You’ve told everyone that you’re ‘this’ but really you’re ‘that.’ Eventually they’ll find out, and then you’re done.
Brands are designed with us in mind, whether we know it or not. In reality, it is us that are the primary focus of brand builders. As members of a brand’s target market, it is our perception of a brand’s identity that chiefly impacts the brand. To reach and influence us, brand teams bring together the disciplines of art, philosophy, history, psychology, sociology, communication, and marketing to create an identity and architect an experience. To understand the philosophy upon which the discipline of branding exists, we must understand three things and their relationship with each other: perception, identity, and design. Foundationally, we acknowledge as truth that the identity of a brand is inextricably linked to the perception of that brand. We further affirm that we can design brand experience in such a way as to affect brand perception. How do we design brand experience? By creating a brand identity which simultaneously communicates truth and value directly to the humans it matters most to.
Critically, that brand identity must “align with the reality of the situation,” offers Marty Neumeier, commonly thought of within the industry as the Silicon Valley godfather of branding. Further, he cautions, “Reality and perception have to match.” He is careful to emphasize that an absence of truth in branding is ineffective, at best. As perception is the difference maker in branding, ensuring customers have the desired perception of the brand is paramount. This is foundational in creating a brand identity — reflecting on the desired perception and reverse engineering from that end goal. This reverse engineering is the design portion of the branding journey. It all begins with perception, however.
“Brands,” Neumeier points out, “live in people’s minds.” They live in our minds when we’re thinking about making any purchasing decision in our lives. Great brands understand this. These “gut feelings,” as Neumeier refers to them, are what determine the true identity of the brand. Standout, status-quo-shifting brands are created that way, knowing that people view companies and products through their own lenses, created over time through experience and tribal connection. Now, in the age of social media, instant feedback and infinite communication loops between brands and their customers provide valuable feedback. “Your customers are running your company,” states Neumeier matter-of-factly. “Listen to what they have to say.” What customers perceive a brand to be is the reality the brand has to work with.
Consistency is key. Risky and costly in the long run is promising a brand experience divergent from the actual truth. Branding experts contend this begins with internal brand culture. That means looking inward first — is the inside of a company reflective of the things their brand exists to promote? “You’ve told everyone that you’re ‘this’ but really you’re
‘that.’ Eventually, they’ll find out, and then you’re done,” Neumeier warns. It is true that a tremendous amount of the art and science of branding comes in making the distinctions between “this” and “that” and acknowledging the irrefutable truth that “this” is not “that,” nor shall it ever be. Let that statement settle, and introspection becomes the next logical step on the quest for actualized identity. Appreciation for and acceptance of the subtle nuances existing in the space between “this” and “that” and staking out your unique address on that spectrum is the first step on the journey to a better brand.
Understanding what a brand is, what value it provides, and why it should matter to anyone is pivotal in developing an identity. The work is not finished with identifying these three data points, however. Instead, the strategic differentiator, the key difference maker, must be identified, packaged, and integrated into the brand identity. What makes the brand so different and consequently so much more relevant than its competition? In the words of Neumeier, “When everyone else zigs, you zag!” When we’re thinking about brand identity, we must also always be thinking about its singularity and its uniqueness. “Embrace uncomfortable ways of thinking, for a while at least, because they might lead to something no one’s ever thought of before,” Neumeier edifies. Thought exercises outside of the box are not always without growing pains. What a brand or an industry has “always done” is exactly what we’re trying not to repeat. This can be uncomfortable, but only temporarily, until it’s wildly successful.
Powerful brands need to stake out a unique, definable territory and achieve the illusive status of “only-ness.” When considering the concept of “only-ness,” we’re locating the GPS coordinates for the sweet spot of “good” and “different” and laying claim to the acreage. “You can be too different. You can be different without being compelling. You could be compelling without being different, maybe, but probably not,” Neumeier quips. The goal is to hit the sweet spot without hitting a nerve. People are looking for something to be really different, but only as long as it’s a really good kind of different. Give the people what they want.
