My mom recently asked what Balernum does, what I do. My dad’s ears perked up. He wanted to know the answer too. One might think, considering they're my parents and I’m 36 years old, that they should already know.

I can’t fault them for wanting clarification though. Branding and marketing aren’t as straightforward as, say, a coin laundry.

Laundry is a part of most everyone’s day-to-day routine, and paying to use someone else’s stuff—in this case, washing machines and dryers—is a familiar business model. Coins + Laundry = Coin Laundry. Okay. Got it.

But branding? What the heck is branding?

The concept itself and the many methodologies it encompasses befuddle some people. Even long-time business owners talk about branding like it’s a crystal ball.

You gaze into branding’s murky depths, hoping to glimpse a hidden truth. One sniff of the unicorn’s perfumed mane, one lightning bolt of inspiration from its fey eye, and you’ll be transported to the hallowed halls of brand titans like Apple and Harley Davidson, Casper and Yeti, Enron and xfinity.

Of course I’m exaggerating. No one really thinks branding is unicorn sighting. Most people don’t think about branding at all, and when they do, they confuse their brand with their visual or corporate identity.

Your brand is your logo, right?

Not exactly. It’s true that many branding projects culminate in identity design. At Balernum we may develop a new logo for you, as well as a new color palette, typography, and specific treatments or applications. We then formalize the whole shebang in your brand book or identity guidelines.

But a logo is not a brand the same way a planet is not a galaxy.

Let’s clarify what a brand is, shall we?

A brand is the complete expression of an organization. That complete expression is comprised of many component parts, or brand “touchpoints.” (Sorry to kill the vibe with lame marketing-speak.)

The galaxy analogy works pretty well. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of, among other things, a sun, planets, moons, comets, asteroids, and intelligent life. Your brand consists of your organization’s personality, values, culture, design and creative, products and services, market position, and human interactions.

Your brand is both visual and verbal, communicated and felt, what happens inside the company and perceptions of people on the outside looking in.

Your brand is a story people carry with them. A dozen different people can tell that story a dozen different ways. No wonder we strategists and creatives have a hard time defining what a brand is!

Thankfully, the art and discipline of branding is easier to explain.

Branding is deliberately influencing the way people think and feel about your organization. You try to get everyone telling the same story, and you accomplish that by bringing consistency to your design, strategy, marketing, messaging, customer service, policies, physical spaces, phone scripts, and myriad other experiences and brand touchpoints.

When you order more lemonade at Chick-fil-A, what will the person behind the counter inevitably say? “My pleasure!”

This phrase and the attitude behind it aren’t accidents. A brand strategist helped leaders at Chick-fil-A define how they want customers to feel and how to be intentional about creating that feeling.

Last time I checked, Chick-fil-A was doing okay, and Enron was not.

You see, branding can go both ways. Some companies gain a reputation for integrity and superior customer service. Others are known for unfair policies and unscrupulous executives.

That brings me to the most important point in this short treatise on brand: You have a brand whether you want one or not. Your brand is fly paper where the dust and detritus of commerce and human interactions accumulate.

You cannot control everything that sticks to your brand. A troll who was never even a customer can leave a scathing review on Google My Business. Or, like Pat Flynn, you and your brand may suffer at the hands of an opportunist who manufactures lies and stirs up controversy simply to drive traffic to his own site.

You cannot exercise perfect control over your brand, but you can be proactive in observing the fly paper, telling a more consistent and authentic story, and finding opportunities in your small universe.

Intentional branding is worth it.

Done right, branding can add immense value to a company.

Marketing consultant Margaret Mark and Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Group wanted to study the connection between brand archetypes and economic performance. The BrandAsset Group evaluated consumer attitudes toward over 13,000 brands: the most extensive study of its kind in the world.

Margaret Mark later analyzed the Market Value Added (MVA) and Economic Value Added (EVA) of brands with a single, recognizable archetype. Those brands’ MVA and EVA rose by 97% more than what she calls “confused brands,” and “over a six-year period under study, the EVA of strongly aligned brands grew at a rate 66% greater than that of the EVA of weakly aligned brands.” (The Hero and the Outlaw, pp. 26-30.)

This quote from Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists offers a neat summary of how branding and profit intersect: "Brands associated with archetypal identities positively and profoundly influence the real asset valuation of their companies."

