This essay is a reflection on my thoughts and readings on branding.
On an economic level, a brand is a way for consumers to identify a seller - and distinctiveness plays a big role in this. Distinctiveness not only gives people a way to identify companies but also a way to reward them (by buying from them) when they like their products.
An example of the importance of distinctiveness in branding can be found in how bees and flowers interact. When a bee finds a flower with better tasting nectar than other flowers, they will remember it based on the smell, look, and color of the flower. Without the smell and/or color of the flower, the bee wouldn’t be able to find it again or tell its bee friends. This means that for the flower, it’s just as important to have a distinctive look as it is to produce a good product, otherwise, having a good product is meaningless.
In a similar vein, businesses need their brands to have distinctive identities, so that consumers can remember, find, refer, and buy from them. Branding also helps the consumer, as it gives them a way to find trusted products that they like. Brands are a necessity for us to make decisions in the marketplace and are good for both the seller and the buyer.
On a more nuanced level, branding isn’t as simple as making a distinct identity. It isn’t just a way for consumers to identify a seller, it’s also the way consumers feel about, talk about, interact with a company, etc. A company can create a unique logo, name, and design in an attempt to paint a specific image of themselves, but more often than not, it doesn’t stick. Ironically enough, even though the company is the one that invests in building their brand, the company themselves rarely gets to define what their brand stands for. Usually a brand is defined by everyone except the company.
A fun example is the Timberland brand.
Jeffrey Swartz, the son of Sidney Swartz who made the first Timberlands himself, had a strong belief on what the Timberland shoe stood for.
“It’s about a crusty, no nonsense New England factory man, indifferent to anything but pure functionality.” - Buying In, Rob Walker
The shoe itself was made to withstand the elements and to keep the wearer’s feet warm—perfect for the working class people. They would advertise and brand their shoes by using working men in trucks and hiking trails.
But another group of people, not Timberland’s target audience of white working men, started to take a liking to their shoes - hip-hop and R&B artists. Vibe, a hip-hop lifestyle magazine, even paid tribute to the Timberland boots as being iconic to hip-hop in their September 2005 issue. An NYC museum also hosted had an exhibition called “Black Style Now” that included Timberland boots as part of “the global hip-hop uniform.” Timberlands had caught on with a completely different market group than the one the founders had intended to sell to.
That, however, didn’t stop Swartz from trying to control the brand’s image by going onto Time magazines and saying:
“Timberland is being adopted by a consumer that we didn’t know existed relative to our target audience.” Swartz said that while the hip-hop consumer’s “money spends good,” the fact remained that his brand was aimed primarily at “honest working people.” - Buying In, Rob Walker
Of course this received backlash, but strangely enough, it didn’t have any effect on the Timberland brand. This goes to show that, ultimately, no matter how hard one tries to brand their company a certain way, the final decision isn’t up to them. The brand stands for what consumers and people believe it stands for.
Another way to think of branding is reputation. A brand’s value is based on what others think about it and not what the creator thinks. Whenever you have to take into account human perception and behavior, things become tricky.
There isn’t a 10-step process for guaranteeing that you’ll make a great brand. Creating a brand isn’t reductive in nature, it’s closer to shooting in the dark and listening for the pings.
I like to think of a brand as an idea that exists within a person’s neural network. Whenever we humans are exposed to or learn something, our brains fire off neurons and start creating neural connections. Whether we’re learning about math, politics, or business, we’re creating connections within our brains. With enough study, those connections together paint a story or opinion on a particular subject. These connected stories and opinions form the brand in consumer’s minds, usually subconsciously, and they’ll suddenly decide they like, dislike, love, or hate the brand. So, brands are created, in a way, by the subconscious study of a company, person, or thing.
Anything the brand does, from the product it sells to its logo, needs to leave a neural mark on the consumers brain (which is where distinctiveness comes in)—you can consider this as the table stakes. Good brands, however, try to strengthen the consumer’s idea of them in a “positive way” by associating their company with different sorts of things, like their logo, a good website, marketing efforts, sales efforts, etc. But more than that, great brands try to create a “relationship” with the consumer. Great branding takes resources, time, and a ton of luck. Great brands aren’t made overnight.
It’s hard to say what makes a great brand. I don’t think there’s a definition that would make everyone happy, but I think that’s okay. Whether a brand can be considered great is based on ones own personal criteria. To some people, a brand might be great and to some it might not be - and that’s probably where the answer lies. Great brands are decided in the eyes of the beholder and especially in today’s age, companies don’t dictate brand worth, the individual does.
