Not very long ago our firm was contacted by a company in the computer accessories business that wanted help with its branding strategy. The company, let’s call it Company “A,” is still closely managed by its two founders. It has developed a reputation for high quality and reliable premium-priced products and is the leader in its field. The need for a branding strategy arose when Company A bought one of its smaller competitors, Company “B,” known for its line of value-oriented products, for its creativity and new product development ability. Company A made the decision to keep both brands A and B, and was faced with the task of developing a marketing strategy that would allow the two brands to coexist and flourish. Marketing management wanted to find a way to differentiate the brands in their distributors’ and customers’ minds. They thought a branding strategy would do the trick.
It will not!
Company A’s management confuses branding with marketing and wants to use a “branding strategy” where a product line “repositioning” is called for. What it needs in the short term is to position each company relative to the market and its powerful distributors. This calls for a traditional positioning-concept development exercise based on identifying a market’s needs and aspirations, company strengths and weaknesses, and competitive offerings, so as to find a different position for each of the two companies to occupy. In a second step, Company A needs to develop a strategy to rationalize the two lines so that each product in each line has as clear and unique a reason for being as possible.
“And Branding?” you may ask. “Aren’t you going to also develop a branding strategy?”
Branding is important, too. But when two companies with different corporate cultures merge into one, there is upheaval and uncertainty which is detrimental to brand communication. We should add that, in this particular case, Company A didn’t buy Company B for its brand but for its production know-how, distribution, research facilities, etc. As far as we know, Company B didn’t even have a formalized branding strategy, relying, as is often the case, on the instincts and persona of its founder for branding direction. Because the “B” brand wasn’t a specific consideration in the purchase, Company B’s brand assets and values were not identified before the merger. In the absence of an identified brand profile, brand B will change as a result of its new long-term management idiosyncrasies. For that reason, we felt it better to wait until the long-term management would be identified and in place.
In confusing “Positioning,” one of the fundamental tools of marketing, with “Branding,” Company A is hardly alone. Many branding experts, be they from the academic or from the business world, routinely advocate using the tools of marketing to assist them with branding strategy. They’ll research their customers’ perceptions of the brand or investigate their needs and wants. In short, they’ll do “customer research.” Ask why one should research the customer instead of using a more introspective method to identify brand values, and you’ll get responses ranging from the robotic “because all marketing knowledge has its source in the customer” to the almost poetic “because our customer owns the brand.” It is no wonder that, as a result of all this confusion, one hears Product Managers (who are themselves often mislabeled as Brand Managers) speak of “brand repositioning” when they mean “product repositioning” as if the terms “brand” and “product” were interchangeable.
But the business strategist would be well advised to keep the two concepts well separated.
In the world of a branding strategist, a brand is what results from marketing consistency: Marketing begins with the customer; Branding begins at home. The customer comes to expect that the brand will continue to display the same characteristics, and this expectation creates a covenant between the brand and the customer. The source of that consistency is often referred to loosely as the brand’s values, because it is presumed that, as is the case with a person, the only way a brand can be truly consistent is by being true to itself, its beliefs and creeds, at all times.
The process by which a brand identifies its set of values is, therefore, an introspective process. The brand will reflect the beliefs of its management, the idiosyncrasies of the company that markets it. When those beliefs and idiosyncrasies are expressed consistently, branding, that is the communication of the covenant to the customer, will occur progressively, over time. Since the entire process relies on consistency, the role of the all too fickle customer must be limited. Some marketers will object on the principle that the customer doesn’t get a voice in the branding process I have just described. Not so! As one of our clients observed, the customer is present in the branding process because the customer is present in the mind of company management so that management’s vision of the brand’s values should incorporate all they know and feel about their customer.
If the fact that marketing is extroverted while branding is introverted is not sufficient to convince you to look at the two as separate disciplines, please consider these other differences:
Marketing communicates quickly and single-mindedly while Branding is slow and multi-faceted. In fact, when marketing for startup ventures, quick communication is an essential aspect of marketing and the skilled marketer creates messaging to build brand awareness. Everything from concept testing to copy testing and developing content for social media and other platforms, is ideally achieved over a few months. All of which supports the idea that marketing is supposed to work fast.
Branding, on the contrary, is a slow process. That’s because communicating what a brand is about is akin to communicating a person’s character: it cannot be done proactively. You do not become convinced that someone is “trustworthy” because they say “Trust me!” The only way others can truly convince you of their trustworthiness is by displaying trustworthiness in situations you witness. This takes time. Communicating the character of a brand takes time for the same reason.
And, contrary to the focused marketing message with its USP (Unique Selling Proposition) mantra, branding is complex by design: a rich brand is a gestalt made of multiple messages, associations and character traits. After all, a person with a single character trait could hardly be described as “having character.” Likewise, the values and associations that form the character of a strong brand are never one-dimensional. The plurality of messages, which is a liability to the marketer, is an asset to the brand.
Branding and marketing are closely related business tools, so closely related that they are too often intermingled. I hope that these few lines help. For, to paraphrase the poet, “If you can keep your head in the midst of all this confusion, you’ll get a brand, my son.”