A Fresh Look at Branding – Part 1:
Brand Identity

Read Part 2: Brand Management

Once there was a man named Steve Jobs, and the logo his company first used was a detailed black and white illustration of Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree with a tiny, glowing apple about to fall on his head (see the logo below, left). That first logo was designed in-house by one of the original business partners and had a very short life span. Soon after, as Apple Computer grew, Jobs realized that they needed to take branding more seriously. He decided to spend some real money and hire a professional designer, Rob Janoff, who designed the rainbow colored apple (see below, center).

In an interview with CreativeBits, Janoff discussed the numerous theories about the meaning of the logo, particularly the ‘bite.’ The bite in the apple, he said, gave it more personality and made it look more like an apple. The color evoked the color screen and made it more accessible to children.

Apple Logos

Apple Logos from 1976, 1977, and 2013

Today, the Apple logo is monochrome (see above, right), and it has become the symbol for one of the most highly valued companies on the planet. Yet, as important as the logo is to Apple, it’s the meaning that the company has reinforced in consumers’ minds over the years that carries the brand forward.

Jobs instilled meaning through his personality and his presentations. Additionally, Apple’s products, their function, appearance and reputation, Apple’s customer service, advertising, and business strategy all affect the meaning of the brand. Their advertising also contributed to their mythos, such as their famous George Orwell 1984-inspired Super Bowl commercial where a runner throws a hammer through a screen of Big Brother. This created hype, controversy, mystique and brand meaning. It also sold a lot of Macs.

All these factors have combined over time to build and maintain the culturally-pervasive Apple brand as it is today. In many ways, Jobs was (and remains) as much the brand as Apple’s products were.

Like Apple, your company's brand is more than just a logo. It's your identity, the personality of your business, the history and story that you tell, what people think of when they need something, and what you stand for. While you may have a good sense of who you are, simplifying it in a way where you can share a common meaning with staff and customers can be hard. Why do so many businesses struggle with the concept of branding? We think it's because a lot of companies simply don't put enough priority and thought into it. Let’s take a fresh look at this subject that's seemingly vague and sometimes hard to grasp, yet critical to your organization's future.

What is Your Brand Identity?

It's important to invest time and effort in developing and nurturing your brand. Doing so will help you differentiate your business from your competition and position yourself more effectively in the marketplace. You must have a clear vision of the identity of your business and what you want people to think of when they hear about your company, then work to make that vision a reality. If you lack a coherent identity and a strategy for managing your identity, your business may suffer and lose customers to companies that have a story they relate to better.

With all of the new digital and interactive marketing channels available today, having a plan to develop brand identity has become even more important. That plan will help you make choices for all aspects of your marketing activities. In addition to projecting your message out to the masses through advertising, how you manage the many social media interactions between your company, your customers and their friends can also impact the perception of your company. A clear understanding of your basic brand identity will help you decide which mediums offer the best impact, and how to utilize them.

In our experience, we’ve also seen companies that have in their core business model competing and/or contradictory identities. This can create customer confusion as to who you really are. You may not notice the disconnection but your customers (having the advantage of being on the outside looking in) do notice. A focused branding strategy helps you uncover these at-odds identities and correct the discontinuity. In essence, a good branding strategy illuminates core business model contradictions and makes them easier to remove or correct. Creating new brands and fixing broken ones starts with solving this basic problem of clarity and focus.

What are Your Business Goals?

So, what does your business do? What problem are you trying to solve? Apple began by selling computers, but they also sought to make computers easier to use and more aesthetically pleasing than other available offerings. Those are values they still seek to apply to their products, which now extend far beyond desktop computers. More practical goals like your desired place in the marketplace and your revenue goals can affect how you position yourself.

How is Your Business Different?

Since most businesses operate in a competitive environment, you need to consider how you compare to your competition. An e-commerce website selling computers would have a fairly broad competitive environment. A restaurant opening in a city along the Front Range in Colorado would be localized, but would operate in a very competitive restaurant environment. Whether you are a new or existing business, you need to look at your competition and make sure you have a Unique Value Proposition. What do you have to offer customers that others don’t?

Who is Your Audience?

