As I have been working with clients, one of the most important topics that comes up during our process is their branding. Their image and reputation go hand-in-hand when you are talking about branding. It is a buzz word that is constantly thrown around. Branding leaves some business owners worried to the point that it keeps them up at night.
I have discovered that most businesses owners don’t really know exactly what branding is. They think that branding is color schemes and logos and headliners. While they aren’t wrong, branding is so much more than that.
Branding is also about messages. Its what your clients think of when they think about you and the products that you sell. Branding is what comes to mind immediately when you say the name of your company. Its the feeling that they get when they think about what you have to offer them.
Branding is a combination of many factors and most of them seem to be beyond your control as a business owner. So, while yes a large part of your branding is nothing more than the perceptions of those that you come into contact with, you set the tone of those interactions with what you present to them.
One of the things that I tell my clients is ‘You are more valuable than any product you could ever sell’. That might seem like a platitude, but you may have read in other articles where I have said that you aren’t selling a product, you are selling yourself. That is what branding is. You are selling an idea and you are the center of that idea.
So what is the definition of Branding?
The Oxford dictionary defines branding as the promotion of a particular product or company by means of advertising and distinctive design.
But what does that really mean? To put that into layman’s terms, branding is the image that you present to the world. It is the intentional emotional message that you send out to define and shape the way that you want clients, competitors, and society to see you and/or your company.
The Cambridge dictionary gives a slightly more precise definition for branding. It is the act of making a product, organization, person, or place easy to recognize as different from others by connecting it with a particular name, design, symbol, or set of qualities. It is the process of creating the identity of something and delivering materials to the public at large that support that identity as a reality.
Your branding should be intentional. That is so important, I’m going to say it again.
Your branding should be intentional. It should never occur by accident.
It takes time to build a brand, just like it takes time to build a reputation. I often use analogies related to children to discuss the growth of a business and your branding can be described this way too.
Your branding is like a personality. A baby isn’t born with much personality, but over time as it grows, that personality develops and once people see that child a certain way, it is extremely difficult to change that perception.
Your Image is Branding
Your image is how people see you. It might seems like image and reputation are the same thing, but they aren’t. Like I said, your image is how people see you. Your reputation decides how they treat you. It is a subtle difference, but important one.
Once people see your company a certain way it is next to impossible to change that image. Take McDonalds for example. They are seen as providing cheap and fast food. They spent decades establishing this image. People loved the speed of the drive through and associated McDonalds with being in a hurry and getting what you need to have a good time.
As time went on, cheap and fast became associated with unhealthy in a general sort of way thanks to societal changes. Images of large unhealthy people began to dominate the images associated with fast food as a whole.
Many years ago, McDonalds attempted to re-brand and be seen as efficient and family friendly, not just to the budget, but to our health as well. They started to offer salads and vegetarian options. They replaced fries with fruit in their children’s meals. On and on they went in an effort to alter their brand image.
People wouldn’t let go of the image they had in their heads. No matter how hard McDonalds has tried, they could not change the way they were seen, even when they began offering high end products.
No one ordered those products. The image that was established left their clientele wondering how healthy could those options actually be? After all, it was McDonalds, right?
McDonalds customers go to items, to this day, remain greasy large quantities that are not good for you and those better for you options are infrequently ordered and fall off the menu over time.
This is why how you brand yourself at the beginning of you business venture is so important. Once your brand identity is set, it is extremely difficult to alter positively. You can through money at it with some of the best marketing campaigns that can be designed. But, those original branding images will persist, from generation to generation.
Your Reputation is Branding Too
The image that you set is arguable the most important thing you will do for yourself or your company. But as I mentioned it is distinctly different from your reputation.
It wont matter how good your product is, if you have a bad reputation, you are like the unpopular kid in class. No one will want to associate to you. The business world is nothing more than a popularity contest at the end of the day and original impressions last.
Thus, your branding is one of the factors that will determine how popular you are on the playground.
Once a brand identity is set, it is the basis for your customer loyalty. It will determine how much others will trust you. Branding can make you forgettable or make you stand out, both for good or ill.
Nothing illustrates this more than the world wide fiasco that occurred earlier this year. The marketing world held its collective breathe waiting to see if Bud Light could recover from what its CMO and CEO had done.
An Example of Bad Branding: When your Image Destroys Your Reputation
Customers turn to brands they trust, time and time again. They also turn away from brands that break that trust. Take the Bud Light boycott from earlier this year. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which side you took in the controversy that they created. The results are indisputable.
Bud Light had a reputation and image. They were decent, cheap beer that was often associated with a certain type of individual in the United States. They knew their place and leaned into it, increasing their sales percentages every year. I don’t know about you, but to this day I still remember great the great marketing campaigns they released in the 90’s.
Just reading the phrase ‘Bud-wise-er’ puts an image of 3 little frogs in my head and that campaign ran nearly 30 years ago. But that is no longer the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the now infamous company.
A Change in Direction
Earlier this year they embarked on a marketing campaign in an attempt to re-brand themselves as the beer you know and trust, for anyone. They tried to launch into a community that they had previously neglected. The updated their product packaging with rainbows and hired sponsors in categories they had never explored before in an attempt to break into new markets. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Their new targeted audience cheered them for their bravery and supported the decision to be included in the party. All across the world Budweiser sales sky rocket in bars and drinking spots that had only seen marginal sales of those products before.
Their once loyal client base, who were diametrically opposed to this new demographic, turned on them like rabid dogs. Budweiser experienced ridicule and boycotts across the country and even the world before it was over. Even celebrities stepped on the stage and took aim at the once trusted brand, literally in some cases.
The reality was this new demographic approach in no way hurt their loyal customer base. Their beer had not changed. It looked and tasted the same, inside the can. But, the can changed and those loyal clients took it personally. Budweiser was trying to link them to a people that they felt they had nothing in common with.
In just a few weeks they lost almost 40% of their sales by comparison to the same time the year before. In an attempt to stop the financial bleeding that resulted from that massively failed marketing campaign, they flipped and tried to back peddle away from their new position, only to alienate both sides of the debate. Their reputation was destroyed and nearly a hundred years of branding went down the drain in a matter of weeks.
Today when you think of Budweiser, its not cute frogs and goofy cowboys that come to mind. Its beer cans be shot from fences, celebrities cussing and ranting, and rainbow striped cans sitting on shelves forgotten by both sides of the debate that one simple marketing campaign began.
They still haven’t recovered from that disaster. To date they have lost nearly $400 million dollars in sales compared to the year before. The problem they encountered is extreme but typical when you try to alter the way that people see you. Your customers fight back and it can put a bad taste in their mouth. The way that people see you is hard to change for the positive, but one bad experience can destroy a life time of work.
You may feel like you are not in control of your image. Your reputation can spiral out of control if you don’t keep a tight control on it.
But never forget, your branding is yours and yours alone. Next week, I will cover the 3 pillars that make up your branding, Business Branding, Celebrity Branding, and Mission Branding. The problems that occurred in the examples above are the result of executives that forgot that you need to change all three in order to make great and effective changes.
They forgot the simplest rule of marketing, you can show your customers what you want them to see, but you cant decide how they will perceive it. You cant control the way that someone will react to your branding. All you can do is know that your image and reputation go hand-in hand and they are the meat of your brand.