MAY 3, 2005

By Christopher Kenton

Creating an Effective Brand

First, make sure your business fundamentals, product platform, and value proposition are well in place. Without that, branding won't help

Over the past few weeks, I've been talking about the definition of brand (see BW Online, 3/29/05, "Empty Words Filled with Delusion" and 3/15/05, "What, Exactly, Is a Brand?"). The discussion has been primarily theoretical, so now it's time to start talking about practice, beginning with the creation of trademark assets.

If a brand is the symbol that distinguishes one company's products from the competition, how are effective brands conceived and created? Over the past 17 years, my company has done a lot of brand development. We've designed cans and labels for Coke and Pepsi, packaging for General Mills, identities and environments for Apple and Symantec, user interfaces for Motorola and Intel. We've worked with Fortune 500 companies and living-room startups in just about every imaginable industry.

MORE THAN JUST VENDORS.  Two scenarios describe how brands are created at most companies. At one end of the spectrum, a brand is just a functional requirement of doing business, its creation managed like a label to be applied to the company or its products. At the other end of the spectrum, a brand is a catalyst in discovering and defining the value proposition and the positioning of the company or product.

As you might expect, most marketers, designers, and brand consultants champion the latter approach, because it makes them a valued partner in the process - otherwise, they're just vendors. But it's hard to establish a one-to-one connection between the creation approach and the ultimate success of the brand. Plenty of crummy brands are plastered on successful companies, and plenty of world-class brands capture the intangible essence of companies battling bankruptcy.

One of the first technology outfits that my company branded was Ascend Communications, the quintessential Cinderella story of telecom. It invented many early broadband products, growing into a $24 billion company in 10 years.

"MAKE US LOOK BIG."  Ascend produced some of the most successful telecom executives who spun off dozens of companies, including a little shop called 3Com. When my partners agreed to design its brand, Ascend consisted of three people working out of a garage, asking if they could pay some of the bill in equity.

What made Ascend so successful was its unmatched brilliance in innovation and execution. But when these folks were working out of their garage, the first hurdle they had to overcome was to be taken seriously. Their instruction to us as we got under way was unusually simple: "Make us look big."

Big companies employ sophisticated design standards with a consistent image across packaging, marketing materials, and corporate collateral, so we applied that expensive aesthetic to Ascend. It went into trade shows turning heads early and often, and backing up the big talk with substantial technology.

BRAND AS CATALYST.  One of Ascend's spin-offs, CopperMountain Networks ), was battling for market share in the competitive DSL space when it asked us to redesign its brand. The execs told us CopperMountain was fifth in a field of five, and with new technology about to launch, they needed to look like they belonged in first place.

We took CopperMountain through an extensive design process, in which we drilled down deeply into their core competencies and values, designed numerous variations that defined a spectrum of strategic options, and then helped it try each identity on, much like a tailor fitting a suit.

The execs were uncomfortable with the most aggressive option - a wolf howling at the moon - but eventually discovered that it captured the sense of bold leadership and style they needed. The wolf brand was so unusual at the time, it not only made them stand out in their industry but it also became the catalyst for a vibrant corporate culture.

ADDING VALUE.  While the approach that Ascend and CopperMountain followed in creating their brands was different, what made them both work is that the business fundamentals, the product, and the value proposition were well in place before the brands were created.

By contrast, during the dot-com boom, we saw many companies trying to create world-class brands with little more than a trendy idea and a pocket full of venture capital. They spent time worrying about the finer points of brand image before they even had a solid product platform to build on. Most of them burned more value than they created.

It's precisely that image without substance that has tarnished the perception of brand design. A brand can't make up for lacking business fundamentals, but it can add tremendous value when those fundamentals are in place. The images you use to communicate your value and relevance to consumers are some of the most powerful tools available to compete for market share.

TELL YOUR STORY.  It's often the first impression you make with your prospects, it shows the value you offer to customers, and it represents, at least metaphorically, the bank in which the market equity you build as a strong company accrues. It's worth the time and money it takes to design a brand that is well tuned to your business, but how should you go about it?

First of all, make sure you're not trying to create a brand to make up for a failing or nonexistent value proposition. If your business fundamentals aren't in line, a branding exercise isn't likely to help.

If you know what your company is all about, and you don't have the time or taste for reflective discovery, hire a design team with a strong portfolio. Tell them your story, and let them go to work.

DON'T HOVER.  If you have a strong value proposition, but you're not sure how to best communicate it with your audience, look for a design team that can clearly demonstrate an explorative process and check out their case studies.

In either situation, find out from the design team members how they like to work, and let them do their job. If you take them out of their routine by demanding a different process or by hovering over their shoulders, you're guaranteed to be disappointed with the results.