Your brand is the unique quality that distinguishes you from everyone else. It’s the intangible asset used to identify your institution, differentiating you from your competitors and informing your audience on what to expect from interactions with you, your products and services. Simply put: a brand is a promise.
In marketing, branding goes beyond merely advertising your products with your logo. It is deeply linked with the mission of the institution. It’s engrained in the culture of the company. It’s in the skill sets, values and beliefs you instil and promote in your workers. It is the everyday practice of integrating your promise to the customer into your projects, products and systems. It extends to how you answer your phone, reply to emails and dress during sales pitches. Branding is about placing the identity of your institution in its symbols, processes, product names and product designs.
Building a strong brand is a process which often takes years. It is however, a worthwhile process: research conducted by McKinsey & Company indicates that organizations with strong brands outperform the market by 73 percent. Clearly, a strong brand offers you a competitive advantage in the market place. But why is this so?
It has something to do with the fact that if people can recognize a brand after a certain amount of exposure to it, it creates a sense of familiarity that increases the odds of people trying out your products or services. An identifiable brand also increases value for future business and gives you leverage with potential investors. Likewise, if your brand is strong, there’s potential to create new customers based on the experiences and strong recommendations from existing ones. It creates trust within your market, and even promotes pride and satisfaction for workers within the institution by being associated with excellence in the market. So, how do we begin to build a brand?
To start, let’s take a look at one of the most recognizable brands on the planet - Nike. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Nike? For many of you, it’s mostly likely the slogan ‘Just Do It’. Another thing that may quickly spring to mind is your favourite athlete, whether that’s Selena Williams, LeBron James or Tiger Woods. In short, we primarily think of values and icons associated with the Nike brand. The swoosh logo invokes the idea of an ambitious attitude and sporting excellence. The actual products - tennis shoes, sweatbands or golf shirts - are usually secondary thoughts. What Nike has managed to do is associate its brand with the essence of an active and successful lifestyle in the minds of consumers.
This trait is taken to the extreme with another brand under the Nike umbrella – Jordan. In the athletic world, Michael Jordan is the epitome of a winner and many people will pay a premium to own a Jordan brand sneaker, hoodie or backpack. This rarely has anything to do with the aesthetics of the product, and usually has everything to do with the Jumpman logo: consumers – consciously or unconsciously – recognize it as a symbol of peak performance. The Jordan name was built on MJ’s exploits on the court, and yet the brand has managed to capture the imagination of non-athletes because of its association with a championship-winning drive. The ambition to be the best. The true power of a brand is its espoused values. A strong brand becomes a culture: ‘this is who we are and this is how we do things’.
So how was Nike able to develop their brand? The superficial answer would be years of constant and consistent messaging, picking the right athletes to sponsor (minus the odd scandal here and there) and great product design. However, the true key to brand development is in the understanding of three core elements: Identity, Perception and Audience.
I call this the triangle offence of brand development because if you understand how and where to position each of these three key elements – just as in basketball – you create the perfect space for fluid decision making that will get you buckets i.e. reach your market objectives. While I'm probably not the first person to note these three crucial elements of brand development, it may be one of the few times they've been presented in this concise manner. Every strong brand in every industry – whether in the consumer market like Apple, or B2B (Business to Business) like IBM – has developed their brand by understanding this trifecta and using it as the foundation for their marketing strategies. Understanding one or two corners of the triangle might get you off the ground, but never beyond the point of mediocrity in your market. Understanding all three elements or cornerstones of your brand is what will develop a strong brand.
Side note: I want to emphasise the importance of ‘understanding’. It goes beyond simply knowing. Absorbing information becomes knowledge. Using knowledge to guide your actions becomes wisdom. Seeing and feeling the results of your actions or the actions of others becomes understanding. understanding can only come through action. Two children may be warned not to touch a hot stove. The wise child would listen, the unwise child would not. The wise child comes to understand why he shouldn’t touch the stove by seeing the unwise child’s screaming and scarring. The unwise child comes to understand through their own pain. Both children, from then on, approach even a cold stove with new caution. Not all understanding has to be so traumatic though. But we must truly engage and involve ourselves in the learning process to truly understand.
1. Understand who you are
The starting point for your brand is understanding your identity. What are the values and beliefs at the core of your being, and what rituals, practices and symbols reflect them? This is not just what you do or how you do it; your identity is deeply rooted in why you do what you do. From your brand’s identity, you can form a vision on what it is you want to accomplish, where you want to take your brand in the future, and how you want to recreate the world according to your ideals. From your identity and your vision, you can begin to understand what your intention going forward will be. Intent being how you want your actions to affect your customers, your industry and the wider world. Understanding identity, vision and intention are at the core of who you are and will help differentiate your brand from the crowd.
2. Understand who you are to your audience
How you interact with the world plays a key role in your brand development. Let’s take the example of a wedding planner who advertises themselves as ‘quirky’, ‘funky’ and nonconformist to cater to a niche market, yet delivers conventional, vanilla wedding experiences. That brand won’t go very far because it doesn’t deliver on its promise. The same could be said of a Christian rapper who posts videos of themselves smoking weed and drinking on Snapchat and Instagram. How and what you communicate to your audience needs to be aligned with who you are. It’s a common sense approach that we may take for granted, so think about it: How does your brand look to a complete stranger? Does your advertising match your brand’s values? Does your Twitter bio match your Instagram bio? Is there consistency throughout your messaging that would allow potential customers to buy into who you are? To have a strong brand, who you are – or at least who you want to be - needs align with who you are to others.
3. Understand your audience
It’s important to accept that your brand will not appeal to everyone. Even the strongest brands are not universally loved. As popular as Coke, Nike and Apple have become, there will always be people who prefer Pepsi, Adidas or Samsung. Once you understand who you are and understand who you are perceived to be, you can seek out a target market that will resonate with your brand. Understanding your audience means you’ll know which channels to reach them through. You’ll waste precious time and energy (and money of course) posting advertisements for your butchery in vegetarian forums, even if the other elements of your brand development are on point. Identifying your target audience may not be as clear cut as in this example – even a butcher needs to sort out their products, placement and pricing for the demographic they’re catering to based on income, age and location. It is however the final key in developing your brand. Find the tribe that feels your vibe – it’s as simple as that.
On your journey to developing a strong brand, always remember who you are, how you’re perceived and who your audience is. These are the building blocks to successful branding and will inform your branding and marketing practices going forward. Whether you’re a marketing manager of a corporation, the founder of a new startup, an artist or even a graduate in the job market, you’re likely to find more success if you utilize the triangle offence of brand development.