Brand-building is key to any successful business. Design plays a critical role in the development and evolution of a brand over time. Here, we ask four branding experts about the factors that influence brand success and why.
Meet the Four Branding Experts
Megan Auman is a designer, metalsmith, educator and entrepreneur who has built a multi-faceted business around her passion for great design and sustainable business. Her eponymous jewelry line is sold in stores across the U.S. and online. Her designs have been featured in Design Sponge, Better Homes and Gardens, Cooking Light and more.
April Bowles is a writer, creative business consultant, marketing strategist and photography dabbler. She wants to live in a world where artists and makers adore their blogs, write with confidence and know how to get their unique work in front of people who love it—and scramble for their credit cards because they just “have to have it.”
Stanley Hainsworth is founder and chief creative officer of Tether, a design and branding agency in Seattle. Prior to founding his own agency, he worked as creative director, defining and reshaping the stories for Starbucks, Lego and Nike.
Lewis Howes is a lifestyle entrepreneur, high performance business coach, author and keynote speaker. He hosts The School of Greatness podcast, which has received millions of downloads since it launched in 2013. His newest book, The School of Greatness, provides a framework for achieving real, sustainable, repeatable success.
Learn from the Branding Experts
HOW: What’s the difference between a brand and a set of branded elements?
Howes: Your brand is the feeling people get when they interact with you or your work. It’s how they remember you and what they say to someone else when describing you. Your brand elements are just the visual representation of that feeling.
Bowles: A brand is all the marketing and communication you do to differentiate your business from the competition. Branded elements like a logo or business card are pieces that help to make up your brand.
Hainsworth: A set of branded elements are the badges and the delivery mechanisms for a brand. A brand is a thing, but it’s also a feeling, a movement, a passion. A brand puts a promise out into the world, “if you interact/experience/try our product or service then you will…”
Auman: Simply put: Emotion. A brand is an emotional connection repeated over time. Brand elements are one signifier of those emotions. The challenge in branding is that it’s very difficult to build an emotional connection simply through the elements we traditionally associate with branding. The emotional appeal comes from the product itself, the stories a company tells, the experiences customers have with the company (both online and off), the experiences customers have with the products, and even the way a company is represented in the media.
What person or company, in your opinion, is currently doing the best job at branding and why? What sets them apart from the competition?
Howes: I think The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) is on top of his game and brand in a big way. He dominates at social media and has mastered letting his authentic self through in all of his interactions with fans and the press. His brand really reflects who he is, and he’s attracting the opportunities he wants because of it.
Hainsworth: Virgin has a brand and branded elements that are consistent across multiple consumer categories. The multiple brands share the right amount of brand-ness and branded-ness that unites them from the inside out and the outside in. They don’t create industries or categories, they go in and disrupt them, do it better. And then they back it up with their attitude, service, pricing, branded elements.
Bowles: Marie Forleo is a great example of a business that kills it when it comes to branding. From the fonts to the images to the web design to the videos to the products–everything works together and sets the brand apart from everything else out there. What Marie does better than many other businesses is that she stays true to who she is and doesn’t jump on trends for the sake of being cool.
Auman: I am a huge fan of Freshly Picked, which makes baby moccasins. The founder, Susan Peterson, took this from a side hustle, sewing leather baby shoes at her kitchen table, to a multimillion dollar company. This makes them an interesting case study in brand loyalty, as it’s really a brand that was built from the bottom up, by appealing directly to consumers’ emotions, rather than top down by attempting to apply consumers emotions to arbitrary brand elements.
Freshly Picked has a focused, consistent, and recognizable product line. The moccasins are basically the Louboutins of baby shoes. When you see a toddler wearing them in a photo, you instantly know who made them. And for a long time, they only had one product. (They’ve since expanded to a few other shoe types and accessories.) This intense focus helped them become known for doing one thing really well.
So much brand building in recent years has come down to social media and apps. Do you see this ever changing or going back to more traditional methods?
Bowles: No, I don’t see this ever changing. I know a lot of businesses would love to ignore the power of social media and apps, but that’s the world we live in. Everyone is connected to their phones more than anything else. Back in the day, when the internet first appeared on the scene, people said that it was just a trend. The internet! One of the worst things you can do as a business owner is to become rigid in your marketing tactics instead of moving with the market.
