Creating meaningful brands should be a holistic and considered process. However, all too frequently it’s one that is disparate and reactive, where one objective is prioritized at the expense of all others. So, what are the key pieces to the ‘good’ brand puzzle?

The first thing we need to remember is it’s the customer, not companies, who own brand perception; it’s through their lens we should view brand-building and the key elements that underpin it.

The concept of branding has been around for hundreds of years (the word brand stems from brandr, ancient Norse for fire and/or sword). However, acceptance of brand in the modern sense, as the anchor point that all business, marketing and communication activity should be tethered to, didn’t really mainstream until Professor Byron Sharp gave it a mighty shot in the arm with How Brands Grow in 2010 (with apologies to fans of David Aaker.) Since How Brands Grow – and with the rise of social media – there’s been no shortage of agencies, marketers and so-called experts having a crack at ‘branding’, all with different interpretations and misinterpretations as to the best way to go about building one.  

The long and the short of it? Dissonant narratives, ill-considered perspectives and inconsistent application often wastes the money of many a business and marketer. Case in point, this is the top ranked explanation of ‘brand building’ from Google search:  

“Brand building is the process of generating awareness and promotion of the services of a company through direct advertising campaigns or through sponsorship”. 

Not utterly wrong, but nowhere near right.  

Many hands do not make the right work  

It’s increasingly commonplace for multiple marketing stakeholders to feed into a brand’s activity with multiple agencies delivering against separate briefs for the same project. And herein lies a problem hidden in plain sight. With so many voices contributing to what a brand should be, rarely is a single person or team accountable for owning the narrative of what a brand could be.  

Instead, responsibility is abrogated across internal departments and external agencies, each with competing KPIs and agendas. Solid brands can become dissonant brands, and brands-in-waiting never quite live up to their potential. A crude example: Rather than having a movie director uniting various talent and departments behind their vision, imagine instead a collection of directors, each with distinct backgrounds and perspectives responsible for creating 15-minute sections of the movie in isolation.  

Entrenched behaviours still prevail  

Another often overlooked and undervalued part of the puzzle is time. Les Binet and Peter Field’s famous short-term sales vs long-term brand building piece is much lauded, yet businesses and marketers that have a holistic and long-term approach to branding remain in the minority. It’s been well-documented a preference for short-term ROI is stymying long-term profit growth and market share; I’d speculate a lack of appropriate investment from business’ leaders along with relatively short tenures of marketers is exacerbating the problem.  

Objectively speaking, focusing only on short-term activity makes no rational sense. The captive audience died out a long time ago; they have been replaced by more mindful consumers and informed decision makers. Today’s audiences are not going to be convinced that Brand A is better than Business B or Shiny-New-Thing C, because they have the most powerful source of information ever known, sitting in their pocket.  

Ironically, for a marketing industry that has a predilection for the latest and greatest, agencies and marketing departments are structurally the same as they were 20 years ago. Both are facilitating each other’s outmoded behaviours and both are responsible for glittering-up generic products and category services as ‘better’ with scant regard to the how the activity fits into the broader brand-building equation.  

In a low-attention, high-distraction world, businesses and marketers need to create effective and sticky brands that span multiple touchpoints; each one a micro-opportunity to nudge and remind people of a brand’s existence. Over time, a brand’s value and relevance will coalesce in the minds of consumers. You could say brands should be like Vegemite: Occasional, spread thinly, but capable of leaving a distinct and memorable taste.  

Brand should be all things and one thing at the same time. That is to say, brand needs to encapsulate relevant attributes and associations of its parent business, culture, category and customer need, but still be perceived as a singular entity. Nurturing a brand requires custodians with intellect, instinct and insight and a solid BS meter. Beyond that, there are some interdependent elements a brand should have, equally weighted and working in tandem.  

5 interdependent pieces to the brand puzzle  

Story. Communicating a brand’s story – its origin, beliefs and values – helps foster consumer trust and loyalty. More and more, consumers are not only aware of a brand’s purpose and vision but are willing to pay a premium for a brand that aligns with their values. Heaps Normal is a Non-Alcohol beer that oozes its story through its name, packaging, social media and its mission to change Aussie drinking culture for the better.  

Relevance. Brands that give customers an undeniable reason to choose them over the competition invariably come out on top; relevant brands grow more than their counterparts. Dove created relevance with a timely perspective around Natural Beauty. Nestle found relevance in-between cafe culture and home convenience with Nespresso. Afterpay understood that for younger shoppers, convenience trumps price. Relevance is important, but it’s not the total solution.  

Distinctiveness. Categories are cluttered. Life is cluttered. Distinctiveness helps brands stand out from the multitudes of brands people come into contact with. Mastercard’s deep association with the word 'priceless', McDonald’s instantly recognisable golden arches, and Intel’s famous five-note mnemonic are distinctive and memorable brand assets.  

Consistency. In an age of limited awareness, customers choose brands they are familiar with. From messaging to design to how a brand communicates, consumers are more likely to choose a brand they recognise. It’s been proven double-digit revenue increases can be attributed to brand consistency. The Big Four Banks are obvious examples of brands that know the importance of consistency – and have the resources to invest in it.  

Emotiveness. Brands that can elicit emotions through ideas, language and imagery connect on a deeper level. Emotiveness does’t have to equate to expensive or expansive brand films. Xero is case in point. Beautiful words and beautiful design make the Xero brand a pleasure to interact with. Another example is Who Gives a Crap: it’s funny, memorable and meaningful – quite the achievement for loo roll.  

And it’s not just that Xero is just emotive or that Maccas is just distinct. To varying degrees, all the brands mentioned above perform well across the whole brand puzzle.

The puzzle looks different for everyone  

There is no one right way to create or build a brand. And if someone tries to tell you building a brand comes down to one factor or phrase, run. The aforementioned elements – strategy, advertising, design, performance marketing, egos, global pandemics – are all pieces to the brand puzzle. Despite the constraints of budget, the challenges of time or the delicate balance of managing stakeholders, avoiding the trap of becoming focused on a single piece of the puzzle is paramount.  

Strive to be clear on the full picture: It’s easier to put a jigsaw together when you know what it’s meant to look like. Form a considered framework based on all that you know and infill from there. And take your time.

About the Author: Jim Ritchie
Jim is the Founder and Strategy Partner at US+US, a Melbourne-based Creative Company that unites brand, design and advertising. A strategically-minded and awarded creative director, turned creatively-minded strategist, Jim has 20 years’ experience in brand, advertising and marketing in both Australia and the UK. He’s passionate about creating a more mutually positive way of working; no egos, no silos, no agendas.

This article first appeared in CMO Australia.