Sources of identity: brand DNA - Strategic Brand Management

How can we define a brand’s identity? How can we define its boundaries, its areas of strength and of weakness? Anyone in charge of managing a well-established brand is perfectly aware that the brand has little by little gained its independence and a meaning of its own. At birth, a brand is all potential: it can develop in any possible way.

With time, however, it tends to lose some degree of freedom; while gaining in conviction, its facets take shape, delineating the brand’legitimate territory. Tests confirm this progression: certain product or communication concepts now seem foreign to the brand. Other concepts, on the contrary, seem to be perfectly in tune with the brand, as it both endorses and empowers them, by giving them greater credibility.

Sources of Brand Identity

Sample brand identity prisms

Sample brand identity prisms

Brand image research does not provide any satisfactory answer to these questions. Neither do the purchasers when asked to say what they expect from the brand. Generally, they haven’t a clue. At best, they answer in terms of the brand’s current positioning. Thus, in the USA, and the UK, there are only very few purchasers of Saab cars: the brand is not widespread though it is expanding its market distribution network.

That is why English or American owners see their Saab as unusual rather than foreign. When asked what they expect from the brand, they are, indeed, likely to answer that Saab must continue to design unusual, unique cars. In doing so, they expect that the brand will reinforce their own unusually uniqueness which they, as the only few marginal Saab buyers, most definitely want to demonstrate. Obviously, however, if Saab focused exclusively on such elicited, its market share would most certainly remain restricted: the economic future of the Saab automotive division would then be under threat.

Consumers and prospects are often asked what their ideal brand would be and what attributes it would need in order to get universally approved. This approach fails to segment properly the expectations and thus to produce any definition other than the average brand ideal.

It is typical for consumers to expect banks to provide expertise and attention, availability and competence, proximity and know-how. These expectations are also ideal in the sense that they are often incompatible.In pursuing them, such brands may lose their identity and regress to the average level. In seeking at all costs to resemble the ideal brand described by the consumers (or industrial buyers), brands thus often begin to downplay their differences and look average.

The mistake is to pursue this market ‘ideal’:it’s up to each brand to pursue an ideal of it sown. Commercial pressure naturally requires firm to stay attuned to the market. Of course no brand envies the destiny of Van Gogh, who lived a life of misery and became famous only after he died.

Nonetheless, present brand management policy must be reappraised, because unfortunately it still assumes that consumers are the masters of brand identity and strategy. Consumers are actually quite incapable of carrying out such functions.irms should, therefore, begin to focus more on the sending side of brand marketing handless on the receiving side.

Trying to define the specifics of a brand’substance and intrinsic values naturally require san understanding of what a real brand is all about. A brand is a plan, a vision, a project. This plan is hardly ever written down (except for the few brands which have a brand charter). It can therefore only be inferred from the marks left by the brand, die the products it has chosen to endorse and the symbols by which it is represented.

Discovering the essence of brand identity, die of the brand’s specific and unique attributes, is the best way to understand what the brand means overall. That is why identity research must start from the typical products (or services) endorsed by the brand as well as on the brand name itself, the brand symbol if there is one, the logo, the country of origin, the advertisement sand the packaging.

The purpose of all this is to serologically the sending process by trying to discover the original plan underlying the brand’s objectives, products and symbols. Generally, this plan is simply unconscious, neither written anywhere, nor explicitly described. It is simply enacted in daily decisions.

Even creators of famous brand names(Christian La croix, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein or Liz Claiborne) are not conscious of it:when asked about the general plan, they are indeed unable to explain it clearly, yet they can easily say what their brand encompasses and what it does not. Brand and creator merge. We have shown (cp 95) that, paradoxically, a luxury brand does not really begin to exist until its creator dies. It then shifts from body and instinct to plan and programmer.

In conducting research on brand identity, it may well be that we discover several underlying plans. The history of a brand indeed reflects a certain discontinuity in the decisions made by different brand managers over time.Thus Citroen changed when it was purchased by Michelin, and later by Peugeot. A lot of it scars have left no print, although they reached high level of sales. Rather than attempt the impossible task of making sense of all its products, brand managers must choose the sense that will best serve the brand in its targeted market and focus only on that one.

Finally, when dealing with a weak brand, we might not discover any consistent plan at all:in this case, the brand is more like a name stuck on a product than a real player in the field. This situation is very similar to the initial stage of brand creation: the brand has great latitude and almost infinite possibilities, even though it has already planted the seeds of its potential identity in the memory of the market.

The brand’s typical products

The product is the first source of brand identity. A brand indeed reveals its plan and its uniqueness through the products (or services)it chooses to endorse. A genuine brand doe snot usually remain a mere name printed on product, die a mere graphic accessory added on at the end of a production or distribution process. The brand actually injects its values in the production and distribution process as well as in the corollary services offered at the point of sale.

The brand’s values must therefore be embodied in the brand’s most highly symbolic products. This last sentence calls for some attention. Cognitive psychology (Levier, 1990; Rosh, 1978; Layoff, 1987) has taught us that it is easier to define certain categories by simply showing their most typical members than by specifying what product features are required to be considered a member of those categories.

