Back in 2011 when I began writing my book Legally Branded I realised that despite spending years focused on brand protection, I didn’t really know what the word ‘brand’ meant and what was involved to create one.
Having joined BNI soon after starting my business in 2006 I kept hearing the designer in the chapter referring to how everything you do is your brand, or that it was important to stand out. Intrigued, I had become a client of the agency and undergone “branding”. Yet here I was a few years later unsure what ‘brand’ meant. I asked a group of entrepreneurs in a Facebook group what they understood by the word, and got a host of different responses. I also sought out definitions in respected textbooks.
Over the years, I’ve read many books on branding and heard many people refer to it. The word is bandied around quite a lot, and yet most people are largely unaware of what it actually means.
A brand is actually one of the most valuable intellectual property rights a successful business can have. In fact, most business assets such as the brand are largely digital and intangible in the 21st century. Much of the work that a creative agency does when “branding” a business involves creating intellectual property assets which the business should own. However, unless there is the right written agreement between an agency and its clients the client will not own the IP assets.
It makes sense that a 21st century approach to branding should be an IP led activity so a lawyer can, among other things, ensure the agreement with the design agency protects the client. Brand creation should not be a design led activity.
I’ve decided to write a book on the subject, but I don’t want to just add to the noise around brand and branding. I want to discover what really moves the needle in branding, so that my book can truly enlighten readers and act as a guide for them. My starting point for this, has been Byron Sharp’s research, which is all about evidence-based marketing, as detailed in his book How Brands Grow.
The result of research conducted by Byron Sharp and his team with the world’s top brands at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, University of South Australia indicates that our existing preconceptions about increasing the loyalty to our brands is misguided. He found that all brands have a lot of buyers who only buy them infrequently. Even the Apples and Harley Davidsons have a lot of light users who buy other brands more than they buy them.
Those brands with a smaller market share have less market share, largely because fewer people know about them to buy them. The people who do buy them are less loyal and buy them less often. They devote less of their whole category buying to them. Consequently, the brand has fewer loyal customers.
The normal assumptions are that niche brands have a very loyal customer base, albeit small. However, it seems from the research that you can’t grow by selling to your existing customer base. You need to find new customers.
I’m still working out how to apply the research to service businesses, but the implication seems to be that branding is terribly important – not for building deep emotional connections with consumers, as is generally thought, but in the battle for attention. Consumers are very busy with other things, which is why they don’t fall in love with brands. They’re very happy to be loyal to a repertoire of brands. Even heavy category buyers don’t buy all the brands that are on the market. They keep returning to some favourites. They’re happy to be loyal. To do that they have to recognise the brand, notice the brand. The key in other words, is that brand has to be present wherever the consumer is looking to buy.
Implications for Branding
The implications of these fundamental scientific discoveries and findings about what marketing works are huge.
Another book that has emerged from that institute is Building Distinctive Brand Assets by Jenni Romaniuk, and the combination of the two books blows away some of the big myths in marketing.
My conclusion from the books, and what my own TUNED framework stresses, is that branding is largely about setting yourself apart. You need to look like you, not looking like your competitors.
If you can do that you can build a loyal customer base. You don’t have to get people to fall in love with your brand. You just need to get into your consumers’ heads.
Subway is an example Byron Sharp gives of a brand that has managed to get our collective attention. Sandwiches are a big category. There was no branded sandwich before Subway. Subway came up with a brand that has got into everyone’s heads. People know they can get sandwiches there. It’s not built the business on the quality of its sandwiches.
The battle for mental availability is a hard barrier to push through.
The Subway name is a good one because it’s distinctive and that is another reason why the brand has been able to stick in our minds. The company didn’t try to use a name like Big Sandwich to describe its sandwich, which is just a quick example of some of the less distinctive naming approaches that might have the benefit of communicating what you you’re all about, but don’t help you to truly stand out longer term. Descriptive names that are not truly inventive can simply make a brand generic, and therefore blend in among all their competitors.
All Brands Face the Same Challenges
All brands are smaller than they want to be, so they face the same challenges. A new brand has the challenge to implant memory structures, to build mental availability amongst a big population of potential buyers.
