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Branding 2.0: it’s all inside your primate brain🐒

Neuroscience teaches us that all of our fundamental decisions are made in the oldest and most primate part of our brain; the lizard🦎 brain. We also know that our brain makes decisions by answering two simple questions: 1) have I seen this before – yes or no? and 2) was it a pleasant experience – yes or no? If it looks scary or new, we’re immediately on our toes. Making these decisions quickly was elementary for our survival on the savannah and it made us fast at making decisions that saved our lives.

“Does that look like a lion? Yes. Was my previous encounter pleasant? No. RUN RUN RUN!”.

Even though we’d like to think our newer and more conscious “Homo Sapiens” brain is responsible for our decisions by standing to facts and reasons, in the most fundamental decisions its role is only to validate and fill in with facts to support the decision afterwards.

This is the core of what the late Thomas Gad taught me about branding. Thomas was a pioneer in his field, having worked with Richard Branson, Bill Gates and companies from BMW to Spotify and Deutsche Bank to Microsoft. I had the pleasure of working with Thomas for a brief few months before he passed away, when we were building the new brand for the startup Vaadin, where I was responsible for marketing. Working with Thomas changed and expanded my view on branding forever.

But enough about brains and fluffy decision formulas. What does decision making have to do with branding?

Many people associate branding with the company logotype or the language used in copywriting, but it is much more than that. Thomas argued, that a brand is the DNA of the company and thus the most important part of any company. A brand defines what products the company builds, what channels it uses to communicate with its users and whom it hires. A brand is the company’s culture both internally and externally. A brand is the sales person’s tone of voice and the smell of the company’s products. A brand is essentially the answer to the question “Who are we and why do we exist?”.

A brand is your differing factor and it makes us as potential customers answer “yes” to the questions “does this look familiar and does it look like a pleasant experience”. That is essentially the purpose of a brand.

Every company has a brand. But too many companies don’t take their brand seriously and don’t try to define it – especially companies with a strong engineering cultures. But we still have a perception about those companies as well. Think about your local baker or the company next door or the company your dad used to work at – you have a perception about all of them. It’s impossible to not have a perception about your company and that is what branding is all about; it is the management of people’s perceptions. The perception of you – your brand. If you don’t control it, people will fill the void with their own perception about you. And most likely it won’t be what you think it is and most probably it will make them think of you like a line and run.

A brand is the management of people’s perceptions. If you don’t manage it, people will make up their own perception.

Brands matter, you insensitive clog!

Imagine if Nike built cool shoes and didn’t care for its brand… Crazy right? But this is how most companies start out; they’re going to build the best fricking shoes on the planet! Shoes that increase your performance by 25% as shown by our own studies. Shoes that are the new Ubers for urban Googlers. Shoes that all cool people will buy and you should too!👊 Sound familiar? That’s because most startups start this way – their idea is not to create a brand but a product.

Without a brand and with a pure focus on product, Nike would mean completely different things for everyone. Its ads would feature one thing, its slogan would be another and its products would communicate a third thing. Shoes are however just the iceberg of what we think of when we see Nike – it is mainly about winning by getting started, or just doing it. And this brand makes Nike larger than just shoes. It is the image we associate with Michael Jordan wearing Nikes or Tiger Woods wearing a Nike cap.

Or put another way; the only thing separating Nike from Adidas and Reeboks is its brands. All these shoes are manufactured by the same under-age kids in Indonesia. They’re all built out of the same material and designed by equally talented designers. And if somebody invents something new, the others immediately copy it. Their brands are their only differing factors and the brands define who they are and why they exist.

But conveying this picture is not easy – one thing is defining a brand, another is successfully conveying it in a multidimensional world. Adidas for me for instance, stands for slavic youngsters driving mopeds – because that was their core audience in my home town and I didn’t interact with the brand in my youth otherwise. We all interpret brands differently but the better it’s managed and the more communicated in all of its mediums, the higher the probability it is perceived correctly. The question is, do you want your product to be about #winning or #slavicMopeds? 🇷🇺🏍

And it’s not just about shoes. Think about any other industry. From IT and open source libraries to manufacturing facilities in China and to ISO, CMMI and 6Sigma processes. Anyone with money can copy the same thing you’re doing. But what lies inside the minds of your customers – that’s impossible to copy. Thus, brands matter.

The evolution of brands

All brands were local in the beginning. And most brands were the personal brands of their founders. They were stories told about the person that created the perception about them. We still have this today about our leaders and authority figures.

But then industrialization happened, and all of a sudden we could multiply our stories to the masses. We were able to deliver the same bread and the same cars from a conveyor belt with complete accuracy and the brand lived on – as a repeatable, predictable product. And we’ve all loved a predictable story, ever since our days around campfires, cooking mammoth. And the products echoed this story; the brand’s story was the product and it was the same product, no matter where we bought it. Thomas Gad called these brands Transaction brands, because they concentrated on completing a transaction.

