Brands and branding
What’s a brand? Everyone seems to have an answer to this question, and they’re all slightly different. Several years ago, we set out to synthesize established concepts with what we had learned through our brand practice into a model of branding that was internally consistent, comprehensive, and accessible.
The resulting model helps us approach different situations consistently and stay focused on what’s important. While it’s evolved over the years in response to questions from clients, input from other experts, and changing patterns of interaction between organizations and people, the fundamentals have stayed the same. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, but we wanted to share it with you.
What is a brand?
When many people think of “brands,” the first things that come to mind are a company’s name, logo, and “style”. These are important, but are only part of the overall answer.
A brand itself isn’t something specific and solid. It’s bigger and more ephemeral, emerging when an organization presents itself to the public and the public perceives that presentation.
A brand is the shared perception of an organization. Neither party — the organization or the public — directly controls the brand, but both participate in creating it.
How do organizations present themselves?
Organizations present themselves to the public in two ways: through how they look and what they say, and through what they actually do.
The way an organization looks and sounds — its name, logo, tagline, messaging, visual style, and marketing materials — are important contributions to the brand. These visual and verbal elements are the company’s brand expressions, and the public’s perception of them becomes the organization’s image.
In addition to the way it looks and sounds, however, an organization also presents itself to the public by what its employees do: the style of its products and services (are they perfectionists or do they fire from the hip? do they favor simple ease-of-use or the complexity that comes with more features? are they glossy or functional? do they cut costs or spend a lot of time?), the tone and type of its customer service, and how its employees behave in public. Taken together, these compose the organization’s performance, and the public’s perception of them becomes its reputation.
Strong brands are built when brand expressions are aligned with the organization’s performance, and when its image is aligned with its reputation. Brand expressions make a promise of a certain type of performance; the organization’s performance keeps them. When these are out of alignment, an organization makes promises it can’t keep.
Organizational performance is a result of organizational culture.
Organizational performance rarely happens in a well-defined manner, of course, but occurs organically. It’s created by the distinct business decisions and actions of individual employees, from the top of the org chart on down. This decisions and actions don’t occur in a vacuum, however. The environment that leads to these decisions is the organization’s culture.
Organizational culture is the values and norms shared by employees of an organization. It governs the way they interact with each other and with those outside the organization, how they make business decisions, how they create products, and how they deliver services. An organization’s performance is the public manifestation of its culture.
An organization’s brand expressions are built on its brand platform.
While performance is the organic result of culture, successful visual and verbal expressions are considered and defined. Brand expressions that are created organically are typically inconsistent and often reflect only one aspect of an organization’s culture.
An organization creates consistent expressions that successfully reflect its entire culture by creating a brand platform, which distills its core elements and describes its ideal vision.
The organization’s core identity statements describe the mission, vision, and values of the organization: what the organization is doing, where it’s going, and what principles it follows while getting there. The brand platform also includes a positioning statement – which describes what makes it unique in the marketplace – and its brand attributes, which describe the organization’s personality, voice, and other associations.
A brand platform can help re-shape culture.
While a brand platform is related to the organization’s existing culture, it’s not limited to it: it describes the organization’s aspirational goals and an ideal culture. The brand platform is an opportunity for an organization’s leadership to look deeply at who they are and who they want to be — what their values are (and what their culture is) and what they should be.
Often, an organization will find that its existing culture is different from its ideal culture – hopefully not too different – and needs reshaping to align with its new brand expressions.
The mission, vision, and values articulated in the brand platform need to be communicated inwardly, to the rest of the organization, through internal brand expressions (employees also see and are impacted by public brand expressions, but these are specifically designed for use internally). Once communicated, the brand platform serves as a lodestone for the organization, guiding new business decisions that reshape the organization’s culture and transform vision into reality.
When internal brand expressions and business decisions reflect the core identity, they help create a strong culture that impacts the individuals making the products, delivering the services, and offering customers support, and align the company’s performance with its new brand expressions.
When a company walks its talk, and talks its walk, it builds a strong, valuable brand.
Building your organization’s brand.
The brand platform is the cornerstone to a successful brand: it documents who you are and where you’re going, and provides solid, unified direction for expression and performance. Of course, the hard work comes next: articulating what you’ve written in your brand expressions, and living up to that day-to-day in your organization.
In future articles we’ll take a closer look at the details of the brand platform, the process of creating them, and examine the other side of the brand equation: the conversation the public is having and how organizations can influence that and ensure their brand is relevant.
Hey! This wasn't written by a pod of sea lions! It was written by Josh Orum, who does awesome work at Loud Dog, a digital branding firm in San Francisco that helps businesses express themselves authentically via identities, websites, and marketing collateral.
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