The trouble with ‘branding’

It’s a phrase which makes me shudder:

“I’m getting someone to do my branding”

In marketing terms, never has there been so much misinterpretation or misunderstanding about what one word does or should mean.

I speak with entrepreneurs all the time who are savvy to marketing.

The language of marketing, like every other professional, can sometimes veer into the technical or specialist. In the main, however, when we talk, we understand each other.

Direct mail means direct mail.

Lead generation is lead generation.

There is complete understanding on either side.

One area where this isn’t true, though, is when a client brings up the dreaded B-word.

Yes, branding.

If you’re pondering a re-branding or refreshing your brand in some way, then this post is for you. And I’ll reveal exactly what you need to think about BEFORE you even hire a designer or ‘branding’ consultant.

I hear people talk about their job as being a branding consultant or helping companies with their branding.

I don’t know when it happened or even how it happened but a transformation has taken place in the use of this word.

Where it once had a solid meaning, it now causes confusion.

The confusion may not be in the head of the person using it. However, the specific way in which it is being used may cause confusion between parties working together.

The many faces of branding

There are now so many different versions of what ‘branding’ means it has become almost meaning.

Depending on who you speak to the definition of branding changes. Within each profession what someone means when they talk about branding changes… I’m sure if you mention branding to a graphic designer, a web designer and a copywriter, they’ll all suggest it is something different.

In fact, clients and suppliers are often at loggerheads over what ‘branding’ actually means.

(A designer friend has a long-running joke about clients who insist on work needing “more branding”… which we assume to mean “make the logo bigger”!)

As if to prove a point, marketer Heidi Cohen manages to list 30 different definitions of the word ‘branding’ … so arriving at a definitive definition of branding is going to prove most slippery.

For the sake of starting somewhere, let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on branding:

(branding) The promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design

According to OED, branding is simply a method of promotion using a combination of marketing and design techniques. It’s an interesting start but I believe it has a more technical definition in the context of marketing and entrepreneurship.

Here’s Entrepreneur magazine’s definition:

The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.

Within the definition, each of the professions mentioned about will see their own role in helping formulate the branding identity of a product or business.

Yet, it isn’t the name, symbol or design which matters in this definition.

I would suggest the key words are these:

The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.

Identity and differentiation.

To me, this goes to the very heart of what a brand and branding is all about.

It’s nothing to do with logos, colours and tag lines (well, it is but it starts much further back)… and everything to do with how you communicate these two elements to your customer.

And let’s not forget (and this will come as a shock to many) that, fundamentally, the purpose of branding is to generate more sales.

Not emotionally please customers. Not to win design awards. Not to please clients.

It may do all of these on the way to winning more business, but fundamentally getting customers to choose you is what branding should do.

If you look through Cohen’s 30 definitions, there is no consistency at all between what branding means.

Only a few even mention identity and differentiation.

Without either of these elements, a brand is worthless. As is all the associated branding.

(Reading through the many definitions, it’s clear the meaning of ‘branding’ changes according to each of the definers agenda.)

Emotional impact

Yes, there are important elements of bringing emotional impact to your brand and making a connection with customers… but everything comes back to these two elements: identity and differentiation.

It makes me wince when I see people throwing money at designing logos and crafting websites which look ‘branded’ without seriously thinking about these two elements first.

Before any considering of a look or feel, you need to know what identifies and differentiates your product or service from anything else.

Only once you know this can you seriously brief a creative professional to develop a brand identity which fits in with this.

Really good ‘brand’ agencies and designers will want to discuss what your points of differentiation are, your brand values and how you want your customers to feel about you. (If they don’t, run a mile.)

Without it all you’re really doing is just asking a graphic designer to design you a great logo.

Unless your designer deeply understands your positioning and messaging, how can you logo cannot possibly be infused with any meaning at all?

The same with asking a copywriter to craft content on your website or in your marketing materials. Without a complete understanding of your unique positioning and identify, a copywriter won’t be able to craft anything which reflects your brand.

(A great copywriter will, of course, go through your positioning and messaging in detail well before putting pen to paper… if they don’t, again, run a mile).

That’s why it’s good practice to fully research and consider in detail your positioning in the market before commissioning any ‘brand’ work. Better to go to a graphic designer, web designer and even content writers armed with your value proposition formulated, tested and ready to roll.

You need ownership and control. Do it in this considered way.

Branding: beyond appearance

Branding doesn’t start and end at a logo.

The creation of a logo may be part of the branding exercise… but branding goes way beyond how a product or services appears to encapsulate every element of how a company, person or product is presented to the world.

Personally, I like the definitions that talk about stories. Brand storytelling sounds dreadfully self-important, but using the elements of story telling to reflect what is special and different about your business is undoubtedly powerful.

Only through marrying the emotional elements of storytelling with picking out what unique identifies your business and how you differ from your competition will you be able to develop branding which does it job: making more people buy more from you.

I’m still developing my own definition of branding for when clients ask me about branding and what it means.

In the meantime, I’d be hard-pushed to do better than Cheryl Burgess’s (of Blue Focus Marketing) definition which goes to the heart of identify and differentiation from the customer perspective:

A brand is a reason to choose.

Now ask yourself, does your ‘branding’ give your customers a reason to choose you?

Do you have a definition of what branding means?


1 thought on “The trouble with ‘branding’”

  1. Thanks for your reply, Guy! Hopefully, it adds some more fuel to the fire when the discussions about ‘branding’ start happening.

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