The real advantage that big brands have, is that their mental availability overlaps with their physical availability. What that means is that any store they’re in, that physical availability works harder because anyone who comes into the store is more likely to notice the brand. The brand is in their head as well. It means the brand’s marketing works more effectively because anyone they reach with their advertising also shops in places where they are present. So, this creates a virtuous circle.
The bigger you get the more your mental and physical availability overlap so that everything works better for you and you’re more visible.
A small brand has to build mental and physical availability. Sharp suggests focusing on getting the mental and physical availability to overlap. Consumers are in all channels so if you’re only in one channel you’re going to be smaller, and your advertising isn’t going to work so well because it benefits some people but not others who predominantly go to other channels. These challenges are exactly the same for all brands, but for a small brand it looms larger due to its lesser resources.
However, all brands start out small. Some manage to make the transition to being big.
What it Means for B2B Brands
For B2B businesses the takeaway message from this is to be present on all social media platforms, even if you double down on one or two more than on others. The notion that you don’t need to be on all the platforms is misguided in my view.
If you’re a new brand, the challenge of building a customer base is really stark. According to Byron Sharp the danger is that small brands fall for old marketing myths that if they start really small hopefully, they’ll go viral – that if they focus on people who really love them, they will somehow magically infect all the other people. In his view this is wishful thinking.
How brands grow is about how buyers buy, and how brands compete. What is branding hasn’t changed. Brands are constantly competing head on. That makes marketing and branding very important. You can’t build mental availability and get into people’s heads without a brand.
However, the emphasis needs to be less on creating “meaningful” brands and typefaces and other issues that people currently focus on. What matters is the distinctiveness of your brand so that people realise who you are, and that they’re not seeing someone else. One of his conclusions is that branding is largely meaning free.
We use brands to simplify our lives. To be a little box so we store memories. McDonalds has done amazingly well to get into people’s minds. We all know what they sell. There are millions of cafes where we don’t know what they serve.
One implication from this, in my view, is that lawyers need to work alongside branding agencies to advise on what can be protected, because there is no point placing a huge emphasis on a branding element that you can’t uniquely own. Instead, you need to make sure you’re creating distinctive brand assets that are ownable. If the distinctiveness can’t be protected then the brand isn’t going to be able to prevent competitors copying.
The New Era of Marketing
From books like Building Distinctive Brand Assets by Jenni Romaniuk it is clear that the new era of marketing will emphasise distinctive assets and will be guided by this insight in the branding process.
Tropicana is an example of a brand that didn’t understand what made it distinctive, how they featured in people’s minds. They decided to make their packaging more premium, and in the process took the orange off the pack. Sales dropped dramatically.
Sharp and Romaniuk point out that consistency is very important in branding. So, a rebrand is risky. It’s a bit like starting again. Their advice is to do careful research before making a change to avoid disaster like the Tropicana experience. Use the research to give the creative team a framework within which to be creative.
Marlboro cigarettes were unsuccessful with their brand which at one time targeted women. So that was a good reason to rebrand, to search for something better that might work. They started again, and that led to the hugely successful Marlboro brand using a Cowboy.
Sharp and Romaniuk suggest it’s hard to think of a brand where you’re succeeding and would make a change. Unless there are overwhelming reasons to change things stick with your existing branding and if you must make changes then do some research first to work out which assets are distinctive in order to understand what you can and can’t touch in any brand refresh.
For new brands who do not yet have distinctive assets it’s worth thinking about the future at the start to decide what assets to create and build recognition for. This is where being informed by intellectual property law would really help.
People often focus on consistently using the same colours in order to stand out and be memorable. However, Romaniuk’s research found that colour was not such a recognisable asset for brands. And for most practical purposes it’s safe to say you can’t own a colour trade mark either. It would take a lot of time and a huge marketing budget to reach people’s consciousness with your brand colours such that you could claim rights over a colour on its own.
Careful thought will need to be given to such issues in branding, and this will be one of the focal points of my book, focusing on elements that can be uniquely owned, and can’t very easily be copied by competitors.
For branding that will really move the needle for you, it’s vital to have a distinctive name. Register for my upcoming webinar to learn more about how to approach naming or rebranding your business.