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Seriously – What Is A Brand?

Last summer was extremely busy for me. Richard Carey and I team up once again at Right Management teaching branding workshops to executives in transition. In other words, we were showing middle managers and C-Suite executives the basics of branding themselves using today's online technology. Web 2.0 open source sites are free and allow even a techno novice the ability to build their online credibility with sites such as WordPress, EzineArticles, Blogger, Flickr etc …

We based most of our work on an article that appeared in Fast Company magazine: A Brand Called You. by Tom Peters. The implication was that personal brands would become the hot new wave for talented individuals to start branding themselves for greater employment and consulting opportunities. Using our own entrepreneurial experiences, and the fact that Richard and I launched some very successful online brands, we were the obvious experts to teach the seminars.

Our approach was simple. Start with your resume. Take out everything that did not support your core competency, get focused on exactly which category you fit in, get your elevator speech down pat, and launch from there. Graphic design 101 was part of the seminar including migration to the online universe. We used the same techniques as major corporations.

It was a simple set of instructions. A few hours each night could build one's online resume, an archive of articles, or a small diary of web logs. Why create such online content? With Google becoming the dominant search engine tool, employers are turning to its capabilities more and more to weed out the bad apples. Many a student complained that they were Googled as soon as they left the office. This makes online credibility paramount to managing where your resume lands. Either at the top of the heap or in the circular file. "Do not call us, we'll call you" can be turned into "Can you come in for a second interview" with just a few hours each night. Creating your online dossier is easy.

That's why I asked myself why no one was doing it?

Everyone who took our suspects filled out their feedback form with glowing recommendations for us. But no one was running out to take action on what we just showed them. And then it dawned on me: in every seminar, the branding part seemed to leave most just nodding their heads in agreement. They understood that their business card, resume and online presence had to have the same look and feel, but was it possible that no one really knew what a brand was? Had I done my job well enough in explaining a brand? Perhaps not …

My writing is not so much to pontificate, but to give practical steps for entrepreneurs who may be launching their own companies or executives who need one piece of wisdom to complete their knowledge base. Since I speak only from experience, keep what you like and discard the rest. So the purpose of this article is to go back to basics and explore what a brand is and what branding is all about.

The best definition of a brand I could find is … "A distinguishing symbol, mark, logo, name, word, sentence, or a combination of these items that companies use to distinguish their product from others in the market."

This definition is only half of the story. The reality is a brand is much more than a symbol – it is the experience one gets from using a product or service. How does this help you? To understand some more, let's walk through a little bit of history.

Brands themselves can be traced back to their modern use in the Old West. Cattle ranchers as well as horse traders needed to mark their animals permanently with a symbol that determined ownership. They had blacksmiths design intricate logos that represented each rancher's initials or company insignia.

Burning their emblem into the flesh of the animal determined ownership. Sometimes over time some brands of livestock become more popular than others. So, when a particular rancher bought in his beef for sale, his reputation came with it. Lesser brands could not get the price for their livestock that the better brands could command. The buyers paid on repeat business and reputation.

It was the first use of brand recognition. The power of the symbol represented the reputation of the brand.

Since stealing horses was a felony punishable by death, brands were taken very seriously. Ranchers fiercely protected their brand so others could not copy the design. Copyright infringement law did not really exist in the western territories yet, so keeping their branding irons locked up and out of sight became the norm.

But branding goes back even further. The history of modern brands reads like a Dan Brown novel, but, you probably would not recognize them as brands. A golden sun symbol in Iran from 1400 BC was revitalized again in Rome, representing the sun-god Mithra. Occasionally Emperor Constantine would fuse the sun god's symbol of Mithra (of which he was the grand master) with the Christian cross to create his brand. The golden sun with a cross in the center on a blazing red shield became a symbol to fear during the Byzantine period of European history.

Or even earlier, Pythia was the high priestess presiding over the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Or regardless the worship of Isis, Baal or any number of cults in the ancient world. Unfortunately branding animals as well as human beings were not new. A mark determined ones status as a slave, a request of war, or worse, marked for death. Either way, it mean ownership.

The formula for religious cults was simple; create a temple with an image, get people to gather around it and give out the Gospel, then get the followers to spread the word. The ancient Greeks called this phenomenon, this worship of a holy word or symbol, Logos, (Used as both a noun and a verb). We use the same theories in today's marketing and branding techniques with out driving our followers over a cliff of course, but the theories are the same.

As the human race evolved, those brands meant less about ownership and more about who one was aligned with. Flags, hats, and special clothes are a form of branding. It is a quick and easy way for individuals to comprehend and choose sides. "The Red Coats are coming" was about the British Empire and what it meant to live under the "brand" of British rule. No one wanted to be owned by royalty anymore.

