Friday, October 19, 2012

What is branding? (or: the lazy KY)

What is branding?

Branding is the act of burning a letter-based design onto the side of livestock with a hot iron stamp.

It’s also the creation of an important, intellectual and emotional connection between a product or service and the consumer who may use it.

But let's stick to the cattle kind of branding for a while, because our pal Jim from Missouri explained it to us not too long ago and it seemed to present a lot of useful parallels for the modern day concept of "consumer" branding. Both leave indelible marks, both require a certain amount of skill to do just right, are easy to do wrong, and can be incredibly useful to protect or create profits.

Behold below an instructional image from the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association "Texas Brand Registration" page on "How to design a brand".

Front and center in this lovely chart we can find the Woodstock Organic Concepts rule #1 for creating a consumer brand: keep it simple. Complication equals confusion and let's not forget the words of the infamous cattleman Oscar Wilde, who said: "to define is to limit". The more we define the brand with needless complexities, the more we have defined it into a narrow corner. Pigeonholed our cow, so to speak. Not a good idea. Simplicity in the branding will allow for complexity in the messaging later, if that's really what we need.

Now let's look at the painting below: "The lazy K Y", by Charles Marion Russell. Look closely and you'll see a brand on the steer. The "K" is on its side so it's called a "lazy K" and the "Y" is to the right or below it so it's read second.  The brand is, as the title of the painting says: the lazy KY.

This brand, the lazy K Y, happens to be a really good brand. Why do you think? Here's what Jim from Missouri told us:

Well, for starters, it nicely embodies rule #1: it's simple -- a "K" on its side and a "Y". Not complicated in the least. Secondly, the letters are not easily transformed into different letters by the addition of lines. Here's what we mean . . . take the letter "F" for example, burned onto the side of a hypothetical cow. A cattle rustler could, with the simple addition of a short arced line, transform the "F" into a "P". A branding design flaw. A vulnerability. In the same way, an "I" could be easily turned into a "T" or a "V" into a Lazy "A". (an upside down "A"). Not good at all, but it brings us to . . . 

Branding rule #2: make it ownable for you and not ownable by your competition. Now this is a great rule but there are a lot of ways to do it. One way is to cultivate your brand's honest eccentricities, i.e., what is it that your brand has that your competition does not. Kent cigarettes famous "Micronite filter" from the Mad Men days or Ivory soap's "99 44/100% pure", which is still in use today. No competitive brand can make those claims, as opposed to, say, Nike sportswear company's claim "Just do it." Those 3 words, so well-owned by Nike, could actually be used by lots of different companies: "Weight watchers . . . Just do it!", your local car wash or bowling alley, and "Trojan" to name a few. It's just not inherently ownable.  BUT!!! Nike has spent a gadjillion dollars connecting those words and the thoughts behind them to their company. And now they really and truly own that sentiment. So that's another way to own it: burn it into people's heads with repetition on a large scale.

So back to the lazy K Y, it's a brand identity that could be put on anything: a cow, a horse, a barn, a ring, a t-shirt, a print ad. It's versatile. Which brings us to branding rule #3: it should work everywhere -- in all media and for every story your company needs to tell. The brand part is the umbrella under which all your communications can comfortably fit. If you're Volvo and you need to introduce consumers to a new car, you can tell them about the engine and the suspension and the chassis and the interior and you can discuss how all those important elements add to the overall safety of the vehicle, that is, you can discuss them all under the umbrella of "safety".

But the branding here goes both ways: the micro feeds the macro and vice versa. The details support the umbrella, which in turn shades the details. It's what we here at Woodstock Organic Concepts have dubbed a "reinforcing branding loop": the details validate the overarching brand idea which validates the details and so on ad infinitum. And ad nauseum, too: it works in all media: print, radio, tv, web, outdoor, etc. WHEN it's executed just right.

Another strength of the lazy K Y brand is that when it's executed, it's not likely to become confusing. Just suppose you're burning that brand onto your cow and you hold the iron in place a little too long or maybe the cow's hide is wet and the lines you intended spread out and fill in in ways you didn't intend. Well, in the case of the KY, those lines are not likely to touch, so they're not likely to be confusing. They radiate out from their centers and are easily recognizable. Which brings us to branding rule #4: make it clear. This will help you to avoid creating confusion in the minds of consumers when things go well and even when things don't. You can probably guess by now why the lazy QO might be confusing. Beware of traps like that.

To review: simple, ownable, versatile and clear. These are the elements of good branding. (As we've identified so far.) Piece of cake. Now let's look at some examples. In the marketing arena, not the livestock arena. Who are the companies that elicit an immediate visceral reaction just when you hear their name or see their logo? -- Apple. Volvo. Nike. Starbucks. Google. To name a few. Not surprisingly these companies, these brands, beyond creating an emotional connection, have backed it up with an intellectual underpinning: smart, safe, striving, delicious, helpful (respectively). This combination of appeal to both emotion and intellect creates the simplest, most versatile, clearest, and most ownable branding.

It's something that every company, big or small, should have to help them communicate most effectively with their clients. It's the difference between generic and premium.  Between "that'll do" and "I've gotta have it". It's the difference between a product and a brand.

Branding, as the landing page of our site puts it, is the speciality of Woodstock Organic Concepts: "helping clients to better understand and leverage their inherent strengths in an increasingly competitive marketplace." Let us help you create your brand. It's what we do.

1 comment:

  1. I used to think of branding as the story a product could tell over and over again in numerous different ways. Lately, I've been thinking of it more as the character who tells that story. The brand as Sheherazade, who makes the story great and the story as the messaging that makes the brand great.