It doesn’t take much imagination to understand where branding originated. Cattle grazing on the open range had the mark of their owner seared onto their rumps so they could be sorted and identified at roundup time.

For the longest time, people equated brand with a product’s name and logo. Companies viewed branding as a set of tools they could manipulate to increase sales and market share.

Sometime in the past few decades the dynamic shifted. We began to realize that brands aren’t just marks of ownership. Consumers embrace brands and integrate them into their own identities. They literally and figuratively wear their brands. Companies now understand that their control over a brand has limitations, because consumers are the ones who give meaning to the brands they love. This understanding has real impact for how companies manage a brand portfolio.

One of the first things we learned is that a brand is so much more than a logo. It makes sense if you think about it: Every interaction with a product or service creates an impression that helps form the brand image. This includes advertising, of course, and the shopping experience. But it also includes what friends say about the product, the service experience, and even the way terms and conditions are worded. Brand really is everything.

So now we understand that companies don’t fully control their brand image. Brand managers have a lot of levers to pull (see the discussion above about “everything”), but the ultimate judge is the consumer. They decide what the brand means to them. Generally, if a brand resonates with loyal buyers, things are on the right track. But it’s vital to stay tuned into how they’re thinking of your brand. Because if something goes off the rails, those who love your brand the most will be the source of your biggest complaints.

I always say it takes two key ingredients to build a brand: Money and time. Preferably a lot of both. You also need a strategy. The sooner you understand what consumers are looking for in your brand, the sooner you can focus on delivering it – consistently, through every channel, and in every interaction. Here are some of the elements you’ll want to focus on:

Visual elements: Be sure to use your logo consistently in all communications, as well as the other visual elements that go along with it. This includes setting and following standards for colors, fonts, images, and design elements.

Style: Your consumers will associate a certain design style with your brand, whether that’s classy, edgy, or vintage. You’ll build better brand associations by making sure that style is part of everything a consumer sees. And keep in mind, we’re not talking about your personal style – it’s the style of your brand.

Voice: Just like style, a brand has a certain voice in everything that’s written and said. Most companies get the voice right in advertising but forget about other opportunities to express the brand personality like in-store and in social media.

Associations: Just like the way you’re evaluated by the company you keep, a brand can gain or lose points based on its association with other brands. To illustrate, consider a product that appears in a movie. The choice of movie is not trivial to how the brand itself is perceived, even if the product only appears for a few seconds.

So many branding opportunities: Once you’ve gotten used to expressing your brand consistently in marketing, take a look around. Start cataloging every contact consumers have with your product or service and ask yourself how it can be another touchpoint for communicating the brand image. For example, think about how IKEA is known for their friendly assembly instructions that reinforce the easy-DIY personality of the brand.

I’ve been surprised how the concept of brand has infiltrated everyday life. Even teenagers will tell you that an item of clothing, Instagram post, or activity is “on brand” with a rather remarkable level of self-awareness. Conscious or not, I think this is the type of understanding your consumers have when they encounter your brand – they’re re-assured when all their interactions stay “on brand.”

If you know a company that needs help defining, refining, and communicating their brand, I’m available! I’ve just introduced an affordable Marketing Mentor consulting package to help companies create their own branded communications plan.

Copyright 2019, Liz Behlke