When it comes to branding, many people mistake it for a form of marketing communications. And of course, it is that too, but thinking of branding in such as narrow way is detrimental to business.
A big part of the problem is that many people working for the marketing communications industry view branding as something that happens once the product or service is done. This leads to big problems, as clients and their agency partners try to re-position brands solely through campaigns and key messages,
Herein lies perhaps the dirtiest secret of the marketing communications industry, the stuff no one talks about; marketing communications mostly fails to differentiate brands and businesses, especially when not tied to differentiating products or services, and to business strategy. Marketing communications and branding based on "saying something different" often fails because of building false expectations. (The exception to this is when the core value of a brand lies in a cultural context and meaning.)
The problem is, we can all say something different, but true differentiation means actually being different, and that means doing different things.
Take the Finnish company Saarioinen and their “Äitien tekemää ruokaa” – campaign of recent years, for example. (trans. Food prepared by mothers"). Saarioinen sells processed ready-to-eat foods.
Their strategy has clearly been to position Saarioinen as a “healthy food company”. The strategy has been executed through communications alone, mainly through an awarded TV ad campaign that went on for a couple of years. The pay-off “Äitien tekemää ruokaa” (rough translation: Food made by mothers), was intended to imply that the food must be good for you, because what kind of mom would serve bad food to their kids?. Mothers of course want the best for their children, and that includes giving them the healthiest possible food. And food made by your mother is supposed to be healthy and tasty, right?
This is where these kind of communications driven positioning strategies go wrong.
Someone at the ad agency maybe realised that many of the people working in the factories were mothers, and that they could use that "insight" to “create differentiating advertising”, a term I have come to dislike. When you only say something different, your brand is built on a weak foundation. In this case, claiming that Saarioinen's food is made by mothers (and implying that it therefore is more healthy, and perhaps made with care), is built on a false idea. We all (should) know that these particular mothers stand next to the assembly line, doing what they are told.
Real differentiation is based on…well, real difference. A different business model, some kind of customer value that no one else delivers. Behind a successful brand strategy lies a unique (or at least different) value delivery system.
Harvard Professor Michael Porter defines the essence of strategy (roughly) as “choosing a unique competitive position”. Porter argues that a position is achieved through consistent delivery of a tailored value chain, i.e. through the activities that deliver the company’s value proposition. In other words, this view means that you will reach you position by executing your value chain consistently. In Saarioinen’s case, it would have meant tailoring the value chain around actually becoming the “healthy food company”. This would be a bold move, implying real differentiation. It would surely have impacted the whole value chain. It would have called for a bold move by management and the board. (This is probably why so few companies engage in real differentiation.)
While Porter talks about positions, he does not talk about branding, or the human mind’s role in the equation of how positions are reached. (You have to read Trout and Ries to get to the core of positioning, and they actually came up with the concept before Porter).
Positions can only exist in the mind. Positions are created by human beings in the mind, they are the result of perceptions created by experiences, brand signals (touch points), rumours, advertising etc.
Shaping people's perceptions (i.e. affecting how people think of your company, product or service) is what branding is about. In order to shape perceptions, you must be authentic these days. You must create a business that is uniquely positioned to deliver unique value. The single most difficult job in business is to get a whole company to execute a bold and different idea. That is what branding is about. And that is why branding is about more than marketing. It is your whole business.
We need to start seeing branding for what it really is. A strategic tool for value creation, differentiation and growth.