Yes, there are quite a bit of article out there on brand, branding, and perception, and for the most part, they are great. However, this article is not to challenge any of those, I am merely aiming to align a philosophy with a practical perspective on brand perception. Perhaps also to simplify that perception. In this article, we take a look at a Practical Perspective on Brand Perception.
I believe holistically in the notion that brands are built by people for people if we strip away the business functions, and the design itself we are left with something else, a mist, essence, an intangible value. We are left with a belief system centred around an idea and devoted followers. By removing the business, I don’t mean a brand can function without business management, I am simply saying, let’s identify the core of what drives the brand itself.
Once we enter a conversation about the brand, we are diving into phycology and influence, with great power comes great responsibility. A brand can be perceived as a cult, a religion or a tribe, there is a culture there, it forms organically and is managed as such.
I often perceive brands as people with souls, this means if I am trying to communicate as a person, I must be able to articulate information or knowledge to another human being with the same charms as meeting someone for the first time. As a brand, I am trying to build relationships with people, I am trying to present myself as a missing piece to their lives, I am your new friend, “How did we not meet before? We have so much in common!”
As a business with a brand focused perspective, I am people-driven and I am trying to reach deep into their minds to extract their most prized needs and desires and show it to them before they even have the thought themselves. We see this with tech brands quite often, they make educational assumptions of the future and present their findings, brands such as apple, Microsoft, Google, and many others were not initially supported as their ideas were perceived as fantasy. However, those brands are human-focused and found ways of leveraging our emotions, and behavior, if that’s not a brand then nothing else is.
Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Target are other examples of being human-focused, or they became that way eventually. Human focus brands observe behavior, social issues, environment and they try to align themselves appropriately with their core followers who then extend this culture to others.
When we think of brands most likely names like Nike, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Apple, Samsung and many more will come to mind, despite the industry, they stand out. They have effective and efficient branding backed by quality offerings and millions of dollars invested in their businesses, but most importantly, they have a defined brand, an essence. Some will argue that they don’t buy into brands but there is a chance they mean flagship brands; they may buy into other brands they perceive to be more humble or accessible to them.
A brand does not have to be large or popular, it is not defined by branding, branding should be considered communication in any form. The brand is an intangible experience defined and delivered through offerings, it’s an essence often referred to as an identity. If a store was called ‘John’s Grocery’, based on the experience consumers have with the store it would most likely be affectionately referred to as John’s, that’s because John’s Grocery would have established itself over a period of time through experience and association, the majority knows what the offerings are they no longer need to define it. If John’s Grocery was to start branding, it’s communication would be best aligned with phrases such as, “Get your hams at John’s” and everyone would know what, who and where is being implied.
However, let’s go deeper into what a brand is, we can best observe this from the perspectives of religions, cults, musicians and other group types.
“Religion is a social-cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, morals, worldviews, texts, sanctified places, prophecies, ethics, or organizations, that relates humanity to supernatural, transcendental, or spiritual elements.” Wikipedia
Religion is essential, a belief system with devoted followers, the details of that are relative and many. It’s a system of faith and worship, it can also be classified as a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.
A cult usually refers to a social group defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or its common interest in a personality, object or goal. In some ways, it’s not that different from your standard religion, but cults are usually perceived as frivolous. If we should observe several groups of people with a common belief and devotion, there is not much difference between them. When it comes to fans, the same principle applies but it’s more obsessive than a newfound belief. Celebrities, artists in fashion, music, acting and so forth, are worshiped by fans, people who align themselves, their lives and beliefs with these pop icons because they bought into their messaging. The messaging is devised through strategy, Brand Design & Development.
Imagine for a moment you have an idea, let’s say an idea of better, and better can be anything that presents itself as more desirable, satisfactory, or effective. In order to bring validity to this idea, we need to create a belief system around it, something that proves worthy of better, rituals or practices that lead to better. A vehicle is needed to deliver this idea and its fundamental belief, you have to package both into something, this becomes the product. You must ensure that this product is of great quality, and delivers as promised, it does what it says it can do. However, the real offer is the benefit, something that has an overall positive impact on the lives of those who acquire this product.
One of my favorite examples of benefit can be found in the book ‘Creative Strategy and the Business of Design’ by Douglas Davis. Douglas gave an example using whitening toothpaste, essentially, people do not buy whitening toothpaste for whiter teeth, they buy it for self-confidence. It doesn’t get any more simple or brilliant than that.
