With everyone tossing around the term 'branding,' it's time for us to work together on a brand for branding, to define exactly what this is, to establish sound business practices and effectively promote the discipline.
As a service industry, we have been so busy defining our clients' brands that we forgot about a more important one: our own. Ironically, the entire communications industry is in a state of self-inflicted confusion: marketing, advertising, graphic design, visual identity, Web design, new media, multimedia, interactive, packaging and, of course, branding. Of all of these, branding may be the most misconstrued.
While positioning branding as some new phenomenon has sold many books and filled many seminars, it has certainly made the topic less credible. Those of us who have been in the industry for many years understand that branding is not a revolution only the evolution (and perhaps renaming) of an existing practice.
Brands have existed in some form for hundreds of years, so the process of developing them is hardly new. The word 'brand' originates from the old Norse brandr, meaning 'to burn.' While branding's past brings to mind many negative impressions, the most common is the marking of cattle. Less known is the fact that many other occupations utilized brandmarks throughout history - potters, to authenticate their style of bowls, and stonemasons, to distinguish the quality of their work. The need to establish ownership/origin has existed ever since humans have traded goods and services. Brands evolved out of necessity and so must branding.
Commercially, brands came from the product world and have encompassed the organization. Branding is no longer for cattle owners or just big corporations. Today, sole proprietors, non-profits and even nations are viewing themselves as brands. Now it is time for branding itself to be viewed as a brand.
Hyped by so many, branding is in real danger of becoming meaningless. Ask the 'experts' to define it and too often they have their own complex explanations. No wonder clients don't get it branding is over-branded: digital branding, employment branding, environmental branding, nation branding and even kids branding.
Ever-expanding brand glossaries are only adding to the confusion: brand architecture, brand equity, brand extension, brand personality, brand platform, brand promise, etc. Since few can agree on what brand means, it is unrealistic to expect anyone to comprehend such an extensive glossary, which has actually diluted the meaning of branding.
Part of the reason for this brand-mania is that brand developers have all created their own elaborate brand stories. This is understandable after all, when your job is to uniquely position your client's industry, it is a given that you will try to position your own.
Dramatic phrases such as "a brand is a promise" and "the customer owns the brand" emerged. While some are valid claims, they speak more to an individual approach or promotion. Like taglines, some are clever and others promote thought, but they do not succeed in defining the concept. Brands are about clarity and yet many consultants (who claim to help clients find 'brand essence') strive to make branding more complex by repackaging it to sell more books, seminars and workshops. It seems that creating confusion and then clarifying it justifies their existence. It is up to the qualified branding practitioners to tame an industry that is out of control with 'brand-speak' - or risk losing not just a valid term, but also credibility.
Marketing academics have tried to turn branding into a complex science. But at its core, branding is a very basic concept based primarily on common sense. Branding is all about simplicity getting to the essence of an organization, product or service. If the most successful brands are straightforward, shouldn't the practice of developing them be the same?
Still, even the largest branding agencies have very different and complex definitions of branding, demonstrating the need for a shared definition to unite our industry. We have already made the mistake of individually trying to interpret branding; now we must come together to define it. An industry-wide agreement of what branding really means is a step toward public understanding. Perhaps the easiest way to define branding is to make it synonymous with brand development with this simple equation: Branding = Brand Development. Just as advertising is defined as "the business of producing advertisements," the definition of branding could be as simple as "the development of brands." Imagine if the answer to the most frequently asked question (what is branding anyway?) could be this short.
Regardless of our opposing views, branding must be defined simply and precisely. Claiming that "branding is everything" will define it as nothing.
If we drop the word 'branding,' what single term do we replace it with? After spending countless hours searching for an alternative, I could not find anything better. Branding works because it relates directly back to brands, whereas vague terms such as 'identity' could relate to anything. Branding is specific, yet broad enough to cover many aspects of brand development, from the verbal (naming/tagline) to the visual (logo/colour). Branding also works in many languages, whereas compound terms, such as 'brand development,' must be translated.
We must agree on a common terminology and list of related terms that we use to position ourselves. Currently, there are too many identifiers: Branding, Branding and Identity, Branding and Corporate Identity, Branding and Communication, Branding and Design, Brand Consultants, Brand Strategy and Design, Brand Design, Identity, Identity Consultants, Identity Design Firm, Identity and Image Consultants. And we must identify and correct the inaccurate and confusing consultancy descriptors:
- Branding and Identity (identity is part of branding)
- Branding and Communication (branding is a form of communication)
- Branding and Design (design is part of branding)
- Branding and Naming (naming is part of branding)
How can we build an industry with so many contradicting and overlapping names? If we are all using different terms, with different meanings, then we are diluting our own brand. Some people in our industry are still using 'identity' a term that is too vague to represent a specialized expertise. Most of the pioneers of the corporate identity business have made the switch to 'branding.' As the industry evolves, so must the terminology.
Changes in our industry will follow what is taking place internally at our clients' businesses. Today, the brand is the organizing concept that drives the entire organization. Branding is a holistic, cultural activity. It is less about protecting the brand and more about sharing it with the whole organization and the community. Less about "targeting consumers" to create "shareholder value" and more about creating value for all stakeholders of the organization.
A brand must be realized from the highest levels of management down, because it affects more than just sales, it shapes the internal culture of an organization. A properly defined brand will have a positive impact on every department within an organization.
This is why a brand can no longer belong to the domain of the marketing department or the advertising agency or design studio. Branding is not a marketing event, but an ongoing management process.
