The business of branding: From vision and values to hearts and minds

By Jason MacKenzie FCIPR FCIM, 

Managing Partner, Corporate Communications 

I’m preparing a branding workshop for a new business, going back to brass tacks* and writing it from scratch. It’s a cathartic process, provoking me to question the value of branding, and the journey a brand takes from conception to birth.

Most people fundamentally misunderstand ‘brand’. They think immediately of logos and other visual properties – colours, typefaces, imagery, and advertising. But brands are intrinsically deeper. The logo is the recognisable ‘face’, but the brand itself is the whole person. Branding begins with identifying and crafting who the brand is, rather than what it looks like.

Its origins can be traced back to 2,700 B.C. in ancient Egypt. Brands were literally burnt onto the hides of cattle to distinguish one herd from another. They demarcated ownership. Contemporary branding shares that essence: it’s about differentiation. Crucially, a brand ought to encapsulate why a product, service or other entity is different from and better than its competitors.

I love the writings of David Ogilvy. He viewed ‘brand’ as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”

Whilst his definition focuses on products, it’s clear that brand begins with the essence – the actual substance of the proposition, and encompasses every touchpoint and facet of communication. It reminds me of a discussion between one of my first marketing mentors and the chairman of the company we worked for. We had a plan to rebrand a retail chain, and the chairman (a former military man) couldn’t understand why it was going to take so long, and cost so much.

The essence of the chairman’s argument was that a rebrand simply involved changing fascias, signage, point of sale, till receipts, advertising (and so on). Surely that could be done overnight? My old boss had to find a way of communicating with the chairman that implementing superficial changes would result in a rebadging rather than a rebranding.

“You were in the SAS, weren’t you, Sir Michael?”

“Indeed, I was.”

“If I took a unit of regular soldiers and gave them SAS uniforms, would they become SAS?”

Sir Michael got the message.

Shaping perception through process

Brand building isn’t a cosmetic exercise. It requires a root and branches approach. Strong brands understand themselves deeply. They achieve cut-through in today’s cluttered communications landscape through consistency and clarity. They are differentiated from competitors and distinctly defined. Emotive and empowered, they have edge in their voices. But all of this must be distilled and encapsulated in a suite of documents to inform and inspire, and for team members to be attuned to and use as a touchpoint.

Mission, values and vision statements are fundamental. They lay a foundation, stating why a brand exists, what it does, and for whom; what it believes in and aspires to; and what its optimal future will look like, if it achieves its mission and stays true to its values.

The next layer of brand teases out the proposition and how it is differentiated from its competitors. It seeks to identify sources of sustainable competitive advantage, and to clarify its strategic positioning.

The brand narrative builds on this, crafting the overarching story. This forms the ‘stock pot’ to be drawn upon and adapted to serve different audiences in different contexts. It fleshes out brand personality and tone of voice.

Finally, a stakeholder audit identifies who the brand wants to engage with. A messaging matrix is then developed to connect the brand to its audiences. Context is key. Conversations with prospective employees, for example, consist of the same essential truths as pitches to investors, but the type of communication and hierarchy of messaging will be different.

Brands heighten awareness. They shape perception, and they persuade audiences. Strong brands become as recognisable for their consistency of proposition and communication, as for their logos and colour palettes.

Eschewing introspection (or ‘it’s not about you’)

One more thing, often forgotten. Brands are enablers. They doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They exist to serve customers, or clients. Airlines fly passengers from A to B in comfort and safety. Law firms provides legal services in a professional manner. And so on. Brands are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

They exist to meet people’s needs and desires. They are vehicles for delivering benefits, and seek to do so better than others. Great branding eschews narcissism and introspection. It focuses on enabling and empowering people, thereby occupying mental and emotional real estate. The most important place a brand must live is in the hearts and minds of its stakeholders, and achieving that outcome is the ultimate hallmark of success.

*Etymology of the phrase disputed.

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