Branding is a way of thinking and working that can be applied to people, places, organisations, movements, products, services and even materials or cultural concepts to shape the way that people think and feel about them.
Branding is an inherent human practice of all ages and all cultures, a way of showing who you are and what you stand for. For ages, artists have signed their work in order to build their reputations. Silver and goldsmiths have developed marks of quality to instil trust. Knights and warriors were clad in the colours and symbols of their houses or tribes, proclaiming their allegiances, distinguishing them from the enemy, and advancing their reputations. The actual word ‘branding’ derives from the branding of cattle in the United States in the 19th century to show and prove ownership.
Branding as we know it today came of age during the Industrial Revolution. Large-scale production and faster logistics meant that the distance between producer and consumer grew. Word-of-mouth was no longer effective as a single tool for spreading a reputation. Especially for food, the safety and quality of products was a big question mark. Creating more recognisable identities for their products helped manufacturers build trust and loyalty. By the mid-20th century, most manufacturers could no longer compete based purely on quality, as most goods on the market were roughly the same. So manufacturers had to develop another differentiating factor to make products stand out on the store shelf, a more emotional appeal, and advertising,
marketing and branding came into their own. Today, branding is used by individuals, governments, activists, movements, political parties, products, services, scientists and celebrities
to help guide people on how to think and feel about them.
Branding is a tool, and, like any tool, you can use it for good or evil. In a perfect world, great ideas would spread, based purely on their own merit, but unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. As a change-making firm, we know better than anyone that realising the impact that companies are working towards sometimes literally takes the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.
The branding process is no different. But once you have made the investment into building a strong brand, it will start to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.
These outcomes are exactly what companies need when they are working towards impact! Branding can help strengthen what you have built or can bring you into a new phase
when your market is disrupted when your context changes or when your organisation experiences internal change.
Branding is choosing. You can’t be everything to everyone, so what do you want to put in the spotlight? You want to guide what people’s gut feeling about you is actively. You can’t control it entirely, and neither should you want to, but if you don’t frame how you want to be thought of, others will frame you —right or wrong— as they see fit.
Every day we are bombarded by messages from thousands of people, organisations and products who think that we should buy them, read them, eat them, and fund them. By creating recognition and allowing people to pull names from their mental archives, brands help people to make choices.
Developing a brand strategy means not leaving things to chance but having a plan about who you want to engage and what you want them to think and feel about you.
Whether a brand is strong is not just a question of taste. A strong brand has measurable qualities. It is:
In an effort to change their reputations, many people, companies and governments turn to PR and branding. If all we do is try to influence perception through communication, it is simply propaganda. Nor should we go for merely cosmetic operations. For people and processes to be believable, communication must be aligned with action.
Branding is a great tool, but it does come with some dangers. Turn on your ‘bullshit radar’. Be sure to test every idea and phrase against reality. Don’t be afraid of sharing a bold vision, but be honest, open and transparent with what you are trying to achieve. Always make it as compelling and original as possible. Keep it simple (simple is hard).
Is branding marketing? Is it advertising? Is branding a logo or a video that goes viral? All the above can be part of your brand, but they are not synonymous with it. Marketing helps you to bring a product to the market. Marketers can use point of sales material for this or a reward programme.
Advertising is usually structured around a campaign that can include ads, commercials, Facebook apps, web banners and flyers. A logo is part of your visual identity and, therefore an
essential part of your brand. A video you have created can be a great medium to tell your message. All of them are part of your brand, but none encompass it.
The process of distilling your mission and vision and deciding partnerships and places (which is a process inherent re-examining, strengthening or fine-tuning the concept of your business, product or service.
Branding will help you frame who you are, what you do and why it matters and will generate ideas on who your audiences are, what you have to offer them, and how you can reach them.
This is vital to investors, supporters, partners, (potential) employees, suppliers and the media, whether it is on public, global platform or in a first-pitch deck you send in a single private email. Ten years ago, it would have been wise to delay investing resources in brand development until the business model had been completely set. Today, it can take startups
quite a while to find the suitable business model, so branding becomes relevant from your first presentation to an investor, whether your mother or a big fund.
A significant change in your industry need not be the end of your organisation. How can you reframe what you do and why it matters? Branding can help you rethink your purpose and positioning. It can also help guide you through actions necessary to change your reputation.
Know what role you want to play within your market. How do you distinguish yourself from others in the same field or with similar offers? What do you want to be recognised for? Positioning is choosing.
Articulating what you want to work towards will help you connect to your audiences and give you a guiding principle for everything you do as an organisation.
Build it around your mission, an insight, moment or person that led you to do what you do. Nothing builds a stronger connection between you and your audience than a story that is relevant and memorable. Accounts allow your audiences to share your experience and become your ambassadors.
Strong brands create clarity. You cannot expect to attract people’s interest and support if they cannot understand what you offer them. This may seem too simple to mention, but you would be surprised how often organisations fail to communicate clearly what they offer.
Be sure to articulate the real value for your audience (what they get out of engaging with you) and the world (the bigger issue). There is a difference between saying ‘We
design websites’ and ‘We are User Interaction Designers who help not-for-profits design websites that maximise fundraising for humanitarian issues.
Everyone in your organisation can be a brand ambassador, from your board of directors and your partners to your employees, interns and volunteers. The same goes for external audiences: these days, a brand is as strong as the communities it can galvanise.
Everything you do is an expression of your brand, whether you do it intentionally or unintentionally. Have fun with all the experiences you can offer your audiences in their interactions with you! A strong brand allows your audience to ‘get’ what you are about through every different way they encounter you. Whether they watch you speak at a conference, visit your website, call your customer service, or attend your event, they clearly understand what you stand for.
Don’t sell yourself short with a generic brand. Create a brand identity that translates your internal character into a unique, differentiating external identity and personality.
At the end of the day, what you deliver will define how people think and feel about you. When building your brand, never forget to walk the walk.
Branding doesn’t exist purely for its own sake. You will invest a lot of time and resources into your branding. That alone is a reason to make sure that you are using it to reach your goals,
whether short-term or practical (recruiting the best talent for your team, creating more loyalty among your suppliers) or long-term and visionary (increasing your social impact, boosting your finances). The time and resources you commit to branding should give you a return on investment in reaching your objectives.
As your organisation grows and changes, your goals change with it. You might provide different services or reach different audiences. You might need other things from different people. Your brand has to evolve to support your evolving goals, so take time every 6-12 months to look at your brand strategy and see what you can improve so that your brand grows with you to keep you moving in the right direction.
If you feel branding creates a logo and a website, you will see branding as a short, linear process. If you define branding as guiding what people think and feel about you, it is an ongoing process that needs constant inspiration, investment and attention to help support your goals.
The second view of branding provides you with the most positive effects over time. Through brand development, people and organisations go from being self-aware to being self-defined to having a self-directed brand.