Branding 101, worth it, or worthless?

Branding 101, worth it, or worthless?

I got asked the other day to do a blog about the difference between a logo and a brand. That's fine, and that will be my next blog. But before I get to that, I wanted to address the idea of a brand and why it so often turns into a train wreck.

No, this isn't another blog about clients stuffing up the branding process (though I could very easily spend a day talking about that). This is about why well-intentioned designers produce bad brands.

How we get there.
Everybody seems to find their way to some degree of branding knowledge via very disparate paths. For some it's university. Others, on-the-job experience.  And for others still, it's book knowledge sourced out of raw curiosity. And in many cases it's all 3. None are right, none are wrong, and none are a guarantee that you'll have the faintest idea what you're talking about.

Branding is one of the more mysterious of the graphic design dark arts and I have absolutely no doubt that regardless of how many lectures you've attended, or books you've read, some people 'get it', and some don't. I'm not sure why we haven't perfected a way to teach branding consistently well, but perhaps it's simply because it's a moving target and what worked 20 years ago may not necessarily work now.

That said, I don't think that's the problem. I do believe that some people have an innate understanding of branding that can't be taught, but likewise I don't think 'talent' outweighs education. Let's just say it's complicated and leave it at that.

What I will say is that branding often become a diabolical mess because of the designer or creative director's inability to realise that not all situations are alike. The most stark of these being the difference between big time branding and SMEs.

David vs Goliath.
Whilst branding 101 can talk about Coke and Nike and provide a lot of terrific insights into the branding process (I know, I've read a lot of the texts and I recommend you do the same). The problem is that a SME won't have the budget to pump the oxygen into their brand that a multi-national will, which means expected outcomes will differ. SMEs also can't afford to get this wrong. Their margin for error is tiny (just checkout the stats on success rates for SMEs) so they need to make every post a winner. Whereas a major organisation often has a lot going for them other than their brand, so a re-brand won't necessarily kill the goose that laid the golden egg (the London Olympic's logo springs to mind).

But back to the SME. What will a good brand do for an SME? This would probably be a good question to throw out to LinkedIn and see what comes back. I'd bet (and I'm not a betting man) that I'd receive a lot of responses which whilst correct, are pretty innocuous. I'd see a litany of outcomes that whilst possible, are unlikely for a small company. And even if they did achieve those outcomes, they wouldn't likely make a big difference to the bottom line. It's just scale, that's all. They're simply not large enough, with a large enough budget, to achieve some of the branding outcomes of larger companies, or for those outcomes to add dollars to the bottom line.

So it's pointless?
So am I saying branding is pointless for SMEs? Absolutely not - quite the opposite. I think it's more important. Large multi-nationals have been in the game a long time and have developed a range of benefits that customers pay handsomely for. SMEs are often younger, and they are certainly less educated in the vast majority of cases. So if they make a complete hash of their branding, it hurts. Whereas I've seen major companies go through several re-brands and their bottom line doesn't even register a blip. Most likely because their customers are stuck like glue, due to a vast range of reasons, and a new brand will make no difference to how sticky that glue is. 

But what if you're a new company just starting out? Odds are that you'll be light-on in a variety of areas, none more than marketing. I don't meet many marketing people who start businesses. Mostly it's people who've developed skills in other areas and that leads them to what type of business they start (as opposed to entrepreneurs who identify a void in the marketplace and fill it at a profit). So often the SME blunders into a market that's already full to overflowing with people who do what they do. Then to make matters worse, they have zero marketing experience. Anyone else see a recipe for disaster coming together here?

This new company, let's call them Excel Plumbing, may be the best plumbers in the region. They may have all the best intentions, but if they're entering a target-light environment where the market's needs for plumbers is met, they may be in for a very ugly education.

How can branding help?
A brand is your face to the world. When customers comparison shop, your brand is what they're comparing. They don't know you yet. The brand has to present you as the best, most competent provider in the marketplace. If it doesn't do that, you'll likely be overlooked for someone they've heard of before, or been recommended to use, or (and this is the worst one) someone who 'looks' like they're more competent than you.

So my advice to anyone starting out, or a SME who is only a few years down the track and wants to fix the horrible logo they got done when they started, is as follows:

  1. Develop a first class brand. You must ensure that when anybody spots your website, car, print ad, billboard etc, that you look like you mean business. People buy with their eyes and whilst they may not know what constitutes a good brand, they know a lousy one when they see it.
  2. Make sure all your marketing collateral is first rate too. There's no point having a great brand but a lousy website. Don't get your brother's cousin to do it for you. Get a professional.  You only get one chance to make a great impression. Miss that chance enough times and you may be getting nasty calls from your bank manager.
  3. Get good advice. This doesn't necessarily mean the people you've hired to build your brand or website. If you know nothing about marketing, how do you know what you're buying is any good? I've offered dozens of clients the use of my services over the years to give them feedback about work they are getting done by other companies. You know how many of them have taken me up on it? None. You know how many of those companies got terrible websites and brands? I don't know either, but it's lots:) It's terribly wasteful and tragically avoidable.
  4. The first rule of marketing is differentiation. So if your marketing 'expert' advises you to do what the competition is doing, ditch them. You have to be different. You can't follow the leader (unless you want to be a follower fighting for the scraps).

Next time I'll talk about logos versus brands, but I wanted to get this little rant out of the way first. In every field of human endeavour there is a small percentage at the top that are guns, a small percentage at the bottom that are useless, and a huge number in the middle that are mediocre.  So how do you protect yourself from making a mistake in this minefield? If you're a reader, then read. You should never stop learning. But also if you can get your hands on a professional prepared to take a look at designs for you and give you feedback, that's gold. These people charge a lot for their expertise - if they're prepared to look at your brand or website and give you honest feedback, that's so, so valuable. 

Back to other posts