"We're a full-service agency that provides web, design, and branding services."
Potential clients see this phrase every day.
It's a pretty common statement. In fact, it's hard to NOT find a statement like this on someone's website. In a world of agencies, it makes it hard to differentiate who actually can provide branding and other services, at what level, and with what level of results.
These are the folks who burn your clients before they've come to you. And when they do, they've got major agency issues.
And while we can't truly know the level of competency of an agency without working with them, we can discuss how branding works, and decide where we fall in our own professional understanding.
So, whether you're a web agency who's just trying to avoid slapping an ugly client logo, or have an in-depth research process before you design, let's dive into how branding really works.
WHAT BRANDING IS NOT
When defining something, it's important to understand what something is not.
When you're making cookies, it's important to know the difference between a cookie or cake. Stray outside the rules of what defines a cookie, and the lines can get blurred real quickly. Pretty soon you're making a cupcake. Or is it a fruit-filled muffin? Or then is it pie? If it's not flat-ish, a combination of soft, crunchy, and containing the ingredients of a cookie, it's not a cookie, that's for sure. It's not just form, but also the function that determines what it is and what it isn't.
Branding is a strategic visual and verbal ecosystem of design assets, messaging, communication, experiences, and touchpoints, which are interpreted through a series of social, cognitive, economic, and behavioral lenses to accomplish business goals.
Likewise, branding is not the ability to design a logo, a beautiful website, and then make everything look beautiful. It's not what your customers say about you. It's not customer experience. it's not anything those articles on HuffPost or even Forbes are attempting to tackle. Anyone attempting to distill it down into five to seven easy steps is not the authoritative expert you should be listening to.
Since 2004, the world of branding has ballooned into a cacophony of marketing experts toting concepts such as differentiation, uniqueness, defining it as what customers say about you, driving the conversation, and even simply saturating the market. At best, these are partly true, but readers are lured to them since they revolve around the idea of one sound, magical principle, a three-step plan, or even a framework which we can download, implement and increase our agency's revenue 10x.
If you're going to add incredible value to your clients, your projects, and transform how you do business, you'll need to upgrade your definitions of branding. Not attempting to discuss what it is, but how it actually works.
For those that require a definition of branding, we'll start with that. It's hefty.
Branding is a strategic visual and verbal ecosystem of design assets, messaging, communication, experiences, and touchpoints, which are interpreted through a series of social, emotional, psychological, cognitive, economic, design, linguistic, and behavioral lenses to accomplish business goals. It is, therefore, a science of addressing, creating, and managing these variables. Without the knowledge to understand these variables, agencies who say they offer branding, are possibly doing themselves–and their clients–an incredible disservice and setting everyone up for difficulty.
The goal of branding is to strategically address these human lenses in each of their contexts to drive the perception necessary to drive the necessary physical and mental availability for a customer. Simply stated, help them stay in front of them in every way possible, mentally and physically.
Now, let's unpack.
BRANDING FUNCTIONS ON TWO SPECTRUMS
First, it's important to understand that branding functions on two levels at all times. This can best be explained like a two-sided mirror (don't confuse this with a one-way mirror like on police shows). Both sides are reflected, accomplishing two different sets of goals for two different groups of individuals with two different needs.
It's also important to note that we can't talk about both at the same time in the conversation, as it depends on who we're talking to, or what we're talking about. So, when you're talking to a brand about their customer, that's one conversation, and when you're talking about who they are in the marketplace, it's another.
In the world of branding, the goal is akin to traditional communication theory. In this theory, the goal is to ensure the message is sent from the sender, interpreted correctly, and received by the receiver, without interruption, clearly.
As a business, your number one goal is to make it easy to sell, easy to buy, and easy to build brand equity at all times, We're addressing perception on multiple levels, articulating messages and navigating the world of value, commerce, and capitalism while addressing the marketplace, supply and demand, psychological and emotional buying behaviors and biases, cognitive interpretation, how humans codify information via narratives, and how we store and recall all those things in split seconds.
FOR THE COMPANY
For the company, branding is meant to address perception. You're communicating your value in the marketplace through strategic visual and verbal messaging. Brand Strategy becomes the means of how you interpret and accomplish your business goals using branding.
As a company, your first goal is to fit within a spectrum of products/services within an industry, establish a level of value for your services equitable (or higher or lower) to your competition, and make it very clear who you are and what you do. Your goal is to influence behavior, causing people to buy, and therefore have sales, and grow your business.
Using the graphic below, we're addressing perception, influencing behavior, and creating growth. This is important because perception influences how we see things, and how we're caused/ convinced to act.
FOR THE CUSTOMER
For the customer, the most important thing here is helping them navigate all the choices they have. They need to be reassured they are making the right choice and be given a chance to engage an on-going experience that both validate their needs and reassures them.
Navigation is the flipside of perception in our mirror. Helping a client navigate a service/product category is important. When they walk into a grocery store, they're evaluating each of the aisles based on different lenses, different sets of values. Some aisles are destination aisles, while others are not.
When they're choosing a service provider, they may rely heavily on reputation, social media, and word-of-mouth, while looking for a product in the aisle, the packaging material may help communicate a level of quality. Understanding where your the company or brand fits within the category is therefore crucial.
Once a customer has navigated their choice, they need to be reassured they've made the right choice. Then, once satisfied, they have the means to engage the brand again, either through researching more, being invited to participate in a campaign, sign up for a newsletter, or even simply wanting to purchase the product or service again. Social media then becomes a means to keep the mental availability of a brand at a higher rate, even once the product is consumed.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER.
There's no denying that branding is complex. That's ok. Humans are complex. Luckily, we have the support of science, research, and inquiry to help us learn. Science provides us with an understanding of how humans think and react. Research shows us how things work, and provides insight supporting or rejecting conclusions. Asking questions helps us find out important things from customers and those engaging with a brand. There is no formula, but rather variables. And together, we're able to navigate the variables intelligently and succinctly.