Meditations on Branding

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By Timothy J. Castle

Brands are vessels built to hold meaning and sentiment about a particular enterprise and its products and services. When first molded, they are empty except for their “shape,” “structure,” and “hue.” The brand might be boxy or round; it could be—metaphorically—made of glass, metal, or wood; and its “coloring” could range from translucent to iridescent green, from dull to shiny, dark and highly polished or rough-hewn and unstained. Those qualities might give people a few basic clues about what to expect, but they won’t tell them what the product is, or why they should buy it. That is what must be put in the vessel for the brand to have meaning.

We sometimes think of brands and trademarks as the same, but for purposes of this discussion they are not. A brand is something a company gets the minute it goes into business, even if it never adopts a trademark (a visual representation of the company) or a “wordmark,” the name of the company’s product or products. A company can sell several different products under different trademarks, but it has one brand whether it is intentionally built or based on the accumulated impact of its products, services, and actions.

The word “brand” itself, however neutral its definition may be, has—ironically—bad branding: it comes freighted with two meanings and both are unpleasantly tainted. We know that many people define brands as bouquets of false promises made in order to get an unwitting prospective customer to buy a particular product. Many folks today refer to themselves as “brand whores” with self-deprecating humor, because they feel exploited by the company selling them a particular product, and they also suspect that they are giving up too much in exchange for too little. (But there is also something they like about those products, or they wouldn’t feel compelled to buy them.)

The other meaning of “brand” is worth mentioning—especially in light of people being self-conscious about being brand whores—and that is the practice of branding livestock in order to document their ownership by a particular company, with the grisly infliction of pain. By publicly using a branded product such as a car or running shoes, customers become “branded” by the company, and contribute to the brand themselves. We can look at the drivers of BMWs, for example, and ask ourselves if we want to emulate them by buying one. We can decide whether or not to buy running shoes just like the ones that our favorite athlete wears, but we risk those shoes losing their luster or even reflecting badly on us should the athlete misbehave.

Yet, brands and trademarks are something most of us respond to, some with great anticipation and confidence in a happy outcome. All of us (except for the most pure of body and mind) have a favorite fast food joint we are drawn to; and that place, and the promise of a specific kind of food and experience, are all symbolized by a brand. Many times, perhaps because we know that there is some connection between the duplicitous associations of the first definition, and the manipulativeness of the second, we end up resenting the concept of brands, trademarks, and marketing efforts overall, even as we buy into the dynamic every time we lay out money for a product or service.

A brand usually includes a name and a logo, but it can also include a design aesthetic. Most brands today, the best ones according to conventional wisdom, intentionally do not say what the product is but are structured to embody what you, as a customer, are supposed to believe about the brand. Apple, for example: its logo and name do not say it represents a computer and smart device company. It tells you, rather, about its character, personality and basic traits. For folks that have embraced the Apple brand, they believe that Apple represents cutting-edge technology, clean and pleasing visual aesthetics, and a user-friendly ease of operation across all of the devices it sells.

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This was not always the case, and this description might miss the mark sometimes. Some brands do represent the product explicitly by mentioning it in the wordmark and representing it in the logo. Peet’s Coffee & Tea and the cup depicted abstractly by its logo are a case in point. The Peet’s trademark originates from a more traditional understanding of what branding is and how it communicates. In modernizing it, Peet’s Coffee & Tea clearly doubled down with their commitment to being perceived chiefly as purveyors of higher-end coffee and tea, and not a “lifestyle” company such as Starbucks; both are valid paths.

Starbucks’ brand, the wordmark and the mermaid logo that comprise its primary trademark, don’t tell you it’s coffee that Starbucks sells. And they don’t sell just coffee—from its founding, well before its massive expansion, no matter how dedicated its founders were to quality coffee, it was always about more than the beverages. The brand is certainly about genuine products (mostly coffee, it’s true), but it’s also about adventure, a little bit of risk-taking (to try something new), and an association with other customers who experience a little more than most people. Part of that is interacting, at least minimally, with other Starbucks customers in Starbucks stores.

A brand can also serve as a shortcut to our own self-branding. Just as we all have our own personal taste in clothes, behavior, speech, and other traits that serve as the bricks and mortar of our personality and underlying character, the brands we collect around us serve to advertise to others who we are and what to expect. This isn’t a cynical reduction of human interaction to blatant commercial hustle; rather, it is the other way around. Look at brands as if they were people (just don’t let them vote or contribute to political campaigns, please). In nurturing a company’s brand, it is important to remember that people will be identifying themselves with that brand, and a feedback loop ensues whereby seller and customer both end up contributing.

In terms of building a brand, or re-building one, first figure out exactly what portion of the marketplace you want to occupy and make a stand there. If you want to sell the very best, most difficult-to-source coffees in the world (as most coffee companies say they do) then make an effort to really do that. Likewise, if your goal is to offer coffees that offer a specific value proposition that you feel is being overlooked in the market, then do that, say that, and stick to it—your customers will appreciate knowing they can get a less expensive but still fresh, well-sourced, and well-produced product at a price they can live with on a daily basis.

Problems arise when brands don’t align a customer’s expectations with what they’re being asked to buy. It is often assumed that most failures in building an authentic brand are a result of dishonestly presenting a product as better than it is. However, it can also be the result of not claiming enough credit for the product, and thus failure to establish a high enough premium to assure a profitable return. It is also critical to ensure that the company’s actions and conduct in the marketplace align with the products it sells. Selling a coffee that is basic, at a low but fair price, for example, is unsustainable if the marketing and service investment are not equally cost conscious.

Authenticity in branding, then, is not just a matter of honestly portraying to the public what the company is about, but also of management understanding and being honest with itself about the product it is selling. Know thyself, as it was once said—and thy product too.

Photos: Jim Pennucci (Starbucks), Peter Burr (Peet’s)

Tim CastleFor 30+ years, Timothy J. Castle has sold green coffee and has been writing about coffee and tea. Castle co-authored The Great Coffee Book (Ten Speed Press, 1999) and wrote The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books, 1991). In 2003 Castle received SCAA’s Distinguished Author Award and was the Association’s president in 1991.