This curated column is authored by David John Scott, Creative Director, Eventbrite
Last year I taught my first Branding class at the Academy of Art University here in San Francisco. I’ve been teaching Design for a few years now, but mostly Typography and fundamental Graphic Design classes. This was my first Branding class, and something I had been looking forward to teaching ever since working at design agency Moving Brands.
The class is called Branding Principles: Identity 1, and it’s really the first taste students get of what “branding” means when it comes to design. Typically, the syllabus just focuses on what constitutes good and bad logo design; however, I found myself asking the students (and trying to answer myself) some of the most recurring and common questions about branding that I’ve come across in my career. This process really helped me formulate my thoughts around branding.
Stages of Understanding
When talking to my students one night, I mentioned that people tend to go through several stages of understanding when it comes to branding (which I have gone through myself). Each stage layers on a better understanding of what branding actually is.
Stage 1: A brand is just a logo
In Stage 1, branding is all about a logo. This is where people typically start, without formal education or prior experience with branding.
Stage 2: A brand is a design system
In Stage 2, we realize that branding is not just about a logo — it’s about a larger design system. This is a slightly expanded mindset, and usually comes from having some experience within the field.
Stage 3: A brand is every single customer touchpoint
In Stage 3, we understand that a brand is not just a logo and a design system; it’s about the experience people have when they interact with the brand — at every single customer touchpoint. This expands far beyond design. It also includes a ‘Brand Framework’ which defines the foundation the brand: why it exists in the world and what drives it.
This third stage is a very good understanding of what makes up a brand, and something that I agree with — but I wouldn’t say that this is “what a brand is.” So what is a brand? Through countless hours of consideration, I’ve come to think of a brand as a relationship.
Stage 4: A brand is a relationship
In Stage 4, we understand that a brand is a relationship. This relationship is built upon all of the individual experiences one has with a brand. In this way, ‘Brand’ is a completely intangible connection that exists between a person and a company — just as a relationship exists between two people. This is what makes branding so powerful: it taps into, and is defined by, human emotion and connection.
You may or may not have heard about the common analogy of a brand as a person: this “person” has unique values and defining personality traits that they express on behalf of a company. But in my understanding of branding, the “person” is actually the company — and the brand is the relationship between that company and the consumer.
Now let’s talk about how the company, as a person, builds this brand relationship with the consumer.
The Logo as a Defining Trait
If a company is a person, then their logo is their consistent, recognizable trait. It could be a small thing that may be insignificant by itself. However, by owning and presenting it consistently, the trait becomes a signature for that person. Eventually, other people will come to associate the trait with that person, and attach meaning to it.
These deep-seated associations are why changes to logos can cause a lot of upset; it’s not the thing itself that people are upset with losing — it’s the loss of the association they had with that thing. For example, imagine that your mother was given a dramatic nose job. It’s not her nose that you would miss, it’s the loss of familiarity with her face — and all of associations that come with it. Like defining physical traits, logos are important totems of recognition, and vessels in which people place many of their most memorable experiences with a company / person.
The Brand Framework as a Sense of Self
The company’s Brand Framework is what that person believes in: what they stand for and why they exist in the world. This is an incredibly important part of a company (or person) because if well-defined, it provides a strong vision and direction for the company, uniting and motivating its employees.
Just as with a person who knows themselves well and what they believe in, they act with confidence and meaning. If this Framework isn’t well defined, it’s often detrimental to the business — the company tries to do too many things, or it changes direction too frequently. This is like a person who hasn’t figured themselves out yet and as a result, constantly changes the way they look and behave.
A person’s understanding of themselves usually becomes clearer and stronger as it evolves over time. This is often the same with a company’s Brand Framework. Occasionally, though, you’ll see a company that understands the importance of this early on, investing time and effort to define its Framework. This is like seeing a young person who’s matured early and really knows who they are — it’s an impressive and powerful thing. Needless to say, the importance of a company investing time to define its Brand Framework can not be understated.
Design and Communication as an Expression of Personality
Next in our human analogy, we can think of the Design and Communication of a company as a person’s clothes and how they behave: how they look and how they talk. A company’s visual system and tone of voice is similar to how a person dresses and talks; It’s how they express themselves to the world.
This expression is very dependent on the Brand Framework. Why? Because it’s based on the person’s sense of self, which informs how that person / company presents itself. The better defined the Framework / sense of self, the more consistently the company / person presents themselves.