A benefit is the most valuable component of a brand, like a religious group, the idea of a better life, is presented around a belief system that has great reward, usually doing good and living in harmony with everyone and everything. There is a reward for living in this new way of life, become a follower and embrace a new mindset that promises a life like no other, which ultimately becomes the benefit. Literature is most likely packaged appropriately as the product, delivering the message and the promise of this benefit.
The four components required for effective brand communication are Awareness, Knowledge, Commitments and Supply chain management. If you can acquire these four components then you will have your followers who will become advocates and help in gaining more commitments, the consumer buys in. Understand that a brand doesn’t exist until much later, what you’re providing are assets that will aid in defining the brand identity through strategic marketing, a visual language, and architecture, which usually follows the product development. This is to be considered Business Development, the first half of Brand Development.
A musical artist that becomes an icon or a band, did not achieve this simply because they created beautiful music, an entire belief system is developed around the idea of who they are. This belief system is delivered through various product types and channels, concert experiences but fans buy into something much more valuable, the benefit of something deeper, such as being part of a cult-like family which often get nicknames, for example, Lady Gaga has her ‘Little Monsters’ and the band Slipknot has dubbed their fanbase as ‘Maggots’. Each title is a deliberate act aimed at creating a close-knit family of people passionate about the icon and what they represent. Fans buy-in, often, they are sold on exclusivity and access, the fans become advocates, they swear by the icons, they speak of how they have motivated them, changed their lives and so forth. Fans are the brand’s tribe.
For a bit of fun, you can go here to see ‘From Barbies to Maggots: The Nicknames of 25 Fan Bases.’
CONSUMERISM THE NEW RELIGION
So then, a brand, Marty Neumeier said, “The foundation of a brand is trust. Customers trust your brand when their experiences consistently meet or beat their expectations.” Therefore, a brand is as intangibly valuable as it’s tangible offerings, it’s not something you touch or hold in your hand, it’s a relationship that forms based on an experience that in many ways is indescribable, but made you feel so great you developed an emotional attachment through association with every touchpoint: products, employees, customer service and so forth.
Brand essence is the core sensibility which defines a brand, an intangible attribute that separates the brand, brand management is then defined as managing and leveraging the differences of the brand. This is emotional, based on feelings, and a connection with an audience unique to your brand and, most importantly, it’s reliable. It is not a commodity, it is not product related or defined by a visual identity system, a logo or branding, those are assets that support the brand and help with delivery and communication.
“Any brand that doesn’t recognize that every business operating within the same industry is a competitor, requires a changed mindset for effective brand management to take place. In other words, what differences are they managing and leveraging? This doesn’t necessarily mean focusing on the competition, it’s about awareness.”
A brand is a feeling evoked in anyone when they see or hear your name. It’s a combination of the sensibilities and benefits, a brand’s essence should be narrowed down to one or maybe two words. In order to define these words, brand positioning must be defined with a simplified positioning statement. A positioning statement is a concise description of a target market and an overall image of how you want that market to perceive your brand. While it helps with your external communication or branding, your positioning statement is an internal tool. Brand perception can’t be left up to consumers alone, information is gathered from them, but you must also define what the brand is in order to be aligned with the audience, or for them to be aligned with you.
Branding is a brand communication method or process, marketing materials, visual, written or verbal is to be considered branding. A holistic communication system is developed that is specific to your brand, branding is defined by the brand positioning statement, Business Development, and essence.
“Branding is the process of connecting a good strategy with good creativity. It’s not the process of connecting good strategy with poor creativity, poor strategy with good creativity, or poor strategy with poor creativity.” – Marty Neumeier
We do not build brands as brand-focused experts, we help to define them when the brand assets are defined that’s when you start communicating effectively to the consumer, they intern help to define your identity because you have given them the tools to do so. Consumers are made aware of your existence, why you exist, they have committed to you and you are consistently delivering quality products, offerings, and experiences. All this is supported by defined branding methods and marketing strategy.
From a business perspective, the strategy is the guide for everything your brand does, strategy is not a separate component, it is the air to your lungs, it is intrinsic to the Brand Development process, as Brand Design & Development references Business Development. A strategy must be developed in order to get to the desired goal, and this will determine how you develop, test, market and communicate your brand.
Brand Development is not limited to the business aspect, that’s only the foundation that keeps it financially stable, the core of any brand is people, life and impact. In order to have a great brand managed by business principles, it must have a people purpose, the aim is influence through stimulation of the senses. A profound appreciation for people, social impact and perhaps life itself.
