Brand identity: a necessary concept - Strategic Brand Management

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

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.

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