Brand identity: a necessary concept

Like the ideas of brand vision and purpose,the concept of brand identity is recent. It started in Europe (Kapferer, 1986). The perception of its paramount importance has slowly gained worldwide recognition; in the most widely read American book on brand equity (Aaker, 1991), the word ‘identity’ is infact totally absent, as is the concept.

Today, most advanced marketing companies have specified the identity of their brand through proprietary models such as‘brand key’ (Unilever), ‘footprint’ (Johnson &Johnson), ‘bulls’ eyes’ and ‘brand stewardship’, which organize in a specific form alist of concepts related to brand identity. However, they are rather checklists. Is identity sheer linguistic novelty, or is it essential to understanding what brands are?

Brand identity

The outward expression of a brand - including its name, trademark, communications, and visual appearance - is brand identity. Because the identity is assembled by the brand owner, it reflects how the owner wantsthe consumer to perceive the brand - and by extension the branded company, organization, product or service. This is in contrast to the brand image, which is a customer's mental picture of a brand. The brand owner will seek to bridge the gap between the brand image and the brand identity. Effective brand names build a connection between the brand personality as it is perceived by thetarget audienceand the actual product/service.

The brand name should be conceptually on target with the product/service (what the company stands for). Furthermore, the brand name should be on target with the branddemographic. Typically, sustainable brand names are easy to remember, transcend trends and have positive connotations. Brand identity is fundamental to consumer recognition and symbolizes the brand's differentiation from competitors.
Brand identity is what the owner wants to communicate to its potential consumers.

However, over time, a product's brand identity may acquire (evolve), gaining new attributes from consumer perspective but not necessarily from the marketing communications an owner percolates to targeted consumers. Therefore, brand associations become handy to check the consumer's perception of the brand.

Brand identity needs to focus on authentic qualities - real characteristics of the value and brand promise being provided and sustained by organizational and/or production characteristics.

What is identity?
To appreciate the meaning of this significant concept in brand management, we shall begin by considering the many ways in which the word is used today.

For example, we speak of ‘identity cards’ – personal, non-transferable document that tells in a few words who we are, what our name is and what distinguishable features we have that can be instantly recognized. We also hear of ‘identity of opinion’ between several people, meaning that they have an identical point of view.

In terms of communication,this second interpretation of the word suggests brand identity is the common element sending a single message amid the wide variety of its products, actions and communications. This is important since the more the brand expands and diversifies, the more customers are inclined to feel that they are, in fact, dealing with several different brands rather than a single one. If products and communication go their separate ways,how can customers possibly perceive these different routes as converging towards common vision and brand?

Speaking of identical points of view also raises the question of permanence and continuity. As civil status and physical appearance change, identity cards get updated, yet the fingerprint of their holders always remains the same. The identity concept questions how time will affect the unique and permanent quality of the sender, the brand or the retailer. In this respect, psychologists speak of the‘identity crisis’ which adolescents often go through. When their identity structure is still weak, teenagers tend to move from one role model to another. These constant shifts create gap and force the basic question: ‘What is the real me?’

Finally, in studies on social groups or minorities, we often speak of ‘cultural identity’. In seeking an identity, they are infact seeking a pivotal basis on which to hinge not only their inherent difference but also their membership of a specific cultural entity.

Brand identity may be a recent notion, but many researchers have already delved into the organisational identity of companies(Schwebig, 1988; Moingeon and Soenen,2003). There, the simplest verbal expression of identity often consists in saying: ‘Oh, yes, See, but it’s not the same in our company!’ In other words, corporate identity is what helps an organization, or a part of it, feel that it truly exists and that it is a coherent and unique being, with a history and a place of its own,different from others.

From these various meanings, we can infer that having an identity means being your true self, driven by a personal goal that is both different from others’ and resistant to change. Thus, brand identity will be clearly defined once the following questions are answered:

  • What is the brand’s particular vision and aim?
  • What makes it different?
  • What need is the brand fulfilling?
  • What is its permanent nature?
  • What are its value or values?
  • What is its field of competence? Of legitimacy?
  • What are the signs which make the brand recognizable?

These questions could indeed constitute the brand’s charter. This type of official document would help better brand management in the medium term, both in terms of form and content, and so better address future communication and extension issues. Communication tools such as the copy strategy are essentially linked to advertising campaigns,and so are only committed to the short term. There must be specific guidelines to ensure that there is indeed only one brand forming solid and coherent entity.

