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Brand Magic

Brand Magic

I have never been branded in the physical sense;+ however millions of farm animals over the centuries would attest to its effectiveness. The original of the word “brand” is in old Norse–the language of ancient Scandinavia. It means “to burn.” It was a good idea in Scandinavia to burn an identifying mark into the rump of your livestock, because the cattle had to roam about to find enough food, and anyhow, building fences was a lot of work.

The Purpose of Brands

Brands were originally a way to identify property and to distinguish it from everyone else’s property. They still identify property, but not always in the way they used to. The old way was like nametags on your clothes.

When I went to school, it was a requirement that my uniform (yes, we wore uniforms) was labeled. That was like a brand in the original sense. It told people whose clothes were left lying around in the locker room.

And there was another sign on some of my school clothes: a badge. The school badge was also a brand, because it identified me as belonging to that particular school. In fact, it did something else: it also identified my school and differentiated it from other schools. So from the age of about six, I was branded. Marked, you might say.

The American Marketing Association has a definition of a brand. It goes like this:

A brand is a ‘name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of the competition.’

What are some examples of brands according to this definition? The McDonalds arches. The ‘Intel Inside’ logo. The Coca-Cola logotype. We all know many of these names, terms, signs, symbols and designs, and we use them to help us understand the differences between products, services and experiences.

And there is another important use of the ‘brand’ word. We talk about brands not only in terms of the external identification—such as the logo or slogan—but also in terms of the content or perceptions that go with those identifiers. If I ask you to tell me about the Volvo brand, what comes to mind? Safe cars. Swedish cars. The logo and the external symbols do not have intrinsic meaning. They may help build associations, and indeed they should. However, brands without positive intrinsic meaning are of little value. The Volvo logo, or Volvo cars, remind us of the intrinsic values of safety.

This all means that as brand-builders, our job is to create perceptions of value through symbols.
Next we’ll talk about the power of symbols – rationally and emotionally.

Symbols and Signs

Symbols have a lot of power. I was driving down the road the other day feeling absolutely fine, when I saw a sign outside a store that said “Peet’s Coffee and Tea.”

It’s a local company with stores in mainly around the San Francisco Bay. What do you think happened when I saw the sign? I started to think about coffee. I started to think, “You know—I really deserve a cup of coffee.” I could smell the coffee in my imagination. I could visualize myself sitting with that cup of coffee, enjoying the surroundings, perhaps browsing through a magazine or a newspaper. Next thing I know, I’m parking the car and going in and ordering that cup of coffee. How many of you have had an experience like that? That’s the power of a brand. When we see that logo and the particular style of the place, our mind tells us what to do, and often we just follow right along.

What’s another brand that might lead you to the same kind of associations? Starbucks, of course. It’s now one of the most recognized brands. What about Maxwell House? Not such a strong or positive set of associations for most of us.

bq. Pavlov worked this out at one level, through his experiments with dogs and bell ringing. He trained the dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with food. After a while, he didn’t have to feed them: he just rang the bell and they would salivate. It’s called operant conditioning. That’s what brands–especially consumer brands–do.

Many symbols work like that. When we see a picture of someone having a great time, we tend to connect with that experience. When we see a happy mother and child, we think different thoughts from when we get cut off on the freeway. Each set of images causes us to respond in a particular way.

Of course, our response to symbols is context-specific. Think about the American flag. This is an extreme example, and it is one that polarizes people to some degree, because it has strong associations. To patriotic Americans, the flag is a symbol of all that makes America great. It reminds them of the constitution, the founding fathers, and the opportunity that America offers its people. To members of other nations, the US flag may be a neutral symbol, or it may have negative associations because it contradicts symbols and beliefs that are important to them.

This is a very important point. Most symbols don’t have universal meaning. Even the image of a baby, which for many of us is a very positive symbol, can be negative. How do you feel when you climb into seat 35B on that cross-country flight, and a mother with a vocally precocious baby sits down next to you? It’s not such a positive set of associations for everyone. I think my reaction to that situation has changed since I had my own children-although my tolerance seems to lessen as my children move past that phase. That’s partly about context, and partly it shows that we have a multiplicity of associations with a particular symbol or stimulus.

That all means that we have to influence the associations our customers have with our product and brand. It’s simply not enough to “put it out there” and hope for the best. Branding is not just about creating a graphical identity. We must make sure that it’s properly reinforced and managed. That includes the way we manage the channel, the way products are displayed, the way the brand is linked to other products and activities. That’s the discipline we call brand management.

So the first big point I want to make is this. Our minds work like pattern matchers. We take in a stimulus—like seeing that Peet’s Coffee sign or the picture of a mother and child—and our minds rapidly try to match it up with something we already know. That’s how we understand the world. If we understand how people make these associations, we’re well on the way to being able to create influence and positive associations—which after all is the purpose of branding.

Now let’s discuss the way brands work on our psyche in a bit more detail.


We’ve ranged pretty widely in a short time. Let’s summarize.

  • Brands are symbols linked to associations. You already know how to process symbols to create associations. You all do it all the time. You are continually drawing conclusions about the room you’re in, the clothes people are wearing, the tone and style of this article, and so on. That’s exactly how brands work.
  • Successful brands take control of our thoughts and feelings. Good brand managers work to explicitly control the associations you have with brands. They are fighting for control of a piece of your mind. It’s an OK thing to do; just be sure that your brand and the product that stands behind it represent things you believe in.
  • Brand development is a complex activity. We’ve only touched the surface in this article. We’ve talked about lots of models: the 3 Cs; Brand Ambition, Brand Positioning, Brand Benefits, a process for brand development. For more information, there are a number of good books – for example those by David Aaker.
  • Brands can make all the difference between success and failure for a product. If no one knows who you are or what you do, it’s tough to grow.
  • Your brands must be congruent. If you build a brand that is consistent with the values of your company and the capabilities of your product, you gain focus, cut costs, and build sustainable value.

Finally, building and managing brands is a lot of fun. It’s important to remember the element of fun – the customer is looking for a good time too.

There are some well-established approaches to brand development and modeling: some are introduced in the next article: Brand Recipes.

p>. “Tim Barnes”:


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