On Branding, And Why So Many People Have It Backward

"I do websites mostly, but I specialize in branding. I create brands." I overheard some ladies chit-chatting behind me as I walked to the F train.

And that phrase froze in my head, kind of in the way your gut reaction tells you something's not right. Can you really create a brand? Hear me out.

A brand is intangible. It's a feeling or emotion evoked by a product or service. Those feelings are often powered by a character or personality -- that's shaped by the person behind it. Sometimes the character is a person, and he/she is the tangible element that pushes all the right emotional buttons. But often, it's not. It's much more abstract.

Maybe that trigger alludes to a deeper misunderstanding in the world -- that a brand, like a logo or a company is a thing you create. 

You can create an design, environment, sounds, and even personalities. You can do your best to craft those things so that they evoke the right feelings. And here's where many people have it backward.

When people talk about branding, they want to brainstorm colors, fonts, logos, spokespeople, promotion ideas, website layout, etc. Those are all very important things, but they are not the brand.

It's like building a car without an engine. You're so concerned with making it look like this ideal thing you forget to give it a heart. It won't run. 

You have to begin with the resulting feeling in mind. A brand is highly defined by how it interacts with others. A brand validates who a person aspires to be. The brand should have the same effect on a person as a friend, POI (person of interest), or even that awesome dude who happens to be wearing the shirt with their favorite band on it.

This is why it's so important to know your audience, and I'm not talking demographics. I'm talking, what they do when they wake up in the morning? How do they feel about themselves? What keeps them up at night? What's so valuable that they'll spend well above average to obtain it? Hint: This is rarely a physical item, but usually an intangible life change. Think acceptance, connection, sense of belonging.

Ultimately a brand is what the audience says it is. Not what the "creator" says it is.

A creator can control someone's experience with a brand just about as well as you can control how someone feels going out for coffee with you. Individuals assign their own meaning to things they see and experience.

So, now that that's all said ... what's an aspiring "brand creator" to do?

1. Speak like a human.
2. Meet people where they're at. Physically, mentally, and emotionally.
3. Affirm their thoughts.
4. Invite them to come with you.

This means a brand must live, like a person. Full time. It's not a one-and-done deal. It's ongoing, and this brand must grow and evolve with its friends (audience). It can't just appear once and say hey, buy this.

As a brand creator, you're basically a talent agent. Happy managing.

Erika Finnimore