More on branding confusion
The purpose of this article is to communicate my perspective on branding, while dispelling some of the “myth”understanding on the topic. Hopefully it will create some clarity that the industry has done a poor job of delivering. Although not a definitive philosophy or frame of reference, it is an overview designed to create a solid foundation for communicating effectively with our clients on the topic of branding and its role within marketing.
To appreciate how the predominant meaning of a word can change, you may like to consider the word “gay”. In relation to marketing, the meaning of the words “brand” and “branding” have also evolved. Unfortunately though, terminology surrounding branding has not evolved congruently, at least not consistently and not absolutely. Even dictionary definitions are still in the dark ages. Consequently there is widespread misunderstanding about what a brand and what branding is. Common misconceptions arise from the outdated concept of a company, a product or a name as a brand e.g. the “x” brand of tea.
Accommodating antiquated meaning has generated a conflicted understanding of what a brand is, and even “experts” seem to struggle to pen a clear and concise definition. Misconceptions have been magnified by individuals or organisations using throw away lines about brands without a comprehensive or cohesive understanding of what they have evolved into, and a consistent reassessment of the terms they use.
Much confusion stems from the process of 'branding' animals with a unique symbol - a concept adopted by businesses of yesteryear to identify their products. Thus the myth that a logo or name is a brand, and hence many businesses simplistic view of branding as slapping their logo on the ads and marketing collateral they produce. What they haven’t been told is that a brand has evolved into something quite different from its origin as a mark of ownership.
Branding designed to signify ownership (a la livestock), and branding designed to create a perception of, and an emotional response to, a product or company and thus create competitive advantage (as in strategic marketing) - both exist, but they are far from being the same.
Confusion has also been caused by agencies calling “logos” “brands” in an effort to sound like experts and to justify exorbitant fees - to fool clients into believing they were getting more for the higher fees they were paying. A newspaper article reported "Oh no, it’s not a logo, it’s a brand!" as the ad agency’s response to the interviewer’s suggestion that a government department had paid way too much for a new logo.
Still further misunderstanding has seeped through consultants that specialise in “branding products” (you see, there’s that confusion again!). Therefore it is easy for them to slip into a superficial view of branding as merely the visual exercise of marking an object or giving it a name or a style. A product can be seen and touched, whereas a business or organisation is experienced.
By our definition, products cannot be branded. Brochures and advertisements, or any object for that matter, cannot be branded. Adding a logo to something is not branding that object. But then you've probably heard the term 'consistent branding', and because of the confusion we’ve discussed, this term suggests nothing more than a stylistically-consistent application of a logo and/or visual devices to objects. Contrary to popular belief, I suggest that the application of a logo or theme in the collective role of visual consistency (brand identity consistency) plays a very important part, but it is only one component of, consistent branding.
If a product has a mark of ownership, I say it has been 'themed' as part of creating a consistent 'brand identity'. “Consistent theme” or “consistent visual language” are more useful terms for continuity across the visual identity of a brand. The rest of the branding (see our definition) should be consistent with the brand's visual identity (“brand identity”). Branding extends to considerably more than the use of visual elements though, so consistent branding or branding continuity refers to more than just the visual contributors to a brand. If a brand message or promise is 'proud to be an Australian' and phone enquires are met with an American accent, then this is inconsistent branding as much as, if not more than, using different corporate colours in the logo from one application to another. The later would be better defined as inconsistent 'brand identity' which can lead to confusion and consequently a weaker or “diluted” brand.
Throwaway phrases like “we’ve branded this product or that company” lead the marketplace to believe that branding is simply the process of adding a logo or visual style to an object. If a renewed confidence in branding is to be created, the inconsistency needs to be dealt with. The industry needs to make a clear separation between the process of marking an object with a symbol of ownership and the process of branding.
If we are ever to address the widespread confusion, a completely new collective understanding or frame of reference needs to be created from the ground up. A framework with clear and consistent terminology – something that we have endeavoured to create for our clients.