branding

Is Branding A Superficial Cosmetic Activity or A Substantive Exercise?

brandingThis is a question I used to wonder about. Deep down I believed ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ to be essentially a surface, cosmetic exercise.

As for ‘personal branding’ the activity had connotations of people learning to be false and less than real. After all, if they spent time thinking about how they wanted to come across, surely that meant they would be artificial rather than authentic?  Such people would be too focused on creating the ‘right’ impression rather than being themselves. This is what I used to think.  I doubt I’m the only person who has thought in this way about a brand.

 

Where do prejudices like this come from?

I was wondering where such prejudices about ‘branding’ came from, and whether others share them.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there was a time when brand was all about image. Did the hangover of that era create this impression of brand being superficial surface stuff, I wonder?

Now that my views have changed I don’t like to admit how I thought about branding. However, I think there is a benefit to examining such prejudices to see whether they are widespread and shared by others.

 

Meaning of design

As Steve Jobs put it “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works”.

In brand creation, the link between design and branding may be one reason the activity is perceived to be about surface veneer.

I remember a few years ago many of the big law firms were all undergoing rebranding exercises. Invariably this involved shortening of their names, unveiling new logos, colours, and slogans – but for all one could tell it was just new visual designs and business as usual.  The businesses didn’t seem altered in any substantive way after their rebrands.

I could understand it more when a company like Norwich Union rebranded by changing its name and becoming AVIVA. Its old name was parochial and limiting. If the business wanted to be perceived as more international it definitely needed a name change and new identity.

Then there was BP rebranding from British Petroleum to BP, adopting the green colouring everywhere.

Yet that business seemed to lack an effective belief system to respond appropriately in the face of the oil spill disaster.

Their rebrand seemed to have been a surface exercise in design work. For all the information they put out about their values, none of these seemed to drive the business’ behaviour and response, and therefore seemed to be a surface, superficial exercise.

 

Branding books

I have read hundreds of books on branding, and now that I understand the anthropological and social basis of it I know it’s a really important tool in business if properly dealt with.

Clarifying your philosophy and how you mean to function as a business when setting up or rethinking any venture, be it a commercial undertaking or a charity, is crucial to success, provided those decisions are embedded within the business appropriately so that they determine how the business behaves and reaches decisions.

The trouble is that many people invariably assume this branding exercise involves working with designers to get a new visual identity. This is wrong thinking that needs to be debunked.

Branding is not just about the visual identity

The prominent association some people have with the brand and visual identity may explain why I and others have perceived the branding exercise to be cosmetic and surface, rather than having any deep meaning.

My own experiences of branding never allowed the amount of time and space one needs in which to think through the brand philosophy. The branding experiences were invariably spaced out over 3-4 weeks – which is insufficient time in which to make fundamental, profound decisions about your purpose and mission, values, and what brand promise you want to be known for etc.

 

A Design Brief

For a designer faced with a client that hasn’t done the work on their brand yet, the problem is how to deliver a visual brand identity. So, I totally get why the designer can’t just create a visual identity without knowing what the business is all about and wants to communicate.

The problem is that clients go to designers with no real design brief. So, designers invariably and necessarily need to ask questions and delve as deeply as it’s possible to do in the time available, in order to find out about the business, and its values.

That is the way to arrive at a brief from which to design the visual identity needs to change.

The fact that businesses have done inadequate thinking about their brand strategy before they turn to a designer is the root cause of the problem. It leaves it to the designer to tease out this information so that they can do their job.

Naming calls for different skills

It’s expecting too much of designers, who also have to come up with new names and slogans too to help their clients to embed their philosophy into the business.

The naming side of a brand is really an exercise that calls for completely different skills and shouldn’t be left to designers to deal with.

For naming and slogans, you need trade mark lawyers who could involve a copywriter or linguist to help brainstorm name ideas if necessary. Designers don’t need to be involved at this stage of the process. When you’re finding out who you are, why others should care, how you will operate and so on, you just need to work with a brand strategist that understands trade mark and other IP laws, and the marketing and other aspects of branding.

It’s only when that is all clarified that you need a designer to give visual expression to the brand.

You should choose a name once you’ve understood your target market and what resonates with that market.  You don’t choose the name because of what it will look like in a logo. That would be rather superficial in my view, when naming something, to be worrying about its visual manifestation as a logo.

 

Ideal Process

The ideal branding exercise to give a business a brand that will be its central core and soul is one where you spend many months working out your business brand, and brand strategy, including your positioning. Only once that stage is completed would you be ready to identify a name and slogan.

This is why we have created a brand strategy offering for our clients. We can then give guidance to clients on names. I have spent years studying and understand brands – having realised it’s the optimum way forward to give clients the best possible outcome for their brand work.

Not all trademark lawyers can offer such a service yet because the lawyers would first need to thoroughly understand what’s involved in a branding exercise so they can help you create a suitable name and tagline.

So, I want to emphasise that the expertise that’s needed during this first phase is NOT design related. You’re thinking through things like what marketing messages will resonate with the target customer. Is the chosen name or slogan one that the customer would respond to? Is it capable of functioning as a trade mark? Is it available? Does it reflect the positioning without actually describing the activity? Who better to work with at this stage of brand thinking than a trade mark lawyer who has undergone a solid training in brand?

Your brand is what drives your business, a set of promises and assurances that customers should think of when they see or hear your name. It is your unique identity that resonates with your target audience and differentiates you from your competitors. The name and slogan are the root of that identity.

 

When it’s Appropriate to Seek Designs

Once this first stage of the brand work is completed, and appropriate legal checks have been carried out, and trade marks registered, it would be appropriate to turn to designers to create the visual brand identity.

The exercise that began with IP first to assess which IP rights are most important to the business model, and concluded with legal protection of the brand identity, would mean the legal identity would be firmly and correctly sorted out and locked down. So, a detailed brief could be produced for designers to create the visual identity.

Given this level of detail, the designers would at the very most need a one-hour meeting with the client to get the information they need to produce the visual identity.

 

Approach to Branding

This approach to branding should be what small businesses do, because it brings down the overall costs for the client. The visual identity costs will be a fraction of the price designers now need to charge. The visual design price would therefore drop because designers no longer need to spend time learning about the business and teasing out its mission, values and so on.  Nor would they need to do work that they’re not well placed to do, such as devising new names and slogans.

As such the client is the winner. They have much greater clarity about their brand when constructing their business model and I suspect this would impact their success rate in business because they could design the business correctly and be better placed to build on solid foundations.

So, I advocate separating the legal identity and brand strategy from the visual identity. They need different advisers. Azrights supports clients with brand strategy and naming, while the visual identity is then undertaken by designers who we can introduce, or you can find yourself.

 

Brand Guidelines

Another difference in the outcome is that instead of the brand guidelines being focused purely on the visual dimension – the logo and colours, the client would get two sets of brand guideline – one focused on the brand strategy, covering issues such as communications and embedding the brand into the culture of the business, while the visual brand guidelines would focus on use of logos and colours, as they do now.

With the correct strategy, your brand will gain in value over time. This value will come from the positive reputation your business develops. For more information read my earlier blog on how to establish your brand.

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