Branding is not design

If you’re old enough to remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the news anchor played by Ted Knight was handsome and impeccably attired with a booming, authoritative voice.  He also happened to be dumb as a rock.  If you went by exterior appearances, Ted Baxter was someone you could really put your trust in, until you saw him in action that is.

To base your impression of Ted Baxter on his carefully staged reading of the news would be wrong.  His actual personality was something else entirely.  In his case, the “book” was significantly different from the “cover.”

That’s why branding people shouldn’t put too much emphasis on design.  Yes, design is part of it, but only a part.  The key word to me is “expectation.”  When you see or hear about a brand, what do you expect?

In many ways, brands are like personalities, and it’s instructive to use real people as examples of the way we react to brands.  If you barely know someone, you probably don’t have much of an expectation about how they will behave.  The more you’re exposed to them, however, whether it’s in person or through the media, the more you develop highly focused expectations about what you should expect from them.

When people fail to live up to our expectations, like Tiger Woods, for example, we react with surprise, shock or disappointment.  If it’s only a small deviation from our standard expectation, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt.  If the deviation is significant, or if we witness a steady series of inconsistent behaviors, our expectations change.

That’s what brands do.  If we have a positive impression of a brand, we expect something good when we interact with that brand.  Likewise, if our expectations are negative, we expect to be abused, gouged or annoyed.  It has little to do with design.

For my money, branding is more about words and actions.  You tell people what they should expect and then you proceed to deliver on that promise.  In molding and shaping this desired expectation, messaging is a lot more important than graphic design.

And as long as we’re talking about molding and shaping expectations, let me put in an appeal to keep your aspirations simple and focused.  You cannot be the Mission Statement.  Most strong brands are clearly identified with a single attribute.

Rolex is quality.  Wal-Mart is everyday low prices.  FedEx is reliability.  Apple is innovative design. Volvo is safety.  The list goes on and on.

Marketers that try to do too much with their brand expectation run the risk of making it too complicated for customers to grasp and retain.  The Holy Grail of branding, to me, is when one customer turns to a colleague and says, “I like XYZ because ______” and the “because” is the brand expectation you have been striving to establish.

I will readily concede that expectations can be impacted by design.  You walk into Tiffany’s or Neiman Marcus expecting high quality because of the way the store is designed and the merchandise displayed.

But in my B2B world, customers rarely find themselves in a retail environment, and even if they do, their expectations are most likely already shaped by other considerations.  Construction equipment buyers, for example, know that Caterpillar products are rugged and reliable before they set foot in a dealer’s showroom.

It’s far more important in branding to get the messaging right.  If you do that properly, design will almost take care of itself.

(And for all the graphic design people who might be reading this, you guys are the best!)

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