I’m often talking to companies who ask me: What do you think of our brand? Do we need to change it?

In most cases, they don’t really mean their brand at all: really, what they really mean is their logo, or maybe even their trademarked name.

Now, your name and logo are important, but they are just the cosmetics of your brand. Your brand itself is something deeper.

Your brand answers two questions:

  • What is your organization for?
  • How does it do what it does?

This is the core of your branding strategy — and as you can see, it’s not that different from your business strategy, written large.

Your brand cosmetics (your name, logo, voice, etc.) can only be evaluated against your intended brand strategy.  Once you realize this, you get out of the trap of whether blue or green is the most appropriate color for the logo, and get back to the most important questions: What is our brand? What are we really about today, and what will we be about tomorrow?

Elements of a Good Brand

There are three (or possibly four) elements that make a good brand:

A good brand is RELEVANT. What you say about the company needs to matter to customers. It doesn’t matter to customers that you are a “family business,” “innovative,” or any other such nonsense that has no impact on the customer experience. Whatever you assert must be important to those making a decision to buy. If you don’t know what this is, then you need to do some customer research.

A good brand DIFFERENTIATES you. A brand needs to state why you are different from your competitors; otherwise it’s useless. Just saying that you are the “best value,” for example, is meaningless — you need a statement that answers, “why you?” Again, if you can’t think of a differentiating position, you need to try harder to understand your customers and your competition.

A good brand is BELIEVABLE. Assert anything you like, but you need to be able to deliver on the brand promise. If you say you are the fastest, you had better be the fastest — otherwise your words just become marketing puffery. The essence of your brand reputation is delivering on the promises you make, so it is essential that you choose a target that you can actually, credibly hit. If you’re not hitting your own targets — or if your customers perceive you’re just not hitting the mark — you need to fix all aspects of your service delivery until you do.

These three criteria alone are usually challenging enough for most companies. But there is a fourth criterion which I think is the most interesting, and which differentiates a simple brand from a great one:

A good brand is AMBITIOUS. Great branding should stretch the company — not only to perform well, but to live up to the higher expectations of its own brand. When Apple introduced its Apple Watch, for example, the brand expectation is that it would be attractive, innovative, seamless, functional for real world uses, and (probably, maybe) easy to use. True to form, that’s what they came with. If Apple were to make a car, what would you expect it to be like? You know what that is, and that’s what a good brand should do for you.

So from now on, when a company asks me about the logo, I’m going to ask them: What is your brand? What is your brand strategy? I know I’m likely to get some blank stares, but if they put their minds to it, they’ll get a much better answer.

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