Thoughts and ideas on branding and brand development in a digital world.
I remember the early days of the web when we had poor screen resolution and were just getting to grips with anti-aliasing. ‘Jaggies’ – saw-edges on diagonal lines were a common problem and designers avoided the use of italic type and angled logos. In fact some major brands subtly altered their corporate signatures to ensure good screen reproduction.
Then we saw web graphics impacting upon print design. Logos started taking on button form with radiused corners, 3-dimensional shines, glows and drop shadows.
The latest phenomenon seems to be an increasing use of logos which will fit into a generally square format. Behind this is the influence of social media. Identifiers on Facebook, Twitter et al, were initially photographic head-shots – ideal for a personal, social medium. Now that commercial organisations are increasingly using social channels, they need brand signatures to fit.
For a long time, western corporate signatures were generally horizontal – perhaps a symbol and a brand name. This was ideal for print media. The signature fitted comfortably at the foot of an ad or the top of a letter, along a shop fascia or a vehicle side. However, recently we’ve been required to create adapted signatures for a number of brands (including our own) which fit to a 1:1 shape, for use on Facebook pages etc.
It seems like we are coming full circle. The earliest trademarks are reputedly those of blacksmiths making swords for the Roman legions. These were applied by punches. In the days when few tradesmen were literate, punches, seals, stamps and other marks would be used and would generally fit in a square or circular area. It was only with the growth of literacy that more horizontal ‘signatures’ became common though often used together with a symbol.
The first registered trademark in the UK is the Bass Brewery mark – a red, equilateral triangle – which would fit in a 1:1 area.
In the east, pictograms already fit tidily into rectangles. Elegant examples are the artists ‘chops’ used on japanese prints rather than western style signatures.
New technology once again coaxes us back into old approaches, and once again it is becoming cool to be square.
This may seem obvious, but does your brand name translate into your target languages? Even proper names may have an unintended meaning. Don’t just think of the spelling – when pronounced, even seemingly harmless words may have unintended meanings.
Do you use descriptive words in your brand such as, ‘Norfolk Car Parts’ or ‘Budget Printing’? Will these words be meaningful in your selected markets.
You may not need to change a brand name, but it may help to emphasise just part of your title.
Also consider any statements or strap-lines that form part of your corporate signature; these may need adapting in translation.
While language may be easy to check, culture is rather more subtle, and potentially a bigger trap. There is no quick fix. You need to do your research and immerse yourself as far as possible in the culture of your market. Look at the media, both online and offline; look at your competitors.
Best of all, expose your brand to nationals of your target markets. Discuss your ambitions. Use your partners in-market; agents, distributors etc. Talk to embassy staff.
You’ll soon appreciate how culture impacts upon many of the other dimensions of your branding activity.
3. Brand Story
Is your brand narrative relevant to your target market? Things that may seem unimportant at home may be leveraged to advantage internationally. While your location may have little relevance to home customers, it may be a strong plus abroad. Consider the cultural context: for example, history of a family business may be very important in certain markets.
4. Competitive positioning
The perception of your brand position relative to your competitors from market to market. Be aware and be sensitive, you can often use this to your advantage. Don’t assume that your positioning will be the same as it is at home.
5. Core Values
Your core values are what makes your brand what it is. They should be strong and consistent wherever you do business. You must be clear about them and communicate them to all you work with – your staff, your partners in market, your customers and supply chain. Don’t tinker with them, but just be aware that certain values may be more important in some markets more than others.
Intellectual property rights – consider them all; brand names, trademarks, patents, designs, copyright etc.
Legal protection may be difficult or costly across export markets, but you must give them consideration. It is important to give your brand all the protection you can apply or afford. It is equally important to make sure you don’t infringe the IPR of others.
Remember, a strong brand can often be the best protection you can get – be first to market, establish a strong presence and leave potential copyists playing catch-up.
7. Visual communications.
Though language is important, visual and non-verbal communications have an equally powerful part to play. When you see the ‘golden arches’ of Macdonalds, or the Apple symbol, you don’t need the name. Strong visual symbolism can be a means of transcending language difficulties.
Consider the elements of your corporate identity, symbols, colours, typography. Maintain rigid visual standards.
It’s important to look at the cultural context of your visual elements. What semantic connotations do your colours have? In many cultures colours are far more important, and signify different states.
Brand values and more importantly, brand values, are not always the same throughout the marketing chain.
Some years ago I was pitching for a project for a major retail brand, when I realised how crucial our own brand reputation was. We had clearly demonstrated we could deliver the ideal solution; our product knowledge, understanding and research was spot on; timescales were realistic and prices very competitive. However, we lost the business to a competitor with a stronger brand who we were sure had far less product knowledge, fewer in-house specialists and would certainly be much more expensive.
What we had failed to grasp was that the brand benefits of a supplier are specific to the customer you are dealing with. We were negotiating with a middle range line manager. Of course he shared the corporate ambitions, but also had a personal agenda that meant he needed to be sure he would look good in front of his boss and not suffer too badly if the supplier did not perform.
He chose a ‘bigger’ brand. There used to be a saying many years ago, that: ‘Nobody got sacked for specifying IBM’. There was a safety factor behind the brand.
