the rebranding of the producer and supplier of RWE electricity for the needs of the consumer to the brand Innogy.
So what should the brand identity and name be (treating these two aspects of branding as the most difficult to change abruptly) to avoid premature rebranding and costly implementations? I’m intentionally not just talking about the logo here, because it’s a closed symbol that can’t work on its own in a broader context. We can adopt some overarching, proven criteria to work with. Identity and name should be/have the following features:
- Unique (distinctiveness) – how does it stand out?
- Concise (brevity) – is it simple enough and easy to remember, will it be shortened?
- Appropriateness – does it fit in with the reality of your business? Is it not “off the wall”?
- Easy spelling and pronunciation – can the name be easily pronounced by a majority of the recipients? Will they have problems with reading the name from the logotype and remembering it?
- Extensibility – is the name and identity capacious enough to be played with and applied in many ways in different contexts and editions?
- Protected (protectability) – can this name and logo be reserved? Can we find a free domain with this name for our website?
These are, of course, very general indicators, but they allow us to avoid often costly mistakes and enable us to verify ideas at a fairly early stage of work. They are also not “iron rules” that can never be broken (Why is Apple in electronics and software?).
To sum up the things we have managed to cover here, it is worth remembering that branding is an abstract concept, it is not a thing or a service. It has no body or specific form. It consists of many aspects which add up to a subjective feeling of the user/consumer about a given brand, product or service. Constantly fine-tuning it allows us to keep the brand fresh and oriented to the ongoing changes, which is becoming an increasingly important feature for many consumers (CSR activities). New media and technologies allow us to explore previously undiscovered possibilities and open new doors of creativity and ways of building long-term and intimate relations of the user/consumer with the brand.