In a nation that is no longer peopled with “citizens” but “consumers,” product branding has essentially become our cultural and social touchstone. We are united not by common neighborhoods, countries or deep values, but by our fondness for Macs over PCs.
Depressing, isn’t it? Of course it is! But there is money to be made, nonetheless. Or rather, there is money to be lost by not adhering to basic branding principles. So, we’ll soldier on and help to perpetuate a phenomenon that may ultimately lead to our destruction. Let’s get started!
Branding Isn’t New
Not only is the concept of branding within a marketing context as old as marketing itself, branding — the act of creating a feeling, philosophy, character and personality that augments a service being offered, causing the public to unite in favor of that particular service — has been used in some form for thousands of years. When pharaohs declared that they were the progeny of powerful gods and surrounded themselves with glittering jewels and palaces, they were creating a brand; when Henry VIII filled his court with artists and philosophers, wrote music, outperformed everyone in the field of athletics and commissioned portraits of himself with huge shoulders and sexy calves, he was creating a brand; when Elizabeth I called herself the “Virgin Queen” and announced that she would only ever be married to England, she was creating a brand.
We tend to look askance at branding because the notion has been appropriated by businesses, large and small, for the cynical purpose of increasing revenue; by politicians for the purpose of endearing themselves to a naïve public and dictators for the purpose of slaughtering innocent civilians. The idea of the “brand” feels inherently deceptive because it is so deliberate – you’re creating an image in order to get people to trust you, for heaven’s sake! But it doesn’t have to be phony. In fact, we’ve become so darned brand-savvy that we can sniff out a contrived and insincere brand image quicker than a “Real Housewife” can get Restylane injections.
Branding Is Everywhere
Thanks to social media, everyone with a Twitter account has a micro-brand, giving them hyper-awareness of the image that they project. A product or service should have as much brand awareness as the average 11-year-old with a Selena Gomez fan page.
How can we tell if a brand image is fake and/or inconsistent and/or morally questionable? Oh, by the hundreds of ways a company can slip up and reveal either its hidden agenda or utter cluelessness. Toyota using the Twitter platform to spam messages about a Camry giveaway during the 2012 Super Bowl and Kenneth Cole issuing a tweet that appeared to make light of the Cairo uprising are two examples of total brand idiocy.
Because everyone’s awareness of branding is so heightened, it is critical for a business to be specific and consistent about what its brand is and who it is meant to address. A product can’t simply exist; it has to exist to serve a specific segment of the population. Branding clarifies not only what the product is meant to do, but how the product is supposed to make you feel when you use it and why that is a good thing.
Speak to a Few, Reach Everyone
Business owners tend to be skittish about branding that appeals to a particular segment of the population for fear of discouraging people outside of that segment from buying their product. Never fear. Obviously, not everyone on the planet has the same interests, career, outlook and income, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t all derive the same pleasure from the same brand of folksy, extra bold barbecue sauce. A specific brand identity is an attractive brand identity. Moreover, it is far more likely to be an honest brand identity. A vague brand is an ignorable brand.
Facebook is probably the greatest example of targeted branding; it was a social networking site exclusively for Harvard students, for heaven’s sake — you can’t get much more exclusionary than that. Nevertheless, people who couldn’t name an Ivy League university if they had the entire Princeton student body sitting on their laps were soon desperate to be a part of the Facebook community. Voila! The biggest and most unavoidable social network is born!
If you are still convinced that branding is all a bunch of foolishness and you’re suffering from an existential crisis because you don’t want to corrupt your product/service by creating a slick, highly dubious company persona that will test well with focus groups, then don’t worry. Just create an authentic and specific statement of what your product/service is meant to do and who is likely to appreciate it most. Nothing evil in that, right?