“Is it different enough to make the competition irrelevant?” Neumeier offers as a good barometer for the size of a brand’s “zag” factor. Standing alone in an industry, easily able to finish the statement, “We are the only <insert product> that <insert unique value proposition>” is the desired destination in any branding journey. The goal is to get the universal nod of approval and agreement that the brand promise is the truth and the perception simultaneously. However, brands can’t get comfortable resting on their laurels, status quo, and general truth telling. Neumeier acknowledges that companies “tend to get really good at one thing, and they’re kind of blind to what’s happening on the outside.” Once a brand stakes out its personal sliver of innovation, the innovation machine cannot rest. Further, Neumeier reminds with gravitas, “If you keep doing the same thing over and over again but just keep getting better at it, you’re ripe for disruption.” Innovation — no surprise to anyone in the Silicon Valley of hustle — happens by design. Design a brand identity to grow with the innovation of the future. Calibrate thinking hats.
It is in the design portion of the branding journey that action is taken. We know we can design a brand experience to influence perception and provide value to its target humans. A fundamental understanding of perception and identity (and only-ness) and their intersection is required to begin to create a better brand. Without a thorough understanding of the relationship between perception, identity, and customer, designing the brand is premature. The design of a brand can be divided into two intersecting hemispheres: internal brand culture and customer brand experience.
A brand culture reflects how the company behaves, and therein lies the foundational truth for the brand. “It starts on the inside,” but from the inside “you’ve kind of got to look at it from the outside first,” explains Neumeier. First, understand how a brand fits into the lives of its human tribe and how it’s making the world a better place and manifest that within the four walls of the company. Then, a culture can be built around and in support of those very things. On how we can transition the “Brand” to the “Human” or the “Habit” Neumeier advises, “Design the culture to support the ‘only-ness.’ Be deliberate about putting in the habits of the internal tribe…and rewarding people for doing things in ways that support the actual brand.” Design a brand experience to begin inside the company and expand outward to meet the customer in their life.
Understanding the tribe mentality of humanity and its implications for purchasing decisions is key in informing how to design a brand around the beliefs, values, and mores of a tribe to influence the desired perception of a brand. Brand experience and culture must be designed, prototyped, and refined — all while keeping the human factor front and center of consciousness. It is in this space, art, science, field, and world that brand builders have grown their art, talent, skill, and craft. It is on this spectrum that a company can exist, grow, thrive, struggle, compete, and launch into the stratosphere, figuratively speaking, of course. There is a lot of power in that and in a brand.
Neumeier offers his branding advice for the Silicon Valley innovative community. “Remember that you have responsibility when you have power,” he offers seriously. The potential power in a brand is undeniable. The difference between potential and realized is in the strategy and design of the brand identity. Our lives are dramatically affected by brands. We can all point to brands that have affected the course of our lives, decisions, identities, and futures. The influence of a brand is limited only by the level of connection it has with its tribe. Leveraging knowledge of perception and identity and designing a brand experience to amplify the story and value proposition, the sky is the proverbial limit for a brand’s impact.
Neumeier underscores his point, reminding companies to remember the humans in their target demographic and how their brand exists to serve them and improve the world around them. The human factor in branding is the cornerstone of the work. The idea is to create brands that matter, that demonstrate the ability to help people become who they want to be, that fit seamlessly into the picture with their human tribe. Go forth to create the kind of innovative, disrupting brands we need for healthier, happier humans, and a better world.
Director of CEO Branding at Liquid Agency and author of best selling brand strategy and innovation books including, The Brand Gap and Zag. His latest, Scramble, is a fictional account of a CEO who learns and applies design thinking and basic principles of agile strategy to save his job and the company.
Written by Hannah Duchesne
Photography by Daniel Garcia
This article originally appeared in Issue 11.0 “Discover”