I’m asked this question a lot—what does branding mean? But branding is one of those subjects like design, creativity or innovation that can elicit a huge range of responses, opinions and assumptions depending on who you’re talking to.
Having worked in the world of brands since I was barely out of high school, I’ve developed my own thinking on the matter that has been influenced by my own experiences, the thoughts and knowledge of other great brand thinkers, books and more books, and my own feelings about the future of branding.
Q: What does branding mean to you?
A brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what other people say it is. It’s peoples perception of you, your company or your business.
This means that—as a business or persona—you can put a lot of effort into painting the type of picture you want people to see, and say a lot of nice things about who you are and what you think you do. You can even have internal agreement on those things. But if people outside your company don’t believe it, it means nothing. Perception is reality.
For example, if you’re not innovative, then don’t say you’re innovative because people won’t believe you anyways. It used to be easy to get away with saying whatever you wanted to people. But everyone has instant access to information now. And newer generations grew up in a world filled with marketing and branding and advertising so they’re savvier, and they know the tricks.
So yes, branding is about understanding who you are and what you want to stand for, but it’s also about knowing what you CAN stand for—authentically—and how this will impact peoples perception of your brand.
I say this not to make it sound like brand efforts are a waste, they aren’t. But simply understanding that your brand efforts may not ultimately align with public perception, or could in-fact create a public perception that is misaligned with your efforts, can go a long way toward ensuring what you do and the money you spend on it is put to better use.
Q: Why should businesses care about branding?
A lot of people will say companies should care about branding because it helps other people understand who you are, and what you stand for—which is true—but the real value of a strong brand is its ability to help a company understand themselves and make choices that align with that reality.
When you understand who you actually are—and not who you think you should be—you have a valuable tool for knowing where to go, and what to do on the way. History is made up of choices, and making the right choices is what good business is all about.
Q: What does it mean to be a good brand?
A good brand is honest—they know who they, what makes them special, and they use tools like marketing, design and advertising as ways to authentically connect with others and share what’s so special about themselves.
A good brand isn’t a marketing gimmick. A good brand walks the walk and lives and breathes the perceptions they desire from others. This is where all good branding is heading. The new generations care more about authenticity and reality and how the brand they buy from aligns with their values and attitudes.
Q: Are there differences in the ways companies in Asia vs. the west see branding?
Companies in the west are very brand savvy. They’ve been doing it forever. They know what branding is and how to do it. They have smart people with lots of brand experience on their teams. They have brand managers who work with brand agencies and ad agencies that all speak the same brand language and have a deep understanding of what needs to be done and why it’s important.
In my experience so far in Asia, it still seems that a lot of companies are struggling to understand what branding is in the first place, let alone why it matters. They are realizing that it does matter, but aren’t sure why, and they have very few people on their teams who can help them with that; so they just do the best they can on their own.
The common perception here is that branding is just marketing or advertising, and it has something to do with having a nice logo. And everyone thinks they are right. So telling someone that no, that’s not ALL that branding is, can be met with a lot of resistance.
This is changing in places like China. They’re becoming as brand savvy as the west now because the leaders of their companies are bringing on talented people who can help them do it right. And they’re willing to let go a little bit of the need to control everything. As strange as that might sound.
Q: What is a brand purpose?
Brand purpose is an important element of good branding and usually the starting point for brand building. Brand purpose Is a focal point for your brand. It’s easy to be distracted in life, and in business so a brand needs a point of focus that can guide them.
In yoga, there is the concept of drishti—a visual focal point while in a posture. Where the gaze is directed is where the attention naturally follows, and the quality of the gaze—meaning how concentrated it is—impacts the quality of the pose and the benefit received from that pose, both mentally and physically. A Brand purpose is a drishti for brands.
Q: How do communications impact branding?
Communication is about transferring meaning and understanding to others. If you have a great idea but aren’t able to communicate it in a way other people understand then it’s meaningless.
There’s a lot of great brand ideas that are meaningless to people outside of the company because they’re unable to communicate it well. That means that a strong communications strategy and approach is one of the cornerstones that supports stable brands. A lot of brands stop at brand strategy, jump into design development and just skip over communications. That’s a huge mistake that generally manifests itself in problems down the road that become painful to rectify.
All major successful brands have a communications strategy supported by a developed brand voice but smaller “brands” aren’t always aware of this so they never get the chance to leverage it. But down the road, they always start asking themselves why their brand just doesn’t connect with their audience as well.
Q: What challenging situations do you find yourself in?
I think one of the biggest challenges I face, at least here in Greater China, is getting companies to understand the importance of good brand communications.
I'm not talking about good spelling or good grammar—I'm horrible at both—I'm talking about the name you choose to give your company or products, the slogan you put on your website and brand messages you share with your customers. These decisions have a massive impact on the perception people have towards you and your brand. Do communication wrong, and even the best logo won’t save you.
Q: What lessons have you learned over the years working with clients?
There are three important lessons I’ve learned over the years:
1 - Everything communicates something
Everything from what you wear, to what you say, to where you live, and how you eat, says something to other people about who you are and what you believe in. The more a company understands this the easier branding becomes.
2 - Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is
People can be so afraid to fail that they make no moves at all, but no great success ever came from taking no risk at all. In twenty years you’ll care more about the things you didn’t do, so, just do it.
3 - Everyone is doing their best from their level of awareness
When I was working in advertising in the states, my boss at the time gave me the book “7 habits of highly successful people.” I was totally uninterested in this book but read it anyways. The chapter on empathy changed the way I was viewing other people—especially our clients—forever. I learned to put myself in other peoples position for a moment and try to imagine what they were seeing, or what thing they needed to accomplish that sat outside of my own thinking.
I learned that every single person is doing their best and trying to accomplish something according to their current awareness and understanding. People can be unaware of something, and while that can be frustrating for those who are aware, it doesn’t mean they aren’t trying.
Q: What are some interesting situations you’ve experienced with clients?
Memorable moments working with clients always happen when I feel we’re on the same side. When we respect each other as people who are all doing our best to accomplish something together, the experience is more positive. Getting to this kind of place usually starts with empathy, compassion and the ability to listen and appreciate what others have to offer.