When I tell people I develop brand identities, I’m sometimes met with confused looks, and lots of questions. What is branding? Is that the same as marketing? Is it really necessary?
The first definition of branding originated in the 1800s on American farmland. Cattle were marked, or “branded,” with a distinctive letter or shape to ward off thieves and ensure the livestock was associated with a certain owner and property. It wasn’t long before a brand started to be associated with quality and other consistency factors. People began to realize that they could “say” something about whatever they were selling without actually saying anything at all. Their very name or trademark preceded them in terms of demonstrating the value of their goods or services to the public.
Now, of course, brands are all around us, constantly within our view, our thoughts, and our daily lives. Some brands are shouting at us, and the more keen ones are trying to have a conversation. Either way, we’ve transcended the consumer-business relationship and entered into a world where brands are more like people, and people are more like brands. With the help of the internet, brands and people alike have more reach than ever, meaning we’re able to communicate with a larger group of other humans more quickly and effectively than before.
This leads to my stripped-down definition of branding: branding is shaping the perception of who you are and why you matter. Whether you’re a person or a business, branding allows you to actively inform the perceived idea and value of your business and your products. You have reasons for doing what you do (right?) so it’s important to share those with the people that your product is made for.
The concept of shaping what consumers perceive about your brand can often be misunderstood as manipulation. I think manipulation only occurs when the business has something to hide, and businesses that have something to hide can never make good brands. Branding isn’t about covering up dark secrets, it’s about focusing on a simple aspect so that consumers can more easily understand and remember that brand. I’ve talked about this aspect of branding before; you cannot flood someone’s consciousness with every detail about your business. No one can remember all that information, so it cancels itself out. You need to lead with the most significant benefit that your product provides for your customers, and that is what your brand should focus on.
Another thing people assume about branding is that it’s the same as advertising, marketing, or logo design. The easiest way to explain the relationship between all of these is to say that advertising, marketing, and logo design are the result of branding. Whereas those three representations of your business are prepared, rehearsed messages of who you are, branding is the groundwork that allows for those messages to be what they are. Branding takes a look at who your business is, why it does what it does, and why people should care. With that information on your side expressing your brand is easy, and, more importantly, it’s effective.
Some people ask me if branding is really necessary for a business, and I love this question because its error is revealed in its answer. There is no two-faced coin where “branding” is on one side and “not branding” is on the other. Branding doesn’t work that way. Branding can allow you to shape the perception of your business, or it can allow others to shape that perception. The perception of your brand is based on the conversation of others, whether you are part of that conversation or not. So, if you’re not working to be involved in the way people think of your business, you’re still branding…just not very well.