INTRODUCTION TO BRAND COMMUNICATIONS.
Brand communications are the combination of activities that are used by a brand to communicate and interact with potential customers and the world in general.
The channels are probably much broader than you think.
The brand identity (which is a manifestation of the brand personality) is probably one of the first items that springs to mind. Logo’s, symbols and typography etc. are among the basic elements, and we’ll discuss these later.
Just a decade ago, businesses were relying heavily on paid-for advertising and PR to communicate their brand values and offering. Today we find that people, consumers and employees are vital communication channels as they talk and contribute to brands’ reputations. Social media has been a major influence here, but everyday conversations have been recognised as creating critical touch points, 24-7.
The term brand communications suggests that there is some function, a person or a process, consciously sending out messages to the world. In part this is true when we look at advertising social publishing, but there’s also a tide of unconscious communication being received by consumers.
Think about toxic messages such as untidy or unclean premises, poorly trained staff, calls not returned, late deliveries. Also consider positive signals – well designed documents, helpful customer contacts, rapid complaints resolutions. All of these represent touch points where the customer interacts with the organisation – brand communications.
The Brand Identity
Let’s look at most people’s first idea of brand communications. In fact, it’s what many people confuse with the brand itself (check out the previous lesson, ‘What is a brand?’). Often business owners say they need ‘some branding’ meaning they want work on their brand identity.
We’ll take a brief look at each of the key elements of a brand identity, but first let’s consider the ‘Brand Personality’. This is just like an individual’s personality. People may be friendly, serious, thoughtful, kind, creative, aloof, dignified, adventurous, cautious, wild, humorous… have any one of hundreds of characteristics… or any combination.
Before anybody starts to work on a brand identity they should make a careful assessment of their brand personality. It needs an honest and impartial evaluation. Does it accurately reflect the brand, and importantly fit where the brand wants or needs to be? What would be the ideal personality for that organisation?
Don’t sweat the name
Startups generally spend way too much time worrying about the name.
Consider the names of some of our leading brands – they are not significant in themselves. Their importance lies in what they stand for in terms of the businesses and what they do. For example Apple has nothing to do with apples, and hardly anybody knows what a Google is. But we all associate the business with the name.
Each of us has a given name, usually not of our own choosing. But through life, your name takes on the values you as a person create. ‘You’ are what the name stands for.
So, the sound approach is to come up with a name you’re happy with, and then get on with building your business. That’s where the brand’s value will ultimately lie.
We’ve said the name you choose may not be as important as you think, however, there are some considerations to bear in mind.
Is it a good idea to use my own name?
If your business is personality centred – perhaps you are a photographer, fashion designer or musician, – then there may well be value in it. However, mixing your personal brand with your business can have downsides.
For example, you may want to sell your business in the future. The name could create issues for both you and a buyer.
Perhaps you want to diversify personally and do something different – or there is always the possibility of business failure. Should the worst happen, do you want your personal name to be damaged? The reverse situation may be equally bad – remember Ratners?
Should I put what my business does in the brand name?
Can be a great help for a startup, but generally not in the brand name. ‘Acme Plasterers’ may be a great name to begin. But what happens when you grow and perhaps diversify into wider building services?
The place for a descriptive title is in the strap-line.
What about including our location in the title?
As with the above example, it’s not usually a good idea. ‘Leeds Accountancy Services’ may be great – until opportunities arise to open a branch in Manchester or Liverpool.
However, you may really want to focus upon a local market. Perhaps for sound cultural or geographic reasons – but it needs careful thought.
There can be a case where there is credibility and kudos associated with a region, town or country. Stoke pottery, Swiss watches, Italian pasta, Lake District outdoors. Again, give it some thought.
Is it important to register a name?
Yes. Even just doing a search should throw up any potential problems. (Search here) You can register names and trademarks inexpensively. They’re usually registered by sector. So, the name you want may be registered for say ‘clothing’, but be available for ‘business services’.
Many small businesses don’t register. However, I know of one small company who had been trading for three years before they were approached by lawyers representing a company who had already registered their trading name.
They had to change everything, stationery, signage, website, all their advertising collateral.
What about trading overseas?
Like it or not we’re in a global market – the internet and ecommerce exposes us to potential worldwide customers.
