Building a brand identity
The word branding is thrown around in every direction: “You have to build a brand, you have to have a brand, and you have to separate yourself with a brand.”. Still, grasping what branding is and how it should be done is difficult.
This is why looking at examples and breaking them down into small elements is vital for understanding branding better and with this essay, I want to do exactly that.
Examples of successful branding
Looking at examples gives us ideas and inspiration on how we could also do branding. Successful branding looks different for every company and for every business model. I will provide examples of successful:
- Product branding
- Service branding
- Company branding
- Personal branding
Product branding and genericide
Kleenex is a product that achieved arguably the ultimate form of branding: “genercide”.
Genericide occurs when a brand name is so widely and often used that it becomes a generic term for a specific product or service.
For those who don’t know, Kleenex is a tissue brand in the States. When someone needs a tissue, they ask: “Can I have a Kleenex”. So in essence it has become a synonym for tissue.
Kleenex was introduced in 1924 and was a new disposable alternative to the reusable cloth handkerchiefs used in the past. They first marketed it to women as a makeup remover but later expanded to broader audiences.
One of the biggest factors for Kleenex was that of being an early mover. They were one of the first to provide a more hygienic disposable alternative.
The brands that often achieve genericide are early movers and I would argue that it is almost impossible to achieve this phenomenon in a market that is already well established.
Another very well-known example of genericide is Google. When someone asks about something, a common response might be: “Just Google it”.
Branding a service is harder than branding a product I argue. A product resonates easier with the consumer, whereas a service will have a hard time achieving the same effect.
A successful service brand that comes up often in discussions is Amazon. Even though yes, they are extremely successful it is not because of the brand. Amazon has always provided never-before-seen convenience to customers and this is a large factor in their success, not the brand. Also, it is hard to consider Amazon as a service-based business only, they provide multiple products and alternatives that don’t fall into the service category.
A successful service brand I would like to highlight is the Finnish real estate agency called Neliöt Liikkuu. Real estate is not an easy market to break into, but Neliöt Liikkuu has done exactly that. Their brand caters for a younger audience than that of a traditional real estate agency.
They tie professionalism and luxury together perfectly. They have a clear message:: “We are experts and sell a lot and fast”, the same message is even embedded into their name. Even if they don’t directly say they sell upper-class houses, that’s what they do most. Their visual identity is that of high class.
There are multiple examples of good and bad rebrands. The one I would like to highlight is the rebranding of Lego.
Lego’s rebranding differs from many in the way that their rebranding has been gradual and constant. They have been on time, in the sense that they constantly evolve and innovate, they haven’t reached a point where they have to make a sudden large rebranding. This is ideal for a brand, because large sudden rebrands have a higher chance of failing, and when they fail the consequences are a lot worse.
Lego started out making wooden toys and then moved on to plastic building blocks. Their evolutions and rebrands have been numerous. One of the most notable ones was in the early 2000s when they faced near bankruptcy. They started to trim down the product line and incorporate more themed sets. The acquisition of the rights to produce Lego Star Wars sets was very successful and these sets have become a staple of Lego.
Other innovations include:
- Making Lego games, some of which have become cult classics
- Producing movies and TV shows
- Providing educational solutions and promoting the benefits of creativity
- And more recently, starting to shift to a high-end luxury brand tailored toward adults and collectors.
It is an understatement to consider Lego as just a child toy brand, it has evolved into something much more. It has been named one of the strongest brands to date.
Apple is one of the most common examples of successful branding and for good reason, it is one of the biggest companies to date.
The core of Apple’s branding is in its visual identity and in their products. I believe the secret lies in the way they put user and customer experience above all else. From their packaging to their operating system, it is all designed with the user in mind. The experience is sleek, minimalistic and above all very satisfying.
Apple has also nailed brand loyalty. It is not rare at all to meet people who are itching to purchase everything Apple puts out. Sometimes these people are referred to as “Apple sheep”.
You don’t often see a company that can create a problem, sell you the solution and get praised for it. Apple is one of those rare examples.
Apple is also genius in the way they create their product ecosystem. When you start using one Apple product, you start to crave the other products that will complement your recent purchase. Specifically by this I mean all the apps Apple has and the ways they intertwine and connect with each other across multiple products. I am an iPhone user but I have a Windows computer. I am tempted to make the switch to Mac for the ability to integrate my phone and computer seamlessly.
Also funny how I describe the Apple phone as an iPhone and a Lenovo laptop as a Windows computer, every other phone and PC brand is categorized by operating system (Windows and Android) whereas Apple products are just Apple.
