All cows look alike. People brand cows to differentiate their own from someone else’s.
In the last few years, branding has become a buzz word in business. It hit the mainstream a few years ago, but not everyone knows exactly what it means. As a concept, branding was most notably brought to light in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding,by Al and Laura Ries, who stated that creating a brand in the mind of the consumer will lead to a powerful marketing program. Without it, all the marketing in the world won’t set a company apart.
Are we really talking about cows? No, but images of branded cows may not be too far off the mark. We’re talking about standing out, and it’s not a new concept.
History: What is Branding?
Branding has likely been around since the beginning of advertising, according to Edward Estipona of Estipona Vialpondo Partners, representing the Advertising Association of Northern Nevada (A2N2). “I think companies have been practicing branding for years and years, but they haven’t called it that,” he explained. “The book 22 Immutable Laws of Branding brought the term into the mainstream and helped companies start thinking about it strategically.”
Branding differentiates your product from others similar to it. “It encompasses a combination of advertising, marketing, public relations, sponsorship, logos – it’s not any one of those things, it is the combined product of all those things,” said Dotti Loader of A2N2.
So just what is branding? “It is much deeper than just selling something. It’s discovering the rational and the motivating factors that will bring people to connect themselves with your brand,” said Adrienne Bemus of R&R Partners, representing the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Sierra Nevada chapter. “More or less, it’s bringing something to life.”
Maybe the term branding comes from brand names. “Think about the most successful brands we all know – for example, Kleenex or Coke. No matter what you’re buying, you call it a Coke or a Kleenex. The Kleenex product had to do some serious branding to differentiate themselves from like products,” said Jim Webster, representing American Marketing Association (AMA) Northern Nevada chapter.
“Branding is the strategy to present your company to the public, to represent it in its mission, in its services, in its full dimension,” said Jon Bastian of Las Vegas Advertising Federation.
Essentially, branding makes a product or service stand out. “Every manufacturer and company and advertiser wants their product to stand out in the mind of consumers as the product they’re going to pick off the shelf or the store they’re going to shop in,” said Loader. “They want their brand to stand out for all the right reasons.”
Mystery: The How-To
But how does a company go about branding itself? “We call it brand planning,” said Bemus. It involves taking an in-depth look at the company from every possible perspective and angle: as a company, and as a product and/or service. First, survey employees and customers, then expand to wider audiences. Next, look at your market to gather insight through primary and secondary research techniques. “That is where you really find the true, deep meaning of how people connect with your brand,” said Bemus.
“The first step is for the organization to identify what it wants its brand to be,” said Loader. “How it wants to be known and differentiated and occupy that space in the consumer’s mind.” Second is to commit to a long-term, consistent course of action to get there.
Products and services can be branded, and so can people and places. Mike Tyson has a brand – he has a clear identity in people’s minds. So does Michael Jordan. As for place, an example of branding in action is the Nevada Commission on Tourism’s (NCOT) promotion of Nevada as the place for extreme outdoor adventure.
R&R Partners in Reno put together the NCOT campaign after thorough primary and secondary research. Researchers used focus groups to determine perceptions of the state. Participants asked to identify unlabeled photos selected dry, sere landscapes as Nevada and lush, green areas as just about anywhere else. In addition, research identified an audience who looks for barren desert as a place to “get away from it all.” Said Bemus, “There’s an audience who wants to know where to go for adventure travel. The research allowed us to put connections together we may have never been able to do without digging that deep.”
Research also showed western states promoting themselves similarly, with beautiful landscapes and arts and culture. “Find out what makes you stand out from the others, then determine the appropriate audience,” said Bemus. “From there, determine what strategies you need to take to get to them. It’s kind of like building a road map.”
Reality: What Branding Can Do
To conceptualize the idea of branding, think Nike (“Just Do It”). Think Starbucks. Both companies are household names. The Nike swoosh speaks of spirit, athletics and liveliness. Starbucks is practically synonymous with coffee. Yet the two companies went about branding in completely different ways. Nike pumped money into advertising. Before the Just Do It campaign Nike was a $27 million company. Four years later, after doing the research, determining what branding could do for it and putting the information to work, Nike emerged as a $4 billion company.
Starbucks chose another route – no advertising at all. Everything it did was public relations. It took its stories to the print media, to anybody who wanted to write stories about the company. “Starbucks made the decision to be consistent to its vision in everything, from the type of employee it hired, to the design and layout of its stores, to the growers it purchased coffee from. The end result is a true brand identity it established and committed to and specifically worked toward for years,” said Loader. A company needs to remain true to its identity in order to imprint an identity or brand clearly in the consumer’s mind.
Branding happens all the time, Estipona said. It doesn’t stop with the advertising campaign or the public image or the space it occupies in a consumer’s mind – it continues through every person the company hires, who then represents that company in some way. Branding lives and breathes through every aspect of a company.
Which is why brands need to stay current. Even household names like Coca-Cola need to stay in front of their customer base, because if a product isn’t on consumers’ radar, they will forget about it. “If you’re a long-term product, you’re continually evolving to address changes in society and different generations,” said Webster. “But – and we see it all the time – if you happen to go below the radar, it’s amazing how fast people can forget you.”
Because branding has an impact on the consumer, negative brandingcan occur. Tylenol survived a tampering scare in 1982, when a few bottles of its product were found to contain poison. BK athletic shoes have been identified with gangs in Los Angeles. Ford doesn’t want villains driving its cars in the movies, and will obscure its logo so it doesn’t appear on film in association with a negative person or event.
“A smart company that sees a shift [toward a negative brand perception] and smart advertising agencies and brand planners that detect it immediately know they need to get on track and look at what went wrong and how to regain trust or the attachment they had with their consumers,” said Bemus. “They act to restore confidence. Companies that go through that kind of crisis need to look at their corporate core values. If they find those core values are inconsistent with how their brand is perceived, they need to back up and take a long hard look internally to see how to change public perception. Branding allows you the opportunity to turn yourself around.”
The Future: Long-Term Investment
“Branding is what I consider a long-term investment in marketing,” said Estipona. “Every company that exists already has a brand of some sort. People have a perception of the company one way or another and if not, then the brand hasn’t reached that person yet.”
Branding isn’t a way to make the phone ring. It won’t necessarily attract people to a company’s Web site. Unlike straight advertising, the purpose isn’t to increase business. Instead, branding establishes the company’s identity in the consumer’s mind until, when the consumer goes to choose a product or service, he or she will choose the one that occupies he corresponding space in their mind. As a result, those companies that continue to advertise and brand and put their message out during tough economic times are the companies most likely still standing when conditions improve. “Look at history,” said Estipona. “The companies that continued to advertise during the Great Depression are still alive today. Those that chose not to, are gone. Branding isn’t something you stop (during tough times). If you’re going to do it, it’s a long-term commitment.”