Tomorrow morning when you wake up, try to count all branded items you see from the moment you wake up until you reach 100. What time do you think it would take until? When I taught art direction at San Francisco’s Academy of Art I asked my students the same question. Most thought it would be midday. They were shocked when I told them that assuming they woke at 7am it would probably be somewhere between 8 and 9 am.
Why? Almost every item we touch or see has a logo on it. In fact, there are so many we blank them out.
Despite this ‘blanking out’ process, brands still represent a certain intangible something in our minds. We often think of brands as being a physical product but they could just as easily be a religion, a service, an app, an ideology or a blog like this one. All these things represent a world view condensed down into its simplest, most easily understood form, each trying to be distinct from other competing world views. In fact, the more competition there is for the same world view then the more energy is spent differentiating these brands. After all, Coca-Cola developed a more distinct brand when Pepsi started competing with it (see below).
Just what is branding? (in less than 250 words)
If I ask you to think of something you really like what’s the first thing that comes to mind? It’s probably not the logo but a warm fuzzy feeling. Great brands elicit this response in us without any of us realizing. Think of Charmin toilet paper vs. Facebook. Both are useful. One fulfills a need physically while the other’s ‘need’ is emotional. Yet why do they make you feel the way they do?
You know the brands so well in the above lookalike logos that you immediately get the joke. This is because part of the branding process is to create an expectation in our mind of what’s coming – whether it’s a drink, a movie, a piece of technology etc., and the product then has to match that expectation. These two steps are combined to form the ‘brand’ in our mind as all those emotional feelings about a product gets distilled down into a logo. The logo itself is not the brand but is often confused for it as it’s an easy way to be recognized in a crowded marketplace like a store shelf.
However, good brands aren’t just recognizable but also create an internal resonance within us. They make us feel good to use, to wear or to be identified with ‘our’ brands. This can be from simple things like whether you are a PC or a Mac person, or it could be whether you wear Manolo Blahnik or Tory Burch shoes. As a result, the accumulation of feeling from all these different brands can form a huge part of how we self-identify in our modern, highly consumerist society.
Start with a story…
For thousands of years human beings have relished listening to stories. From tales of how the gods made the world to watching the bickering of real housewives on Bravo. We are all preprogrammed to like a narrative story with highs and lows, lots of drama and a climax. Similarly in a marketplace filled with brands telling well-honed stories anything short of that merely seems like a gag or a pun.
No one likes to be ‘sold’ to but people do like buying into a good, authentic story around a product or service. Part of that story can be the creation myth of how the company came into being. It could also be the founder’s metaphorical journey in the wilderness with only their vision of how things should be to sustain them, such as Steve Jobs. It could equally be as simple as how a company saw a real need that nobody else addressed. Whatever the story, there should be depth and authenticity to it.
Another aspect of good stories is the actual storytelling process. Here’s where designers, marketers and advertisers come into the equation, as they distill all those complex and subtle ideas into something tangible that can be communicated to large groups of people.
…then think of a name.
Why did Uber catch on more than Lyft? Or Zipcar over City Car Share? Why did cell phone manufacturer High Tech Company change their name to just HTC? They all give a more distinct name to a brand. Similarly when we meet people for the first time, we learn their names and get a general impression of them quickly. Likewise in a market where there are entirely new concepts or products, it is easy to start imbuing a new meaning into a brand’s name. It may seem like just a word made of a few letters, but it helps create the overall impression as it carves out space in our minds.
This is where brands with names that only mysteriously allude to what they do create an undefined but strong feeling in our mind such as Googol, a number represented by “1” followed by 100 zeros. It’s a great way to summarize the enormous possibilities of the search tool without spelling it out. Likewise a combination name like Wikipedia (Wikea + encyclopedia) gets the point across.
While in the past there has been a profusion of descriptive names for brands or companies, the current trend is for something shorter and non-descriptive. Then throw in X’s, Y’s and Z’s to make a version of the name with a URL still available. Hence Xfinity, Lyft and Zynga (the latter is actually the name of the founder’s dog’s name but hey, it works). Also, with a more unique name it is easier to turn it into a legally ownable corporate asset.
Remember the logo is just a symbol for the brand
How a brand’s name comes to life in its most succinct form is often the logo. The two are inseparable. The style of the logo is also used to create an emotional tone of the name: calm or hurried, conservative or risqué, stylized or minimal. Whoever we are there are brands that resonate with us. In fact, Logo Lounge produces a trend report every year showing the changing styles in logos: http://www.logolounge.com/trend-reports.asp
For example, the choice of a late nineteenth century script in the Coca-Cola logo effuses a sense of classic Americana. Meanwhile, Apple uses the sans serif font ‘Myriad’ in a stylishly minimal way because it says modern and utilitarian. Pepsi changes their logo’s look with the times while keeping the same name. In fact, in a recent campaign Pepsi has gone back to a nostalgic look like their arch rival Coke.
