Basking in brand

Brand. The word oddly conjures up a cold feeling; sending shivers down the spines of communications professionals in many organisations. That is, if it doesn’t remind you of a mediocre comedian-cum-revolutionary.

“Brand police”. Being “on brand”. These phrases that we all use stifle creativity and remove freedom, sucking the life out of something which should be vibrant, exhilirating, or even comforting.

The purpose and effect of branding should be anything but cold. I thought myself immune to branding, having worked in digital communications for some years now. I don’t make decisions out of loyalty or familiarity, simply logic and cost-benefit analysis (yeah, right!)

I have worked with enough clients to understand the resentment that brands can generate from the people who represent them. And yet now I understand more than ever why we try to create and preserve these symbols of our products and services, from the obvious website logos to the subtle colour shades or tone of voice on the wrapper. In one instant, the sight, sound, or smell of a brand can transport you through the years and across hundreds of miles. The comforting Starbucks coffee when you are travelling and everything is just ever-so-slightly alien to you is an obvious example that most will relate to. However, brand is a complex beast. We try to analyse what makes a good brand, but just as analysing what makes a good product this is fraught with difficulty. Brands can be built through time and exposure, sowing seeds that may only be reaped years or decades later, such as my affection for McVitie’s Ginger Nut biscuits (my grandad used to buy them all the time). It’s not that I buy them often, I just indulge now and again and respect the brand. I’m sure it has influenced my purchasing decisions with other products. The curious things is that brands can have just as much, if not more impact based on a single interaction. I saw an Arizona green tea drink in a supermarket in Spain, and nearly went weak at the knees as I was transported back to Reading, England on a summer’s day four years ago.

Heineken beer logo evolution.

What do we learn from this? Brands are, almost by definition, things which require playing the long-game. Sure, you can tweak tactics and optimise as you go along, but in order to really explore and define a brand you need to let it grow and take hold. No point trying for a few months then overhauling everything when it “doesn’t work”. I am a huge proponent of listening to the customer and driving strategy through insight, but there are certain areas where you need to set the agenda and put a stake in the ground. Like the entrepreneur, who time after time refuses to accept defeat and believes staunchly in their product. A recent trip to the Heineken beer factory in Amsterdam (sadly not work-related) threw up the very interesting progression of the Heineken logo. You can see the experimentation in the early years, changes of colour, etc., however the modern version is strikingly similar to that of more than sixty years ago. The Heineken family backed what they were doing.

McVitie’s Ginger Nuts. Screaming blue and orange murder.

Sharing is also key. While contemplating these (admittedly food-based) brands, it is not price, design, or even the taste I am focusing on. Of course, the sensory experience of a good product is essential, but I am thinking about that definitive taste in context, which for me – and I guess most consumers – is with our family and friends. The café in Reading sitting with a special person trying something new on a Saturday morning. The Starbucks shared over late-night study sessions at university. My grandad’s odd love for Ginger Nuts and our family’s banter about my sister’s red hair. The touch points may be few and far-between, but they resonate. A brand is nothing without being shared, so make it share-worthy.

Finally, Gestalt principles never go out of fashion. What did my three little brands also have in common? The screaming orange and blue of the McVitie’s wrapper and its suggestive name. The onomatopoeic, almost dirty sound of the word “Starbucks”, along with its odd (but by now so familiar) logo. My tea brand with its artsy wrapping and chunky, non-standard bottle design.

If you are different, and have the quality to back it up, you are already way ahead of the competition.

[Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any of the brands or products mentioned in this post. This blog is simply a series of personal observations as a consumer.]