“De-Blanding Branding”

by Stephanie Darenkamp

When brands are innovative they become modern icons – such as Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike, Starbucks, IKEA, and Volkswagen.  All of these brands have successfully tied communication, lifestyle, and logic into charismatic brands worth millions.  Any brand, backed by enough courage and imagination has the potential to become an innovative brand.

Our society has moved from an economy of mass production to an economy of mass customization.  Not only have our purchasing choices multiplied, but we have become information rich and time poor.  As a result, our old method of judging products – comparing features and benefits –no longer works.  Competitors copy each others’ features as soon as they are introduced, and due to mass manufacturing quality just isn’t what it used to be. As consumers, we now base our purchases on the following questions:

  1. What does the product look like?
  2.  Where is it being sold?
  3.  What “kinds of people” buy it?
  4.  What does the cost say about its desirability?
  5.  What are other people saying about it?
  6.  Who makes it?

All these questions lead to a bigger one… How strong is brand communication?  After working with hundreds of clients and witnessing the end effect first hand, I have cleared up some of my own misconceptions about strategy, creativity, what defines a brand – and what doesn’t.

A brand is not a logo.  A logo is a trademark (symbol, monogram, emblem, mark, icon, avatar, etc.) 

 A brand is not an identity system.An identity system is a style guide (which dictates size, colors, spacing, and architecture of any material a company publishes either by print or digital media).

 A brand is not a product.  Marketing people often talk about managing their brands, but what they usually mean is managing their products, or the sales, distribution, and quality thereof.  To manage a brand is to manage something much less tangible – an aura, an invisible layer of meaning that surrounds the product.

A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.  It’s defined by individuals that make up companies, markets, and masses.  While companies can’t control the process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make their product different from the next.  When enough individuals arrive at the same feeling, a company is said to have a brand.  An approximate – yet distinct – understanding of a product, service, or company.  Brand management is the management of differences, not as they exist in data sheets, but as they exist in the minds of people. 

In the marketing world of yesterday’s messaging and tomorrow’s demands, more than half of the brand communication we see is a victim of good strategy and poor execution.  How many brands out there touch your emotions?  Will you remember any of them tomorrow? Most importantly, does the communication interest you enough to purchase the product?  If not, then it is most likely the fault of creativity – not strategy.  Creativity is the most difficult part of branding to control. Strategy and creativity, in most companies, are separated by dry wall and plaster.  On one side are the strategists and marketing people who favor left-brain thinking – analytical, logical, linear, and numerical.  On the other side, are the designers and creative people who favor right brained thinking – intuitive, emotional, spatial and visual.  Unfortunately, the left brain doesn’t always know what the right brain is doing.  A clash between logic and magic is referred to as a “brand gap.”  It can cause a brilliant strategy to fail where it counts most – at the point of contact with a customer.  It can doom a bold innovative idea before it even takes its first breath. 

Our best thinking depends more on the “illogical” skills of intuition and insight which may explain why the logical argument rarely convinces anyone of anything important.  As Benjamin Franklin once said, “When you persuade, speak of interest, not of reason.  Innovation requires creativity, and creativity gives many business people a twitch.  Anything new, by definition, is untried, and therefore unsafe.  Yet when you ask executives where they expect to find their most sustainable competitive advantage, the most common answer is “Innovation”.  It’s magic (not logic) that ignites passion in customers. 

Innovation lies at the heart of both better design and better business.  It builds drive within an organization and confers the ability to produce uncommon, yet practical, responses to real problems. 

Would-be leaders in any industry need to comprehend you can’t be a leader by following.  Creativity requires abandoning the comfort of habit, reason, and the approval of our peers.  In the world of branding, market researchers describe how the world is, creative people describe how it could be.