What Branding Really Means, and Why it’s Usually Code for BS

My brand is vital to me—but not in the way you’d expect if you heeded the rubbish spouted by “branding experts”, designers, consultants, and the Internet-In-General.

If you think branding is important, you are right. If you think you should spend money on branding, you are right. But if you think your brand is your visual identity—logo, website, product packaging, that sort of thing—then you are completely and miserably wrong, and very likely to waste a lot of money.

You probably think a brand is a visual identity because of “big brands” like Nike and Apple and Google and Coke. We identify those companies by their logos, by their packaging, by the unique visual style of their products and websites. But…

Branding is more powerful than visual identity

A visual style is not a brand, and here’s why:

Imagine you’ve won a car. Woohoo, free car! You get to choose between two identical vehicles. Same color, same appearance. The only difference between them, you are told, is that one is made by BMW and one is made by Toyota.

Which do you choose?

You choose the BMW, I reckon. Because visual identity is irrelevant—it is merely how we normally identify the brands we like. How would we find the Heinz baked beans without the turquoise can and distinctive logotype?

Actually, Heinz is a brilliant example of what brand is.

In the UK, its baked beans are remarkably successful. One of its competitors wanted to find out why. They ran blind taste tests—and discovered that two thirds of customers preferred the taste of their beans to Heinz’s. Yet as soon as the brands were revealed, customers preferred the Heinz beans.

In other words, brand can literally change what we like.

The part of our brains that makes decisions can be trained to prefer one brand over another. It can be trained so well it will literally override the part of the brain which deals with processing sensations (including taste).

Here’s another example. In a 2004 study at Baylor College of Medicine, subjects had their brains monitored via MRI while they tasted Coke and Pepsi. When they didn’t know what brand they were drinking, the part of their brain involved with preference judgment remained inactive, while the part associated with reward lit up. And it lit up more than when they drank Pepsi than when they drank Coke. (In blind tests conducted by Pepsi in the 1970s, most people also marginally preferred Pepsi.)

But when subjects were told they were drinking Coke (even when they weren’t), the preference judgment regions of their brains lit up and overrode the reward centers. Subjects preferred what they thought was Coke to what they assumed was Pepsi—regardless of what it actually was.

The same thing happens with wine. Only the most educated snobs can tell a $10 bottle from a $90 bottle in a blind taste test. Yet when subjects know the monetary value of each bottle, they con­sistently prefer $90 wine.

This is the power of branding

It can literally change how good something seems.

But the thing is, using visual markers like logos to identify brands only matters for commodity items in broad consumer markets. Consumers must recognize your products to buy them.

If your company is not a Heinz or a Nike or an Apple or a Google or a Coke…then that kind of branding is probably a giant money pit for you.

But that isn’t to say branding can’t work for you. Not at all…

So how can startups and small businesses use this power…without bankrupting themselves?

To answer this, we need to clarify just what the heck branding is. We’ve seen that it’s crazy powerful. But we still haven’t found a clear description of what it is.

And you need that if you’re going to figure out how to use it without throwing your money down the toilet.

John Jantsch describes branding as the art of becoming knowable, likeable and trustable. I think that’s close. Seth Godin defines a brand as a set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that account for a customer’s decision to choose your product or service over another. That’s basically right, but needlessly complicated.

Ivan Levison describes your brand as a “mental franchise”—and this gets to the heart of it:

Your brand is simply how prospects perceive you

People perceive Toyota a certain way, for example: a manufacturer of cheap, reliable, low-end cars. Toyotas have no prestige. No one is going to pay $100,000 for one, no matter how many mod-cons are stuffed into it.

But slap a Lexus logo on the same car, and you’ve got yourself a deal.

Of course, you can’t make people perceive you the way you want. Their perception will always be at least a little different to how you perceive yourself—what your brand is to you. But you can direct how they perceive you pretty well, provided what you deliver is consistent with how you brand it. Establishing a reputation for quality has a lot more to do with delivering quality than merely saying you do.

Often I see companies with huge image problems talking about rebranding—as if “reinventing” or “refreshing” a brand is the magical solution to any problem.

But that’s only true if the new brand is consistent with the source of the problem. And of course, branding yourself as the worst customer service provider—for example—isn’t a strategy that’s likely to improve your company’s bottom line!