Stephen Houraghan talks about exactly this in his podcast with David Aaker. Stephen highlights how Apple builds brand equity on the products themselves, he made a comparison between wireless Sony earbuds and Apple Airpods, with Apple he can directly say Airpods and everybody knows what he is talking about, making it easy to pass on brand equity, while with the Sony earbuds, he doesn’t even remember their name.
Personal branding and differentiation
Personal branding has become common and very valuable in our society. The possibility for monetary gains with personal brands is immense.
There are multiple good examples of personal branding from content creators to politicians. I want to go over two examples:
Mr Beast is the most subscribed YouTuber on the planet. He is often referred to as the king of YouTube and the one who figured out the system of getting views.
While he is now much more than a personal brand, it all started with the personal brand of Jimmy aka “Mr Beast”. I remember seeing his videos for the first time, if I recall correctly it was a video where he repeated the same word a million times, the video was over 24 hours long. It is a stark contrast from what he produces today, but they still follow the same principle.
Jimmy’s brand is that of extravagance and over-the-top entertainment. His brand is that which fits YouTube perfectly, pure entertainment. He is known for spending millions of dollars on a single video, giving stuff away and providing entertainment all the while.
In the YouTube space, there has been a new character on the rise: Sam Saulek. I brought him and Mr Beast both up on purpose, they are good examples of personal branding but both are at opposite extremes.
Sam Sauleks’s videos are raw, uncut hour-long vlogs of his life. There is no editing, no fancy tricks, just a man talking and being himself on the camera. Compared to Mr Beast’s over-the-top edited videos, it is a wonder how both of them could be considered extremely successful.
Interestingly branding is not about branding, it is about being different. And in a space full of over-the-top visuals and brands, having “no” brand is a big contrast from the rest which is why it works so well in Sam Saulek’s case.
Why branding is important
Branding creates value out of thin air, or at least sort of. Branding is crucial for certain types of businesses in certain types of markets.
With branding, you can:
- Differentiate yourself from the competition
- Target certain types of people and create a connection with them
- Foster loyalty and create brand ambassadors
- Improve customer retention and repeat purchases
- Create value
- Justify higher prices and create a premium feel
The end goal of branding
In my opinion, the ultimate end goal of branding is to get more sales without extra effort and this comes by having brand ambassadors. By this, I mean people who proactively engage with the product and tie their personal identity to the brand. These ambassadors will interact with the brand on social media, repeat purchases, spread the word and talk positively about the brand.
What this will result in is that the brand will sell itself without input from the company. Word of mouth is arguably the best form of marketing, it costs nothing and the returns are massive.
What type of branding is important and when
The importance of branding depends on what type of business you are running and why. This is not to say that branding shouldn’t be done at a basic level for every business (colours, logo, fonts etc), it definitely should, but when should you actually spend considerable amounts of work and money toward building a brand.
The main factors to consider if branding is a priority are:
- What are you selling
- Who are you selling to
- How are you selling
- Market competition
- How does the customer interact with the brand
What are you selling
Are you selling a product or a service, what type of product or service are you selling. This is a big factor in whether branding is a priority or not
Who are you selling to
Are you selling to businesses or consumers, are you selling to multiple smaller targets, or to a few large ones.
How are you selling
Does your funnel include company encounters and how many of them. By this, I mean how many times does the customer see your company/brand during the sales process. For example, an eCommerce store has multiple encounters: Marketing(usually many times) -> Website -> Product, whereas a contractor doing construction for a big company might have zero encounters
In a very competitive market, businesses have to differentiate themselves from their competitors. This can be done in a number of ways (price, quality, customer service etc) but branding is usually the most efficient way of differentiation with the biggest upside for businesses.
How does the customer interact with the business
The way customers interact with the brand can differ largely depending on the business model. For example, a white-label service is usually based on relationships and the business is not the one handling customer interaction.
Cornerstones of branding
Branding can be made to sound very confusing, but at its core it’s simple. I like to think that in essence branding is made up of these three cornerstones
In my opinion, a successful brand is all about providing value. When a customer receives enough value in exchange, they will keep coming back again and again.
The value added can be increased with numerous methods without altering the core product or making it better, branding is one of the main methods.
One of the most powerful ways to add more value and improve brand image is to focus on customer/user experience (depending on what type of business you have). If a customer gets an okay product, but an excellent customer experience, they will remember it fondly, but if they get a great product but a bad customer experience, they will hold a grudge. This is why you should put effort into it, even though it requires a bit of extra work.