Brand identity and graphic identity charters

Many readers will make the point that their firms already make use of graphic identity ‘bibles’, either for corporate or specific brand purposes. We do indeed find many graphic identity charters, books of standards and visual identity guides. Urged on by graphic identity agencies, companies have rightly sought to harmonies the messages conveyed by their brands. Such charters therefore define the norms for visual recognition of the brand, ie the brand’s colors, graphic design and type of print.

Although this may be a necessary first step,it isn’t the be all and end all. Moreover, it puts the cart before the horse. What really matters is the key message that we want to communicate. Formal aspects, outward appearance and overall looks result from the brand’s core substance and intrinsic identity. Choosing symbols requires a clear definition of what the brand means.

However, while graphic manuals are quite easy to find nowadays,explicit definitions of brand identity per se are still very rare. Yet, the essential questions above (ie the nature of the identity to be conveyed) must be properly answered before we begin discussing and defining what the communication means and what the codes of outward recognition should be.

The brand’s deepest values must be reflected in the external signs of recognition, and these must be apparent at first glance. The family resemblance between the various models of BMW conveys a strong identity, yet it is not the identity. This brand’s identity and essence can actually be defined by addressing the issue of its difference, its permanence, its value and its personal view on automobiles.

Many firms have unnecessarily constrained their brand because they formulated a graphic charter before defining their identity. Not knowing who they really are, they merely perpetuate purely formal codes by, for example, using a certain photographic style that may not be the most suitable. Thus NinaRicci’s identity did not necessarily relate to the company’s systematic adherence to English photographer David Hamilton’s style.

Knowing brand identity paradoxically gives extra freedom of expression, since it emphasizes the pre-eminence of substance over strictly formal features. Brand identity defines what must stay and what is free to change. Brands are living systems. They must have degrees of freedom to match modern market diversity.

Identity: a contemporary concept

That a new concept – identity – has emerged in the field of management, already well versed in brand image and positioning, is really no great surprise. Today’s problems are more complex than those of 10 or 20 years ago and so there is now a need for more refined concepts that allow a closer connection with reality.

First of all, we cannot over emphasis the fact that we are currently living in a society saturated in communications. Everybody wants to communicate these days. If needed,proof is available: there have been huge increases in advertising budgets, not only in the major media but also in the growing number of professional magazines.

It has become very difficult to survive in the hurly-burly thus created, let alone to thrive and successfully convey one’s identity. For communication means two things: sending out messages and making sure that they are received. Communicating nowadays is no longer just a technique, it is a feat in itself.

The second factor explaining the urgent need to understand brand identity is the pressure constantly put on brands. We have now entered an age of marketing similarities.When a brand innovates, it creates a new standard. The other brands must then catch up if they want to stay in the race, hence the increasing number of ‘me-too’ products with similar attributes, not to mention the copies produced by distributors. Regulations also cause similarities to spread.

Bank operations,for example, have become so much alike that banks are now unable to fully express their individuality and identity. Market research also generates herd ism within a given sector.As all companies base themselves on the same life-style studies, the conclusions they reach are bound to be similar as are the products and advertising campaigns they launch, in which sometimes even the same words are used.

Finally, technology is responsible for growing similarity. Why do cars increasingly look alike, in spite of their different makes?Because car makers are all equally concerned about fluidity, inner car space constraints, motorization and economy, and these problems cannot be solved in all that many different ways.

Moreover, when the models of four car brands (Audi, Volkswagen, Seat ands) share many identical parts (beg chassis, engine, gearbox), for either productivity or competitiveness purposes, it is mainly brand identity, along with, to a lesser extent, what’sleft of each car, which will distinguish the makes from one another.

Diversification calls for knowing the brand’s identity. Brands launch new products,penetrate new markets and reach new targets.This may cause both fragmented communications and patchwork images. Though we are still able to discern bits and pieces of the brand here and there, we are certainly unable to perceive its global and coherent identity.

Why speak of identity rather than image?

What does the notion of identity have to offer that the image of a brand or a company or retailer doesn’t have? After all, firms spend large amounts of money measuring image.

Brand image is on the receiver’s side. Image research focuses on the way in which certain groups perceive a product, a brand, politician, a company or a country. The image refers to the way in which these groups decode all of the signals emanating from the products, services and communication covered by the brand.

Identity is on the sender’s side. The purpose, in this case, is to specify the brand’smeaning, aim and self-image. Image is both the result and interpretation thereof. In terms of brand management, identity precedes image. Before projecting an image to the public, we must know exactly what we want to project.

