What is Branding?

Don't confuse simple with easy.

person drawing
Jelena/stock.adobe.com

Explaining evolution, Bill Nye says, "It's not the things that lift the most weights in the gym. It's the thing that fits in the best that led to this expression the survival of the fittest."

Bill Nye is CEO of the Planetary Society (a client of ours), which was co-founded by Carl Sagan and which gathers arguably some of the smartest people on the planet. He offers this very easy-to-understand explanation of how evolution works — no wonder he's so popular with kids.

Defined Bill Nye's way, survival of the fittest means the survival of that which is best adapted to its environment. As it happens, that's also a great way to define branding.

This way of looking at branding is good news for small organizations that must compete in the same environment as corporate behemoths like Amazon, Apple and Facebook. Best Buy provides an excellent example. Once derided as an Amazon showroom, Best Buy realized it could never compete on price, and with Amazon's lighting-fast delivery, being local did not matter much either. So instead, it leveraged the Geek Squad to build customer relationships. Through Geek Squad, it could offer something Amazon couldn't: a resource for customers who were not tech-savvy.

Best Buy was once one of the strongest competitors in its niche. But as the landscape changed, others took hold, and Best Buy had to adapt to fit within the new economic landscape.

In nature, landscapes are constantly changing too, and the animals that survive are the ones that "fit" the best, not the biggest or the strongest. To put this in perspective, the mass of all the humans on earth is dwarfed by tiny little ants.

Our clientele are small businesses, startups and nonprofits. We coined the term "evolutionary branding" to describe how brands evolve, starting with the low-hanging fruit and fixing the stuff that needs the most help first as budget permits rather than changing a brand all at once. But it is also an excellent way to explain how modern branding works.

One of the challenges in working with small businesses, startups and nonprofits is explaining branding in a way that does not sound ridiculous. If you have ever been in a branding meeting where people talk about customer personas and brand stories, you know that not sounding ridiculous is a challenge everyone in our industry faces.

This is why understanding how evolution works is helpful. Branding is a science, not an art. Most small organizations think branding is a logo. But big brands and Fortune 500 companies know branding is all about strategy.

In order to figure out where your organization fits, you have to first understand the competitive landscape. You have to look at your competitors, acknowledge what they do well — because you have to be at least as good as they are — and identify what they do poorly because that represents opportunity.

Then the key to everything is to articulate what it is you do differently and better than these competitors you just learned about. Like evolution, this is where your organization "fits" in the competitive landscape. We call this your value proposition. It is the reason people will want to do business with you, buy your products or join your organization.

Simple, right? Well, don't confuse simple with easy. The thing is, when most small organizations ask themselves what they do differently and better than their competitors, the answer is often "nothing." In that case, it's price. And as everyone in business knows, that is a losing race to the bottom.

This is why it's important to look at branding as a path — like evolution — rather than a destination or a thing (like a logo).

If you look at branding as a path, this insight can be transformative, allowing your organization to change direction and seek out a different and better course. Illuminating the path was what enabled Best Buy to compete with Amazon. What made them different and better was that their physical stores allowed them to have people on hand who could be a resource to customers and address the problems that inevitably arrive when you buy complex technical equipment.

Some paths are short, but most meander along streams and through forests. Some can even be dangerous, running along cliffs and through mountains.

Because we work with so many startups and entrepreneurs, people often ask me what the successful organizations we work with have in common. And my answer is, "They don't give up." They constantly ask themselves, "What do I do differently or better than my competitors?" And when the answer is nothing, they find a new path or persevere and walk a little further down the one they are on, seeking out uniqueness along the way.

To illustrate what goes into developing a good brand, let me tell you about one of the best ones (in my opinion) we ever worked with. It was a parkour academy (we have very cool clients). Their value proposition is "learn from the people who taught Batman how to parkour." It sounds simple, and it is. But don't confuse simple with easy.

This brand was not created with beautiful words, a gorgeous logo or fancy marketing tricks. It was created by two guys who worked hard and spent a lifetime learning to parkour so well that Ben Affleck — who played Batman — came to them to learn how to do it for his film, along with many other A-list celebrities.

Asking yourself what you do differently and better than your competitors can shine a light on the path you're already heading down and illuminate where your organization fits in the hyper-competitive landscape of the modern business world.

What is it that makes YOU different and better?

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