That’s a great question! The term is slung around a lot these days, it’s a buzzword of near-Kale proportions, and just like the aforementioned veggie, it is often misused and misunderstood. But in reality, it’s really quite simple. When most people think of “brand” or “branding” they probably think of something like the Coca-Cola logo. But that’s not what branding is. That’s a logo. A logo without branding is some text and shapes on a tin can. It’s meaningless without all that’s behind it.
So what IS branding then?? Basically it all boils down to this: A brand is how you’re HEARD and SEEN—as a person or a business.
A brand communicates your presence, your value, your unique combination of qualities, and (not to digress into 60’s terms too much) your “vibe”. It does this visually, emotionally, and tacitly. Coca-Cola is not some letters and shapes on a can, it’s an experience. It’s nostalgia, it’s something familiar, comforting, fun and reminiscent of good times past and yet to come. They don’t tell you this explicitly, they don’t spell it out in so many words, but they give you that impression…visually, emotionally, tacitly… in everything they put out, and as a result many people who don’t even drink or like Coca-Cola still view the brand this way, regardless. That is the power of branding.
Now you might say, “Yah but isn’t that just natural though? That what you are and what you do just comes through anyway??”, and the answer to that is yes, and no. For those that actually try your product or service, you will not be able to keep that experience from them, they will know what it is when they’ve experienced it for themselves, they will know the quality that it takes for them, and those impressions will naturally be made. But for those who have yet to do so… you need to give them a “taste” of what’s to come, a visceral reaction, an emotional connection… one that happens on a gut level before they can even put it into words.
Shapes and letters on a page, alone, do not do this—but thoughtfully put-together shapes and letters on a page DO.
So branding is essentially about relating and sharing a felt experience, it’s about carefully crafting the messages that your audience will receive… and that message is delivered in myriad ways, and certainly not just in words. If words alone were that powerful, then you could just post that you’re the best so-and-so in town and everybody would be lined up at your doorstep… they have to FEEL it from everything you put out. Starbucks isn’t what it is today for the coffee, it’s what it is today for the experience.
And every business, big and small, is providing an experience.
Think of branding as two little kids waiting to be picked for dodge ball teams, the first one is like, “pick me!!! pick me!! pick me!!!” jumping around thrashing his little hands about wildly, couldn’t care less who picks him just so long as he gets picked, and the second one is steadily eye-balling the teams in front of her, carefully discerning which team she wants to be on, what strengths they have and where they’re lacking, so she knows where and how she’ll fit into the team and then stares down the captain of the team she wants, unwavering, like she’s already in-like-flint. The thing is, both kids are getting picked either way eventually… but one of them has a plan, and a firm grasp on how she fits into the big picture, and that’s the kind of kid you need on your team.
Great branding is not about making you into what ALL the people want ALL of the time, it’s about showing the RIGHT people that you ALREADY ARE what they want, precisely WHEN they want it.
So what can you do to improve your brand now that you know what branding really is? You can explore it yourself using something like this, you can hire help using someone like (ahem) me, or you can simply ask yourself what your audience is looking to feel and experience from your product or service exactly, and then implement that discovery into all of your marketing materials.
But beware to do this in subtle ways, and to do it tastefully, and not garishly.
For example: how many therapist, healer or helper websites have you seen with a photo of someone throwing their hands up in the air on top of a mountain or jumping on the beach at sunset?? A lot right? Someone visiting a therapy site is in pain of some kind, they need help, they’re ready for the possibility of coming out of it, which is why they’re looking, but uninhibited joy is an overshot—by a mile. They’re nowhere near jumping on top of a mountain, and 9 times out of 10, they don’t even want to be. They want to feel relief, connection, understanding, hope, peace of mind, of heart, or of body… jumping on beaches is way too loud, and way too inauthentic.
Show them what’s real, show them what’s in reach, show them the feeling they want to feel—there are myriad better ways to convey those feelings than beach jumping.
When I first coined the term “Genuine Branding” around here, that is precisely what I meant… to bring the reality of your clients needs together with the reality of who and what you are as a business, with no bull in the way of that connection. So the transaction is easily made for both parties and just seems like the next logical step, instead of like a blinded and buttered wrestling match (don’t ask).
So a brand is not just shapes and letters on a screen, page, or tin can… it is what informs the shapes and letters, it is the felt experience that backs them up, so just make sure you have that part crystal clear before you start playing around with shapes and letters.