Along with knowing what your goals are and what you have to offer, you need to know your primary audience and who will most likely buy from you. This isn’t necessarily a linear process, but is often iterative or cyclical as you better understand who your customers really are. Maybe market research will identify a need or desire in a market segment. Maybe you’ll create a product you believe in and try to identify an audience afterwards. While people vary in their approach, there are still commonalities that people share, and you’ll be more likely to connect with them if you keep specific characteristics in mind rather than try to sell to “just everyone.”

State Your Brand

Knowing your identity, goals, uniqueness, and audience allows you to create a single brand-positioning statement. It doesn’t have to be complicated. A sentence or two incorporating who you are, what you offer, who your audience is, and what you are like is sufficient. Note that this is not the same as your company mission or vision statement, though those would certainly be relevant. Your brand statement should differentiate your company by communicating how it uniquely solves a problem your audience faces or satisfies a need. It is ultimately about how you approach your customer, and thus, customer-centric. Your statement can then help you form other aspects of your brand, such as your logo, designs, communication methods, and content.

The brand that you convey to people helps them quickly decide if you are relevant to their current needs or interests. If they aren’t buying from you today, they might in the future if your brand stays with them.

What is Your Story?

A good way to better connect who you are with the needs of your audience is storytelling. Each business has interesting stories in its history, even if that business has only been open one day. How was it started, who started it, why did they start it? Every business begins with a vision, a dream of something better or a sense that something is needed to fill a void. Those stories are part of your brand. Sure, it takes more energy to get a story going if you're a new business, but once things get moving, the story builds over time. Although long-established businesses have lots of stories, each of them started from a foundational story. All businesses do. Your carefully crafted foundational story will connect with people on an emotional level, becoming an integral part of your brand. Your marketing efforts will re-use and re-tell this story, adding new stories as your business grows. Your history, told through stories, will build and expand your brand.

Apple has used story in numerous ways in their history. Their TV commercials incorporated verbal and visual stories. When Jobs released new products, he told stories. The famous Apple story was the story of the Two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, starting Apple Computer in the garage of Jobs’ parents. They built their first order of 50 computers for The Byte Shop, from scratch, buying the parts on credit with a promise to pay when they sold them in 30 days. Later, in 2005, Jobs gave a commencement speech at Stanford, and he told meaningful stories that resonated with lots of people. Many other technology-based companies tell stories too. That’s good, because we connect with story, not hardware.

Brand Perception

Brand perception is arguably much more complicated: how we perceive things involves a lot of human psychology. People see your logo or your company name which they then associate with an idea or an emotion based on a multitude of factors: your reputation, their experience with your product or your staff, the quality of your marketing materials or your service, the story you've told, any advertising that may have affected their perception of you, etc. This link between a symbol or name and perceptions affects customer expectations of your offerings.

Further, expectations can be tied to design. Jobs seemed to realize long ago what Donald Norman concluded, that “Attractive things work better.” That’s not to say beauty is more important than function, but instead, that beauty influences our perception of function and that it gives us more to emotionally connect to. Through their product design and communication strategies, Apple’s brand isn’t about their products. It’s about what they symbolize. Apple, with Jobs at the helm, was a trendsetter. With the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, they raised the bar of expectations for everyone. Living up to what they symbolize is a challenge though.

Clearly, the experiences that contribute to a person's overall perception can be both positive and negative. Many are under your control; many are not. In the Internet age, managing your brand is a lot more challenging. And yet, it also presents many opportunities, both for established companies and savvy startups. Online review sites and social media can significantly impact the perception of your brand, so it is imperative to pay attention to what's going on. While you can't control what people say about you, you can influence perceptions by how you respond and the content that you post. You influence by participating and being part of the conversation.

Conclusion

Time spent clarifying your identity and strategy makes the promotion and awareness part easier, but managing perception and keeping your brand in peoples’ minds remains a challenge. We’ll discuss brand management in the forthcoming Part 2 of this article. When making strategic brand identity decisions though, it might help to ask yourself, “What would Steve Jobs do?”

Read Part 2: Brand Management


At Crown Point Solutions, we are re-thinking brand identity for the Internet age. We have developed many new insights we’d like to share. Let us know if you'd like to have a more in-depth conversation.

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