The Curious Case of Yeti

You can look no further than Yeti to find proof that a powerful brand is more than a logo, typography, and pretty cocktail of colors.

If that weren’t true, then Yeti wouldn’t be able to charge $27.99 for a 30oz insulated tumbler. You can buy an identical Ozark Trail tumbler for $8.74 at Wal-Mart. The Yeti tumbler costs three times as much.

Does it perform three times better? No.

According to people who spend their time testing such things, the Ozark Trail tumbler actually outperforms the Yeti tumbler. (The Ozark Trail tumbler even comes with a Lifetime Warranty!)

So what gives? Why would ANYONE pay 320% more for a product that isn’t better and may even be worse? If the tumbler test is any indication, Yeti’s Tundra 350 cooler is not significantly better than comparable Igloo or Coleman products. How can Yeti get away with charging $1,299.99 for a cooler? Yeti’s customers resonate with the Yeti brand.

In an Inc. article that chronicles Yeti’s rise, David Srere, who is Co-CEO and chief strategy officer at Siegel+Gale, summed up the phenomenon with New Yorker flair: "It's just a f$%&*!@ cooler.”

Yeti does have a solid product. A Yeti cooler can withstand a play date with a 900-pound Grizzly bear. Yet, the product alone cannot account for the company’s meteoric growth from $5 million in sales in 2009 to $450 million in 2015.

Yeti’s success is brilliant. It’s absurd. It’s branding.

McDonald’s doesn’t make a better hamburger. Starbucks certainly doesn’t make better coffee. And no one really believes that a MacBook can perform that much better than a $300 Walmart-special laptop.

The x-factor is brand. If you’re focused on proving or quantifying anything about a brand, you’ve already missed the point. You don’t have to understand gravity fully—no one does—to recognize its importance. The same goes for branding. These days, you can only ignore it at your peril.

The fact is, people want to associate themselves with the Yeti brand. They relate to Yeti’s brand story. They signal that affinity by putting Yeti stickers on their cars and Yeti hats on their heads.

Yeti even found its way into Chris Janson’s song, "Buy Me a Boat,” which reached No. 1 on the iTunes Country chart: "But it [money] can buy me a boat, it can buy me a truck to pull it, it can buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some Silver Bullets."

Why does branding work?

Brands speak to our fundamental need to belong. Branding has risen in prominence while other stories we identify with—creeds, faiths, leaders, traditions, and narratives of all shapes and sizes—have let us down. We don’t want to wear those t-shirts anymore, so we don the Yeti logo instead.

As human beings we go through a constant process of deconstruction and reassembly. We curate our own identities and cast out the parts we find undesirable, embarrassing, or incongruent. Certain brands find a spot in the mosaic of our lives. They come to shape how we understand ourselves.

Margaret Pott Hartwell and Joshua C. Chen view this an opportunity for business leaders and other brand “owners”:

"In an age in which many people crave a deeper sense of connection to their work and want business to demonstrate greater integrity and accountability, the creative and mindful attention to archetypes can facilitate a more authentic, holistic and human way of being in business." 

Source: Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists

Your brand is your opportunity.

Because branding matters to customers, it should matter to business owners. As some companies mature, their leaders begin to see that capturing more market share will be difficult until they strengthen their positioning, set themselves apart from competitors, and build a brand that actually means something apart from products and profits.

When you build an authentic brand and connect with the right people, you end up with something incredibly valuable—fans. These brand ambassadors will support you because they appreciate who you are and what you stand for.

They will help you spread your message because they resonate with it, not because you are yelling it louder than everybody else.

At Balernum we spend a lot of time thinking about our brand and asking questions like these:

  • What positive impact do you want to make in the world?
  • What is your transcendent message?
  • How will you make your customers’ lives richer with meaning and purpose?

What about you? Do you want new customers eager to pay 320% more for your products and services? Give them an attitude, cause, or belief to rally around, and they will reward you with their money and loyalty.

What should you do next?

If you’re not currently confident in and proud of your brand, then let’s talk about the gaps you see. Share your name and email address below, and we’ll follow up and schedule a time to chat.

Branding may not a crystal ball, but it is a landscape ripe with opportunities.