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Defining Brand Identity
We talk about brands all the time here. We’re fascinated with them, but it struck me recently that nowhere in all of the blog posts or white papers have we taken a moment to explicitly define the elements of brand. Doing so might explain our (healthy) obsession with brands and brand management. For in-depth tips on growing and maintaining your brand, download our free Marketer’s Guide to Omnichannel Planning.
The dictionary definition falls short of explaining what “brand” means, so I’ll attempt to explain what we’re talking about.
What do we mean when we say ‘Brand’?
First, a definition: a brand is an idea system, a network of associations that represent any entity, organization, or person.
To be clear, a brand isn’t just marketing. It’s not a logo or set of fonts and colors. It’s an integral part of the strategy and operations of an organization—extending far beyond marketing. Companies with the greatest market share, are also the companies with the greatest brands. INSEAD professor of marketing, J.C. Larrech’s research articulates how strong branding doesn’t come from marketing alone. He found that marketing spend didn’t actually determine growth. Between 1985 and 2004, of the Fortune 1000 brands that actually decreased their marketing spend delivered higher growth in market capitalization (80% greater than the Dow Jones). Those companies operationalized brand. It became core to their business strategy.
If Brand isn’t Marketing, then what is it?
A brand isn’t a just product either. A brand is a distinct entity that lives outside of the product or the consumer need. It’s everything that an organization stands for and how it expresses that. It is the sum of every interaction people have with the entity, organization, or person. A brand logo doesn’t mean anything without the context of the brand’s story and the perceptions people have of it. Or as Percolate CEO Noah Brier once wrote,
“Brands live in people’s heads. They are the sum total of perceptions about them.”
Building a brand therefore comprises two things. First is defining a brand identity, the story that will resonate and serve as your brand criteria—a set of rules that define what is and is not “on-brand.” Second is executing on that brand identity and extending a top-of-mind brand presence with your target audience—establishing a brand identity firmly in the minds of a greater public.
The first piece, brand identity, brings together what we refer to as “brand pillars” for the company. Those pillars are the mission, values, purpose, positioning, voice, tone, look and feel. These become your compass—the lens through which you evaluate all decisions at every level of the organization.
The second piece, “brand management,” is where you build out your brand presence, facilitating every interaction that adds up to brand. Brand management is the strategy and executions that express those brand pillars. It ensures that every interaction reflects each facet of your brand—whether those interactions are with customers, vendors, investors, press or employees.
We spend a lot of time thinking and writing about this second piece. We think that technology is the the best way to manage brand through an increasingly complex marketing landscape. We think that systems enable creativity, coverage, and consistency in brand management.
But you have to have a brand to manage before you get to all that. That’s why I want to take the opportunity to expand on the first piece of brand building: What are your brand pillars that together define your brand identity?
A brand mission is the essence of a business’ goals and the philosophy underlying them.
I like Nike’s mission statement. When you think about Nike’s investments and strategic decisions—from advertising to product design—through the lens of its mission, they all make sense:
“Bring inspiration to every athlete* in the world.
*if you have a body, you are an athlete”
Nike’s mission sets the tone for the rest of its brand pillars discussed below. There’s a reason why Nike has such a valuable brand. It consistently delivers on this mission through its brand pillars and their expressions. You’ll see how in a few of the examples below how through each brand pillar, Nike builds on and reaffirms this mission.
Values are the set of guiding principles that stand alone in value and importance to the entire organization.
Values are what form culture. They guide decisions. They inform a product roadmap or service delivery. At Percolate, we see our values as our guiding path to scalable and sustainable growth. As James and Noah have written in the past on the Percolate values, “We believe the only way to scale out Percolate is to distribute decision making out to the edges. That means we ask each and every person in the company to make decisions on behalf of the organization on a regular basis, without necessarily going to their manager to get advice or approval. Their guide instead must be the company’s culture.”
We have our values hanging in every office at a reminder of their importance in our day-to-day.
Vision states what is essential to preserve and what future the organization is progressing toward.
The Harvard Business Review explains vision as having two parts: the ideology and the predicted future. That means a vision has to speak to both a company’s current mission and purpose as well as what it aspires to be or achieve in the future. In other words, vision sets a destination and plots the path to get there.
That said, you also don’t necessarily start with the end game. Percolate didn’t start with the vision to build The System of Record for Marketing; we started with a vision for helping brands communicate better to execute marketing better. That vision eventually led to the development of what we abbreviate to TSOR.
Purpose is more than an organization’s output or target customers; it’s the soul of the organization—its raison d’etre.
Purpose is the whole reason why an organization exists. It should reflect why every employee gets out of bed in the morning and their motivation for doing the work. As with each of these other elements, the purpose should be clearly observed in every brand expression, because it gives your audience a reason to care.
Back to the Nike example, the company’s stated purpose is, “To experience the emotion of competition, winning, and crushing competitors.” This emotion, winning spirit, and excitement to run hard at being best is felt throughout the company. It’s what gets people enthusiastic about the brand. It’s the reason why my best friend texted me photos of famed Coach John Thompson Jr.’s bust on the Nike of Walk of Fame when she visited the Nike campus. She knew I was a Georgetown Basketball fan, but she also felt the excitement of that winning feeling permeating the world headquarters in Beaverton and wanted to share that.
Positioning explains how your offering contributes to your purpose.
Mission, values, vision, and purpose really define strategy across the organization—giving way to a brand promise. They help set product roadmaps and define HR policies. Positioning is really about ensuring that all activities across the company ladder up to that brand promise.
Salesforce’s Marc Benioff explains it well, “Every experience you give a journalist or potential customer must explain why you are different and incorporate a clear call to action. This does not require a large team or big budget; it just requires your time and focus.”
Voice + Tone
Your voice and tone establishes the credibility of your vision, purpose, and positioning through communication.
The voice and tone of your brand (along with the look and feel, discussed below) may seem cosmetic but it backs up your brand pillars, fitting with the brand vision, purpose, and positioning. Think of Walt Disney’s values which include optimism, storytelling, and even mention being able to laugh. The Disney voice and tone are consistent with the whimsy and excitement of the company ethos set by the vision, purpose, and positioning.
We think about our own voice as cohesive to the Percolate mission and values. Here’s the slide on tone and voice from our editorial guidelines:
Look + Feel
A brand’s look and feel is a common spirit uniting and creating consistency across executions.
The look and feel of a brand are all the company’s visual assets that express the voice and tone of the brand. Coming back to Nike once again. Nike’s swoosh expresses movement. Their photography is always hi-def, close up and personal. Nike ads feels very alive, as if you are right next to the athlete at the starting blocks and crossing the finish line.
We talk about design a lot because we think it is incredibly important to brand. Our communications design team puts a lot of effort into everything from our webpages and sales collateral to the art hanging on our walls to actually-cool company swag. Having that visual expression of brand not only creates company pride, but it creates a consistent identifier for your customers.
Brand identity is only the first part of brand building. Defining them is a the easy part. Creating these brand pillars, executing against them, and maintaining a culture and strategy that consistently adheres to them is the hard part. That’s why we’re fascinated. We’re fascinated that an intangible idea can build billion dollar companies, loyal customer bases, and proud employee alumni networks.
To learn more about how the world’s largest brands are building a distinctive brand identity, join us for Transition 2017 in New York City on September 28.