Red Pen Diaries: Branding: An Introduction

ImageWe brand ourselves. It's what human beings do. Whether we wish to conform to some social or cultural norm (the traditional blue button-down worn by generations of IBM programmers) or stand out as rugged individualists (the prescription bottle in the earlobe hole of a kid I saw on a Silver Lake sidewalk), we are forever distinguishing ourselves.

We brand ourselves with the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the work we do. We brand ourselves with haircuts, manicures and tattoos. We brand ourselves with religion and politics and the company we keep.

Some of us are better at branding ourselves than others. When I was in middle school, there was a gorgeous sixth-grade teacher named Miss Friedman. Great bone structure, raven tresses, huge hazel eyes. But even more than what the good Lord gave her, what stood out about Miss Friedman were her blue jeans and belt. She wore denim and heels and a signature silver-and-turquoise belt every day. She worked that look the whole time I knew her, and I'm sure she worked it until she finally moved to Santa Fe and thereafter. I have not laid eyes on Miss Friedman in 25 years, but her image stays with me.

When I say "image," I don't just mean how she looked, of course, or even who she was. What I'm remembering about her all these years later is her "brand." It was an intangible something she projected — confidence, sophistication, sexiness. I remember her so well because my response to the Miss Friedman brand was as much about me as about her; whatever it was that she represented, I felt something in it of the me I wanted to be. This was not about wanting that cool belt; it was about self-definition, identity.

It's really no different with brand marketing. A consumer brand conjures an aspirational reality far more potent than the actuality of the product it represents. An iPod is a portable digital player, sturdy plastic and electronic circuitry. That's what the product is. The iPod brand, however, is what that handy little device means to consumers. It is the iPod's "personality." There are other portable digital music (and video) players on the market. But iPod's branding has been so successful that the word iPod is virtually synonymous with "portable digital player" the way the brand name Band-aid is synonymous with bandage and the brand name Kleenex is synonymous with tissue.

ImageThe value in the iPod product lies in its portability, its design, its capacity, its user-friendliness; the value of the iPod brand lies in the concept of who the iPod user is — or longs to be: hip, tech-savvy, youthful, culturally literate, active, fashionable, musical. Ultimately, a brand's equity rises and falls on the consumer's personal identification and emotional connection with it.

John Russell, a VP with a well-known consumer brand, once said: "What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him." Can you identify the brand he's talking about? Of course you can: Harley-Davidson. Yes, Harley-Davidson riders are buying horsepower, but what they're buying into is the bad-ass mythology.

Fortunately, as human beings, we are not locked into our branding. When I think more objectively about the fabulous Miss Friedman, I wonder how she could possibly have worn the same damn belt every day for years on end. I can't seem to keep a hair color or style for more than a few months. And individuals can usually change their style/"brand" with impunity. But with consumer brands, congruence and consistency are critical. Despite the occasional reinvention — or rebranding — to remain current as the marketplace evolves, a brand, unlike a person, must stay on message.

If you have a product or service to sell — and you do whether you're a plumber or a shoe retailer or an artist or an employee who has to "sell" himself to climb the corporate ladder — you must establish your brand identity, develop your brand and maintain brand awareness to reach and exceed your commercial goals.

Your story is the wellspring from which all of your branding flows

How do you do that? Well, a killer logo sure helps. Think of the instant recognizability of the Apple logo or the Harley-Davidson logo. Hell, you can tell if something is Disney simply by the font. And a brilliant ad slogan — "Just do it," "Got milk?" "Priceless" — is a good idea, too.

But as important as these branding tools is your story. Before you can begin to get down and dirty with your branding, you must ask yourself, "What is the story of my product?" Your story is the wellspring from which all of your branding flows. We connect with friends and family and history and ethnicity and so much more through stories. Stories are powerful. Tell your story, define your brand, connect with your consumer. The product you've worked so hard to create, the service you believe in so very much, deserve nothing less.