We, as 'brand servers,' have to embrace change. Print isn't dead, but digital is more alive. Media bias should be a thing of the past. In wired environments, where information can be disseminated in seconds, brand identification and content is more important than ever.
The Web is causing even the biggest of agencies to rethink their business models. The future will be less about agencies fighting to win accounts and awards and more about each specialist's role in development of a unified brand.
Unfortunately, too many clients and practitioners are still using an old formula where branding becomes a marketing/advertising campaign or graphic design project. They are quite content to fall back on the "ad agency + graphic design firm + Web firm = brand" equation.
The ultimate goal of any organization is to deliver a unified verbal and visual message that is understood and identified by all of its stakeholders, using their brand as a leadership tool. Yet the above equation undermines that goal. As each creative agency strives to reinvent the wheel expressing the brand in its own way and in its own medium cohesiveness is lost, ultimately diluting the message.
EVERYONE DOES BRANDING
An Internet search for 'branding services' yields almost every type of business you can imagine: advertising agencies, design firms, marketing consultants, interactive shops, management consultants, communications consultants and even public-relations firms. Ironically, successful brands focus on what they are good at. For too long, branding has been lost in the communications mix a sub-brand of other areas such as advertising and design.
Advertising and branding are two very different ventures with very different expiry dates. To really take, brand identity must be consistent over many years, but advertising or marketing campaigns should change regularly, or else their audiences will tune out. Too often people confuse brand identity with brand campaign.
Graphic design is a discipline that contributes to the development of a brand, in the same way it contributes to advertising or architecture. However, "graphics" are only part of the equation. Many designers make the mistake of viewing branding as only a "look-and-feel" exercise when it involves many other tasks, such as naming, positioning and legal work, including searching and securing trademarks.
Developing a brand requires skills that a "jack-of-all-communications" just cannot master. Branding may be on the clich service list of every full-service shop around, but who can honestly claim that they specialize in marketing, advertising, investor relations, Web/interactive, packaging, environmental design... and branding?
Branding is a specialized area of expertise. It takes many years of experience working through various brand scenarios to be a true brand 'guru.' Like any discipline, branding requires total dedication and focus to achieve professional status.
Brand development is a balance of both strategic and creative ability. Currently, most practices are either strong on the strategic (business) side of branding or the creative (design) side. Too much strategy yields elaborate rationales with no tangible result and too much creative turns brand development into a beauty contest.
Today's practitioner must combine both skill and talent. Not only must he or she be a strategic thinker, but must also possess the creativity needed to come up with the big idea. No longer can consultants declare themselves 'brand strategists' and farm out the creative thinking. On the other hand, 'artists' who are looking to express themselves using someone else's brand should find another canvas. A brand and especially a brand consultant must demonstrate, not just promise.
BRANDING AS A BRAND
The development of branding as a specialization has been delayed by the lack of a proper definition of the term, and its continued use as a catchall phrase for general communications. As a result, branding has not received the professional distinction it deserves.
Adding to its already poor brand image, branding became the scapegoat for the unethical business practices of multi-national corporations. Branding was seen as a manipulation technique because it was often confused with tactless marketing and ad campaigns.
As an industry, we must come together to address the problem of branding being perceived as a fuzzy and deceptive labeling exercise by proactively repositioning it. After all, branding provides a very useful and necessary service: It helps people consistently distinguish an organization, its property, products, services and communications. The good news is that the hype has subsided. Branding's own brand is well under development and, when launched, it will dramatically change the way the communications industry is structured. My prediction is that branding will eventually rise to the top level of the communications chain above advertising. My own industry research led me to question why no professional branding associations existed. There are hundreds of books, articles, blogs, seminars, workshops and conferences on the topic of branding, but no organized professional group. Perhaps the primary reason that we have not reached 'brand consensus' is the lack of a centralized forum. Advertising professionals have clearly benefited from the solidarity of their community. Imagine if those of us who were passionate about brands and branding could also gather in one place. If we could jointly work to make the concept of branding so crystal clear that it would eliminate the need to pitch it at every client meeting.
Last January, I decided to launch the Canadian Branding Association the first group of its kind. Why a branding association? Many of us practising within the vast communications field are drawn to the specialized expertise of branding. Understandably, we are not adequately represented by business, marketing, advertising or design associations, which must deal with multiple categories.
The Canadian group was launched with the objective of inspiring the formation of other national branding associations ultimately creating the International Branding Association.
Can the bad reputation of branding actually be rescued? I believe it can. But the situation is not going to change if we just talk amongst ourselves. We must properly package and then promote branding to businesses, to schools, to governments. For this area of expertise to progress, it must be more than a trendy concept that generates money for consultants and corporations. It must become a holistic practice that has a positive impact socially and culturally. The brand-passionate need to be at the forefront of this mission.
Of course, there is no way to certify brand work. I am not suggesting that branding be an exclusive or registered profession. We launched a professional association to gather like minds and distinguish a valid expertise. Unless an industry defines itself, sets standards for practice and education, it will never evolve and it is up to the qualified branding practitioners to elevate their own practice. Like all associations, we will try to weed out the fakes and raise the bar for the remaining professionals.
Just as a successful brand requires the collaboration of many, so does the launch of an association. If you are passionate about branding, we need your help to further our cause.
Is branding a brand? With its own association, it is certainly on its way to becoming one.
About Errol Saldanha
Errol Saldanha runs the Toronto-based branding agency Saldanha Inc. (www.saldanha.com). This article is based on Saldanha's industry research for the Canadian Branding Association, which he founded in 2005, with excerpts from his branding blog. The article was first printed in Applied Arts Magazine and is reprinted with permission.