Entire companies were working for a repeatable, predictable product experience. BigMacs became the embodiment of McDonalds’ brand, in the same way Beetles became the definition of Volkswagen’s. The core of these brands was the product itself and its success relied on repeatability. We could forgive a BigMac being different 4 times out of a hundred, but not 40. The product was the brand and the way to sell them followed this same schema; by shouting out the product and repeating the message on billboards, TV commercials and magazine ads. This was the birth of Don Draper. Everything from manufacturing to selling cars took the form of an industrialized conveyor belt. And our brains loved it. It was something we had seen before and it was a pleasant experience last time, so we bought ourselves another BigMac.

But then came the birth of the Internet, and branding changed forever.

The internet democratized information and all of the sudden, we didn’t need to rely on mass media telling us what to buy. We could listen to our friends (social media), we could read reviews (blogs) and we could challenge the companies directly ourselves. The channels changed and so did our expectations. We wanted to know more than just seeing the products – although most companies are still stuck in repeatable advertising.

Top-down mass-sales-driven branding stopped working and it forced a more bi-directional brand.

Thomas Gad called these new brands Relation brands. Relation brands didn’t rely on the product or its repeatability, but on the brand’s relationship with its customers. We wanted to have a predictable experience with the brand – not only a product.

When transaction brands talked about WHAT they delivered, relation brands talked about WHY they existed.

Look at for instance Tesla and how it isn’t a car manufacturer touting the “joy of driving” but wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” Elon Musk kicked off the Model 3 launch by talking about WHY they exist. And because of this WHY, they’re able to expand their portfolio without disappointing people that expect products.

Simon Sinek summarizes these layers of what inspiring stories are made of, by picturing it like an onion. While most companies start from the What layer and maybe talk about the How layer – the successful and inspiring companies talk about Why and move outwards.

Transaction brands answer the question “What?”. Relation brands answer the question “Why?”

Most companies are still stuck in the industrialization stage of branding, and as Thomas noted – will probably stay there forever, or until a newer relation brand kills the older transaction brand.

Relation brands also moved the conversation from top-down to a dialogue. Think of Apple and how they leak out their launches weeks before an actual launch. They start a discussion with their users, because they value their users and want to surprise them positively. Think of tech companies like Amazon and Google going from Developer Marketing to two way Developer Relations. Or think of airlines trying to surprise their customers by offering personal gifts during Christmas. All these brands are having a conversation but they’re doing it on their terms – it is not left to the customers to decide what the brand is about. Relation brands touch the WHY and do it together with their users.

How do I define my brand?

Now that we know what a brand is and how a relation brand works, it’s time to define our brand. The minimum requirement is to have a written definition of your brand that everyone can understand. You would ideally come up with a brand motto that everyone in the company can recite and feel as their own. This will then help you hire, decide what your next product will be and whom you’re trying to target.

Thomas had a methodology for defining the brand through four dimensions. He pictured the brand affecting four dimensions and working through all dimensions to define its core. The dimensions were the functional dimension (the product), the social dimension (customers or users as a group), the mental dimension (people as individuals) and the spiritual dimension (the higher meaning). Thinking of your aspirational brand and how it touches each dimension is a clear framework for digging up the essentials. I warmly recommend Thomas’ book on 4D Branding that talks more about how to walk through the process.

After having the brand, the more important part is execution and ensuring your story is the same in all customer touch points. A brand’s story has to be coherent, as you saw from the Nike example – but any good relationship also requires managed surprises. This is the age old easter-egg strategy to help your customers feel smart and excited, used heavily e.g. in the mobile gaming industry to create recurrence.

Another psychological strategy is re-framing. Re-frame all your communication so that you’re associated with something people have seen before and feel positive about, or at least that they don’t associate you with something they felt bad about. When Steve Job’s launched of the iPad; he didn’t launch it as a large phone or a crippled computer – he launched it as a view into the Internet. He reframed it as a completely new category of devices, which he then associated with what we knew from before. People don’t want new things, they want something familiar but better.

This in essence is what branding is about. Our primate brains love a predictable story, but they love it even more when it’s spiced with positive surprises. The story needs to convey that it’s good and familiar either directly or through a loop. And the story needs to visible in all you do and have a higher meaning than the product you sell. But at the end of the day; branding is setting the expectations and fulfilling them.

“Branding is setting the expectations and fulfilling them” — Thomas Gad

In my previous blogpost I introduced two frameworks with which to define your products and know your customers. In this blogpost I gave you a purpose to live. You figure out which ones is more important. 😉 This blogpost was written in memoriam of Thomas Gad — I wish I had known you better.


About the Author

Fredrik Rönnlund is the founder of DigitalBooker and the Marketing Lizard at Vaadin. Follow him on Twitter, LinkedIn or Medium.