(Editor’s note: Francis Moran is managing partner of marketing firm Francis Moran & Associates. This story originally appeared on his blog.)
Not too long ago, I was tickled by an email that read “We’ve been looking at involving a PR firm … and our first thought was ‘That guy with the hair and mustache.” I quickly posted it on Twitter and, in my haste, added a snappy hashtag (#BrandingWorks). What I didn’t realize at the time was I was making the same common mistake I often accuse marketers — even branding experts — of making.The prospect that sent me that email remembered how I look. I will be the first to admit that a red — okay, rapidly graying — pony tail, full-but-tidy beard and what used to be a curly moustache do tend to set me apart from the average corporate consultant, even in the less-buttoned-down realm of marketing. Based on how I look, he was able to easily remember who I am.
He wasn’t, however, looking for a pony-tailed, bearded guy; he was, in fact, looking for a PR firm. And, because of whatever impression about my abilities as a PR guy that I had left with him during a past engagement, he immediately thought of me.
In that nutshell, then, you have the difference between branding and visual identity, something that, as I mentioned above, many marketers and not a few so-called branding experts often confuse.
The best explanation of branding I have ever heard came from Ram Shriram, an early investor in Google whose pithy and dead-on definition I will never forget. “Branding,” he said, “Is what people think about you when you’re not there.”
That’s exactly what happened with my prospect. In my absence, this chap thinks of me as a good person to turn to for their new PR requirements. That’s my brand to him and, thankfully, it’s both clearly memorable and what I would want it to be in this instance.
How I look, arguably also memorable, is my visual identity. And, while it might contribute to my brand — successfully, if it suggests I’m not a conventional thinker — it ain’t my brand.
Far too often, marketers confuse one with the other, with the result that the so-called branding strategies they develop for their clients are actually little more than graphic standards manuals that explain why the various elements of the company’s visual identity exist and how they’re going to be governed.
Many of these manuals further torque the error by seeking to define the company’s brand, and this is where the exercise becomes even more misguided.
Companies don’t define their brand; the marketplace does that for them. The most any company can do is define a set of brand attributes by which it would like to be known and then do its very best to live up to those attributes, something I call the company’s “brand promise.”
The degree to which the company lives up to its brand promise in every single thing it does is exactly the degree to which it will be branded by the marketplace as it would want to be.