An important aspect of the Brand Development process is often seen as fluff or a buzzword, but it too like the strategy is not a separate component but an age-old process embedded in the design, it has been labeled design thinking as a contemporary methodology. Design thinking is a process that involves creative problem solving, it is human-centered. It encourages focus on people, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.
It is limited thinking if the design is perceived as something that is simply plugged into things, the design is in everything, in every form, function, and industry. It is not limited to the creative space; creative processing is what makes it appealing. Design is what physics is to live, it defines the function, it is a natural process of identifying and solving, streamlining and simplifying how we do everything. We are merely utilizing it in the brand perspective.
If we design with people in mind, as I like to say it, “great brands are designed by people for people.” we can then identify specific problems and solve them. Effective Brand Design & Development is heavily R&D (Research & Development) oriented, a never-ending process of constant exploration and testing as seen with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Apple, Mercedes, BMW and many more. Brands are catching on, they are realizing the importance of people and social impact, this is a result or benefit of design thinking and strategy. It’s no longer segregation of marketing from design, creative from business, the artist vs the designer. Instead, it is a holistic approach unified by a common purpose as one seamless process, where all aspects are intrinsically valuable.
If we perceive a brand as something that extends to more than a physical association with products, services, consumers, data entry and profit margins, we would most likely end up with an emotionally driven relationship where people are not asked to be with you, they have a self-driven desire to be part of your life, your brand.
In the movie, ‘Hancock’ Jason Bateman plays a sincere PR consultant with a big heart, Ray Embry, who has a vision for a global campaign of branded corporate social responsibility. The problem is none of the big corporate clients he pitches are receptive to his plan, which is to forsake part of their profits to help save the world while earning the right to include an “All-Heart” logo on their products and advertisements.
Then “along came Hancock”, you know that story…Ray Embry transforms Hancock (Will Smith) from a careless drunk with superpowers into a role model, a superhuman who uses his powers for good, a hero. Hancock was always doing good by all appearances but his approach was reckless, Ray made him more appealing. In the end, Ray got his big heart, the assumption is that people started buying into his idea of social responsibility. Why? Well, now they aligned the heart logo with something valuable that the masses supported, a saviour if you will, Hancock.
An idea was built around a God-like figure, with an offer of something better, a benefit that exceeded the value of products and services. The point is, your brand should be able to stand strong as a symbol of hope, if possible, a utopia attached to an unforgettable experience that is nothing short of euphoric. We are humans, we don’t buy into products we buy into ideas and beliefs, we buy into life-changing experiences, we are as[irrational beings. We make purchases based on those beliefs, it was this very concept that built brand’s like [Red], we desire to be part of something much larger than ourselves; inherently, we want to know we have contributed to something great or we wish to benefit from something great.
We can’t forget about luxury brands, they are carefully curated and operate in a niche marketplace. They influence the perception of themselves, usually priced for a select few. However, to successfully maintain their identity, it requires effort in brand ownership. Exclusivity, quality, uniqueness, and refinement are part of the price tag, a great deal of time and effort in honing their brand’s image to reflect these attributes is required.
Companies want to ensure that their brand is indicative of status, more importantly, refinement, and taste. Context matters and is just as important as the perception, product positioning, where and how it is being promoted is important. When a customer purchases a luxury product or service, the brand’s message of exclusivity and quality is maintained throughout the experience. This includes the store environment and website look and feel, whether someone is visiting physically or online, customer service, and the quality of packaging matters.
Brands are no different from religions or cults, they present an appealing offer to the right audience, a savior if you will, centered around an idea of a better life, a tribe of committed followers is acquired who help to spread the word of their Christ. First, we must define what the problems are, identify solutions and execute them around psychological purpose or intent, this is the core foundation of any successful brand.
“A charismatic brand is any product, service, or company for which people believe there’s no substitute. Any brand can be charismatic, even yours.”
We hope this article about a Practical Perspective on Brand Perception has been helpful, and be sure to leave your comments below.
I am Phillip J. Clayton, brand design consultant, and visual artist. I am the founder of PJClayton Creative, a brand consulting and design agency. The company’s partners and I are as we say it, “Organically brand passionate”. We believe in brands, we believe in people, we believe that the two are holistically integrated and are built on belief systems, integrated living.
Also published on Medium.