If I were to ask you what the best brand of coffee is, you might say “Starbucks.” If I were to ask you 'why?' would you point to a picture of a 2-tailed mermaid logo on Google, or talk about their cups and signage? Probably not. The truth is that their brand is more than their logo or color scheme or EVEN THEIR COFFE. Their brand is more than a product. A company's brand is something else entirely.
This is an important topic for one simple reason – customers and Google love great brands. They get more attention, more clients, and, of course, more revenue.
So what is branding?
To put it simply - Branding is what comes to mind when you think about your favorite coffee company. It is the unique name, story, style, feeling, and images that are brought to mind. Their logo simply reminds you of the brand, even if it has nothing to do with their product.
We talk about brands being compelling. If you drive by your local Starbucks and see their shop are you not moved to stop in? Is it because of their beautiful signage? No. For coffee-junkies Starbucks stopped being just a product a long time ago. It became a feeling; one that you don't have to be ordering a cinnamon Chai latte to experience. When you see their logo, your mind recalls the rustic-modern coffee shop; the bookish café with open outlets, free wi-fi, and college students a-plenty; the pseudo-artisanal fast food joint with progressive sensibilities; the eco-friendly caffeine pub with bearded baristas and dark-wood furnishings; a third-stop between home and work. That’s the brand. It’s why you grab your coffee there instead of the closer McCafé. It’s why you’d impulse buy expensive Starbucks K-cups without knowing if they’re any good. Starbucks is already in your head. You trust it. And guess what, you aren’t just buying their coffee; you’re buying their brand. There is value in building your brand.
Brands are not commercial. They’re social, which means they’re invariably opinionated, political, subjective, controversial, and just all-around messy. But they’re also effective. A fully-realized and well-honed brand lets you spread your company beyond the limits of typical direct-to-consumer selling. It can get your company into someone’s head and keep it there, even when they’re finished with your product. Even after you toss out the coffee cup, you carry around the relaxing Starbucks experience and remember it next time you see the logo. The power of the brand is at the heart of customer loyalty.
But even a “positive” brand can turn customers away. Walking through Starbucks, you’d be hard-pressed to find a tween sipping down a frappuccino. That’s because branding is inherently opinionated. And since our taste is heavily influenced by what we’re familiar with and what we identify with, brands can be both powerful proponents and deterrents.
Master branders like Apple, Starbucks, and Google have created brands that are so well-realized that they’re impossible to ignore. They’re even woven into all of their new products. This can be very useful when making risky moves, like releasing those Google glasses that we all stopped talking about, since consumers gave the product the benefit of the doubt, seeing that the brand is one of trust, innovation, and quality. The resultant failure of Google glass could have been a lot more devastating had it been introduced by a new startup with a brand yet to be determined.
But make no mistake, branding isn’t just a different term for reputation. Instead, a company’s reputation is just one of the many ideas crafted into a brand. Branding is one of those more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts things. It’s how you differentiate your products from similar ones. It’s how you earn the respect and loyalty of your customers and leave a memorable impression on them. Ultimately, it’s marketing.
So, a brand is what comes to mind when a consumer hears your company name or sees its logo. It’s intangible, thus easily overlooked and not entirely in your control. You can switch up your logo and packaging whenever you’d like, even your brand name. But you can’t change your brand with the same immediacy. The brand lives collectively in the heads of your past customers, made up of countless interactions that they’ve had with you, including word-of-mouth, marketing tactics, products quality, customer service, and so on. But that doesn't mean a brand can't be changed.
Many articles imply or directly state that a brand is a true representation of your company, but that isn’t always true. A brand is what a persona is to human—it’s how we want to sell ourselves, and how we have sold ourselves, but not necessarily who we really are. Granted, the actions a company takes and the type of service it consistently provides contribute to the construction of the brand, but clever (or cleverly deceitful) marketing can paint a company differently than it truly is. Think of T-Mobile’s choice to portray itself as the “un-carrier” after years of diminishing sales. It had new pink and black paint-splattered commercials featuring edgy young adults breaking things or jumping in slow motion. It’s a big nod to counterculture teens and young adults, who most certainly do not make up the company’s marketing or corporate team. This is a target audience that probably doesn’t identify with other more “bland” and traditional carriers. So, when the time comes to get a plan, T-Mobile might seem like the place to start.
But the company lived up to its new brand. They sold a persona to the world and then successfully made themselves into it. This is largely due to John Leger taking over the company as CEO after years of tanking sales. He wanted to set the carrier apart from others, so he created what he refers to as an “un-carrier manifesto.” (Perhaps a gentle nod to the revolutionary sensibility of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, a little book which had long had a big impact on the counterculture movement after which most of today’s edgier cliques follow.) This is even clearer when you read lines in the un-carrier manifesto like, “We are unapologetically the un-carrier,” and “Someday, when the history of the wireless industry is written, the chapter about today will be filed: What the Hell Were They Thinking?”
T-Mobile’s move to shake up their business model and end service contracts has caused other competitors to follow suit, and they’ve gone from a struggling carrier to the fastest growing carrier in the nation. Much of their success is a result of re-branding: they changed their marketing techniques, their advertisements, their packaging, their logo, their pricing, and countless other details that seem too small to mention. Today, T-Mobile is an entirely different animal than before Leger took over. You can find gauge-wearing customer service reps talking to people on Twitter with text-talk and a gentle teen snarkiness. You can see the CEO conducting interviews with his hair slicked back and his un-carrier T-Mobile leather jacket on. It’s different. And people love it.
This is real branding, conscious branding. And that’s necessary because it’s 'brand or be branded' out there—if you don’t begin the process, someone else will do it for you (and maybe not so nicely). So, brand with purpose and with cohesion. How do you that? Pull every facet of your company under one message, whether in your advertising, in your service execution. Do everything you can to ensure that that message is properly deployed. Branding is a company-wide effort, after all, so it must be as present in customer service as it is in retail, marketing, and development. Only then will consumers begin building a picture of your company. Hopefully, one that aligns with the brand you’ve envisioned. Hopefully, one that will keep them coming back.
Everyone knows that branding is important. But do many small businesses realize that branding is essential to staying relevant and competitive in today's business? Not yet but we're getting there.
*article written with contributions from Andy Jones