Before it is received, we must know what to send and how to send it. As shown in Figure below, an image is a synthesis made by the public of all the various brand messages, egbrand name, visual symbols, products, advertisements,sponsoring, patronage, articles. An image results from decoding a message, extracting meaning, interpreting signs.

Identity and image

Where do all these signs come from? There are two possible sources: brand identity of course, but also extraneous factors (‘noise’)that speak in the brand’s name and thus produce meaning, however disconnected they may actually be from it. What are these extraneous factors?

First, there are companies that choose to imitate competitors, as they have no clear idea of what their own brand identity is. They focus on their competitors and imitate their marketing communication.

Second, there are companies that are obsessed with the willingness to build an appealing image that will be favorably perceived by all. So they focus on meeting everyone of the public’s expectations. That is how the brand gets caught in the game of always having to please the consumer and ends up surfing on the changing waves of social and cultural fads.

Yesterday, brands were into glamour, today,they are into ‘cocooning’; so what’s next? The brand can appear opportunistic and popularity seeking, and thus devoid of any meaningful substance. It becomes a mere façade, a meaningless cosmetic camouflage.

The third source of ‘noise’ is that of fantasized identity: the brand as one would ideally like to see it, but not as it actually is. As result, we notice, albeit too late, that the advertisements do not help people remember the brand because they are either too remotely connected to it or so radically disconnected from it that they cause perplexity or rejection.

Since brand identity has now been recognized as the prevailing concept, these three potential communication glitches can be prevented.

The identity concept thus serves to emphasis the fact that, with time, brands do eventually gain their independence and their own meaning, even though they may start outgas mere product names. As living memories of past products and advertisements, brands do not simply fade away: they define their own area of competence, potential and legitimacy.Yet they also know when to stay out of other areas. We cannot expect a brand to be anything other than itself.

Obviously, brands should not curl up in as hell and cut themselves off from the public and from market evolutions. However, an obsession with image can lead them to capitalize too much on appearance and not enough on essence.

