Is branding a mystical experience? An occult practice that only an oracle can divine? Not at all. More than anything else, branding is a discipline—a series of rituals that, once honored, leads to your brand’s best destiny. Every successful brand and branding expert should know these rituals, but I’m continually surprised by the lack of compliance in the industry, which is the leading cause of brand identity crises. So whether you are branding a company, product, service or even yourself, here are the 5 essential rituals that will keep you on the right track.
Ritual 1: Start out by forgetting who or what you are
Believe it or not, the first great mistake in branding is to start with your brand. I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but the quickest way to remove obstacles to success is—at the start—to forget about all the wonderful things about your brand. Marketing managers are in a deep love affair with their brands. They wake up each day and think about how it works, where it works, what its best features are and what it should be preferred over. The love affair is so consuming that it blinds the marketing manager from seeing the first hard truth about branding: how you regard your brand means nothing. What means everything is how your customers view your brand. And unless you start out paying attention to what their lives are about, you will never get at the heart of WHY your brand could be important to them and not just to you. Find the people you are trying to woo and then ask them the right questions: What’s their life like? What do they value most about themselves? What would they change about themselves if they could? What do they like most about their day? The least? And so on. By forgetting about who or what your brand is, you open your ears to the sounds of customers telling you WHY they would engage with your brand without them even knowing it.
Ritual 2: Go where the love is
Trying to be everything to everyone will assure your brand dies a quick death. Go where the love is. If a comedian or a singer is on stage for the first time and 40% of the audience is standing and cheering while the other 60% are giving a lukewarm reaction, that entertainer is not a failure with the majority but rather a huge success with his/her customer base. You will waste valuable energy and resources—at the start—trying to woo the 60%, and reap 100% adoration from the 40% who love you without much additional effort. The idea in beginning to brand is to secure a base of brand loyalists and then build from there, creating a bandwagon effect. This is hard to accept because you keep looking at all those other people and wondering why they don’t love you as well. But stay focused and your brand will keep the hearts of those in your camp. The cigarette market is one of the most saturated in the world. That is, there are roughly 200 brands from which to choose globally. And what are we talking about? The exact same ingredients: tobacco, paper and perhaps a filter. As the cigarette for women, Virginia Slims decided to eliminate focusing on 50% of the population of smokers (men) and concentrate instead on going where the love is. Virginia Slims has one of the industry’s best records of brand loyalty over time among the women who smoke them.
Ritual 3: Create a magic mirror that reflects your customer’s ideal self
Once you’ve heard—truly heard—what your customers think about themselves, set out to make your brand a flattering reflection of their values. That’s right: a successful brand understands that it’s not about it being a hero; it’s about the customer feeling like a hero in his/her own life story. What makes Budweiser the most popular beer in America? The hops? The water? The brewing process? Those say nothing about the customer because they are self-referential instead of creating a mirror of who your customer wants to be. “For all you do, this Bud’s for you,” the brand’s long-time tag line, reveals the strategy underpinning Budweiser’s central appeal: it’s a reward. You’ve done a good job today, drink up. You’ve been a good friend today, make a toast. By creating a magic mirror that reflects their customer’s ideal self, Budweiser masters Ritual 3 and masters the market as well.
Ritual 4: Dress your brand for the job to which it aspires
It’s no accident that I am selecting products like beer and cigarettes. With such similarity of ingredients and flavor profiles, they have the potential to be completely generic if it weren’t for one key ingredient: branding hallmarks. Primary branding hallmarks include a wordmark (the brand name in a proprietary typeface), a color palette (one or more key colors that evoke the brand’s personality), and occasionally an icon or symbol, whether representational or abstract. Elements like color, typography and iconography are not abstract or mystical at all, but the output of an essential ritual: dressing up the brand for the job to which it aspires. People don’t buy ingredients; they buy brand image. And if a brand is a flattering reflection of customer values, then brand image is those values brought to life in design. Colors have meaning: they can be cool and confident like purples and blues, or refreshing and hopeful like greens and yellows, or energetic and passionate like oranges or reds. Typography also has personality. The word POWERFUL looks like the power of a hammer in all caps and bold, but render it in lower case and an elegant italic—powerful—and it takes on the elegance of the power of music. Once you’ve found the values your customers esteem, impart them to your brand using the rituals associated with proper branding design.
Ritual 5: Be consistent but not necessarily the same
In order for customers to continually recognize your brand and what it stands for, it must present itself and behave in a way that maintains integrity to its core principles. Now the value of core principles themselves evolves over time, or may be slightly different depending on global geographies. Brand fails around tag line translations are legendary: for example, Pepsi’s “Come alive with Pepsi” literally translated in China to, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the dead.” But even in a single geography, if a brand stands in part for “being cool,” such as Apple electronics, the idea of coolness changes over time, and thus Apple’s design has evolved to be consistent with its values but not exactly the same. Brand integrity may be the most important ritual of all because it takes so much effort to build a brand and a customer following. To lose it due to poor shepherding of the brand experience is not just a waste of time and money, but also a message of bad faith to customers who feel betrayed and might never trust your brand again. If you are going to take the journey of creating a brand, honor the rituals or stay home. Discipline rewards success; and success rewards discipline.