The word “brand” is overused, often misused, and has therefore become rather ambiguous.
Let’s start by defining “brand” by what it’s not. It’s not a logo, a color palette or a font. And, contrary to what you may have been told, it’s not your product either (albeit these are all important branding components).
Products are produced in factories, but brands are made in the minds and hearts of customers. It’s a deeply rooted feeling about a product, service or organization, the intangible sum of a company’s attributes. It’s your reputation.
“Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” — Jeff Bezos
There is a yin-yang balance of the rational and emotional in branding. Sometimes they’re synergistic, sometimes at odds — often described as the need versus want paradox. Sure, you want the luxurious German sports car, but a used beater with 167,000 miles will (probably) fulfill the need to get you from point A to point B.
To connect rationally, your product or service must deliver features that provide a positive impact to the consumer. Does it make my life easier, safer, healthier or more profitable? Consciously, consumers use objectivity and pragmatism to reason their decision.
To create brand loyalists, you must convince their minds AND win their hearts. The real magic happens when your customer forms an emotional bond with your brand. When your brand’s purpose, cause or belief aligns with theirs, their loyalty soon follows. They become intrinsically linked to your brand and it becomes part of their identity.
The motive to purchase may be more subjective: Does it provide comfort or status? Does it bring out my inner rebel? Does it make me more attractive? Subconsciously, they can’t live without your brand experience. Understanding these concepts and understanding your audience helps clarify brand messaging and focus marketing efforts.
In a perfect world, you know who you are, what you stand for and what makes your products better and different. You also know who your customers are, where they are (at least where their eyeballs are), their pain points and what motivates them to make a decision to purchase.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. External (and sometimes internal) forces create the need for us to pivot our business and flex to the ever-changing landscape.
Take the Coronavirus pandemic for example — companies have had to quickly react and adapt their brands to meet current business realities and the changing needs of customers. Scrambling to reinvent themselves like never before, brands are trying desperately to have a voice that’s relevant in this sudden worldwide healthcare and economic crisis. Their responses in the midst of these unprecedented times either strike a chord with customers, fall flat, or can even cause unnecessary harm.
Nike was one of the brands that got it right. Their brand purpose: To unite the world through sport to create a healthy planet, active communities and an equal playing field for all. They didn’t use the pandemic to (directly) sell shoes and tell us what they’re doing to ensure safety. Instead, they leveraged their purpose and turned it into a PSA, which stated “If you ever dreamed about playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.” Autographed by athletes to create a personal touch, this message spread through social media like fire through Instagram. It wasn’t self-serving, it was Nike being a brand citizen to the world. Or at least, that’s what it felt like.
“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure — the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice is to the character's essential nature.”— Robert McKee
Every great company is purpose-driven and has a foundation built on true character and core values. They exist to solve a problem or meet a need in society. Resolute in their purpose, it’s infused into everything they do and every brand they build. When faced with adversity, strong brands can bend, flex and stretch without breaking. Brands rooted in a successful strategy are more likely to be prepared, flexible and ready to weather the storms.
I know what you’re thinking. Being rooted and flexible seem to be contradictory concepts. How can we stay true to our brand, but be flexible enough to adapt in the face of adversity?
It makes me think about the Golden Gate bridge. The huge, 1.7-mile-long suspension bridge connecting San Francisco to the Marin Headlands was conceptualized during the boom of the 20th century but built during the depths of the great depression. Its design, size, location and color are all recognizable and beloved. It’s not just a bridge, it’s an icon, a symbol. Sure, it provides comfort, makes the bay area more attractive and was downright rebellious for its time but, most importantly, it symbolizes American perseverance and determination.
Now imagine if California redesigned it, changed the symbolism, painted it green and moved it to Bakersfield. It would still be a bridge, but it would no longer be considered the Golden Gate bridge. Those are things you just cannot change without changing its essence. But the bridge was still designed to purposely flex, moving up to 15 feet vertically and 27 feet side-to-side to adapt to the changing winds that blow across the bay.
Like the Golden Gate bridge, there are some things that can flex and some things that really shouldn’t regarding your brand. Simply put, the soul of your brand — your greater purpose, cause or belief (not your profit margin) — should remain cemented in your strategy. It’s why you exist. It’s your personality, position, tone-of-voice, values and essence.
What can be flexible:
- Your product
- Your marketing programs
- Your advertising campaigns
- Your messaging
- Your visual identity
- Your logo
- Your color palette
- Your font
… everything we said a brand wasn’t, remember? These things are meant to be refined, tweaked, optimized and modernized to remain relevant, depending on external forces.
Now this is not to say your brand strategy can never change, but reasons behind a need to rebrand are much greater or more dire than needing to tweak, pivot or adapt some messaging or visuals to remain topical or relevant with customers.
Whether it’s a global crisis, a response to a cultural shift or a need to reposition and differentiate yourself in the marketplace, ask yourself the question: Does this fundamentally change who we are and what we stand for or does it elevate and accentuate it? Be a good brand citizen. It will fuel both your purpose and your profits.