Getting to grips with a brand

BP logo

It’s about time someone slammed the brakes on the out-of-control use of the word “brand”. Too many graphic designers include “branding” as part of their repertoire. A great many companies think they are or have a “brand” when they do not. So what has happened?

Most graphic designers will create a logo. No more than that. A logo can, however, become the embryo of a brand.

A company appealing to the rich and unreachable uses the word “brand” because that sounds smarter than trade mark. Of course, some products and/or companies are true brands but many more are not.

The fact is the word “brand” has been debased, which is a pity as the marketing power of a genuine brand is immense. The abuse of the word is one of today’s great marketing delusions.

The origin of the word brand goes back centuries: farmers hot-iron branded their cattle to show ownership. This is still true of a marketing brand but there is much more to it than that. The American Marketing Association should be taken to task for perpetuating the solecism. It defines a brand as a “Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” That is the function of a trade mark or logo not a brand. It says nothing about developing a perceived value or personality, one that has an emotional relationship with the buyer.

A brand starts as a symbol. It may be a graphic, a name, an animation, a sound or even a smell. It comes alive and accumulates value with the character of the product, service or company. The simplest example is Marmite; just a mention of the name evokes a taste, a look, a colour combination and, for old timers, evocations of the past.

A successful brand has value that gets reflected in the retail price. The fact that such a strategy works so well despite competition from unbranded, cheaper and virtually identical items, demonstrates the point. A well-bred brand can justify the price of a product and increase sales. A brand can also add to the equity value of a company. Some, not all, accountants understand this. A great many business managers don’t either.

No matter how powerful a brand has become it is still fragile; it has a life of its own. Unless a brand is properly maintained and protected, it can lose its lustre and even die. Its creation is research-based and highly complex, its strength dependent on the positive contribution of everyone, from the delivery man to the chairman. Here are some examples:

There is a dentist in Australia, Paddi Lund, who wrote about “the Absolutely Critical Non-Essentials”. What he achieved for himself was a one-man brand! He modestly describes himself as just an ordinary dentist. He made the parts that were peripheral to his core business more attractive. For example, a flat screen TV above the dentist chair with earplugs so the patient could watch a movie during the operation. To his surprise he quickly became known as the best dentist in the area. By his own admission, the quality perception of his dental work outstripped the reality.

Addressing the Institute of Directors in 1991, Gerald Ratner jokingly described the things he sold in his high street chain of jewellers as “total crap”. Before he knew it, his brand went down the pan. Literally!

It can take years of nurturing and millions to build a brand but an instant to demolish it. That’s fragility for you.

Here is another example: remember BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 (not the first of several environmental calamities attributable to BP)? The millions, not to mention the time, invested in its ‘green’ logo and subsequent development into a global brand came crashing down almost overnight. The brand took such a knock the share price collapsed despite the colossal company assets that made the costs of reparation look like a drop in the ocean (my turn of phrase is not intended to understate the scale of the catastrophe). Are you going to blame Landor Associates, possibly the world’s greatest brand developers and creators of the BP logo, for the corporation’s misdemeanours?

Walter Landor’s biographer, Bernie Gallagher described a brand as  “built in the mind” … “not in the studio”, I suggest.


This website was conceived, written and designed by Paul Broadbent
7 Richmond Mansions, 248 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 9HL