A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization. That’s my short definition. The brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.
The fascinating thing is, the more you understand the concept of brand, the more you realize that every person, place, or thing can be a brand. I’m a brand, and you’re a brand. (I’m the artistic brand guy and you’re the online creativity and technology guy.) Cities are brands. ( Paris is the food capital with a big metal tower for an icon.) And the Buddhist religion is a brand (with a large tranquil monk for an icon). A thing doesn’t need a circle-R (registered trademark symbol) to be a brand. It just needs to be differentiated in a way that has meaning in somebody’s life.
Brands that succeed are those that can charge a premium over competing brands, or that can dominate a category by virtue of the brand. Morton Salt is a good example. Salt is a commodity, it would seem, except that most people prefer Morton. Why? Because of the “story” of the little girl walking home from the store in the rain with salt pouring out of the container. “When it rains, it pours,” is the tag line, meaning that Morton salt doesn’t stick in the container in wet weather. Today, nobody’s salt sticks, but we still prefer Morton. That’s a successful brand.
Brands that fail are those without any special meaning for people. It doesn’t mean that people don’t buy them, but people don’t especially value them. A lot of the dot-com branding in the late nineties was not really branding at all, but a failure of branding. Companies tried to use brand communication as a false front, hoping to make it solid later. Some people refer to that as “sock-puppet” marketing.
The brand gap is the distance between business strategy (what the company wants to be) and customer experience (how people actually perceive it). The brand gap has its origins in the way our brains work. Strategic thinkers favor the left side of the brain (the logic), while creative thinkers favor the right side (the magic). Since these two ways of thinking reside in different people, there’s always a gap between brand logic and brand magic.
Clearly, the biggest influence over a brand, and therefore over the brand gap, is design—the design of trademarks, messaging, advertising, product nomenclatures, and the products themselves. In brand-building, design is where the rubber meets the road. The only way to close the gap is by aligning the design of these customer touch points with the business strategy. And the only way to create alignment is by asking for collaboration among all the specialists working on the brand.
Since most web designers are throwing the kitchen sink into their sites, many sites tend to look alike. When designers start grappling with how to simplify their sites, they’ll come face to face with brand. Once you simplify a design, everything that’s left has to work harder. The Google site is a great example of simplification and differentiation.
A watershed project for me was the identity and packaging for Netscape Navigator in 1996, just before the launch of [my magazine] Critique. The Netscape project was the first time I’d been a part of a meta-team of brand-builders. The brand had to be launched in something like six weeks, so all the collaborators had to work in parallel instead of in sequence.
In other words, while the product team was developing the Navigator software, my firm was designing the brand icon and the packaging, a Netscape team was building the website, the advertising agency was developing the ad campaign, the exhibit firm was building the tradeshow booth, the PR firm was creating messaging, and so on. Everyone had to share their work with everyone else on the fly so that it could all come together with some semblance of cohesion at the end.
From this experience I learned that brand-building can be more like jazz than classical music. I learned that the sort of military consistency you get from identity manuals is overrated. It started me thinking about ways to transform brand jazz into good brand jazz, not just noise for the sake of a deadline. The key, I believe, is getting talented people together and (1) giving them the information they need to do their best work, and (2) creating a process that lets them share ideas.