A lot of people still ask me “So what is branding anyway?” I’ve thought about this a lot over the years and readdressed my ideas recently when establishing my own branding agency. I’ve come to the conclusion that brands that work are alive and kicking. If the only thing someone consumes of your brand is the logo, the meaning that is subtly encoded it is all they take away with them. If later they call your office or customer service line and speak to a member of staff, this experience defines your brand again on another, much more personal level. As the phone call is a personal connection, it’s actually more influential in defining their impression of you than the logo.
That doesn’t mean that the logo isn’t important; branding is like a huge living 3D jigsaw puzzle made up of hundreds of parts that need to work together to display the picture you intended your followers to see. It needs to be designed in colour, with dimension, consideration of form, depth and space, but also to be able to change and adapt.
Product quality, features, technical advancements, service, loyalty schemes are all copy-able by others (notwithstanding IP protection which has great value). What competitors can’t copy so easily is the unique combination of ingredients that constitutes the complex animal that is your brand. Your brand is an intangible connection, an emotional one, which is not so easy to replicate if done well.
What will consumers want in the future?
The consumer of the future will expect brands to be smart about how they talk to them. From their point of view there is really no excuse. We are giving away more and more of our privacy online, and we expect something back for it! If a company can’t be bothered to get to know us, then we are likely to switch to a new brand that pays us more attention. A recent article in Marketing Week brought to light some facts on how we are changing in this way. Technology has had such an effect on us that our brains are actually being reprogrammed to allow for multi tasking as we constantly flip from one activity to the next. Martin Lindstrom, neuromarketing expert and author of Buyology, even goes as far as saying that marketers will become extinct and neurologists and data miners will take over in order to understand the complexities of human behaviour and our interaction with brands.
In the future brands will need to try really hard to engage with people in new and meaningful ways to grab and maintain their attention (whilst also not being extremely annoying). Ted Baker and Sony are already doing this by getting customers involved in campaigns, rather than simply leaving them on the receiving end of them. As Alistair Frost, Head of Digital Marketing at Microsoft said in a CIM talk recently, technology is enabling people to switch off advertising messages. You can shout as much as you like but what’s the point if no-one is listening! Alister believes the future of marketing is all in inbound. You need to engage people in your story to succeed, and in unique ways.
What does this mean for brand design?
Branding has always been about creating an identity, a personality for your business, but more and more it’s about creating a real relationship, or in the best case scenario a partnership with your customer, whilst being sensitive to how far that customer wants the relationship to go. Branding and marketing used to be about looking after customers and broadcasting messages about products and services. It’s no longer as simple as that; brands need to give, engage, entertain, provide escapism, be transparent & trustworthy, know when to keep quiet and when to speak up, be part of the community, and respond immediately to feedback, good or bad.
Businesses can no longer expect to survive maintaining the machine attitude; life has just got too complicated for that. Brands need to become a living organism that works together as one. The brand experience must be constant and seamless; it must build trust, and understand the people it interacts with intimately. If there’s a crack, someone will find it. In the future I believe that the companies that succeed will be micro-countries supporting their own communities, looking after the people inside and outside, caring as much about the environment they exist in as the bottom line, or using triple bottom line measurement (profit, people, planet). I am really positive about this, I think it means that all our lives will be better as a result; I for one would much rather work inside a community than a machine!
Not surprisingly then, a modern brand is as much reliant on its culture as its visual identity, perhaps more so. To create this seamless experience, every part of the company needs to understand what it stands for, and want to be part of that. You can’t force staff to love your brand and pass that on to your customer, you have to create an environment where this happens naturally. You have to hire people who feel an affinity with your brand’s values (and you have to know what they are!) This affects your HR & remuneration policies, the workplace design, holiday entitlement, working hours, internal systems for managing operations and customer relationships, staff having a voice as well as what colour your envelopes are.
If you are starting up a new company, you are in a great position to be able to establish this from scratch, and it’s a lot of fun to do at this stage too! Creating a strong brand strategy helps you define who you are, where you’re going, what your goals are, who your customers are, how they would like to be treated, and what kind of people you need on your team. If you have already established your company and need to change your culture to fit your ideas of what your brand should become (responding to your own capabilities, your customer and the external environment), then it can be a lot harder to change. In this case, re-establishing a strong brand has to come from inside out. Your team must be involved in creating it from scratch, as I said before, you can’t force people to believe in something, and if your brand is just a surface finish, it won’t mean anything to anyone.
You can’t be something you’re not, you have to play to your strengths. There is no point an accountancy firm that has been around for 100 years trying to be hip and cool if you aren’t, and that’s not important to your customers. But you could use technology to help you serve your customers better, and you could celebrate your heritage in everything that you do to emphasise the value this brings to your customers. Perhaps personal letters could still be typed on a typewriter? Or make a rule that your furniture is as at least as old as the company?
Lastly, I would like to expel a myth: Branding is only for big businesses and requires a multi-million £ budget. Poppycock! I know, I’ve done it, and this is especially true now that advertising is (debatably) becoming less important as a marketing tool. What it takes is some serious thinking, research and discussion to build a strategy, good people management, communication, commitment and an excellent graphic designer to bring your story to life.
Human nature is such that we all want something to believe in and something to be part of. As a brand owner, your job is to create a story that enables this, then thread it through everything that you do.