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Creating the Brand Story

When you create a brand, it tells the story of your company.
Sep 4, 2013 12:01 AM   By Lara Ewen
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RAPAPORT... Branding, when it’s done well, encourages customers, employees, stockholders and others to choose your company over the competition. That involves telling the story of who you are as a company. 
“Successful brands have a very clear and powerful story, or proposition,” says Jez Frampton, global chief executive officer (CEO) of Interbrand, a company that creates and manages brand values for clients including BMW, McDonald’s and Sephora. “Consumers understand what these brands are about, what they stand for and how they fit into their lives. By expressing their respective propositions consistently across all of the possible interactions a consumer can have with them, brands help shape perceptions and, therefore, influence purchase behavior, making products and services less substitutable.”

What’s in a Brand?

   “A brand is a set of associations in someone’s mind about a particular product or service that influences a decision,” says Russ Meyer, the global strategy director at Siegel+Gale, a global strategic branding firm whose client list includes Lexus, American Express and The Walt Disney Company. 
Meyer explains that these associations may be positive or negative, and that the decision being influenced can be anything from making a purchase or buying stock to deciding whether or not to become an employee.
   Heather Stern, chief marketing officer for Lippincott, a global brand strategy and design firm whose client list includes Nokia, Viking and Walmart, expands on this. “A brand is the sum of all rational and emotional perceptions about a product, service or company that are created through communications and experience,” she says. “A successful brand conveys a powerful promise and strongly signals what to expect and experience with the offer.”

Brand Emotions
   That said, a brand is not a static creation. It’s something that must be nurtured and grown, and may not become fully formed for years. “When I talk to clients, I say, ‘A brand is a vessel that you’re adding meaning to over time,’” says Ted Page, principal and creative director of Captains of Industry, a creative content marketing firm whose client list includes Starbucks, Levi’s and wind energy company First Wind. “For example, when Nike launched ‘Just Do It,’ they had to build the campaign. Now you just see that swoosh, and the emotion of ‘Just Do It’ comes to mind.”
   Logos, such as the Nike swoosh, can be molded and infused with meaning, depending on what the brand needs. According to Sagi Haviv, partner and designer at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, a trademark design firm responsible for some of the most well-known logos in the world, including Chase, NBC, Mobil, PBS, Armani Exchange and Barneys New York, a logo “doesn’t mean anything until you use it. Then it becomes your mark.” Haviv says a company gives a logo its meaning.

Don’t Ask
   Developing a brand should not be about market research. Rather, it must be about clarifying a true vision of what the brand represents, and then finding ways to express that. “Many brands make a mistake by developing a concept and then doing market tests,” says Dr. Alexander Haldemann, CEO of MetaDesign, a global brand agency that has created brand concepts and identities for such international corporations as Apple, Nike, Audi and Sony. “But anytime you see something for the first time, if it is new, you will dislike it. Whenever any company launches a new car, everyone says the old one looks so much better. But then half a year later, everyone wants the new model. Apple, in its whole history under the Steve Jobs era, never did a single market test for a single product launch. You can do all the research you want, but what you shouldn’t do is ask your customers if you should launch a new product. You can ask what hotels they like and where they stay, but once you develop your hotel, don’t ask if they like it.”
   Figuring out your brand concept is not just helpful, but critical in today’s world. “Aside from competitive differentiation, a brand is necessary to create the emotional link with culture,” says Steve Babcock, executive creative director of Evolution Bureau, a global branding consultancy with a client list that includes Facebook, Absolut, Nike and the NFL. “A brand is like a personality. It’s a collection of behaviors and emotional cues and values that consumers can adopt or find similarities with. It takes a stance and it works toward change and/or impact, even if that change is something as simple as ‘to make the world happier by wearing comfortable socks.’ A brand is purpose. And purpose is meaning. And meaning is relatable. And relatable is attractive.”
   Of course, it’s entirely possible that you already have a brand and just don’t know it. “People usually have associations, both positive and negative, about anything to which they’ve been exposed, either through communication or experience,” says Meyer. 
“So a brand is already being formed in someone else’s mind. The key question isn’t, ‘Why do I need a brand?’ but instead, ‘Do I want to proactively manage those associations that people have regarding my product or service? Or not?’”
   Branding is, simply put, managing how your company is perceived. “Branding is a way of expressing a business or a kind of ethos of a business,” says Natasha Jen, partner at Pentagram, a global independent design consultancy whose client list includes The Guggenheim, Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co. and Benetton. “It’s a way to externalize the qualities of a business through tangibles, like visuals and words. For instance, when Steve Jobs was the captain of Apple, the company externalized its branding through visual language to the point where you could not mistake its product for any other product. But the other way to think of branding is to think of a company as a person. How do we express our personalities? By the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we walk.”

