Branding has been taking an incrementally bigger role in business development. I first became aware of the shift as I was getting involved in brand work for nonprofits and social ventures in the startup community, just after Marty Neumeier published The Brand Gap in 2007, where he articulated the relationship between business strategy and design.
The definition of brand was moving away from 'make the logo bigger' and 'make the website blue because that's our colour' to discussions about Brand Essence. As social engagement crept in, Brand Personas became hangers for CMOs and brand marketing managers to keep control of who they were and what their company or product was talking about. Fast-forwarding over the last seven years and leaping over significant progressions – like what Alex Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas did to make branding more accessible from a business development lens – companies have migrated from what the website looks like as a manifestation of brand to a more holistic lens where branding infuses ALL the touchpoints an organization has with their target audiences and the rest of the world.
When people say 'A brand is not a logo,' it means that a brand isn't controlled from Head Office, it's what lives in the hearts and minds of people when they think of a company or product. It's perception; it's rational, visceral and emotional. So now it's not about a set of rules that govern logos, typography, colour and other graphic standards: though it might include all that, branding now infuses UX design, product development, social media and customer support. They all need to express brand in a cohesive way to be a successful brand. It's not what you say as much as how you say it. All the stories of Zappos' success are brand stories and Zappos' success wasn't made by the way the website is designed, though that is indeed part of the brand experience.
When I was invited in to the social innovation community in 2009, I fell into brand strategy as I kept being asked in meetings to tell entrepreneurs what was the matter with their website design. I couldn't answer without asking a lot of questions that came from my background in advertising as I was trying to figure out what the creative brief was. Working with startups, I quickly saw that developing the best brand strategy was useless if I couldn't show them how that manifested itself. So I developed a creative/strategic shorthand to show in two slides, what that might sound like with the language that would fit and examples of look and feel.
As social media became more important, I started to create social brands that drew less on the tactic-driven handbooks that were circulating than from my creative background in magazines, branded content and advertising that was all about connecting with people emotionally, getting ideas across and creating intrigue. Now that branding is broadly acknowledged to infuse everything, my take on it has grown to blend a 360 view from above with scattered pinpoint direction on how it touches PR, UX, SEO, content, social platforms, websites, creative direction, product development and wee little details like whether hangtags, wrappers or stickers are better. My lens on a brand might give me an opinion on whether the button should be round or square or whether we've nailed the tone. I've found I can help companies create a brand experience not only for targeted customers, but the rest of the world who bumps into their brand and by mixing strategic planning and creative direction, I've given businesses the building blocks to take their own brands.
Over and over again I've seen how difficult it is for founders as well as experienced leaders in large companies to really see their brands clearly. They've got a myopic view from the inside, the same one that affects just about everyone who looks in the mirror and doesn't see what the rest of the world sees. Big companies hire people to research, monitor and guide their brand's progress but smaller companies rely on founders to do everything for business development. And as a startup founder I was having coffee with the other day said, asking startup founders to build their brands is often asking them to do something they're not really equipped for. It's not exactly product development or UX, but it's a part of it. It's not sales or marketing, but it's part of it. It's not PR or social media, but a part of it. And while some create a brand experience from within one of those slices and migrate it out, starting with a great brand strategy makes developing any one of those strands so much easier.
It all starts with a value proposition that's meaningful to the people a business is made for. I see the value proposition is a launching pad for a brand – so it doesn't live on its own, it's more like a springboard. Drawing on creative strategy in advertising and design, the people a brand needs to reach is the next piece of the puzzle and an empathetic way of looking at them that steps beyond demographic groups helps make a brand that will stick with them. The creative execution comes out through everything a brand passes through. Steve Jobs and Richard Branson are two of my brand heroes who shepherded their brands successfully through all the touchpoints. While some have said it's only through a great deal of control and huge budgets that they were able to do what they did, I'd argue that their approaches created meaningful authentic brands because of a strong brand identity that was centred on people.
If we looked at branding in one of those dated evolutionary illustrations with the apes, Cro-Magnon Man and Neaderthals on one end of the scale and modern humans at the other end, branding would have old-world-y bottle labels for magic elixirs on one end and social media and technology-driven executions on the other. But at its core, the brands that have inspired people and really connected with them are the ones that people remember.
Brenda van Ginkel
Every great brand that's making a difference to people or the planet deserves to stand out and be noticed. I write about creative direction and brand strategy for entrepreneurs and those supporting them, packaging concepts with messaging for growth and audience engagement in a crowded, noisy digital space.