The lesson for all businesses is to understand the priorities throughout the marketing chain. What may be key benefits for the end-user may not be top of the list for the distributor or retailer. Of course all the benefits are components of the brand offer. If a brand is to sustain that offer in-depth it must satisfy all stakeholders. However, it is important to understand and communicate the relative benefits to each of the individual parties.
You have a chain of customers each with their own focus, and customers only listen to one radio station – WIIFM – ‘What’s in it for me’.
I know that when you really look hard, everything has been done before in some way, shape or form, and the challenge of creatives is to come up with new and innovative ways to use a set number of visual devices us people are familiar with to communicate in an engaging manner, but it does strike me as strange when a big brand like McDonald's uses literally the same device as another big brand (albeit in the pet food market) to advertise one of their key products.
It’s easy to jump to a lot of mistaken conclusions. Retail is very visible and as many manufacturing and service companies have also suffered – it’s just that their profiles are not so high.
One of the assumptions we hear is that e-commerce and the internet is ruining the high street. But the reality is simply that people’s shopping habits are changing. Online shopping, downloading music and movies, and digital technologies are part of the landscape. But these technologies are not that new. E-commerce has been with us for around 20 years. iTunes is part of life. Of course technology is rapidly evolving, but many retail brands have recognised and embraced change, adapted and are flourishing.
It is natural for brands to look outside for their nemesis rather than analyse their own shortcomings. Sadly, established and successful brands become complacent and only notice the changing landscape when it is too late and struggle to adjust. Change is no longer in their DNA.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with many of these brands, just their strategic management lost direction.
A brand such as HMV has huge value, a history to envy and a unique place in the music landscape. The business model was just no longer robust. The management tried many tactical adjustments but more fundamental change was needed. Perhaps the cold light of administration will focus the thinking. This is a brand with real values that will be snapped up, I’m sure.
Similarly, Jessops. We saw how even Kodak lost its way and failed to come to terms with digital imaging. Jessops has a unique place in retail. Of course, the rate of change caught it out, and it needs the breathing space to reassess itself and re-position its offer. Again the brand has some strong core values and it’s little wonder there is a good deal of interest it – last Thursday, PwC confirmed that Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Peter Jones was among a number of buyers looking seriously into acquiring it.
A brand quirk is a feature or attribute that does nothing to enhance the performance of the product or service, but provides a unique point of differentiation.
Some of the most notable examples appear in the confectionery or countline sectors. There are very few real differentiators between chocolate bars, few notable differences you can make. The most we can manipulate are marginal variations around a few popular themes.
Consider the shape of the ‘Toblerone’ bar. It has no effect on the taste of the product, provides no enhancement in itself – but it is a quirk or huge value in brand identity and differentiation.
The round Smarties tube is another quirk. It provides no tangible benefit. In fact, I heard a well-reasoned argument from a packaging specialist that a rectangular tube makes far more sense, providing better space occupancy in transit. I understand it was even tried once, but for the public, the round tube is part of the Smartie offer.
The hole in a Polo mint or a Lifesaver has no flavour enhancing property – it is a quirk – but of inestimable brand value.
Quirks are as important as brand assets as are brand names, logos, colour schemes and all the other identity collateral.
Though we understand their value, quirks are among the most difficult things to create successfully. They are often serendipitous, springing from creative irrelevancies and often coming from unlikely quarters within the organisation.
Consciously creating a valuable quirk is as difficult as creating a video that is ‘guaranteed’ to go viral.
If you have a brand that is clearly differentiated in terms of the benefits it delivers, you should concentrate on communicating them. If not, a quirk may help. There is no handbook to creating a killer quirk, but I suspect that the necessary conditions include an organisation that loves and believes in its product or service, that creates a truly innovative environment and has people with a sense of fun and playfulness.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,300 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 11 years to get that many views.
The recent furore and public backlash at brands which take UK tax avoidance to the extreme was wholly predictable, and avoidable. But how many organisations involve their senior financial people in brand management – how many CFO’s see the brand as part of their responsibility?
I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of the tax avoidance activities of these multi-nationals. A CFO had a right and responsibility to maximise post-tax profits for his or her shareholders. They may even be held liable if they do not act to avoid excessive tax burdens.
Boards must share brand values as part of their corporate responsibility. Many of the brands involved in the recent ‘scandals’ take their customer focus very seriously. They have made huge investments in their brands and would probably include such values as fairness, probity, honesty and fiscal responsibility as part of their brand ethos.
Brand leadership v finance.
There seems to be some disconnect here between the brand stewards and the financial stewards.
I’m not suggesting that anybody has acted illegally, but as with all brand issues it is a matter of perception. When the public see successful businesses apparently thriving, they take that as a positive brand virtue. When they hear of shadow companies and ‘management’ and ‘royalty’ fees from overseas that lead to minimal taxes being paid, they smell something bad.
When the tax advisors came up with a great scheme to minimise corporation tax, and when the FCO presented this to the board, did nobody say; “Hey, this does not square with our brand values – it looks bad to our public.”
The problem is one of brand leadership. If the brand is at the centre of corporate decisions it is a great safeguard and reality check for corporate responsibility.
We are already seeing the outcomes: brand aware customers are making their feelings known by using their consumer power. Perhaps the FCO’s will think again. Rather than saying; “I’ve done nothing illegal”, concentrate on explaining falling customer revenues at the next board meeting.