Why you need the guys in the designer specs

Why is a low-end Lexus more sought after than a top-of-the-line Toyota, given they are made by the same people? Why do you feel all international and summery when you drink Sol and staunch when you drink Lion Red? It’s because everybody judges a book by its cover.

Branding gets a bum rap from some quarters. It’s easy to caricature it as a bunch of people wearing preposterously expensive designer specs talking fluent effluent. It’s got so bad that Saatchi & Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts is rebranding brands and calling them Lovemarks.

But the fact is you can’t do without branding. Why do you get more of a buzz from a Rolex than a Casio when they both tell the right time? Why is a low-end Lexus more sought after than a top-of-the-line Toyota, given they are made by the same people? Why do you feel all international and summery when you drink Sol and staunch when you drink Lion Red, when they are both just beers?

It’s because everybody judges a book by its cover. Like an overfed lovechild of graphic design and advertising, branding has outgrown both of them. These days it is about much, much more than your packaging or your logo. Simon Martin of intellectual property lawyers Hudson Gavin Martin says: “With the current generation, brand seems to be huge. For example, the new phone company Two Degrees said you could keep your own number when you joined them. They were then surprised by how many people wanted their 022 number, because it had suddenly become the number to have.”

Brand is not a tool your company can choose whether to employ, or leave until later. Brand is the impression made whenever people come into contact with a company or organisation. This is regardless of whether this contact is a leaflet, an advertisement, a website or a person. Anything a customer, client or partner sees, hears, smells, touches or tastes that they can connect to you in any way is, by its very existence, inevitably and intrinsically part of your brand.

Every contact leaves an impression; some subtle, some less so. It may be the way you dress, or the car you arrive in. Today successful, professionally run companies of any significant size will all seek to manage this impression. If you choose not to manage it, you’re asleep at the wheel. And the most likely impression your company will make is that of unprofessional small fry, safely ignored or swallowed.

Time for brand practice

Branding requires a touch of creativity followed by rigid discipline. Don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s only a leaflet, we can save a few dollars and get the office junior to do it this time.’ Owning a pencil does not make you Leonardo da Vinci. Don’t get over-excited by desktop publishing software and convince yourself you can do this branding stuff. You might as well spend your marketing budget on the Christmas party.

Don’t have your website designed in isolation from the people doing your window display. Have a central point for all branding activity and a rabid brand guardian who savages anyone breaking your clearly defined rules.

Branding as business DNA

Grenville Main is managing and creative director of DNA, a web, research and branding agency. It’s a good name for an outfit selling the idea that in order to succeed, your brand must be seamlessly woven into the very fabric of your business.

He says the way in which you engage with your brand, and your branding consultants, should spring out of your initial customer insight, which in turn drives your idea.

“You can bolt on a brand later if you understand the insight from your customers,” he says. “But you have got to follow the basics. There are key things which you need to feel in control of, and be confident about, especially this: What is the specific issue or opportunity your service or product is looking to address?

“If you don’t understand the niche you are working in, and you leave it too late, you are going to have to make some really hard decisions, and these can be very emotional decisions. If you are an established organisation, you are committed to a certain way of marketing or working, and it is hard to turn that around. Make sure it is right from day one.”

Of course, the best people to define and drive a brand may be the brand owners themselves. “Some people are actually damn good at this,” Main says. “They understand their customers, they can connect, and they know how their brand distinguishes them. Others are not and never will be adept at this. The people that are successful are the ones that know which they are.”

But even if branding is all doubledutch to you, you can’t just hire someone and forget about it. You need to be engaged, otherwise you may end up owning the theatre but not running the show. “We can only do so much for you,” says Main. “If you are trying to sell shit, we can put it in a bag and call it something different, but it’s still shit.”

If it’s innovative, you almost certainly don’t want it to be invisible. This is true even if your innovation seems mind-numbingly technical, or gets bolted on to something else and tucked away at the back of somewhere. Think Intel, or the little decals that hoons stick on their lowride g-wagons. I bet they know who makes their air filter and why it’s better than the no-name alternative.

It’s also important to look at the space your brand will exist in. Does your brand look and feel like the competitor’s? Do you want it to? Are you hoping to stand out as the new kid on the block, or fit in as a trusted alternative? These things can make a big difference to your bottom line.

“If a client wants to do something really different,” says Main, “you can end up with a beer that doesn’t look like a beer, so nobody knows it’s a beer and they don’t buy it. You need to understand what it needs to do for you. If you have to spend too much energy on explaining it, you are burning up valuable time.”

Branding can also help you get your story straight internally, especially if you come up against divisive or controversial issues. It can motivate your people around innovation by helping to make your business a vehicle your staff really want to travel in. It’s a different experience turning up work at a nameless run-down office block than it would be going to Google.

Crucially, branding is another way of defining your intellectual property. It’s another way of finding out exactly what you are selling, and who to. Often this isn’t what you think. I know of a company that did garden waste recycling using wheelie bins. Its business model and pricing was based on bins, and its marketing material had bins plastered all over it. The branding insight was that nobody really cared about the bin; what they were paying for was a tidy garden. Similarly, Bosch doesn’t really sell power tools; it sells holes in walls.

Branding can help you make these important distinctions, and is part of the value of your idea. If you do it well enough, it may end up being more valuable than the idea itself.

Litmus-test your brand

Use this quick check to see whether your branding is the bomb, or just bung.

  1. Get all your marketing materials
    Every brochure, letter, screenshot, pitch document, invoice, shop-front colour scheme, presentation and so on that you can find, and spread them all out on the floor in front of you.
  2. Ask yourself this question: do you like what you see?
    In truth, your answer to this is completely irrelevant. The right question is whether your customers like what they see. It doesn’t matter whether you like or dislike any of this stuff unless you are planning to market only to people exactly like you (and how big a market would that be?). You have to paint yourself out of the picture in order to see the landscape clearly. If your brand shifts units but makes you nauseous, get over it. It isn’t about you, it’s about your customers.
  3. Look at all the different materials. Do they look like they are all from the same business, even the same industry?
    Consistency is the key. You’ve only got so many chances to tell your story and get people to remember it. If the story is completely different each time, you will confuse your customers.
  4. Do they all have the same logo?
    There’s often the version you drew yourself, the one you got the work experience student or your cousin to do on their computer, and the one you finally paid for last year. You should be using the same logo on everything you do.
  5. Now cover up the logo. Do the materials still look like they come from the same company?
    In order to reinforce and support your message, your colour scheme, typefaces and graphics should be relevant and consistent. Look at Coke without the writing. You still know who it is, right?

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