This was actually an “Ahaa” moment for me, a moment of realization. Branding is about being different, it is subjective, not objective. It is not only about what a thing looks like, it is about what the thing looks like in its surroundings.
Visualize an all-red painting. So just a canvas with red paint thrown on top. Now imagine it in a back alley next to a dumpster, what image do you get from it? Likely an image of trash, a failed experiment thrown out and one from which you don’t perceive any value at all.
Now imagine the same painting in the middle of a grand, all-white room with light shining on it. What feeling do you get now? Probably that of luxury, high-end art. A piece with immense monetary value.
This is something luxury brands utilize and this goes back to value. If you can make your product look more appealing or luxurious than your competitors,, there is a high chance your product will be chosen instead of theirs.
One universal fact I would like to highlight is: “Do what you say”. This applies to virtually everything, from a person’s personal life to brands. From a branding viewpoint, it is extremely vital. One way to ruin a brand is to not do what you say.
A good brand always stands for something. In its essence it is abstract and it is made more concrete through values and different means of communication to customers and to employees alike.
If a brand goes against what it is, turmoil will follow. A good example of a failure is Bud Light’s recent campaign/rebranding. Bud Light did a collaborative campaign with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney and it caused huge backlash for the company and cost them millions of dollars.
Now there is nothing wrong with trying to reach the LGBTQ community and enter that market. Quite the contrary, it has been extremely profitable and valuable for some companies, but for Bud Light, it was not.
The reason why it failed lies in going against your brand, and that is what happened with Bud Light. Bud Light was a staple of traditional American culture. It was the drink a traditional middle-aged American man with a pickup truck chose.
Now when Bud Light decided suddenly to become a staple of the LGBQT community, it was not something the average customers of Bud Light could bear, they couldn’t relate to the brand anymore, and all that hard work to relate with these customers went down the drain.
This incident showed that Bud Light didn’t understand its customer base. Even if a brand wants to stand for something, what it actually stands for lies in its customers, not in the values the company puts out.
Measuring the effectiveness of branding
Although often it is said that it is difficult to adequately measure the effectiveness of branding (for example, in terms of ROI), it can, however, be measured in terms of engagement. In order to be able to track the change made, it is important to have data “before” and “after” an initiative is performed (this can be done f.e. by monitoring changes in different metrics such as sales, customer engagement, interest accrued; taking surveys, etc.) Marty Neumeier explains this by a concept he calls “The Brand Ladder”, which refers to how your customers regard your company.
The Brand Ladder by M. Neumeier (Neumeier, 2019):
- At the bottom of the ladder is “satisfaction”, which, nowadays, is the bare minimum. This is an essential first step in the ladder because it is the beginning of building trust and confidence and considering making another purchase. To be able to meet the first step, the brand needs to fulfil its promises and its product/services already need to be good.
- The next step in the brand ladder is “delight”. The difference between “satisfaction” and “delight” is excitement and positive surprise, that is when the brand has exceeded expectations and provided an unexpected value to the customer, and they are willing to become loyal supporters of the brand. In this step, individuals are naturally recommending the brand to others as well, and their trust increases.
- After “delight” comes “engagement”. This category stands for automatic purchases. The customer is engaged with the brand and becomes part of the “community”, shares an emotional attachment, and so they are willing to make a purchase whenever the brand introduces something new. As an example, M. Neumeier mentions a loyal Apple customer who thinks: “There is a new Apple watch coming out, I did not even know I wanted a watch, but, anyway I am going to get it.”
- At the top of the ladder is “empowerment”. This is when the customers join the brand and the brand is a big part of who they are, and they would feel a “loss” if one day their brand disappeared.
Note that a brand can have (and it normally does) its customers on different steps of the ladder, but the brand can monitor how its customers are moving closer to the top of the ladder.
Building a brand is not a small feat, but it is something all companies should do at a basic level. To tie everything together, consider these questions if you are starting a brand:
- How are you different, what does your brand look like next to competitors?
- In what ways does your brand provide value?
- How will you communicate your vision to the customers, and stay consistent with that vision?
Neumeier, M. 2019. What is Branding? A deep dive with Marty Neumeier. Futur. 17.12.2019. https://www.youtube.com/live/dpZfNNYUZEc?si=yGP1DoKU1fNy4m68
Building Strong Brands with Modern Strategies And Stories (w/ David Aaker) 9.3.2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Y47RN6N7kg