Strategic Brand Management Related Practice Tests

Strategic Management Practice Tests
Brand Equity In Question What Is A Brand? Differentiating Between Brandassets, Strength And Value Tracking Brand Equity Goodwill: The Convergence Of Finance And Marketing How Brands Create Value For The Customer How Brands Create Value For The Company Corporate Reputation And The Corporate Brand Strategic Implications Of Branding What Does Branding Really Mean? Permanently Nurturing The Difference Brands Act As A Genetic Programme Respect The Brand ‘contract’ The Product And The Brand Each Brand Needs A Flagship Product Advertising Products Through The Brand Prism Brands And Other Signs Of Quality Obstacles To The Implications Of Branding Brand And Business Building Are Brands For All Companies? Building A Market Leader Without Advertising Brand Building: From Product To Values, And Vice Versa Are Leading Brands The Best Products Or The Best Value? Understanding The Value Curve Of The Target Breaking The Rule And Acting Fast Comparing Brand And Business Models: Cola Drinks From Private Labels To Store Brands Evolution Of The Distributor’s Brand Are They Brands Like The Others? Why Have Distributor's Brands? The Financial Equation Of The Distributor’s Brand The Three Stages Of The Distributor’s Brand The Case Of Decathlon Factors In The Success Of Distributor's Brands Optimising The Dob Marketing Mix The Real Brand Issue For Distributors Competing Against Distributor's Brands Facing The Low-cost Revolution Should Manufacturers Produce Goods For Dob's? Brand Diversity: The Types Of Brands Luxury, Brand And Griffe Service Brands Brand And Nature: Fresh Produce Pharmaceutical Brands The Business-to-business Brand The Internet Brand Country Brands Thinking Of Towns As Brands Universities And Business Schools Are Brands Thinking Of Celebrities As Brands The New Rules Of Brand Management The Limits Of A Certain Type Of Marketing About Brand Equity The New Brand Realities We Have Entered The B To B To C Phase Brand Or Business Model Power? Building The Brand In Reverse? The Power Of Passions Beginning With The Strong 360° Experience Beginning With The Shop The Company Must Be More Human, More Open Experimenting For More Efficiency The Enlarged Scope Of Brand Management Licensing: A Strategic Lever How Co-branding Grows The Business Brand Identity And Positioning Brand identity: a necessary concept Identity And Positioning Why Brands Need Identity And Positioning The Six Facets Of Brand Identity Sources Of Identity: Brand Dna Brand Essence Launching The Brand Launching A Brand And Launching A Product Are Not The Same Defining The Brand’s Platform The Process Of Brand Positioning Determining The Flagship Product Brand Campaign Or Product Campaign? Brand Language And Territory Of Communication Choosing A Name For A Strong Brand Making Creative 360° Communications Work For The Brand Building Brand Foundations Through Opinion Leaders And Communities The Challenge Of Growth In Mature Markets Growth Through Existing Customers Line Extensions: Necessity And Limits Growth Through Innovation Disrupting Markets Through Value Innovation Managing Fragmented Markets Growth Through Cross-selling Between Brands Growth Through Internationalisation Sustaining A Brand Long Term Is There A Brand Life Cycle? Nurturing A Perceived Difference Investing In Communication No One Is Free From Price Comparisons Branding Is An Art At Retail Creating Entry Barriers Defending Against Brand Counterfeiting Brand Equity Versus Customer Equity: One Needs The Other Sustaining Proximity With Influencers Should All Brands Follow Their Customers? Reinventing The Brand: Salomon Adapting To The Market: Identity And Change Bigger Or Better Brands? From Reassurance To Stimulation Consistency Is Not Mere Repetition Brand And Products: Integration And Differentiation Specialist Brands And Generalist Brands Building The Brand Through Coherence Defining The Core Identity Of The Brand Confirming The Presence Of Brand Core Facets In Each Product Identifying The Role Of Each Product Line In The Construction Of The Brand Graphically Representing The Overall System Of The Brand Checking The Coherence Worldwide The Three Layers Of A Brand: Kernel, Codes And Promises Respecting The Brand Dna Managing Two Levels Of Branding Growth Through Brand Extensions What Is New About Brand Extensions? Brand Or Line Extensions? The Limits Of The Classical Conception Of A Brand Why Are Brand Extensions Necessary? Building The Brand Through Systematic Extensions: Nivea Extending The Brand To Internationalize It Identifying Potential Extensions The Economics Of Brand Extension What Research Tells Us About Brand Extensions Avoiding The Risk Of Dilution Balancing Identity And Adaptation To The Extension Market Segments Assessing What Should Not Change: The Brand Kernel Preparing The Brand For Remote Extensions Keys To Successful Brand Extensions Is The Market Really Attractive? An Extension-based Business Model: Virgin How Execution Kills A Good Idea: Easycar Brand Architecture The Key Questions Of Brand Architecture Type And Role Of Brands The Main Types Of Brand Architecture The Flexible Umbrella Brand The Aligning Umbrella Brand (masterbrand) Choosing The Appropriate Branding Strategy New Trends In Branding Strategies Internationalising The Architecture Of The Brand Some Classic Dysfunctions What Name For New Products? Group And Corporate Brands Corporate Brands And Product Brands Multi-brand Portfolios Inherited Complex Portfolios From Single To Multiple Brands: Michelin The Benefits Of Multiple Entries Linking The Portfolio To Segmentation Global Portfolio Strategy The Case Of Industrial Brand Portfolios Linking The Brand Portfolio To The Corporate Strategy Key Rules To Manage A Multibrand Portfolio The Growing Role Of Design In Portfolio Management Does The Corporate Organization Match The Brand Portfolio? Auditing The Portfolio Strategically A Local And Global Portfolio – Nestlé Handling Name Changes And Brand Transfers Brand Transfers Are More Than A Name Change Reasons For Brand Transfers The Challenge Of Brand Transfers When One Should Not Switch Analysing Best Practices Transferring A Service Brand How Soon After An Acquisition Should Transfer Take Place? Managing Resistance To Change Factors Of Successful Brand Transfers Brand Turnaround And Rejuvenation The Decay Of Brand Equity The Factors Of Decline Distribution Factors When The Brand Becomes Generic Preventing The Brand From Ageing Rejuvenating A Brand Growing Older But Not Ageing Managing Global Brands The Latest On Globalisation Patterns Of Brand Globalisation Why Globalise? The Benefits Of A Global Image Conditions Favouring Global Brands The Excess Of Globalisation Barriers To Globalisation Coping With Local Diversity Building The Brand In Emerging Countries Naming Problems Achieving The Delicate Local–global Balance Being Perceived As Local: The New Ideal Of Global Brands? Local Brands Can Strike Back The Process Of Brand Globalisation Globalising Communications: Processes And Problems Making Local Brands Converge Financial Valuation And Accounting For Brands Accounting For Brands: The Debate What Is Financial Brand Equity? Evaluating Brand Valuation Methods Brand Valuation In Practice The Evaluation Of Complex Cases What About The Brand Values Published Annually In The Press? Strategic Brand Management Interview Questions