“It was you that was important, and everything else would define you after you defined yourself. It wasn’t like a brand defined you, you defined the brand.” - Chuck D. (Public Enemy)
If this is the case, and everything is up to individual consumer’s opinions, then how can we ever make a “great brand?” The secret to great branding lies in understanding relationships. People often “like” things and other people, which lasts only momentarily. Most people will “like” many people and things on and off during their lifetime, but will not “love” many things.
When someone loves their S.O., they will choose them over anyone else, even if the “alternatives” are better in every single way. Then when you ask the person why they love their S.O., they will often start thinking of the reasons on the spot. Before that moment, they might not have even consciously thought about why they love their S.O., but will then come up with a multitude of reasons. They will say that they love the fact that their S.O. is funny, good looking, career-focused, but even if they found that same or better combination of things in another person, they would still love their S.O.
The love that people have for their loved ones is what brands (specifically company brands and not people brands) want to achieve with their customers (although nearly impossible.) Of course I’m not talking about the passionate love, but the emotive love, the love people have for their iPhones, movies like Star Wars, the list goes on. People will defend the brands they love just like they defend their loved ones. When asked why they love a certain brand, they’ll say, oh I love their products, their customer service, what they stand for, etc. They won’t know exactly why, but will come up with reasons to defend the brand.
Like being a great partner, to be a great brand, you first must be… yourself. This is a cliche, but I think it makes sense. People won’t like you as a person or a brand if they feel like you’re pandering to them or their subgroup. People will like you, however, if you are yourself and stand for something you believe in (but this doesn’t mean stand for a political view, which I’ll discuss further below.) People will find things about you, whether true or not, to like, and will love your brand - not because you asked for them to be, but because they themselves decided to.
The things we create as people and brands come from a deep sense of who we are or what we want to materialize. Bob Iger, ex-CEO of Disney, described this well in his Masterclass:
“Collecting data about that marketplace in order to determine what story you tell or how you tell that story, to me, is a waste of time. I don’t think you ever learn enough from data about what a marketplace would want in terms of story or how a marketplace might even react to a story. That decision needs to be based more on gut instinct and on confidence you may have in the creative entity that’s telling the story. I’m not a big believer in doing research that any way leads to an answer to the question what does an audience want. I typically believe that research when you bring a creative product to market beforehand doesn’t do you much good. It doesn’t create a roadmap, doesn’t in any way end up as a positive in terms of what you create or how you create it. The collection of data needs to be complimented by the collection of real time experience. That learning about a market by looking at numbers on a computer screen might give you some insights but not all the insights you necessarily need. One way I like collecting information the most is experience. I like traveling the world, I like interacting with consumers as much as possible to get a better understanding of the marketplace and consumers in general. One of the things I say often to people is if you don’t go, you can’t grow. What I mean by that is you have to go to a market, on the ground in the market, and touch, and feel, and listen to, and see the market that you’re in to gain a better sense of what that market is. A great example would be doing business in India. You could sit in your office in LA and study India all you want. But you’re never going to learn as much as you would learn if you go there and see the sights and sounds and smells and touch the market and its people in a very, very direct way.” - Bob Iger, A Ride of a Lifetime
There’s also a ton of proof out there that shows “being yourself” and finding ways to be yourself is truly what’s most important, whether you’re selling B2C or B2B services (although B2B is certainly different.) Timberland focused on being themselves, a shoe for hard working people, and a completely different group of people than they had expected to buy it loved and immortalized their product.
In the tech world, we saw this with Steve Jobs and Apple. Jobs, from the start, had always been himself and led Apple with that energy. He infused himself into everything he did, from his public speeches, to Apple’s marketing (Think Different.) He knew who he was, what he stood for, and what he wanted. In the relationship analogy, you’ve likely heard that before you get into a relationship, you should find yourself. A brand must learn to know itself before others can love it.
Great branding is partly about finding different expressions of itself, which takes creativity, risk taking, and consistency.
Before I talk about what i think brands can do to try to “be themselves,” I think it’s important to note that businesses need to make money, and that’s okay, there’s no shame in that. What I’m advocating for is that good branding will drive more, better, and ethical business.
