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What do we mean by the word brand?

The words brand and branding are thrown around liberally by all sorts of people in different contexts and with different meanings in mind, so it may help to start by asking: what exactly is a brand?

The simplest answer is that a brand is a set of associations that a person (or group of people) makes with a company, product, service, individual or organisation.

These associations may be intentional – that is, they may be actively promoted via marketing and corporate identity, for example – or they may be outside the company’s control. For example, a poor press review for a new product might harm the product manufacturer’s overall brand by placing negative associations in people’s minds.

What is branding?

If a brand results from a set of associations and perceptions in people’s minds, then branding is an attempt to harness, generate, influence and control these associations to help the business perform better. Any organisation can benefit enormously by creating a brand that presents the company as distinctive, trusted, exciting, reliable or whichever attributes are appropriate to that business.

While absolute control over a brand is not possible due to outside influences, intelligent use of design, advertising, marketing, service proposition, corporate culture and so on can all really help to generate associations in people’s minds that will benefit the organisation. In different industry sectors the audiences, competitors, delivery and service aspects of branding may differ, but the basic principle of being clear about what you stand for always applies.

How brands are changing

In the last few years the digital communications revolution has completely transformed this balance of control. The consumer's voice has become louder and much more public. Consumers can publish their experience of a brand and compare it with the experience of others. The ability of a brand to respond to this can have a profound effect on the way they are perceived. It's also affecting the types of brand that achieve prominence. There is even a thriving market in brands whose primary strategy is to champion the consumer's voice, Tripadvisor is one of the most famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) of these.

Why do you need a brand?

Branding can help you stand out from your competitors, add value to your offer and engage with your customers.

Creating difference

Branding is a way of clearly highlighting what makes your offer different to, and more desirable than, anyone else’s. Effective branding elevates a product or organisation from being just one commodity amongst many identical commodities, to become something with a unique character and promise. It can create an emotional resonance in the minds of consumers who choose products and services using both emotional and pragmatic judgements.

Adding value

People are generally willing to pay more for a branded product than they are for something which is largely unbranded. And a brand can be extended through a whole range of offers too.

Tesco, for example, began life as an economy supermarket and now sells a wide range of products, from furniture to insurance. But a consistent application of the Tesco brand attributes, such as ease of access and low price, has allowed the business to move into new market sectors without changing its core brand identity.

This obviously adds value to the business, but consumers also see added value in the new services thanks to their existing associations with the Tesco brand. Of course, this can work in reverse too: if consumers don’t like the Tesco brand in one product area, they’re less likely to choose the company’s offer in another product area.

Connecting with people

Creating a connection with people is important for all organisations and a brand can embody attributes which consumers will feel drawn to.

Apple's original launch of the iPod, for example, catapulted the company from computer business to mass-market entertainment brand, with iPod marketing drawing heavily on people’s emotional relationship with their music.

By moving into music and film, Apple redefined what the company did and shifted its brand association to something that connects with larger numbers of people outside computing or creative community. They continued this shift with introduction of the iPhone, iPad and App Store bringing portable computing and its software into mainstream consumer culture. In doing so the brand has become more and more entwined on the lives of consumers making it incredibly powerful.

The key ingredients of any brand

We outline the four cornerstones of any good brand using examples from the business world.

Defining your brand

If you’re thinking about how to rebrand your business, its products or services, or if you want to assess where your brand stands at present, there are a few key aspects you should consider:

  • The big idea – what lies at the heart of your company?
  • Values – what do you believe in?
  • Vision – where are you going?
  • Personality – how do you want to come across?

If you can start to answer these questions with clarity and consistency then you have the basis for developing a strong brand.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

The big idea

The big idea is perhaps a catch-all for your company or service. It should encapsulate what makes you different, what you offer, why you’re doing it and how you’re going to present it. The other ingredients are slightly more specific, but they should all feed from the big idea.

The big idea is also a uniting concept that can hold together an otherwise disparate set of activities. Ideally, it will inform everything you do, big or small, including customer service, advertising, a website order form, staff uniforms, corporate identity, perhaps right down to your answer machine message.

To pin down your own big idea you will need to look very carefully at your own business and the marketplace around you, asking these types of questions:

  1. How can you stand out?
  2. What is your offer?
  3. What makes you different?
  4. What is your ‘personality’?
  5. What do consumers want or need?
  6. Is there a gap in the market?

To aid this process it’s usually very helpful to get an outside perspective on things too, so consider working with a management consultant, business development consultant or design consultancy.

Once decided, the articulation of these ideas can be put into action through branding techniques such as design, advertising, events, partnerships, staff training and so on. It is these activities that set up the consumer’s understanding and expectation of your company; in other words, its brand. And once you’ve set up this brand ‘promise’, the most important thing is to ensure that your products and services consistently deliver on it.