2 key elements of branding that works

Now that you understand your brand is basically how people perceive you, let’s talk about a couple of practicalities for making it work. This is otherwise known by another vague buzzword: positioning.

There are two major elements that contribute to successful positioning, and thus successful branding. They seem obvious when you know them, but many companies do miss them:

1. Focus

A terribly demoralizing mistake I see many startups making is positioning themselves to appeal to the broadest possible customer base.

You might think that appealing to as many people as possible would logically equal more customers and more profits. But the world is a topsy-turvy place, and the opposite is invariably true. This is especially so in the markets which have the most customers, the most profits to be made—and hence the most competition.

An “overcrowded” market is a good sign. It means there are plenty of customers to go around between lots of businesses. But that’s only good news if you position yourself correctly. Here’s what I mean.

I would never advise someone to go into the “copywriting” market, or the “internet marketing” industry. Trying to become competitive in such a broad category will ruin you. Unless you have enormous capital to begin with and a great talent for marketing, you will fail.

But while the “copywriting” market—for example—is almost impossible to break into, the “copywriting for small businesses that sell tractors” market is probably wide open. Along with any number of other niche markets which, given the right background or training, you are the perfect person to serve.

Even better if you don’t do “copywriting” at all, but rather “email marketing campaigns, landing pages and sales pages”.

The more you can specialize and the more you can target a specific industry or need, the better you will do—provided there are actually people looking for your specialty in the industry you’ve picked.

Sadly, many businesses go under because they don’t believe this. They’re afraid of missing opportunities by being too narrowly focused, so they try to appeal to everyone. So let me give you an analogy if you’re still not convinced:

Who would you rather hire if you had a brain tumor? A neurosurgeon, or a GP? (And who is higher paid?)

So as long as there are people with “brain tumors” in the world, you want to position yourself as a neurosurgeon. By appealing to everyone, you really appeal to no one.

2. Values

It can be very difficult to set yourself apart in a market, even if you’re well-focused. Sometimes, even if your product or service has something going for it that others don’t, the sheer momentum of your competitors, or the sheer volume of the market, means that focus is only a weak differentiating factor. So values become very important.

For example, how would you use focus in the personal computing and mobile markets? One way could be to emphasize ease of use and a minimalistic aesthetic. But that alone might not be enough to convince consumers to make a switch from a brand they know, to your little upstart offering.

But if you position yourself as standing for something quite different to your competitors, you can start to make some traction. By advertising yourself as standing for certain values, as well as having a certain focus, your positioning becomes exponentially more effective.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m making a not-so-oblique reference to Apple, which not only focuses on ease of use, but also stands for being different, liberated, and—let’s be frank—just plain cool.

Apple’s values are crucial to its success. MRI research shows that when Apple fans talk about their favorite products, it is the religious parts of their brains that light up. That may indicate an odd irony in terms of the values that got them to that point—but the fact remains, you can’t secure that kind of loyalty with features alone.

How are you using branding?

Do you use focus and values? Or have you found another component of branding and positioning that is more effective? Share your own insights in the comments below.

d bnonn tennant

About the Author: D Bnonn Tennant thinks the most economical way to brand yourself is by emailing prospects often. And the bottleneck in that process is your opt-in page—which is why he created the free micro-course, “5 Sales-Spiking Website Tweaks Gurus & Designers Don’t Know”.

  1. I could not agree more! Niche marketing is key. Not only for building a brand but most niches are large enough where they should have an expert looking out for them.

    Thanks for the great blog post.

    • For every business online the main motive should be to build a great brand which is recognized as the best in the niche. It should be the first brand that must come to people’s mind when they think of that niche. Once such a brand is built its all about maintaining the reputation and being consistent in doing the good work.

  2. Ramsay Leimenstoll Apr 26, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I just began Seth Godin’s “All Marketers Are Liars (Tell Stories)”, and this post couldn’t be more timely in that respect. This is exactly right – branding helps you *tell your story*, and customers identify with that story (because of the story they’ve told themselves about who they are, what they want & what they stand for), and then convince themselves that your story is true. But they only do this if they *already* have the worldview that your story (branding) appeals to, and the more specifically it relates, the more passionate they are about it. And then… they tell their friends your story. (But no one’s going to get passionate about a story *everyone* can *kind of* relate to).