Good branding, however, does not imply you have a good business, and vice versa. We’ve seen many times where good businesses fail to be good brands, for example, Facebook, which I’ll discuss later in this post. I believe to be successful in the long run, a company needs a good business model and a good brand.
A brand needs to be focused on telling the “stories” it knows best, which means telling “stories” usually about their own product. A story is anything that can be passed through word of mouth. A great story is a story that carries positive emotion when told. So, stories can be anything, from writing whitepapers, creating great characters, advertising, marketing tactics, etc.
For example, Jobs built stories around the Apple products. He talked about what he hoped his products would achieve, and who he would want to use them. He didn’t associate the brand to a political agenda just because it was hot with his customers. He focused on building stories around his product and standing up for them (which is a story in of initself!)
The key to building great brands lies in the ability to confidently create stories that are honest and consistent. (These adjectives aren’t for no reason, I will discuss them in the next section.)
Stories leave strong neural marks on the consumer and travel through word of mouth; stories are what creates great brands.
Creating stories lies in the intersection of brand, marketing, and sales. Although creating advertisements, writing case studies, selling, falls in marketing’s realm, these tactics must be guided by branding.
“Being yourself” / the company “being itself” is a branding philosophy that helps you decide which tactics are right for your organization and helps make those tactics more impactful. Branding goes hand in hand with both sales and marketing, together they make it possible for brands to be great.
(The “be yourself” philosophy might seem pretty obvious to many, but I think now more than ever, people forget this, which is why I think it’s important to make a case for it. In today’s time, we see brands and companies bandwagon onto trends and fads without considering how it reflects on their company and first principles. We often see organizations choose to market their products the same way another company does just because it’s successful, without understanding whether or not the tactic works for their brand. It’s easy to get lost in the noise, especially in large organizations. Leadership can quickly forget what their products are, what stories they can honestly tell, and what the best ways of telling them are. Understanding one’s brand is a conscious study of a company’s persona and its relationship to consumers in the marketplace. Reflecting on how an organization can “be itself” is not only about reflecting on its identity, but also its relationship to its products and customers.)
Although there are many ways for a company to learn to “be itself” (a famous one being Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle,”) I think there are a few ground rules that brands (and people) should follow if they wish to build a great relationship with a consumer. Great brands, like great partners in relationships, must have: Honesty, Confidence, Consistency, and be Ethical.
(If great brands are akin to great partners, then we need to determine what makes up a great partner. Although this is my opinion, I think that when we examine our relationships, we will find that more often than not, honesty, confidence, and consistency are apparent in all healthy relationships.)
Also, these traits are powerful because they have the ability to spread quickly. When consumers hear stories about people and brands acting with these traits, word of mouth quickly spreads their stories like wildfire, which builds their brand reputation.
A great example of a brand that has “been itself” is Riot Games’ League of Legends. The game has never directly linked its intrinsic value to any causes. Instead, it focused on itself and building stories around itself. Riot Games invested resources in creating an endless amount of stories in the League universe, and it has paid off. The amount of stories you create is also important. Because this increases the amount of entry ways for a consumer to like you even more. Just like when you’re entering any sort of relationship with a person, the more “postiive” experiences / stories you have with a person, the more they’ll come to like you. Smaller brands don’t have the bandwidth to create as many stories, so they need to focus on high quality. Big brands need to be investing in both volume and high quality. Again, stories can be anything, from events, to advertising, to sales, etc. But all these stories must be honest and consistent with the image the brand wants to create.
Riot created content that has never existed in games before, going as far as to create popular music bands with their characters. They’ve found a way to “be themselves” in the products they create.
Riot trail-blazed the way for e-sports and gaming in mainstream media. Standing up for e-sports made sense, consumers knew it was genuine and they championed the brand. If investors know that Riot is behind a game, they will immediately invest in its competitive scene, which goes to show that Riot’s has great brand reputation.
“Any game that Riot releases is already held high in our minds, because the e-sports ecosystem for League of Legends is so well done, so naturally we expect a lot of these strengths to carry over into any new e-sports ecosystem that they want to develop.” - Team Secret’s CEO
Riot created a strong brand reputation by “being themselves” and focusing on their product. The stories that were generated from their product (champion releases, gaming events, game philosophy and transparency, personnel hires, etc.) is what created their brand over time. And although the tactics they used varied across the decade, each decision was fueled by “honesty,” “confidence,” and “consistency.”
