Posted by: johnocunningham | May 23, 2013

Branding: It’s About Quality, Not Design

Recently, I stumbled across a great post on brand thinking by Maria Popova, who neatly summarized the views of several of today’s leading marketing mavens on the subject of branding.

Popova pulled quotes from Debbie Millman’s “Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits” that came from such notable experts as Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink and Millman herself.

Millman’s explanation of the etymology of branding is great, reminding one of the days when “brands” were clear and permanent marks on the hides of cattle, created by fire, and putting the world on notice as to which ranch owned a steer.

Brands started out as designs, but for marketing purposes, the value of a brand was always based on the quality of the livestock, products or services associated with the brand.

In that regard, I am personally aligned with the thinking of Pink, Gladwell and Godin, who described their thinking on “brands” in terms of:

  • Reputation;
  • Expectation; and
  • Promise.

The design of a brand can work to complement the promise or expectation of quality created by a brand, but by itself, the design is worthless. Thus, I am not at all inclined to fall for the message of designers and ad gurus, such as Alex Bogusky, who talk about “design instructing culture.” Design must follow culture and the values and promises associated with it. If it does not, then it is nothing more than false advertising.

This is where many professional service firms stumble on branding, investing lots of money in cool designs, or neat slogans, but little or nothing to insure that the clients or consumers of their branded products and services get the quality and superior experience that they expect by reputation or promise linked to the brand.

If you think about it, the words “IBM” and “Google” and “FedEx” are essentially arbitrary. They have value in our minds because we have come to associate them with certain character traits of the brand that are the result of years of hard work and investment.

In the case of IBM, one instantly thinks of Watson, technology solutions and high-quality tech services associated with “building a smarter planet.”

In the case of Google, few people know that Google is the term for a number with one hundred zeroes following a number one, and nobody would put any value on that, by itself. But we have come to associate Google with innovations related to search and sorting capabilities for massive amounts of information stored as words, data, video, photos, maps and other “bits” we want to find.

In the case of FedEx, most of us clearly associate the brand with the promise created by the ad: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

Law firms and other professional service firms need to start thinking about their brands as promises, and they need to figure out just what they are promising to consumers (other than “we’re the best”) and just how they are going to deliver it. After all the value in a brand is not the cool design, it is the really cool and RELIABLE delivery of the unique value proposition that the brand promises.

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