What is branding?
20th December 2017 | Daniel Rowles
Understand how the definition of branding is changing and the digital opportunities that have become available for brands as a result, with this article from Daniel Rowles, author of the new book Digital Branding, 2nd edition.
Let’s start by saying what branding isn’t. It isn’t about logos or visual identity and it certainly isn’t about celebrity endorsements and big sports team sponsorships. What branding is really about is the sum of all our experiences, and these experiences increasingly take place in online channels. These online experiences may be influenced and impacted by logos and sponsorship, but we need to understand branding to be something much more than visual identity.
Branding has fundamentally changed because of digital media. Digital has led to two-way communications between brands and consumers – social media means that we can now talk directly with the brands that we use every day. In fact, most communications via digital media don’t even involve the brand anymore and are now directly between consumers. We only need to look at review websites such as TripAdvisor to realize that what consumers are saying about us is more important than what we are saying about ourselves.
This shift to dialogue rather than broadcast means that the traditional approach to branding is no longer sufficient. We need to understand how search, social media and mobile are impacting our target audience’s perceptions of us and how it is impacting their likelihood of buying our products. We also need to do this in a measureable way.
Branding as an excuse
‘Branding’ is also used as an excuse used by marketers when they don’t know the value of what they are doing. When the question ‘Why are we doing this Facebook campaign?’ is answered with ‘It’s a branding campaign’, it generally means that they don’t know why they’ve done the campaign and they certainly don’t know how to measure it. We clearly need a better definition and understanding of what branding really is.
A traditional view of branding
When I say that branding isn’t about visual identity or logos many people will be shocked. I’m not saying that these things are not important, but what I am saying is that they are an increasingly small part of a much more complicated picture. Your logo and the visual aspects of your website design will certainly impact on a consumer’s perceptions of your organization, and they mustn’t be overlooked, but the reality is that we now experience things in our connected world in a much more complicated way than before.
The number of different online touchpoints (points at which we are interacting with a topic, product or organization, either directly via something such as a website or app, or indirectly via a search engine results page or a social media discussion) we make before making a purchase are increasing. We are seeking more sources of information and are assigning trust differently. Gone are the days when marketing consisted of putting your product into the hand of a celebrity in a shiny 30-second TV commercial and thinking your efforts were complete.
How digital has changed branding
If you could only get a feel for someone’s personality by them telling you things about themselves, we may end up with a very shallow understanding of them. We may also have difficulty believing in the personality that has been constructed – and we may start to question the motivations behind what they are telling us about themselves. That is exactly the situation of commercial branding that uses broadcast channels such as TV. A personality is sculpted and then we are told what the personality is. We don’t get to discuss, engage with, or really understand the true personality.
Digital media now means, however, that the conversation is no longer one way. I can challenge, ask questions and develop a truer picture of the brand. I can see through a sculpted brand and start to see it for what it truly is. This can be a scary thing for many traditional brands. It can also be a huge opportunity.
If branding is essentially the personality of something, digital media gives us the ability and opportunity to understand the true personality of something. We can then use that understanding to help guide us in our decision-making processes.
This is a great opportunity from a customer point of view. For example, it means that instead of being put on hold for an hour when phoning a call centre and having little choice but to tolerate it, I can now go straight to one of many social media channels and make my frustrations very clear and very visible. I now have a global soapbox with access to all of the other potential customers out there, and I can impact a global organization’s brand in a way that was not possible before (or, at least, was incredibly difficult). That highly visible complaint then becomes part of other people’s brand perception (fairly or not) and suddenly the years of building a brand can be tumbled very quickly. This is a very much changed environment for businesses to operate in – if they ignore this change then it can lead to problems.
Changing our definition of branding
Our brands are no longer what we say they are, but a combination of everything we do, and what everyone else says about us. This gives great opportunity and poses many challenges. Only those that understand what branding really is will succeed in the long term.
About the author: Daniel Rowles has worked on both the client and agency sides of digital marketing for almost 20 years. He is a Course Director for the CIM, lecturer at Imperial College London, and lead judge for the CIM Marketing Excellence Awards since 2010. He is also the host of the Digital Marketing Podcast, an iTunes top 10 business global. As CEO of his company TargetInternet.com, he helps clients of all types to use digital marketing more effectively, including the BBC, Vodafone, Mastercard, Aviva and Warner Brothers.
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