Introduction to Branding – everything you need to get started
Branding is one of those words that we’ve all heard of, but it’s quite difficult to agree on an exact definition. It also doesn’t help that many people use it slightly differently.
This isn’t necessarily anybody’s fault in particular because branding isn’t a single fixed concept, it’s a combination of many elements that make up a business. The reason why this subject is debated and used in many different ways is because lots of the elements are intangible or don’t make up physical parts of your business. Because of this branding can’t be summed up in a swift phrase, or replaced with an alternative word. What makes it even more frustrating is that – although you might not know how to explain branding if somebody asked you – it’s common knowledge that branding is needed to run a successful business.
So, how do you go about creating something you don’t even have a definition for?
What’s this branding thing, anyway?
Jeff Bezos once described a brand as “what other people say about you when you’re not in the room”. It can be hard to relate to the lofty standards and ideas of Amazon and the like, so how about this one from CEO of Guild, Ashley Friedlin:
A ‘brand’ is a non-tangible, ineffable thing. It’s that strange, unquantifiable magic that turns target demographics into loyal followers and brand evangelicals.
If you ask us for good examples of branding, we’ll ask you a question in return: who are the biggest names you know? We’re willing to bet at least one of them you think about is Apple, Starbucks, or Coca-Cola. That’s why they’re “good” examples – it’s nothing to do with whether you like them, or even whether you buy their products. Branding is about what’s at the forefront of your mind when you think of a select industry or product type. And companies on the level of Apple, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola pay millions, even billions, to inhabit that pole position.
But we realise you’re here for a concrete definition, so we’ll give it a go. A company’s brand is a combination of – in no particular order – it’s:
- Collective perception
- Customer experience
It’s everything the company embodies, from its mission to its vision to its management and staff. The colour of its packaging or style of its logo are just singular manifestations of that. Things as practical as logos and typefaces are part of a brand, so when we speak of branding, we’re speaking about a lot more. In the branding division of a megacorp, designers play just one role. You’ll also have brand strategists, copywriters, marketers, and social media managers devising this elusive and nebulous thing we call a brand.
But perhaps the most interesting (and for many, maddening) thing about branding is that millions can be spent on tailoring a concept to exacting specifications, but once your brand out there, you don’t have total control over it. At that point, it’s over to the public. It’s as much about what it’s perceived to be as what it’s intended to be. The people, entrepreneurs, companies, and brand designers that achieve an equilibrium between intention and perception are the ones that will make millions in profits for decades to come.
Why is branding so important?
Branding and brand psychology are a huge fields of academic study, and there are myriad arcane and fascinating reasons it’s so important in today’s society. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll outline the three key reasons for its prominence.
1. Emotional vs. utilitarian purchasing
Put frankly, a brand is important because people have emotions. We buy emotionally. We dress emotionally. But some products are more emotional than others. A washing machine is what we call a ‘utilitarian’ purchase. But a car is a highly emotional (or ‘hedonic’) purchase. To the buyer, it might mean freedom, success, sex appeal (or midlife crisis). The best way to get a consumer to part with their money is to get them to feel something. Understanding where your product lies on the utilitarian/emotional spectrum will be key to establishing your brand positioning.
2. Consumer ethics
Upcoming generations have different attitudes towards “stuff” than their parents and grandparents. A 30-year-old today has lived through the advent of the internet, a major financial crisis, an ongoing climate crisis, and now a global pandemic (with another major financial crisis to follow). We care less about cars and houses (okay, we care about houses, but most of us can’t afford them), and more about honesty, transparency, activism, and sustainability. The internet has given us the power to research, question, and speak directly and publicly to monolithically powerful entities within this new and revolutionary court of public opinion: cancel culture.
It has been shown time and time (and time) again that the majority of modern consumers today are so conscientious, they simply won’t buy products from companies with unethical practices. This is where branding comes in. What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Starbucks’? Personally, I think ‘tax avoidance’. When I hear Costa, I think ‘fairtrade’. That thought in my head is not my own. It’s been put there by Costa’s successful branding campaigns. Somewhere between the framed photos of smiling coffee farmers on my local Costa’s wall, the charmingly mismatched furniture (ever noticed that? It’s a deliberate statement on substance over style), a PR release about Costa cup recycling I saw once, I absorbed The Brand. And so I buy the coffee. Every day.
Critically, your mileage may vary. When you hear Starbucks, you might think ‘siren’, or ‘pumpkin spice’ or something much more generic like ‘quality’ (although you’d be wrong). And this is the point: no brand is designed to appeal to everyone. Brands can be as divisive as political candidates (just listen to a conversation between a Steve Jobs devotee and an Android user if you want proof, or me slinging mud at Starbucks). Branding is identifying your people, understanding what they like, and presenting what you do in a way that aligns with their values, intentions, and lifestyles.
How do I establish my brand values?
We realise this is a pretty huge concept to contend with. Where do you start with something so all-encompassing?
