A Modern Meaning of Branding - part 1

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Branding – a term so overused yet misconstrued in so many ways. From a marketing tactic to a competitive tool, a company-centric identity to a customer-based perception, it’s an ever-evolving word that will always seem to fit what the “brand specialists” say it is. From the macro definition spawn micro profiles like brand identity, brand awareness, brand loyalty and brand ambassadors or advocates. It’s the Clark Kent of the business world, parading as an ordinary and regular chap with specs. But as soon as you reveal the secret identity of who Clark really is, you will know who to call on to ultimately saveyour business at the end of the day.

So what does it mean for 2017? Well, definitely not what it meant in the past. To delve into the understanding of this difference, let’s consider an analogy of a theatrical performance. We have the theatre (company), the audience (customers), the stage (platform of communication) and the protagonist (the brand).

Before, brands were relatively one-dimensional, posing front of stage spewing pedicured messages to its audience, convincing them to buy in by making them believe they cannot live without what they’re selling. The turmoil whether to purchase or not wrestled in the minds of the customers, whilst the power to control those decisions remained firmly in the hands of the brands. Standing on that raised stage, branding was a top-down model where advertisers were passively spoon-feeding consumers what they thought they needed. If the brand created a sale, it was a success.

But today it has all flipped around. Interestingly, the brand is no longer the protagonist. If anything, the audience is now playing the lead role. In some form or other, they are participating in the whole production because it is all about them. No longer are they being spoon-fed, but treated to something so much more. They don’t just want to be spoken to by a figure on stage, they want to talk right back, they want to see what’s happening backstage, they want involvement, they want meaning, they want value. They have claimed their purchasing power and now it is up to the theatre to deliver what they want. This bottom-up model means that the turmoil rests with the marketers and brand strategists to come up with creative and unique ways in engaging with customers. And the stage is no longer the only platform for communication, thanks to the advent and evolution of social media. In this way, the brand has become multi-dimensional, reciprocating with its audience and attempting to deliver more than just a sales pitch. It is no longer about creating sales, but rather experiences that the customers’ can value and draw meaning from. If the brand creates an experience, it is a success.

Evidently you can see how the brand has morphed from a tangible entity to an intangible phenomenon: from a lead character to a memorable experience. This physical identification partially contributes to the whole misunderstanding of “branding” in the first place, as brands were (and still are) identified with the tangibility of companies and their products. For instance, when people talk about their preferred “brands” being Nike or All-Gold ketchup, they’re referring to the company as a whole or the product in general. These aren’t what brands or branding are about. These are referring to the identities of what the brands constitute. What branding is about is why these people choose these brand names over others. When talking specifically about brand identity, we can talk about the logo, the name and the colour palette. But branding is not the logo of a company, it is the feeling and sensation people get when perceiving the logo. Branding is not the name of a company, it is the remembrance and familiarity of the company name. Branding is not the colours of a company, it is the association people make with those colours when they encounter them.

I guess that is one we can add to the micro profile list: brand encounter. What do I mean by this? Basically, the sum of the value drawn from moments or touchpoints when customers encounter a brand will determine the success of that brand. Every touchpoint is as crucial as the next. From encountering the brand name to walking in the store, from offering customer service to responding to complaints, from buying the product to incorporating it into one’s life, any moment that involves an encounter is an opportunity to maximise the value of your brand. Whatever form the touchpoint takes, it should ultimately stir an emotion in the customer to foster a sense of loyalty to your brand and an inclination to refer it to others. That is truly the essence of what branding comes down to.

What this emotion should be to achieve maximum value is another question, one that we will leave for Part 2, as there is so much to say about the modern meaning of branding. Be sure to read the second half, as it is the final piece of the puzzle to understanding what branding means for 2017 and beyond…