Building a brand doesn’t have to be complicated

By Chris Blair

The term branding is thrown around a lot in marketing and advertising, yet many companies struggle to consistently brand themselves.

One reason is that many advertising and marketing professionals make it so darn complicated. They use terms like: value propositions, brand equity, B2B, shelf shout, push marketing, ROI, and sonic branding. There are dozens more but you get the idea. I’ve worked in marketing for 26 years and I still get confused hearing jargon like that.

It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Branding on the most basic level is writing a concise story that defines an organization, company or product. That story should be the basis for all of a company’s marketing and should be relentlessly promoted to both employees and customers. It should be communicated across every point of contact, including all advertising, public relations, websites, blogs, even email signatures and telephone on-hold messages. The goal is a consistent, repeatable message that is unique and relevant to target audiences.

That story or brand could also be reflected in logos, packaging and design styles, but that can be difficult if a company has a longstanding logo or visual style. And while it may seem obvious, the message has to be truthful and people inside the company must buy into it. If you can’t convince your own employees that your branding message is genuine, how are you going to convince a skeptical and wary public?

The development of every ad, every layout and every message should start with this story and it should position the company as a unique supplier of whatever it delivers, be it products, services or a combination.

Of course developing the message and repeatedly delivering it is the hard part, especially in large, diverse companies. Marketing managers often want to put their own stamp on products or services, believing that differentiating them sets them apart. This is usually a bad idea. It’s almost always better to build on one brand than to try to create new ones. Why? Because people’s connections with brands often transcend products or services.

Apple Computer is an example of a company that does a great job of placing its brand before products. Wired Magazine wrote, “The secret of Apple’s success may have less to do with innovative products than with the image the company has created through skillful marketing.” Some argue that Apple’s brand is as powerful to its supporters as religion. Don’t believe me? Visit any Apple online discussion forum and post something negative about an Apple product and watch the reaction. Apple customers protect the Apple brand like animals protect their young. This loyalty persists even if a product is flawed, like the initial release of the iPhone, which had many technical and service issues, and Apple’s Quicktime media platform, which has a history of technical issues on both Apple and Windows operating systems.

The common belief is a product or service has to live up to its claims. But that’s not always the case. The product only has to live up to its claims in the mind of the buyer. So when people spend $4000 on a new computer and it doesn’t work right, they’ll still often defend the product to justify their purchase and hence protect the brand. That’s not to say Apple doesn’t make great products. It does. But its marketing helps elevate the brand. Its customers buy into the story Apple sells them in a big way.

Of course most companies don’t have a $100 million advertising budget like Apple does, but the lesson is it’s better to build a simple, clear, consistent message and use it on everything than to build separate stories for every product or service. Good brands also don’t simply tout features. That’s not what they’re selling. They’re selling a promise to solve a problem. If it’s Apple, the promise is that your Mac won’t break down and will be easy as pie to use.

Where people go wrong is thinking consumers get tired of seeing the same message over and over. Repeating a message does NOT mean telling a story the same way every time. Look at Geico’s advertising. They have the caveman, the gecko, and the creepy “money with eyeballs” for goodness sakes. But those diverse ads say the same thing. Fifteen minutes could save you 15% or more. There’s almost no talk about disaster response or being in “good hands” when a tree falls on your car. Yet, it works!

Geico’s promise is they can save you money without compromising your protection. Certainly some ads from Apple and Geico tout features, but every ad, every promotion and every press release consistently reflects their core messages.

Another important part of building a brand is developing a consistent look and sound across all marketing. It’s not enough to develop a strong story about your company. You have to commit to integrating it into every marketing tool you use, including the way it’s written, the use of the logo, the design, color scheme, typeface and layout. From TV ads and billboards to in-store signage and print ads, the look and feel should be consistent.

But even if you do everything right, you can’t entirely control a brand. You can only guide and influence it. I once read that brands are like sponges. They absorb perceptions like a sponge soaks up water. Every nuance about a product, service or company affects how it’s perceived and influences how people view it. Brands are defined by a company’s best product as well as its worst. They are shaped by good advertising as well as bad. They are influenced by the performance of your best employee and perhaps even more so by the deeds of poor ones.

But developing a strong, compelling and accurate story and using it as the basis for every marketing endeavor can help position a company ahead of its competitors.