Once developed, the logo often gets applied to everything that makes up part of the brand such as websites, t-shirts, packaging etc. But good branding is more than just trying to brand a herd of cattle with the same mark (see appendix). As the next section will show, we’re not simple animals and need much more mental stimulation than that…
“Don’t show me logos, show me a system!“
We all like to believe there is one overall vision guiding a brand and hence the part of us that has an emotional connection with it. After all, we are all individuals. It all boils down to the fact that everyone that interacts with the brand in any of its forms has an expectation of what it should be. The more complete the brand the more trust we have in it and branding is all about reputation.
As mentioned earlier, any given brand represents a view into the world as defined by that company or product. Branded materials should look like they all fit together as a cohesive whole. This creates a more compelling and complete world view with more emotional appeal. Once you know some of the brand then you begin to have expectations for other parts of the brand. These expectations create desire for more.
Apple is great at creating this desire. They don’t sell cardboard boxes but when you see their packaging you want what’s inside. Even if you only have the box from the time you buy it to the time it takes you to open it, say, maybe 5 minutes. Those moments form part of the expectation for the actual physical piece of technology inside.
Even as we blank out brands that don’t seem relevant to us we have an undefined emotional association with them. It is the total experience of the brand from price to how it meets our needs to how it matches our expectations.
Here’s an example of a brand that has followed all of the points above where every point of contact sets a tone before you come into contact with the core product, i.e. the wine from JAQK Cellars.
San Francisco agency Hatch had the idea of creating or ‘hatching’ new brands of their own each year. Their first was a gaming themed winery. Why gaming? In the words of Joel Templin, one of the founders of JAQK “everyone plays games.”
First the name: by taking the letters from the Jack, Ace, Queen and King cards the unique name ‘JAQK’ is formed – very intrinsic to the brand.
Next is the marketing and the bottles’ labels: the latter are all of high quality with captivating designs often spanning not just the labels, with each bottle telling its own story within overall gaming framework. These labels/bottles are important as they are a key point of differentiation in the wine industry.
Then there is the experience of the product itself: does the wine‘s taste actually match the high expectations set by the brand promise of its promotion and the packaging? I can truly say it does and encourage you to try them here: http://jaqkcellars.com
It all seems so easy. Right? In a comical way the show Silicon Valley conveys just how difficult it is to work out what a brand (Pied Piper) is and to get it out there in the marketplace. If big companies are spending millions of dollars on all their logos/brands why do we as consumers have such a sophisticated ability to tune out most of them?
Well, maybe it’s because there are now so many brands in our daily lives. They ALL vie for our attention like a crowd of people constantly pestering us to do something. In your head you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this”.
Marketing people want brands that stand out when really they should want their brand to be desired, as this is what good brands do. Hopefully by following these simple steps your brand will have the depth needed to be desired:
- Define your audience tightly as you are probably not talking to everyone in the world
- Tell a story of the product or service that is relevant to your audience
- Set expectations of what the product will do
- Make the product, story and logo intrinsic to each other
- Find out if the story is unique or if somebody else is already doing it
- Always remember, the logo is only a symbol or summation of the brand story
- Think about how the brand’s story could be told in different contexts
- Finally, and most importantly, the product must deliver on the expectations of the brand – without this vital step your brand will fail.
Get all these right and your brand will begin to design itself.
Appendix: A short history of ‘branding’
The idea of marking herds of animals had been around for some time before the nineteenth century. However, while huge herds of livestock roamed across the American West and Midwest, the danger of cattle rustling was very real, usually coming with a death sentence for those caught. As a result, ranchers had to put a permanent unique mark on the hide of every animal so they could be distinguished from one another if the herds were intermixed or if the cattle were stolen.
These squiggly or unique marks were what we would now call brand marks but back then they were called cattle brands (actually a ‘brand’ is the name of the metal implement used to apply the mark to the animal’s hide – see picture above). At the same time, in the crowded cities of the post-industrial revolution, what we now call ‘consumer products’ began to appear. Some were beginning to stand out by emphasizing a distinctness more than just the product itself. Somewhere along the way the cattle brand metaphor was used in context to trademarks and products in the cities, and the branding industry was born.