What is branding?

In today’s oversaturated world of too much choice and too little time, the competition for a customer’s attention—and wallet—is fierce. Most products are similar in features and quality, making it hard to convince consumers to try, buy and re-buy. Yet, in spite of the odds, there are some companies that do inspire loyalty beyond reason. Passionate and emotionally driven, this type of loyalty is triggered by one main thing—branding. But what is branding, really? And why is it so important?

Branding has been around since 350 A.D and is derived from the word “Brandr”, meaning “to burn” in Ancient Norse language. By the 1500s, it had come to mean the mark that ranchers burned on cattle to signify ownership. Simple and easily identifiable, these symbols bore all the hallmarks of the modern logo. Yet branding today is more than just a look or a logo. It has come to signify the emotional “gut feeling” reaction a company can elicit from its customers. And with the advent of the Internet, branding has become the key to cutting through the clutter.


Your brand lives in hearts and minds

In a nutshell, your brand is the set of perceptions people have about your company. It is a carefully curated emotional expression of your value that lives in people’s hearts and minds. Branding is the set of actions you take to cultivate your brand. When done right, branding becomes a beautiful symphony of design, language and experience, all combining to cultivate a very specific feeling. An archetype of “gut feeling” branding is Apple, arguably the most successful brand in the world.

via Apple

“People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company,” John Sculley, Apple’s then CEO, told the Guardian newspaper in 1997. “It was the marketing company of the decade.” Nobody understood this more than Steve Jobs, who brought Apple back from the brink of downfall in 1990s, by rejuvenating the brand through a series of stylistic changes, aspirational messaging and streamlined advertising.

More than anything, Jobs understood that the hallmarks of a good brand strategy included cohesivenessconsistency and clarity. Together, these three Cs create powerful psychological connections in customers. Users know what to expect when they use Apple products and software.

photo via Apple

Though it can seem vague and unachievable, it’s important to understand that branding isn’t beyond your control. Any company, big or small can proactively set in motion a process of developing and influencing positive perceptions to help the business succeed. Ideally, branding should begin from conception of the company, because public perception is hard (though not impossible) to shift once set in place. In the words of Jobs, “The chance to make a memory is the essence of brand marketing.”

Why do you need branding?

Brand or be branded—if you don’t actively define your brand, the market will do it for you. And it might not be pretty. Therein lies the main incentive to intentionally brand your business, but here are a few more for good measure:

Branding helps you stand out from the competition

If you’re a designer in the market for a new laptop, do you find yourself immediately browsing the Apple Store online? As a brand, Apple has spent almost as much time cultivating their image as they have perfecting their beautiful interfaces and intuitive features. You choose a Macbook without doing any research because it’s your perception that there is no real competitor on the market. Why? Because Apple’s ‘I’m a Mac’ campaign has already convinced you that they’re the obvious choice when it comes to personal laptops. Which just goes to show that when customers have several options, branding helps them solidify their decision.

Branding increases the value of your offering

There’s a reason people are willing to pay more for an Apple product over that of their competitors. Branding elevates your offering from a commodity to a unique product, allowing you to charge a premium. Apple’s “1984” campaign plugging the original Macintosh not only paved the way for an innovative age of Super Bowl commercials, but also allowed them to price their computers higher than competing brands. From then on, all their campaigns portrayed the same basic message—Apple as the symbol of visionary counterculture versus every other competitor as dull, status quo and compliant.

Branding creates a human connection with your customers

Anne Hathaway in The Intern
via The Intern

The art of storytelling lets you engage with customers on an emotional level. Apple’s innovative ad campaigns and celebrity product placements, for example, have told countless stories over the decades that ultimately revolve around edgy and aspirational luxury. It’s a theme that resonates, particularly with their urban millennial demographic. More importantly, it’s one that their worldwide target audience can relate to.

Branding builds customer loyalty

Yui Kashima, left, and Nobuhiko Matsuda wait to purchase an Apple's new iPhone outside a store in Tokyo on Friday morning, Sept. 20, 2013. Apple released the latest iPhones 5C and 5S on Friday. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
via Japantimes

At it’s heart, Apple’s brand is people-driven and this remains consistent across all touch points, from the exceptional customer support at their Genius Bars to the transparency and honesty in all their communication, even when it comes to their flaws. The secondary hook to customer loyalty lies in the company’s ability to brand the necessity of its products. The iPhone was never the most revolutionary smartphone on the market, but by powering simple integration across all their accompanying products, the company made it easy and convenient for you to think Apple first.

The elements of branding

Now that we’ve established the Why, let’s talk about the How, beginning with your mission and vision statements. Think of your mission as the brains of the operation, a short and succinct statement that defines the present state and purpose of your organization. Meanwhile, your company’s vision is its heart, providing an inspirational and motivational snapshot of what you seek to achieve in the long term.

With the mission and vision statement set as the pillars of your organization, your brand strategy comes to encompass everything in between. This will eventually take the form of brand guidelines (sometimes called a brand bible.) This is a tangible document that will reflect and support your business goals, differentiate you from competitors, resonate with customers, provide a template for decision-making and precipitate ideas for future marketing campaigns.

Firefox style guide via Mozilla.org

Keep in mind that you can add to and update your guide as your company scales or changes direction. Apple’s nearly 200 page style guide has undoubtedly morphed over the years, expanding to include proper usage of all their latest product names as well ways to localize for their expanding international markets. Firefox, on the other hand, keeps things simple with an interactive webpage that denotes the separate entities of the brand and ties it all back to its core principles of philanthropy. Facebook’s guide walks through each feature on the platform, provides proper usage and includes helpful do’s and don’ts.

A better brand means better marketing

As a general rule, products have limited life cycles, but brands—if managed well—last forever. And once you’ve nailed down exactly who you are as a brand, it becomes much easier to market it. Your brand bible, coupled with ongoing market research and analysis, should give you a tactical advantage in determining the best way to market your products. Do you focus on traditional marketing like radio and billboard, or is your potential customer more swayed by viral Youtube videos and Snapchat filters? Marketing can be a mix and match of tactics, but be careful of spreading yourself too thin. By continually consulting your brand guide, you should be able to focus your efforts on the tactics that really matter.

mac2016-08-05 at 11.29.01 AM
Apple MacBooks via Apple

For instance, Apple spends next to nothing on paid advertising and relies mostly on product placement and media buzz. Once you’re lured in, they hook you with the art of copy. Take a look at the Apple Macbook product page. Like every other computer brand, technical specifications are listed, but most of the prime real estate is focused on copy that is customized to their target demographic. Instead of display resolution, you’ll see phrases like “tactile vibration,” “retina display” and “multi-touch gesture.” Imaginative buzzwords? Sure. But at a $154.1 billion valuation (87% more than second-ranked Google), Apple’s reign as the world’s most valuable brand depends on such innovative marketing.

At the end of the day, marketing is the process that brings you the leads and sales but branding is the foundation upon which you build your reputation and customer loyalty. From behemoths like Apple to businesses that are just starting out, it’s evident that good branding is the secret weapon to success.