What BRAND are you smoking?

Every discipline has its language, a verbal shorthand to pack paragraphs of meaning into single terms relevant to the specialty. Those terms speed communications but can lead to banal statements if the definitions aren’t kept sharp. This post seeks to reel in some bad habits that have cropped up in my life and the lives of others. In particular I’m feeling bad about some of the verbal flair, the hip-shot opinions and quick assessments that lack substance. If you don’t suffer from any such problem, congratulations. I am truly proud of you.
Too often, rather than say what we mean, we use terms that sound a bit more important, a splash more encompassing. For instance, if you can’t decide on the pictures and type that are going in the next web ad, you don’t say:

“I can’t decide on the pictures and type that are going in the next web ad.”

Instead, we use the more important sounding:

“I am still processing through the branding implications”
or “I don’t think that we’ve settled the verbal cues that will truly create a brand connection.”

I’ll save the problem of posturing for another post, but maybe we could make a little progress on this one term, branding. If you use “brand” as a synonym for design, layout, logo, type or color (or some combination like that) I question your use of the term.
Well “So WHAT?” you may ask. Yes, we are all a tad insecure and I should be understanding and if you’re not guilty of this, AWESOME! But at the risk of being pedantic, I want to say, “words have meaning.”
Too often I’ve caught myself using ill defined words….exercising a vague hope in fairy dust I suppose. This fairy dust attempts (since I’m using terms with no definition) to make people nod their heads, rub their chins and consider me a sage.
My biggest fear is that the improper use of “brand” or “branding” is actually worse than posturing as it leads to an improper understanding of WHY we do WHAT we do. Those of us in the graphic arts community tell our customers that they need to “differentiate” or stand out as “unique.” We pass on the common knowledge that the marketplace is crowded – massively crowded with products, choices, features and all the clutter of advertising and logos that go with it.
Then we sell them a logo, a redesign or a website and they JOIN THE CLUTTER. They may look sharper, BUT they don’t think differently, they don’t act differently and that all but guarantees little change in their visibility to customers.
So what is branding? I haven’t found a better definition than Ted Matthews’:

“Brand is what people think of you, it’s everything. It’s every touchpoint that anyone ever has with your business. And when the Brand is this important, it can’t be delegated away, but must be owned by the CEO – the only person in the organization with the clout to make sure that employees are delivering the Brand at each and every point of contact.” — Matthews, Ted  (2011-04-10). Brand: It Ain’t the Logo* (*It’s what people think of you) (Kindle Locations 172-174).

Ted Matthew’s book is important for several reasons, not the least of which is this nifty quote. (If you don’t have a good sense of brand, I thoroughly recommend it. His company website is instinctbrandequity.com. I may not be able to get you to stop thinking (and speaking) of “brand” as a logo, type and some colors. However, could I at least encourage you to start thinking and speaking of your brand as “every touchpoint that anyone ever has with your business.” Design can be part of the clutter of our modern world or part of building an intelligent, multi-faceted strategy to influence  “what people think of you.”
One methodology helps dilute people’s attention and the other enforces your uniqueness at every point of presence.

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