Check your desired name against foreign languages. It’s fairly easy to check online. But if you are targeting a particular market, run the name by a native speaker. Colloquialisms, slang and offensive terms don’t necessarily show in online dictionaries.
What considerations does digital bring?
Digital is not something special. It’s an integral part of brand communications. Where search (SEO) is concerned, the web is still a text-based medium so words count.
Checking domain names is important – and don’t forget to consider the Tlds, especially if you plan to trade overseas. Adding an extension to your brand name can have unfortunate consequences.
Think visually too. Phone screens are small. Social media profile images are usually square. They are just not friendly to long words – short names have power and impact.
Logos and symbols
Together with the brand name, these form part of the brand signature. We run into a lot of confusion over titles here. Traditionally, logo was short for logotype. In the days of hot-metal typesetting, a logotype was a whole word cast as one piece of type. To be pedantic, a logotype is a brand identifier formed of the company or organisation name – examples include Ford, Chanel, or Kellogg’s.
But let’s not get hung up on titles. We talked about brand names just being signifiers for the business – well, logos are just the same, only more so.
First question is, do you need a logo or will your name be enough? Well, as in the case of Ford, Chanel or Kellogg’s, mentioned above – you’ll note that the name becomes the logo/symbol by being in a distinctive typestyle and colour scheme that is easily recognised. This configuration is often referred to as the brand signature.
One advantage of adding a symbol to the brand signature is that it’s simple. As it becomes associated with the brand, people no longer need to read words.
The earliest uses of symbols were in times before literacy was widespread. Shopkeepers’ signs depicted symbols – sometimes of their wares or often animals or flowers that helped buyers find their premises.
The first registered trademark in the UK is the Bass Brewery mark – a red, equilateral triangle. Almost as simple as you can get. It has nothing to do with beer – but once the association was learned, it became a distinctive brand mark and is still in use today.
Once a symbol is well recognised, it can stand alone as shorthand for the brand.
There are many different types of logos or brandmarks. And there are many different lists of them. You’ll find people listing anything from 5 to 10 categories or more. Here are just a handful to be thinking about:
- Letterforms – single letter symbols, usually the initial of the brand name. Think of McDonalds, or Facebook. (sometimes these may use a set of initials, they’re then often called ‘Monogram marks’. IBM or CNN.)
- Pictorial marks – often turning the brand name into a representative image. Examples include Apple, Twitter, Anchor and Shell.
- Trade artifacts – like the old shopkeep’s signs – often based upon tools or implements. For example BMW made aircraft engines in their early days, so their symbol is derived from a spinning propellor.
- Value transference – choosing a symbol that represents a quality. Acorn for growth, shield or castle for protection, cheetah for speed, owl for wisdom.
- Abstract marks – Nike, Microsoft, MasterCard
- Creative irrelevance – images which bear no connection with the organisation, but come to represent the brand over time.
The all-important Brand Guidelines Manual
We say ‘all-important’ because guidelines matter. Because the best brand identities are not necessarily the best designed, but are always the most consistently applied.
Sounf design is necessary, of course – but from a brand point of view the most important factor is consistency.
Every application of a brand identity is an opportunity to strengthen its recognition. It’s not about public and customers noticing the niceties of typeface selection, or your excellent choice of colour scheme, but building familiarity.
Suppose a customer has a great experience of your brand (and we sincerely hope they do), they will want to repeat it. A consistent brand identity will trigger memories of that sound experience.
Think of any great high-street brands. You can probably easily recall their colours scheme, logo and type style. This is not luck – their brand identity is almost certainly well documented and rigorously policed.
Even if you’ve not spent thousands on a brand identity, you can make the most of whatever you have by ensuring that it’s consistently applied.
Here’s how brand identities become diluted.
Without clear guidelines, brand identities can lose their coherent application. They gradually become fuzzy and public recognition degrades.
A signwriter may choose colours from a letterhead (or as close as he can). A printer grabs a logo from the website, without thinking about the background or spacing. An intern may create documents, induldging their own whims regarding fonts. Suppliers resize logos, use what they think is your correct brandname, or add styling and ornamentation to documents that are simply out of place.
It starts with a watering down of the identity, but over time, multiple interpretations of errors mean the identity is weak and brand recognition is ruined.
