Neil Patel

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What Branding Really Means, and Why it’s Usually Code for BS

My brand is vital to me—but not in the way you’d expect if you heeded the rubbish spouted by “branding experts”, designers, consultants, and the Internet-In-General.

If you think branding is important, you are right. If you think you should spend money on branding, you are right. But if you think your brand is your visual identity—logo, website, product packaging, that sort of thing—then you are completely and miserably wrong, and very likely to waste a lot of money.

You probably think a brand is a visual identity because of “big brands” like Nike and Apple and Google and Coke. We identify those companies by their logos, by their packaging, by the unique visual style of their products and websites. But…

Branding is more powerful than visual identity

A visual style is not a brand, and here’s why:

Imagine you’ve won a car. Woohoo, free car! You get to choose between two identical vehicles. Same color, same appearance. The only difference between them, you are told, is that one is made by BMW and one is made by Toyota.

Which do you choose?

You choose the BMW, I reckon. Because visual identity is irrelevant—it is merely how we normally identify the brands we like. How would we find the Heinz baked beans without the turquoise can and distinctive logotype?

Actually, Heinz is a brilliant example of what brand is.

In the UK, its baked beans are remarkably successful. One of its competitors wanted to find out why. They ran blind taste tests—and discovered that two thirds of customers preferred the taste of their beans to Heinz’s. Yet as soon as the brands were revealed, customers preferred the Heinz beans.

In other words, brand can literally change what we like.

The part of our brains that makes decisions can be trained to prefer one brand over another. It can be trained so well it will literally override the part of the brain which deals with processing sensations (including taste).

Here’s another example. In a 2004 study at Baylor College of Medicine, subjects had their brains monitored via MRI while they tasted Coke and Pepsi. When they didn’t know what brand they were drinking, the part of their brain involved with preference judgment remained inactive, while the part associated with reward lit up. And it lit up more than when they drank Pepsi than when they drank Coke. (In blind tests conducted by Pepsi in the 1970s, most people also marginally preferred Pepsi.)

But when subjects were told they were drinking Coke (even when they weren’t), the preference judgment regions of their brains lit up and overrode the reward centers. Subjects preferred what they thought was Coke to what they assumed was Pepsi—regardless of what it actually was.

The same thing happens with wine. Only the most educated snobs can tell a $10 bottle from a $90 bottle in a blind taste test. Yet when subjects know the monetary value of each bottle, they con­sistently prefer $90 wine.

This is the power of branding

It can literally change how good something seems.

But the thing is, using visual markers like logos to identify brands only matters for commodity items in broad consumer markets. Consumers must recognize your products to buy them.

If your company is not a Heinz or a Nike or an Apple or a Google or a Coke…then that kind of branding is probably a giant money pit for you.

But that isn’t to say branding can’t work for you. Not at all…

So how can startups and small businesses use this power…without bankrupting themselves?

To answer this, we need to clarify just what the heck branding is. We’ve seen that it’s crazy powerful. But we still haven’t found a clear description of what it is.

And you need that if you’re going to figure out how to use it without throwing your money down the toilet.

John Jantsch describes branding as the art of becoming knowable, likeable and trustable. I think that’s close. Seth Godin defines a brand as a set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that account for a customer’s decision to choose your product or service over another. That’s basically right, but needlessly complicated.

Ivan Levison describes your brand as a “mental franchise”—and this gets to the heart of it:

Your brand is simply how prospects perceive you

People perceive Toyota a certain way, for example: a manufacturer of cheap, reliable, low-end cars. Toyotas have no prestige. No one is going to pay $100,000 for one, no matter how many mod-cons are stuffed into it.

But slap a Lexus logo on the same car, and you’ve got yourself a deal.

Of course, you can’t make people perceive you the way you want. Their perception will always be at least a little different to how you perceive yourself—what your brand is to you. But you can direct how they perceive you pretty well, provided what you deliver is consistent with how you brand it. Establishing a reputation for quality has a lot more to do with delivering quality than merely saying you do.

Often I see companies with huge image problems talking about rebranding—as if “reinventing” or “refreshing” a brand is the magical solution to any problem.

But that’s only true if the new brand is consistent with the source of the problem. And of course, branding yourself as the worst customer service provider—for example—isn’t a strategy that’s likely to improve your company’s bottom line!

2 key elements of branding that works

Now that you understand your brand is basically how people perceive you, let’s talk about a couple of practicalities for making it work. This is otherwise known by another vague buzzword: positioning.

There are two major elements that contribute to successful positioning, and thus successful branding. They seem obvious when you know them, but many companies do miss them:

1. Focus

A terribly demoralizing mistake I see many startups making is positioning themselves to appeal to the broadest possible customer base.

You might think that appealing to as many people as possible would logically equal more customers and more profits. But the world is a topsy-turvy place, and the opposite is invariably true. This is especially so in the markets which have the most customers, the most profits to be made—and hence the most competition.

An “overcrowded” market is a good sign. It means there are plenty of customers to go around between lots of businesses. But that’s only good news if you position yourself correctly. Here’s what I mean.

I would never advise someone to go into the “copywriting” market, or the “internet marketing” industry. Trying to become competitive in such a broad category will ruin you. Unless you have enormous capital to begin with and a great talent for marketing, you will fail.

But while the “copywriting” market—for example—is almost impossible to break into, the “copywriting for small businesses that sell tractors” market is probably wide open. Along with any number of other niche markets which, given the right background or training, you are the perfect person to serve.

Even better if you don’t do “copywriting” at all, but rather “email marketing campaigns, landing pages and sales pages”.

The more you can specialize and the more you can target a specific industry or need, the better you will do—provided there are actually people looking for your specialty in the industry you’ve picked.

Sadly, many businesses go under because they don’t believe this. They’re afraid of missing opportunities by being too narrowly focused, so they try to appeal to everyone. So let me give you an analogy if you’re still not convinced:

Who would you rather hire if you had a brain tumor? A neurosurgeon, or a GP? (And who is higher paid?)

So as long as there are people with “brain tumors” in the world, you want to position yourself as a neurosurgeon. By appealing to everyone, you really appeal to no one.

2. Values

It can be very difficult to set yourself apart in a market, even if you’re well-focused. Sometimes, even if your product or service has something going for it that others don’t, the sheer momentum of your competitors, or the sheer volume of the market, means that focus is only a weak differentiating factor. So values become very important.

For example, how would you use focus in the personal computing and mobile markets? One way could be to emphasize ease of use and a minimalistic aesthetic. But that alone might not be enough to convince consumers to make a switch from a brand they know, to your little upstart offering.

But if you position yourself as standing for something quite different to your competitors, you can start to make some traction. By advertising yourself as standing for certain values, as well as having a certain focus, your positioning becomes exponentially more effective.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m making a not-so-oblique reference to Apple, which not only focuses on ease of use, but also stands for being different, liberated, and—let’s be frank—just plain cool.

Apple’s values are crucial to its success. MRI research shows that when Apple fans talk about their favorite products, it is the religious parts of their brains that light up. That may indicate an odd irony in terms of the values that got them to that point—but the fact remains, you can’t secure that kind of loyalty with features alone.

How are you using branding?

Do you use focus and values? Or have you found another component of branding and positioning that is more effective? Share your own insights in the comments below.

d bnonn tennant

About the Author: D Bnonn Tennant thinks the most economical way to brand yourself is by emailing prospects often. And the bottleneck in that process is your opt-in page—which is why he created the free micro-course, “5 Sales-Spiking Website Tweaks Gurus & Designers Don’t Know”.

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