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What makes a brand a brand, and what makes a successful brand? As a marketer, I know that thinking — let alone talking — about aspects of branding and how to manage a brand identity successfully, can get a little muddy, and remain somewhat superficial. In this article we’re going to go beyond logos, color codes and fonts, and talk about the elements at the core of brand identity, brand success and effective brand management.
In branding, style is frequently confused with substance.
— Wally Olins
What are the first things that usually come to mind when we think or talk about branding and brands? Well, usually we’ll think about annoying online ads, or we'll jump right into the visual aspects of a brand. We’ll think about examples such as Nikes’ swoosh logo or Apple’s, well, apple — but also their tones of voice and specifically in the case of Apple the design of their products and the experience we have with them.
These ideas are all reflected in various definitions we find in the world, if we do a quick search.
A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.[…] Brands are used in business, marketing, and advertising for recognition and, importantly, to create and store value as brand equity for the object identified, to the benefit of the brand’s customers, its owners and shareholders.
Heavy on the visual and more surface-level features, according to Wikipedia a brand identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers. Although the creation of brand value is an interesting and very important aspect – fit for a separate article.
Related, but separate as a concept, “Brand identity” also has various definitions flying about the internet and in conversation. What is brand identity?
Investopedia offers a fairly useful definition of Brand Identity:
Brand identity is the visible elements of a brand, such as color, design, and logo, that identify and distinguish the brand in consumers’ minds. Brand identity is distinct from brand image. The former corresponds to the intent behind the branding and the way a company does the following — all to cultivate a certain image in consumers’ minds:
Here we see that the general approach to brand and brand identity are mostly visual and that they are always about what sets one organization or seller apart from the other. But how can we expand our understanding, vocabulary, and toolsets when it comes to managing successful brands?
Brand guidelines are considered to be the log book for a brand's identity. They are not just a document that collects information about your brand. Brand guidelines are key to brand alignment. Storing brand guidelines on a PDF document and sharing updated versions over and over again will lead to misalignment because so many versions exist. It becomes a hassle for your colleagues to find out which file is the correct one and who's hard drive it's on.
If all your stakeholders know how to find your brand guidelines, know what they are and how they apply to their specific role, you have achieved brand alignment, a critical measure when it comes to customer attraction and satisfaction.
I find “The Brand Handbook” by Wally Olins to be a very helpful starting point to understanding brands better. The book offers exactly the expansion of vocabulary and tools to get a much better grip on brands, brand identity and brand management. It was gifted to me by my friend and mentor Roel Stavorinus, Corporate Identity guru and one of the Netherlands’ first official register marketers, who was in turn inspired by Olins.
The multi-award-winning Wally Olins (December 19th 1930–April 14th 2014) was one of the world’s most respected and experienced practitioners of corporate identity and branding. He co-founded Wolff Olins and Saffron Brand Consultants and served as their chairman.
Olins advised many of the world’s leading organizations on identity, branding, communication and related matters including 3i, Akzo Nobel, Repsol, Q8, The Portuguese Tourist Board, BT, Renault, Volkswagen, Tata and Lloyd’s of London. He acted as an advisor both to McKinsey and Bain.
In his seminal “The Brand Handbook” Olins explains with concise penmanship what brands are, how to create them, how to make them work, and how to sustain them. At the core of the brand, he writes, are a clear identity and mission.
Olins: “The fundamental idea behind the brand is that in everything the organization does, everything it owns, and everything it produces it should project a clear idea of what it is and what its aims are. The most significant way in which this can be done is by making everything in and around the organization — its products, environment, communication and behavior — consistent in purpose and performance and, where this is appropriate, in appearance too.”
Note how “appearance” comes last, here.
Olins underlines the importance of working from the inside out when it comes to brand, purpose, and consistency:
“Outward consistency of this kind will only be achieved, and for that matter is only appropriate if it is the manifestation of an inward consistency — a consistency of purpose. This consistency of purpose derives from the vision, or the core idea, and is almost always the base from which a successful branding program(me) can be developed.
The core idea drives the organization. It is what the organization is about, what it stands for, what it believes in. All organizations are unique even if the products/services they make are more or less the same as those of their competitors. It is the company’s history, structure, strategy, the personalities who have created and driven it forward, its successes and its failures, that shape it and make it what it is.”
We are now starting to see the picture. Visual brand elements are important, but they’re not at the core of what makes a brand. What is the correct placing in terms of importance, of the visual brand elements?
Firstly, what visual elements are we talking about? Visual elements can be construed as the visible and/or tangible things like colors, typefaces or fonts, taglines or slogans — the ‘look and feel’. This can also incorporate what a product or store smells like, or how a brand experience might sound — as in Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Sonic Branding”.
According to Olins out of all the visual elements, the logo or symbol is the prime identifier for almost all brands, its purpose being to “present the core idea of the organization with impact, brevity and immediacy.”
“The logo encapsulates the brand.”
Together with the core idea, the visual elements mark out the brand territory. Expanding on these two core elements and clarifying the relation between them, Olins further introduces the four vectors through which a brand makes itself tangible.
In his “Brand Handbook” Olins describes the fundamental idea that there are four vectors through which a brand — as defined by its core idea and surface, visual elements — manifests itself. These four vectors are Product, Environment, Communication, and Behavior.
Product — stands for the products/services the organization sells, how they look and feel, and what the User Experience is for these.
Environment — the physical and digital environment of the brand, how it “lays out its stall”. What does your store or your LinkedIn company page look like?
Communication — how it tells people, every audience, about itself and what it’s doing — think, internal and external communications, storytelling, content strategy, copywriting and general tone of voice.
Behavior — how its people behave to each other and the world outside — think HR policy & processes, leadership and organizational culture, but also recruitment, sales professionals, marketers, and customer service representatives.
The second element would be the visual brand, which is not a “loose” element but one that is ideally derived from the “core idea”, and at almost every step mixed in with the four vectors through which a brand makes itself tangible. You could add the visual brand as an added layer over the graph above, as a way to visualize its place as the second – or maybe, rather, sixth – element of a brand.
Think about the colors and/or maybe a logo used in the design of a Product; the brick-and-mortar storefront or conversely the website (Environment); the taglines or slogans — but also colors, layouts, etc.) used consistently in e-mails or campaigns (Communication), and your company logo on the shirt of the customer service representative who just made your customer ‘s day (Behavior).
The main goal is to keep finding ways to communicate the core idea of the brand in everything you do. And conversely, to check everything you do with the core idea of your company.
I find that these two core elements and four vectors – for a total of six brand elements - make it infinitely easier to think and talk about brand and brand identity, because they help us do it in a structured way. They can also be used as a basis for brand strategy and they are the six elements that you need to at least think about when thinking about creating and managing a successful brand.
Brand management is undoubtedly handled best with a strategic long-term plan, which would be an entire article – if not an entire book - in and of itself. In this article we focused on the elements that are at the core of brand identity and that should be considered when talking or thinking about brand management.
Finally, when you have all of the elements to creating and managing a successful brand in place, along with a fitting strategy to do so, a tool for managing your brand — and most notably and visually your brand assets – can be very helpful.
Especially for marketing teams who are collaborating remotely with each other, their internal and external marketing ecosystem and other internal and external stakeholders, a Digital Asset Management platform can add a lot of value. Applied strategically, you will be sure to get the most value out of your brand and the related assets by using a DAM system.
A few things a Digital Asset Management system can help you achieve are:
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