Tighten up the brand guidelines.
Brand guidelines do not need to be hefty complex documents. At their simplest, a single page may suffice. For a small or medium business, half a dozen pages is usually more than enough.
What should your guidelines cover?
It should begin by explaining what the business is about and what its values are. This is important to set the guidelines in context. Then, depending upon the main applications, it should at least document some of the following.
- Logotype. There should be copies in various formats, for online use and print. There should also be guidance on sizes and acceptable spacing from other elements, as well as guidance on acceptable colour usage and backgrounds.
- Colour schemes. Clear specifications, with references for online use and print, and also paint references if applicable.
- Typography. State exactly what the corporate fonts are, for online use and print. If substitutions are acceptable, clearly document them. Guidance should be given on what variants are acceptable and how they may be used (capitalization and italics etc.). Sizes and spacing may be specified to ensure readability.
If your business has specific needs, such as building signage, liveries, workwear, plant and equipment etc., you may need to cover these too.
It doesn’t matter if you have a custom-designed identity or just a brand image that has grown over time. Formalising it into a set of rules will ensure future consistency of application, and add power to its recognition and recall..
You may choose to have a paper document, to hand to suppliers, or perhaps better, an online document on your website. That way you can keep it always up-to-date, and suppliers can download original images for logos etc.
Whichever route you take, it puts you in firm control of your brand identity, and leaves no excuse for suppliers to deviate.
The Brand Narrative
The power of brand narratives – Facebook, Microsoft and Apple
People love stories. Even if you are not clear of your brand’s story, customers, members of the public will write their own.
Part of the power of brand narratives is that they tell a story over time. Rather than be a snapshot in time, the story of a brand will build. It informs our knowledge and perception of the brand and its values. Importantly, it appreciates the capacity for change – for better or worse. The episodic nature of the narrative presents the brand to us as a living organism, time clarifying and defining the actions. To look at any major brand today, without appreciating the story, gives a very one-dimensional picture. All brands are social constructs, and as such are culturally and historically situated – the key word being ‘historically’.
Consider the narrative of Facebook. This was sufficiently interesting a story to warrant a prominent movie. But even the film itself was just an episode in a narrative that is still unfolding. Try to remember how you first viewed the brand when it was just a new social media tool to make use of. Then how did your perceptions change as the story of Zuckerberg et al. unfolded? We learned more about how the business operated and its ambitions.
The story of Facebook is still in its early chapters and the undoubted twists and turns of the plot will paint a very rich scenario over coming years, and our brand perceptions will move with it.
Looking at some of the longer running narratives in the same sector we can see how the stories develop along with our brand views.
Take the story of Microsoft for example – the story of a brand that moved from hero to villain and then started on a path of redemption. Apple, began too as a hero who turned victim, lost its way only to be found again. Rebuilt into a powerful empire with a loyal following, but also generating resentment. Our perception of both these brands has changed over the years, with the passing chapters. But, as always the narratives are not complete, but just the stories so far.
Stories are vital to communication, especially brand communication.
Who would play your brand in the movie?
A quick snapshot of brand personality – start casting your brand movie.
For a couple of decades now, I’ve used the brand-as-person model when working with clients, to help them get to grips with the intangible issues of brand and corporate personality. You may have seen the recent findings from Interbrand, that people like brands the way they like friends – nothing surprising there. But perhaps a more accessible way of approaching it is to think of casting your brand’s movie.
The advantage this approach has is that it makes you think of your brand’s story – you can look at it as a narrative or screenplay. Every story must have a hero or heroine – your brand. Who would you cast? Then think about what qualities that actor would bring to the role – the qualities and values you would want for your brand. Robert DeNiro would bring very different qualities to Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry or Kenneth Branagh. So what are those values and why are they important to the brand?
Let’s go a stage further: now you have your hero – what about the rest of the cast? We usually have a villain in our brand story who would play them? What qualities would they bring and what competitive advantages does your hero have?
This approach is also useful get a snapshot of how your brand is viewed internally. Asking colleagues or staff to identify brand strengths and weaknesses is rarely productive. They may have an agenda, but there will certainly be demand characteristics in the question and the questioner. Asking others in the organisation to cast the role of the brand in a movie is much more innocent and less demanding. But it can also be very illuminating.