Of course, just like a person, the way that the company expresses itself — through their personal style and tone of voice — can change depending on the situation and who the person is talking to. These shifts allow the person / company to behave appropriately according to the specific audience and situation. However, the person / company’s underlying core personality traits and sense of self should remain the same, regardless of audience or context.
Products and Services as Personal Benefits
Next, the company’s products and services are the benefits you receive when interacting with that person. And of course, the better they are at what they do for you, the more you want to interact with them. You would want to spend time around a friend who gives you great advice, right? The same goes for a company: if their product/service improved your quality of life, you’d be more attracted to them — and more likely to form a relationship.
Brand as a Personal Relationship
And lastly, the company’s Brand is the relationship they build with every customer they interact with. In this sense, a company’s ‘brand’ is not a singular overarching “thing” — it is distinctly created and maintained between each and every individual connected to it.
This is a delicate balance: a relationship / brand is built or damaged by every single interaction that the company has with its customers. And this relationship is incredibly important and powerful because it taps directly into — and is built upon — human emotion. Think of the loyalty a person can build for a company if the company builds its brand upon personal connections. This is why companies want to become ‘love’ brands; if love is the defining emotion of that relationship, what could be more powerful?
So to wrap this up, I thought I would finish with some points on how to build a strong relationship — and therefore, a strong brand.
It’s impossible (or at the very least, incredibly frustrating) to build a relationship with someone who constantly changes how they act or represent themselves. Imagine every time you interacted with that person not knowing how they’d behave; it would be difficult to form a relationship of any meaning. The same goes for a brand. A company needs to establish who they are, what they believe in, how they speak, and what they look like…and then bring that to the table every time. Consistency builds familiarity and trust. And those, in turn, build love and loyalty.
No one wants to build a relationship with a person who isn’t being themselves. Otherwise what is the relationship built upon? People can sense inauthenticity and will actively avoid it. Even if people don’t sense it immediately, the relationship isn’t built on a substantial foundation. The same holds true for companies and their customers. Companies need to ensure that they are as authentic as possible in who they are and what they offer. This authenticity will build a stronger relationship with their customers — one that can can last.
Don’t just be transactional
This is an important one, and one that can be easily overlooked. Think of relationships that are purely transactional: generally people aren’t worried about swapping them for a relationship with someone else if they can offer more. There’s no emotion in the relationship and therefore, there’s nothing tying them to it beyond the service. If companies functioned in the same way, building feature after feature, serving purely as a transaction for their customers the relationship is incredibly fragile. As soon as they don’t have as much to offer as their competitor, the customer will drop them. It’s an endless race to stay ahead.
Now think of a relationship that’s based on more than transactions. An emotional bond has been created: perhaps the person knows you better than others do, perhaps there’s history there, or perhaps they once went beyond what was expected of them. This is the basis of a substantial relationship — and this is much harder to swap for a relationship with someone else.
Think of how you can build a relationship / brand that goes beyond the transaction. The deeper the emotional connection, the better — because this is where loyalty and love are built. Your company will see long-term benefits from this relationship, because you’ll no longer be in a race to release the next feature.
It takes time
The reality is, relationships take time to build. Imagine meeting someone new and expecting them to love, trust, and be loyal to you immediately. It’s unrealistic. Brands, just like relationships, take a lot of time and nurturing to build. It takes effort and consistency. When building a brand, remember that you can’t expect instantaneous results; it takes time to build a deep relationship, and you need to have patience to reap the rewards.
Every interaction counts — especially the first
Lastly, remember that each and every interaction you have in your relationship matters to the other person. Every time you do something great for them they remember it, and the relationship grows. And every time you let them down, they remember that, too — and your relationship weakens. Relationships are essentially the sum of all of these interactions over time. And remember, the first interaction is one of the most powerful and memorable ones. Your first impression of someone — whether good or bad — often plays a large part in the relationship that follows. If you think about this when making decisions, it will help you more carefully consider every interaction your company has with its customers: is it building that relationship, or detracting from it?
So in conclusion…
A brand is not a logo, a set of assets, a design system, or even a collection of touchpoints. A brand is an intangible bond between a company and a person. And if we define them this way, as a relationship, then brands require constant nurturing, time, and thought. But that’s also what makes them incredibly powerful forces — that have the potential to make a lasting impact on people’s lives.
Disclaimer: This is a curated post. The statements, opinions and data contained in these publications are solely those of the individual authors and contributors and not of iamwire or its editor(s). The article was originally published by the author here.