So, what exactly is branding?

A beginner’s guide to the power of association

Brands and branding are a curious thing.

Most people can name several dozen brands off the top of their head, but few outside the profession can actually put their finger on what a brand actually is. Many in the profession can’t, either.

I don’t blame them. Brands are notoriously difficult to define; continually evolving and reinventing themselves to stay fresh for today’s customers yet relevant for the next generation. They do this in an infinite number of ways, a small sample of which I cover in my 101 Building Great Brands deck.

Let’s get stuck in.

A brand is a unique set of associations in the mind of a customer

It sounds abstract, but really it’s not.

Take watches, for instance. Mention a luxury brand like Rolex and the associations that spring to mind are likely to include wealth, prestige, status, craftsmanship, heritage, exploration. Whatever your take on someone who sports a $30,000 Daytona, it’s probably going to be different from what you think when I mention Swatch. Fun, colourful, cheeky, playful, inexpensive… and no less a reflection of its wearer than a Rolex.

Intrepid explorer or nouveau riche wanker?

The fact that a cheap, mass-produced Quartz timepiece keeps time more accurately than a hand-crafted masterpiece costing the price of a small car is irrelevant. Substitute Rolex and Swatch for any brand names in the same category — cars, fashion, bottled water — and the same applies. Is a white tee with a sweatshop-embroidered A&F logo better at a product level than a plain white t-shirt from Target? No, but certainly more desirable for many people. Brands ceased to be expressions of product truth a long time ago; in branding, perception trumps reality.

A $100 moose, today.

I said a unique set of associations.

Brands work hard to create associations they can own in their category. This is an intentional process. Range Rover continues to promote the go-anywhere, off-road capabilities of its upmarket SUVs in the full knowledge that 95% of owners will never climb anything steeper than a carpark kerb. It’s about knowing that if you wanted to, you could, and that for most owners is enough. That’s the difference between positioning and usage.

A Range Rover Evoque in its natural habitat

Branding is everything you do to create or influence those associations

Most people think ‘visual identity’ — logo, colour, packaging — when they hear the word branding, but it’s much more than that.

Abercrombie & Fitch use the same logo today as they did 25 years ago, but their brand exploded when they decided to reposition the company from a wholesome family-oriented brand in the early 90s (believe me, it was homely) to an edgy, sexy brand in the early 2000s. Their policy of hiring beautiful young people as salespeople in their flagship stores coupled with raunchy advertising worked a treat with the narcissism of the look-at-me generation.

Partially clothed young men forced to work in appalling conditions at an A&F store

At the same times, new brands like Beats and Toms spent very little on advertising and a lot on celebrity endorsement. Carefully planned paparazzi shots of Justin Bieber donning a pair of oversize Beats bestowed the funky looking headphones with instant mojo. A-listers were snapped wearing Toms alongside captions that explained founder Blake Mycoskie’s unique ‘one-for-one’ company philosophy. Cause branding is veneer-thin, but it works.

Toms founder Blake Mycoskie shodding the poor in Honduras, driving sales in the West

Other companies have created powerful associations with their brands through utility alone — especially Internet brands (more on that later). Wikipedia is a great example. A very plain logo and user interface, no marketing, no advertising, but a ubiquitous presence in Internet search results that transformed a secretive, peer-managed network into a household name and the #1 resource for lazy students the world over.

Wiki-ing Wiki is strangely meta

For years, Google eschewed branding aesthetics in favour of plain-Jane utility — their search engine homepage has remained largely unchanged since the beta days of the late 90s — and many would argue that the company only embraced brand design when it internalised the importance of UI design in mobile. After years of Apple tinkering with skeuomorphic and then flat design, Google came along with Material Design and blew us away (yes yes, I’m a Google fanboy.)

Branding is important because it transforms perception

Perhaps nowhere is this more obvious than in the retail food industry.

Take the re:bar chain of juice bars in Israel. Fresh juice bars have been arounds for decades in this country, all offering the same juice combos at pretty much the same price. A commodity. Then along came re:bar positioned themselves as a healthy lifestyle brand, and their drinks as remedy-in-a-cup. Sprinkle a little branding pixie dust and… Kapow!

Orange+pineapple+wheat+mint becomes re:cover.
Banana+granola+honey+yogurt becomes re:charge.

The 27 shekels isn’t for the juice, mate

re:bar didn’t invent fruit juice, they simply reframed it through the lens of perceived health benefits. By inventing a brand, they created a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. With a much higher price point.

(Don’t even get me started on coconut water.)

Starbucks didn’t invent roasted coffee, but they demystified it and created a retail phenomenon that had never existed in America before. (Nevermind that their overpriced brew tastes like dirty bathwater to me.)

Unilever sought to change the perception of female beauty through their famous ‘Real Beauty’ campaign for Dove. It was an inspiring, groundbreaking campaign — but that’s all it was.

Carefully selected ‘real women’ pose for a Dove campaign

It said no more about world view of Unilever’s senior management than the raunchy, sexist campaigns for another Unilever-owned brand, Axe / Lynx deodorant. Remember the ‘Spray more, get more’ ad from 2006? Proudly brought to you by the sponsors of Dove’s Self-Esteem educational campaign for young girls. Owning two mega brands with diametrically opposing messages is perfectly normal in the world of advertising.

There a gazillion more examples of brands and how they work in different and magical ways, which I’ll talk about in future posts.

So, where to from here?

I am loath to make any sweeping statements about the future of branding (you always look like a tit a year later) but my experience as a mentor for the Siftech Accelerator in Jerusalem, where we focus on digital brands, has made me think anew about the meaning of brands and the role they play in our lives.

Dieter Rams. ‘Less, but better’
  • Design. Dieter Rams nailed it in the 1950s, Jony Ive in the noughties. IKEA have been doing it for decades, Google have just started. Our (first world) lives are filled with more beautiful, more functional design than ever before. Design sells, and brands that have internalised this are going to do well. I think.
  • Utility. The eye-watering market caps of digital entities like Uber and Airbnb and rapid growth of SaaS brands like Slack, Hubspot and Marketo attest to the power of creating something useful… and being able to scale quickly, of course. Apparently we still haven’t run out of things to invent.
  • Transparency. The information age has limited companies’ ability to hoodwink the masses with bullshit marketing. We’re wiser and savvier now, and we expect companies to be accountable. Social media is the new People’s Court etc.
  • Emerging markets. Bullshit marketing is alive and kicking in new-money economies for whom 1980’s consumerism is relatively new. If you’ve ever eyeballed Chinese shoppers on a Bond Street Fendi spree you’ll know what I mean. Future growth of (low utility) luxury brands lies here.
  • Smug-but-oh-so-gullible Westerners. Put money in thy purse! As clever and clued-in as we think we are, we’re going to continue making mainly emotion-based purchase decisions and buying a whole lot of crap we don’t need. Believe me, I’m 42 and I own a mountain bike.

That’s it for now.


Published in The Agency- curated by Crew. Check us out to get started working with the best designers and developers on the web.
Over 10 million people have used products
made on Crew. And over 3 million people have read our blog. Join them here.