A simpler way to think about branding

How do we define what ‘branding’ means in today’s world and how can we make it simpler to understand, and more purposeful to use? As the world grows in complexity our industry has a huge opportunity, and responsibility, to keep things simple and to cut out meaningless waffle.

So what is ‘branding’? The term has been around for a long time, originally a way of ensuring your cattle didn’t get rustled by aggressive neighbors, it’s been described as a way of helping you decide which soap to use or even a way of talking about your logo. In short, it’s a way of thinking and acting that engages a business with the world, making it more relevant, attractive, and ultimately profitable.

The business of branding continues to evolve matching the pace of change we see in the wider world. The creation of ‘brands’ becoming a genuine driver of value and differentiation for companies, and for consumers a way of understanding and navigating the choices we make over which products and services we surround ourselves with in our day to day lives.

However, after working in this industry for over 20 years I can’t help but think that the language around ‘brand’ has become more and more complicated. Brand bullshit anyone? If it sounds complicated to someone who works in the industry then it’s pretty certain it’s going to be meaningless to the man or woman on the street, and after all that’s who it’s ultimately for.

There is a huge amount of jargon used in branding. Some helpful, some not. Perhaps there to justify big consultancy fees? Certainly, it’s confusing and difficult to translate into useful actions. Values, Model, Purpose, Positioning, Essence, Lean, Mission, Promise, Attributes, Personality, Proposition, Vision, Features, Rewards, Descriptors… What do all of these ‘terms’ mean? We believe there is a simpler way to think about branding based on just two parts. ‘Brand’ and ‘Experience’. The two parts must exist together and both inform each other, or in other words, brand is experience, experience is brand. We call it the ‘Brand Loop’.

Our definition of ‘Brand’ is the ‘Why’. Why you exist, why as a company you get out of bed in the morning. It’s the thing that drives you and it’s what you want people to think of you. It’s a company’s ‘Promise’ to the world. It’s what you think. Then, the second part is the ‘Experience’. This is ‘What’ you do. This is the ‘Proof’. This is how you act as a company. This is what will form what people think of you. Actions speak louder than words, right? Experiences form our memories and keep things salient or front of mind.

These two parts form a symbiotic loop that can guide and define how a company exists in the world and it the minds of its customers. The ‘Why’ and the ‘What’. A promise and the proof to back it up. One part what you think and the other what you do.

Your brand ‘Why’ drives the experiences you create. Your brand ‘Why’ is an emotional idea bigger than your products and services. The ‘Why’ is an emotional, benefit led truth that lives in the minds of customers and staff and is a ‘north star’ for everything a brand does.

In a world where we are bombarded with information, brands need to stand for one thing. It is a reason to believe externally and a guiding principle internally. The great brands of our age don’t sell products and services, they sell something bigger. Apple sells simplicity, Harley Davidson sells freedom, Nike sells belief, Airbnb sells local, Dyson sells innovation and Gym Box sells fun. These are all human emotional ideas that we feel and buy into.

But a great ‘Why’ is nothing if you can’t back it up. Talk is cheap! If there is no proof of what a company promises then the world will very quickly move onto something else. In our swipe left culture, the attention span is blisteringly short. Better make sure your ‘Experiences’ are stellar and meaningful. Humans experiences are what we remember. Think about it. The best (and worst) experiences you had growing up, through your adult life are burned into your subconscious in an indelible way. Your first bike, the best party, that amazing summer holiday. This isn’t brand waffle this is science. This is how your brain actually works. Strong experiences create memories. From a business and company point of view, it’s very straightforward. Delivering good experiences will keep your organisation relevant and salient. Delivering bad experiences also makes you memorable but in totally the wrong way.

In an ever homogenised, codified, templated world a unique brand ‘Experience’ is critical. Brands are defined by the experiences that they give. Adaption, loyalty, and advocacy is built on making people’s lives genuinely better, easier, simpler. If we think about some of the more recent brand success stories such as Rapha, Slack, Deliverroo, Spotify, Uber, Monzo, Made, and Casper, the commonality with them all is that they basically showed us a more enjoyable, more fulfilling way of going about our day to day lives that suddenly made ‘the old way’ of doing things seem tedious and outdated. And interestingly in most cases with surprisingly little advertising or marketing. The proof is in the experience.

Brand is experience, experience is brand. Two parts that inform and support each other. ‘Brand’ sets the direction, answers the insight, and translates the business strategy into tangible actions, and ‘Experience’ delivers it, shows us what ‘sticks’ and what doesn’t, gives a company feedback, data, and measurement, to course correct against, and ultimately lets the world decide if something is going to become part of our everyday culture of fail dead in the water.

It’s a powerful thought; the promise and proof thinking also applies to a much more than ‘branding’. It applies to politics and religion. Obama asked us to believe in ‘Hope’ but did he deliver on it? did we experience it? I’m personally not sure what Trump wants the world to believe in, but whatever he meant by ‘Great Again’ it seemed to resonate with a lot of Americans. It’s going to be interesting to see what we are asked to believe in over the next few weeks in the UK as the general election campaigns crank up, and ultimately what ‘Experiences’ the winners begin to deliver after the election dust settles.

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