You’ll be relieved to hear that there are frameworks you can employ to tackle the creation of a brand, and not only are they easy – they can be really fun. Unlike some of the frankly boring aspects of starting a business – taxes, CRM, cold-pitching – this is where you get to be really creative, expressive, and dream big. This is where you get to find your truth. What is different about you? What do you believe in? Why are you amazing? Why do you do what you do?
These are 4 things you can do TODAY to set up the core of your brand.
- Create a mood board
- Pull together examples of existing brands you like
- Pull together competing brands and plot, on a graph, where you fit in
- Describe your brand, in 3 words or less, as if it were a person.
A branding agency will charge you to take you through pretty much this exact process. If you like money and want to keep some, use these stages to establish your own branding strategy. You can then turn to other professionals to help implement it, and for the things you might not have the technical skills or reach for on your own, like PR, logo design, and social media strategy.
Disclaimer: this is not to say that branding agencies are not useful or effective. They are an excellent way for both startups and established businesses to seize upon high-potential concepts and start making waves in their given industry. But they are expensive, with big London agencies charging tens of thousands for even the most basic brand development services, and as a start-up, any capital saved and reallocated in business development is a windfall.
So, in a little more depth, here’s how.
1. Mood board
Remember making collages as a kid? It’s still fun, and now you can do it digitally! At this stage, you’re cultivating the ‘world’ you want your brand to live in. Try to translate the visuals you see in your head when you think about your brand onto your screen, in a way that makes it cohesive and material. Images can be vague like colours, or specific like your product in action. They can be original sketches, or shamelessly stolen from other companies you admire. Specific suggestions include: the place your product comes from (e.g. the Mexicana imagery often used in tequila brands), the setting your product will be used in (a craft lager company might think rooftop bars or beaches), the people who will use your product or service (are they young and hot or old and rich? Young and rich? Old and hot?), and anything to do with the place, heritage, provenance, and “vibe” of what you’re trying to sell.
2. Other brands you like
Steps 2 and 3 involve the same process but with a crucial difference. Images you source in this step can be from any industry. You might be an SaaS startup but you love the typeface of a cocktail company. This is another visually-led process, but try to back it up with reason – what do you like about these brands, why do you like it, and could their concepts at least loosely work for your brand?
3. Competing brands
This is where it starts to get a bit strategic. Without going too much into the business side of things, you should already have identified your niche, your target market, and your USP. You may already have conducted a healthy dose of competitor mapping. In this stage, you’ll still be working visually, but with the added metric of position plotting. Most products can be divided into categories. Let’s take cleaning products as an example. You’ve got your loud, bright, aggressive, dirt-eliminating Cillit Bangs (“HI I’M BARRY SCOTT!”). You’ve got your gentle and environmental Ecovers. You’ve got the trusty, medical blues of Dettol, Cif, and Flash. And then you’ve got the feminine, high-end outliers like Method.
Identifying these categories and plotting them onto a quadrant will help you decide three important things:
- Where do you fit into the existing market?
- What trends, signifiers and codes are you going to emulate?
- What are you going to do differently?
One of the best things about this stage is you’ll start to see patterns emerging. Have you ever noticed that cleaning products are overwhelmingly blue? Why blue? It’s the colour of water. Water means cleanliness. Basic stuff. So, are you going to give the customer what they know and expect? Or are you going to try and grab their attention in a different way?
Another quick and easy trick you can use within this step – if your product is sold in a supermarket, go and take a picture of the aisle. Ask yourself, which products blend in? Which stand out? How can yours stand out against all the others? Now you’re thinking like a brand designer.
5. Describe your brand in 3 words or less
This stage involves a brief foray, if you’ll indulge us, into the world of brand psychology. Jennifer L. Aaker first established the 5 Dimensions of Brand Personality in 1997. Similarly to how all people have been found to fit roughly into one of 5 personality ‘types’, all brands can be identified on this spectrum based on how they ‘act’ and communicate. The 5 brand personality types are:
It might sound alien to talk about brands like they’re people, but when you start looking at examples, you’ll see what we mean. Take a look at the list again, this time with examples:
- Sincerity: UPS, Lloyds Bank, Intel
- Excitement: TikTok, Disney, Red Bull
- Competence: Nurofen, Tag Heuer, Audi
- Sophistication: Grey Goose, Tag Heuer, Audi
- Ruggedness: Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, Land Rover
Some brands are repeated within the list. This is because brands can inhabit more than one personality type. But, and this is the crucial takeaway for step 4, and why it’s so important to identify the personality of your brand in 3 words or fewer: the highest performing brands score highly singular ratings within one brand personality type. In other words, the brands with the most obvious and identifiable personalities are the most successful.
So, when choosing your 3 words, you can choose any word you like – loud, fun, intelligent, whimsical, kind, girly, irreverent, snooty – but make sure the traits you choose can be neatly plotted within 1 or 2 of the above categories. Trying to cover all 5 – in other words, trying to appeal to everyone – only serves to dilute the brand, blur the messaging, and alienate your audience.
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