Connecting with Customers
   While the history of branding has been primarily about differentiating yourself from the competition, that idea has evolved in recent years to become more about developing a personal connection. “In the simplest terms, a brand is the experience that customers have with an organization, and also the strategic control of that experience,” says Daniel Rosentreter, chief strategy officer at FutureBrand, a brand strategy and experience company whose client list include Barilla, UPS, Microsoft and British Airways. “Branding came out of the notion that you can expect consistent quality out of, say, Crest toothpaste, and you can use it as a shortcut to say ‘high quality,’” he says. “Now it’s not about quality anymore, because that’s a given. Now it’s about the emotional experience. For instance, they want you to feel happy when you buy Coca-Cola. That gives them an edge over their competition. Because at the end of the day, products do the same thing. The only way to differentiate between products is with branding.”
   As we know from childhood fairy tales, compelling stories have a power that makes us want to befriend the characters we’ve met. A company’s branding story is also about creating that feeling of friendship between it and its customer. “When a brand becomes successful, there’s a story behind it,” says Ian Stephens, principal at Saffron, a global brand consultancy whose client list includes KPMG, Coca-Cola, LVMH and Goldman Sachs. “When you think of Starbucks, you think of a Seattle coffee shop making coffee. There’s a sense that this was a real coffee shop. A lot of global brands now recall their founding story in building their brand, and there’s a lot of strength in that.”
   To define and deliver on a brand promise is essential. To be successful, says Haldemann, a brand promise needs to meet three criteria. “First, it needs to be relevant; second, credible and third, differentiated. And that means you need to try everything you can to understand your audience.”

Contributing to a Brand
   A company brand might also reflect other company attributes, including its mission statement, its tagline and its logo. “A mission statement defines the fundamental reason why an organization exists,” says Rosentreter. “For Google, it’s organizing the world’s information. For Coca-Cola, they want to spread joy and happiness through the world, and they do that through carbonated beverages. There’s a very important question: ‘What would the world be missing if you or your organization disappeared tomorrow?’ The answer to that question is your mission statement — and it can be part of your brand.”
   What you’re doing with a tagline, on the other hand, is adding meaning to a name, or refreshing a name. Think of taglines as the shortest version of your brand’s message. “This is typically one short sentence that elicits a response to your company from your audience that is basically ‘yes,’” says Page. “People talk about an elevator pitch, a sales pitch short enough to be delivered in a single elevator ride. If you can’t get your pitch across in five to ten seconds, then it’s too long.”
   Another element of your brand’s message is, of course, the logo. “Brand logos are your identification,” says Haviv. “They are a reminder to your audience of who you are. We think of it like a flag for your country. If it’s well done, then customers immediately think the house is in order and you know what you’re doing.”

A Coherent Message
   It is important that all the ingredients in a brand are coherent. Philip Durbrow, chairman and CEO of Marshall Strategy, an identity strategy company whose client list includes Disney, MTV, GE and Boeing, says, “You need to have messages to different audiences that reinforce your identity, and they need to be coherent, but not necessarily consistent. For example, you wouldn’t say the same thing to an investor that you would to an employee. A brand is a promise that’s made to an outside audience that offers something they can count on that you can reliably deliver. Identity is something that’s internally driven. It’s who you are and what you aspire to be.”
   And if a company makes a promise, it had better plan on keeping it. “When a brand has one promise, it has to deliver on that promise,” says Haldemann. “If I say, this is BMW, the ultimate driving machine, then I cannot produce a convenient, practical family car. If Toyota’s promise is reliability, then they can produce anything, as long as it’s reliable. But it has to be reliable.”
   Stephens agrees that “It’s very hard to create a brand for everyone. It’s very important to have in mind a core customer. It’s important to work out who’s at the center of your target market. Do something that’s strong and different, but don’t try to be all things to all people.”
   The rewards of good branding are not just loyalty, but a real emotional connection. “A consumer falls in love with a product,” says Haviv. “We have an emotional attachment to the brand of our choice.” When all is said and done, the best branding in the world engenders love, and no message is more powerful than that.
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