  3. You are absolutely right about branding eing perceptions of consumers. Even seasoned marketers, brand managers and advertising professionals, including copywriters are mistaken about what branding really stands for.

    Luminaries such as Claude C. Hopkins, David Ogilvy, John Caples, Leo Burnett and James Webb Young had imbibed us on what branding really is. Their wisdom could shed light on this elusive subject.

    Your best has done a brilliant job in clarifying the role of branding.

  4. Nice topic. Thank you

  5. Exactly right! Brands are literally the rudder for every action and decision you make as a business when it comes to attracting, engaging, and converting targeted leads.

  6. Although branding is the most useful strategy, but make sure you deliver something unique or according to your geographical areas peoples need.

  7. Most excellent article…thanks for the insight D Bnonn Tennant!!!

  8. Brand as a “mental franchise” – beautiful in its simplicity and elegance. Thanks much.

  9. The designer or copy writer’s job is to execute – help develop the brand visually – nothing more (unless invited to 360 degree brand session).

    How branding works (and this is massive oversimplification for brevity)
    Through consistency, repetition, narrative, customer service, corporate reputation, product range, an appeal to sex, an appeal to exclusivity, quality and price, visual identity, personality, end-user identity, office layout, office location (it goes on and on) …

    …a promise is made, links are forged to an array of associations (detached, honest, quirky, sports-loving, all American, TQM, we make it easy, hand-tooled, safety first, scientists with integrity).

    Brands are positioned relative to how they are perceived by their customers in relation to their competitors – with appeal to a target market segment on a range of criteria. Toyota Camry is for travelling salesman. Lexus for his boss.

    This means really listening to customers – getting in their heads.

    If you don’t have a lot of cash – don’t be all things to all people. You may be able to stretch your marketing budget to build brand recall in a small market – hit accountants in Sydney six times a year with your brand comms. Go to accountants and lawyers and you dilute the message.

    The best brands are summed up in a single phrase or idea – volvo is safety, virgin is a renegade having fun – sounds easy right. This is one-word equity – the holy grail.

    As for Robbins and Godin, I haven’t got time to read your salesy e-books – entertain me or tell me something really useful.

  10. The biggest thing I’ve learned about branding is being yourself. The internet has made everyone really good at sniffing out b.s. If you aren’t genuine, people can tell right away and your message becomes as disposable as junk mail. Also, I like what you said about the need for niche- as confucious say “he who chases two rabbits catches none.”

  11. Brand name is the strong identification of any product or services or business. Your example is really amazing for branding vs visual identity. Branding name can be strong when people start believe in your brand.

  12. Question: How do you use branding in books? Is that even possible? I am trying to advertise my favorite book that got me to jumpstart my quest to MBA Vivek Sood’s book The 5-Star Business Networks I am not yet done with the book so I am not sure whether or not there is anything written there about branding so I am thankful for this article.

  13. Do you want to use branding in the book, or do you want to use it for marketing the book?

    You can definitely use branding for the latter, in much the same way as you’d use it for any other product, and with all the caveats I’ve mentioned. I think author personality is a big part of branding a book, as well as specific characters or locales.

  14. Branding is one of the most important part of your business marketing and it help us to create product or service image in the consumer mind. There are many companies using this technique to market their product a build a strong image in consumer brain. Branding includes company logo, title, color and relevant items to their.

  15. Hello Bnonn Tennant !
    I totally agree with you that brand has a great power in it. I am really impressed by the simple example of cars. It can easily explain the power of brand. The next thing which is so inspirational are the two major elements of branding:
    1-Focus
    2-Values
    Really enjoyed these key points. Thanks for sharing.
    Logan

  16. Hi and thanks for the effort of putting this article together. I have gone through about 3 rebrands in the last 18 months without any professional consultation. I have learned that brand evolution is a getting inside the customers head but when you have a product that should appeal to the whole population how do decide which segment of the population to target?

    I have come to the conclusion that one may need to create several brands to appeal to the different layers of the population whether that be split by geo location, class or intent – the value proposition seems to be different for each of these segments.

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