Hainsworth: It is all a mix, and will continue to be so. For example, brands that started online are creating physical, or brick-and-mortar experiences. Social media platforms have started creating branded products. It is all a beautiful mix and will continue to change (and stay the same) as new platforms become available.
Howes: Honestly no, I think social media is here to stay. Of course it will keep evolving and there’s always new apps, but the direct connection between a brand and its audience is irreplaceable and that is what social media has allowed on a huge scale.
Auman: One of the reasons brand building has been so focused on those methods recently is that they work! It takes time for brands to develop that emotional connection, and social media, with its frequent updates and need for an endless stream of content, is a great place for that.
That said, consumers are growing increasingly weary of brands’ need to constantly engage on social media. And they are growing even more weary of brands advertising on social media. I think that means that companies will need to look to innovative strategies for brand building, and that may include looking backwards to methods that have worked in the past.
Why do you think some brand overhauls go over well (KFC, Sprint) and others fail miserably (Tropicana a few years back; UPS redesign was highly criticized)?
Hainsworth: Think of one of your friends who shows up with a significant change in their appearance. If it is a nice evolution, you will nod your head approvingly. If it is a total left turn you will look questioningly and say that seriously? This speaks to the emotional investment that consumers put in the brands they use. It has to be a respectful or believable evolution. If it is too much of a departure, too trendy, too different, too not-who-we-are, the consumer will arch their eyebrows.
Auman: I think brand overhauls fail when a brand fails to understand the emotions behind the brand and the customers they are appealing to. UPS is an interesting example of this, because they’ve really pushed themselves recently as a very utilitarian brand, with a focus on “logistics.” But the average consumer’s experience of UPS is as someone who magically makes all those online purchases appear. A criticism of the logo redesign was that it lost the element of “it’s a present” that appeared in the old logo, which is often how you’ll hear online shoppers talk about getting their deliveries. There’s a strong emotional pull there that UPS is completely ignoring in their focus on utility. And as more and more websites give customers the option to choose their shipping carrier, it would behoove UPS (or any of the shipping carriers for that matter) to focus on branding that appeals to the emotions customers already associate with getting packages delivered.
Bowles: I work with small businesses, so I’m going answer this question based on small businesses. One reason that I see brand overhauls fail is because they move away from what their customers really love about the brand. When you change something that has become synonymous with your brand (and your customers adore), you risk alienating your most loyal customers. If you stay true to who you are during a brand overhaul, you tend to improve upon the things your customers love and it becomes a huge success.
How difficult is it to get consumers to shift brand loyalties? Do you think it comes down to the brand elements/story or the actual product? or is it a mix? can you give an example of this happening?
Auman: One of the benefits of having a strong brand is that it becomes a shorthand for making purchasing decisions. Consumers are overwhelmed by choice, so when it comes time to make a decision, many will default to the brand they’ve always used. This can make it difficult for consumers to shift brand loyalties. But at the same time, this shorthand also put brands at the risk of losing their emotional appeal, when buyers begin making choices only out of habit and no longer out of deep love and affection for a brand. This presents opportunities for a new brand with a strong emotional pull to swoop in and steal market-share.
Hainsworth: Consumers are loyal to brands, sometimes. But think of your friend again. She talked poorly of you to others behind your back. Will you forgive her? Give her another chance? Or maybe hang out with another friend more and eventually switch your loyalties to her. New best friend. Consumers are the same with brands. If there is a brand mis-step, whether a blip in product quality, or a lapse in transparency, etc., you might try another brand. As an experiment. And you may forgive your former brand love and go back to it, or if the dalliance with the new brand shows promise, you may switch.
Motorola was the darling of the phone handset world. They innovated and provided a great brand experience through the design of their devices. Until they didn’t. When other brands (Apple, HTC, etc.) started putting out devices with similar service but provided an enhanced, sexier experience, consumers went with a new girlfriend without a backward glance.
Bowles: Great branding is so good that it’s hard to put into words. One of my favorite brands of all time is Anthropologie and it’s hard for me to explain why. They didn’t start marketing to me via email or pushing their way into my Facebook feed. I loved them from the moment I walked into the store. It felt like everything in there was made for me, I loved the scents from the candles they were burning, and I felt comfortable in the dressing rooms. You can tell that they pay close attention to every detail and that makes a great experience for customers. When you give people an experience that blows their mind (by paying close attention to every brand detail), you can definitely get them to shift their loyalties.