Usually, branding spread from cattle to retail products. One hundred fifty years ago when a man wanted to buy a new razor for his son, he went to a store like Macy's, looked at the display of razors, picked what he wanted and was promptly handed a package wrapped in brown paper and string. Modern packaging did not exist … partly because printing techniques needed to catch up. People evolved in their sophistication and therefore so did branding. Today we can not imagine buying a product without it's slick packaging enticing us to buy it.

To say branding has become a science is an understatement. Just look around your house and you will see brands everywhere. From the SONY television you bought to the Gillette razor you used this morning. From the Amerige perfume you just can not live without to those Jimmy Choo's your husband bought for your birthday, you and I and everyone in America is a branded consumer. Ironically, each brand has a logo for us to worship and it is getting harder to resist.

Every brand you buy has an emotional reason why you buy it. Why did you buy that Mercedes? It was not because you were looking for an economy car. Or how about that new suit? Hugo Boss says you spent a little bit extra to stand out. Paul Mitchell hair care products? What dental care system are you using? Are you brushing like a dentist or are you brushing like everyone else? You have to pay to get this kind of brushing technology. We can not let it fall into the hands of the British.

Great companies remember their name is more than a logo on a napkin, a jpeg on a website, or a neon sign calling out from interstate 95. It is the relationship you've had with them. This collection of experiences forms an opinion in the consumer's mind that rarely changes. Let me repeat that: your experiences with a brand form an opinion in your mind. Which means it may not be based on truth. It is based on perception. Every great brand knows this and does not mess with it until they get into trouble.

Since you are beginning to understand that a brand is more about the experience of using a product than the logo on it, then it stands to reason that creating the experience becomes paramount as people begin to trust their association with your company.

Branding is a huge part of your sales paradigm. Your reputation proceeds you, so why not work hard at creating a great perception?

Starbucks worked hard at developing each store. The leisure environment that invites you to sit down and relax. How about the customized service? You can order their products in over 80,000 different combinations. Everything about the Starbucks experience says you've earned the best cup of coffee in the world. Does Starbucks make the best cup of coffee in the world? Probably not, but you sure as hell feel like it is, and perception is 90% of the sale.

Starbucks also focuses on coffee and coffee finger foods. All cakes, muffins and donuts are at eye level for a quick sale. Anything else is in a case below your waste – Sandwiches, fruit and cheese, bottled water. In other words, Starbucks is focused on one thing: Coffee! Anything that does not support coffee never makes it inside the store.

In marketing this is called brand focus and has made the difference for many a company struggling to define what they are. If you are known for many things, your brand may fail. Dropping all services that interfere with your core competency will give your brand a major boost. Companies who do this statistically lose 25% of their clients. But, by focusing the brand companies can increase revenue by 75%!

So get as focused on one category as quickly as possible. After all, do you want to have a jack of all trades or a master of one? Would you go to a doctor who is a generalist or a specialist? I am guessing your answer is the specialist.

If you are confused by categories try this: What is FedEx known for? What is Gillette known for? What is McDonald's known for? Each answer is a simple sentence that tells you what category these brands dominate. Interestingly as well, these three companies are the leader in their categories. They were also the first.

If you are the last to enter a particular market, invent a category. Apple could not compete with IBM as a computer company, so they positioned themselves as the personal computer for everyone else. They not only dominate that market, they forced the other manufacturers to follow their lead.

As you launch your new brand, ask yourself these questions:

What experience does the consumer get from interacting with my brand?

How can I make that experience better?

Is the perception true?

Do I own my category?

Can I create a new category?

Is my logo reflective of my product / service?

Should my company be separate from my brand?

Does my brand reflect thematic consistency in my signage, website, and collateral?

Once the consumer has formed an opinion in their minds collectively, it is almost impossible to change it. So be very careful when launching a new product or service. This is why marketing firms get paid so well. They spend months interviewing tens of thousands of people on your new brand and where to position it. Positioning is important, but that is for another article.

Depending on the size of your company I would hire a brand manager who knows all the techniques to create a mega brand. Scott Bedbury comes to mind. He was in charge of a couple of brands you might have heard of; Nike, (he was responsible for the Just Do It! Tag line) and Starbucks. His big coup was to increase Starbucks store base from 350 stores to several thousand stores world wide. That's the power of a top tier brand and marketing manager.

Sometimes I get so used to marketing and branding that I see them as one and the same. But if you want to learn more about how to market your brand, I suggest The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk! by Al Ries & Jack Trout. It will help you to understand the science behind building and maintaining a strong brand. I would not start a project until my clients read it from cover to cover. It's an easy read and can be devoured in a weekend. Enjoy!

Ata Rehman

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