You can buy a logo. You can buy an identity package.
But you can’t buy branding. Why not?
Partially to blame for the misconception that one can buy branding, it seems, is because some people confuse their “brand” with their identity and/or their logo (“brand mark”). This is understandable; many people view these terms as interchangeable, but in reality, they are very different–yet very related–things. And I do use the term “branding” in place of “identity” sometimes because it’s what most clients understand.
Increasingly, we’re finding that it’s better to think of brand not as cause, but as effect.” — Robert Jones with Wolff Olins, March 2013
Actual “branding” happens over time. It is the impression your customers get from your company. It is how your customers experience, interact with, and interpret your company. Your brand is how you connect with people, places, and missions. It is what customers say about you when you’re not around. By this definition, you don’t even “own” your branding–your customers, colleagues, vendors, and suppliers do.
You can, however, heavily influence your branding through graphic design and selective marketing. What you really want to focus on, then, is how your customers experience your company. Think about how your colleagues interact with customers, where your products or services are sold, which causes you support, and the creativity with which you implement your identity guide. Communicate the purpose of your company, and your brand will develop much more authentically than advertising your way into people’s hearts.
Sure, you may be thinking of the traditional way of doing things: A company forces “brand positioning” through buying a logo and a tagline, slapping them on everything, and telling customers what to think about the company. That’s not how contemporary brands thrive.
Take Budweiser, for example. During craft beer movement, Budweiser tried beating people over the head with their “cherished traditions” and “hand-made with care” craft-like messaging to regain some of their dwindling market share. But Budweiser finally figured it out: it doesn’t matter what they told people to think about their brand, people had already formed their own opinions about their products. How Budweiser connected with customers, where the company focused their investments and efforts, what causes they supported, and the behavior of the company was already firmly in people’s minds. It was decidedly not “craft.” Budweiser, finally embracing this reality that no one believes they are “craft” beer, launched their Superbowl ad in 2015, marking a turn in its strategy: “if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em.”
The moral of the Budweiser story is: you can tell people over and over again who you are, but they will form their own opinions about your purpose. Patagonia, through the causes they support, how customers connect with the company, and the way people talk about Patagonia have allowed storytelling to create their brand. They didn’t say, “THIS IS WHAT YOU SHOULD THINK.” They said, “This is our purpose. You decide what to think about it.” Granted, they carefully planned and chose how to influence their audience, and they did so successfully.
Branding is simply how people experience your company’s purpose. And if you think about it, the word “brand” originally came from the Viking Norse word for burn (brandr). We branded cattle with a red-hot iron. Is that really how we want our customers to experience us?