Firstly, to build a great brand, we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that companies are built to make money. Because of this, brands must most importantly “stand for” themselves, their products, their employees, and their decision making. Standing for anything else is pretty far fetched and will be taken as not completely genuine, unless you’re a non-profit organization or doing charity work.
However, if you want to tie a major piece of your brand reputation to a cause, you must tread lightly. You do not want your brand to equal the cause, because then people will only buy from you because of that cause. When the cause/”fad” dissipates, so will a large chunk of your brand’s customers. You can certainly support a cause, (and should if the cause is directly related to your product, like gas companies and environmental causes) but make sure that the cause you’re supporting and how you’re supporting that cause is in-line with your company and it’s “product.”
“At the end of the day we have to acknowledge that corporations are trying to make money… they will always go for the best interest of the organization… i don’t think people should put their alignment behind brands, buy the shoe because you like the shoe, don’t be like you buy the shoe because it represents my political beliefs because I don’t think it completely does.” - Trevor Noah, The Daily Show
When people ask you about your product, be honest even if it risks the potential sale. You will gain respect for doing so and turning away business isn’t always so bad.
When I list confidence, I’m not referring to “alpha male” confidence. I’m talking about having confidence in who you are and what you stand for, but to also know when you’re wrong. Great brands have confidence in the products they build, the people they hire, and decisions they make. Another example is how Jon Stewart, the ex-host of the Daily Show, runs his show. He will give hard interviews, call-out people when he believes they’re wrong, and puts his money where his mouth is at.
He built an incredible brand for the show and many recognize his show to be a more credible and honest source of news than any news network. When people look to the Daily Show, they will expect that the host now and in the future to carry those values.
Make sure you know your stuff and take tough stances on them.
It doesn’t matter if you are honest and confident but aren’t consistent. Think of a spouse who is inconsistent in their behavior - it breeds mistrust. How many companies have we heard of that preach one thing but do something entirely different? The obvious examples are oil and gas companies and going green, politicians promising things during their campaign but not delivering, etc.
(A fun and tricky example of consistency, or the lack of consistency rather, is Trump’s presidential run. He promised a lot of things but never fulfilled them and yet many still love him and will vote for him in November 2020. The reason he attracts all these people is because he’s still consistently himself, inconsistent. Inconsistency is his consistency, lying is his honesty, etc. Although I hate to say it, Trump is a master of branding and marketing, whether intentional or not. He knows his product-market fit and how to create a plethora of stories for his brand.)
Consistency, however, doesn’t mean not changing. It’s important to always change for the better, but at the same time for those changes to be consistent with the brand.
Ethics, more than ever, is becoming an important part of building long term brand reputation. Take a look at Facebook, they never got their branding right. A popular documentary by Netflix, the Social Dilemma, critiques Facebook and its role in manipulating the human psyche. Although their large network will make it difficult for Facebook to fade away, if there was something to bring down the company’s business, it would be their lack of good branding (and more specifically, ethical branding.)
The reason honesty, confidence, consistency, and (sometimes) ethics are essential traits in creating a great brands is because these are traits we see in great people. The greatest brands of all time are people. Why? Because people can relate to and create “relationships” with human beings moreso than companies. The trick for companies is figuring out how can we have our business reflect the values of a great person while not being a person. For some types of companies, this is easier than for others. For example, the reason that sports teams are able to create many more stories and strong branding is because of their players. The players create great stories and branding for the team and that becomes associated with the organization. People often say “our team” when referring to a team that they like. For example, if Lebron went to the Knicks, a Knicks fan might say, “we got Lebron!!”
B2C companies have caught onto the fact that the best relationships they can create with consumers are human ones. Collaborations with artists, designers, and other firms are more popular than ever, and people love them because it gives the consumer more context for what the brand stands for. Collaborations make a brand seem more human and relatable. Although finding and creating collaborations is a marketing tactic, the effectiveness of the tactic is rooted in branding.
For B2B or tech businesses, branding is a bit more difficult. The difficulty arises from the fact that when businesses buy from other businesses, it’s not a singular decision. There are many factors to take into account and the decision is usually outside the control of any one individual. But still, these values help guide a brand in its sales and marketing decisions. Ultimately, companies are made up of people, and people in businesses will react to honesty, confidence, and consistency the same way regular people do. An example of a sales policy guided by branding is when a brand is honest about their product and when and where they can save the client money (even if it means lowering their bottom line.)