As stated in this example, it is difficult to define the ‘game’ concept, die to specify the characteristics which could help us identify when we are in a game situation and when we are not. For abstract categories, made of heterogeneous products, the difficulty is even greater. In this case, brands can serve as examples only if they are not exclusively attached to one specific product. What insaneness? When does a product deserve to be named Da none and when does it not? The same holds true for Philips or Whirlpool.

Consumers can easily answer this question:they are indeed able to group products interns of their capacity to typically represent and perfectly exemplify a large spectrum brand. This is shown in Table below, which transudation’s most typical products against’s, according to the consumers’ point of view.

The most representative product miscalled the ‘brand prototype’, not in the sense of an airplane or car prototype, but rather in that of the best exemplar of the brand’meaning. In this respect, in Europe Anneals two prototypical products: plain yogurt(natural) and the refrigerated dessert cream, Annette. The cognitive psychologists around (1978) claim that prototypes actually transfer some of their features to the product category (Levier, 1990).

In other words, if there were no definition of Da none, the public would probably be able to come up with one anyway, by taking a close look at the features of Da none’s most representative products. This is what we call prototype semantics. It is true that each brand spontaneously brings to mind certain products –some more than others – and actions as well asa certain style of communication. These prototype products are representative of the various facets of brand identity.

According twosome cognitive psychologists, such products may convey brand identity, but above all they generate it. In fact, when questioned Indianan’s brand image, consumers are more likely to answer in terms of Da none’prototype products.

The most typical products of two mea-brands

most typical products of two mea-brands

That is where Da none’s health image originated.

And it is now revived by the creation of the Da none Foundation. But the duality of prototypes has also contributed to softened’s image: Annette cream dessert signifies hedonism, pleasure and opulence.

Da none’s brand identity is thus dual: both health and pleasure (Table below). As such it captures the largest share of the market. It leaves the smallest shares to brands that do not provide this balance to consumers: they offer either diet brands or sweet confectionery brands.

If this theory holds, another question comes to mind: just what is it, in a typical product, that conveys meaning? A brand’values only convey meaning if they are at the core of the product. Brand intangible and tangible realities go hand in hand: values drive reality, and reality manifests these values.

For example, the essence of Benton’brand identity is tolerance and friendship.Co lour is more than an advertising theme. It is both the symbolic and industrial basis of the brand. Using a technical innovation, dyeing sweaters at the last minute, Benton stay ahead of its competitors through its capacity to meet the latest fashion requirements, die the new colors of the season .Saying it is not enough though: the toughest part is doing it, and they did.

Unlike their competitors, Benton innovated by dyeing pullovers after they were made and not before, which helped save lots of precious time. By delaying their decision on the final, they were indeed better prepared for the whims of fashion and last-minute changes. If summer turned out to be magenta, Benton could immediately react and fulfil expectations.

However, although it is an essential physical facet of Benton’s brand identity, co lour is not just a question of physique (in the identity prism): the colorable also impacts on the other facets of the prism, especially the cultural (which has sometimes made brands look like religions), key facet when a brand markets to youth.

Co lour does not merely serve to position the brand (the colorful brand); it is the outward sign of an ideology, a set of value sand a brand culture. In its very slogan ‘United of Benton’, as in its posters showing blond and a black baby, the brand expresses its inspiration and its idealistic vision of united world in which all colors and races live together in harmony.

Co lour then ceases to be a mere feature distinguishing the manufacturer.It is a banner, a sign of allegiance.Co lour is celebrated by the youth who wear sit. Brotherhood and cultural tolerance are the brand’s values. That is why the provocative style of Benton’s recent advertising was so disturbing: it was at odds with the brand’s past identity.

Or angina is the case of a brand in search of identity, substance and psychological depth.For years Or angina has been represented by both a certain physique and a unique product:a fizzy orange soft drink. What makes it really stand out is that the orange pulp is purposely left in the liquid. This feature was so crucial to the product that an orange-shaped bottle was designed especially for it and its advertising focused on the need to shake the bottle well in order to disperse the pulp and experience the unique and best-tasting flavor of Or angina.

The brand further developed its own personality through its TV advertising, which was done in a jumpy, video-clip style so popular among young people. The last stage in this process consisted of conveying the full meaning of the brand and, to do this, the brand/product relationship had to be reversed. Until then, Or angina was merely the name of a soft drink containing orange pulp.Thus, adopting a modern style does not change the structure of this relationship.

Today, the basic question is asked the other way around: what are the values that a soft drink containing orange pulp could serve to embody? Coca-Cola’s leadership among 13- to18-year-olds cannot be understood on the basis of physique and personality only. Coca-Cola is a brand that vows an allegiance to the all-American cultural model. Pepsi-Cola embodies the values of the new generation, as does Virgin in the UK, hence its ability to challenge Pepsi’s second place in terms of cola market share with its own Virgin Cola.

Or angina must find its own source of inspirations well as the set of values that its product will embody. This search for identity is based on our fundamental axiom of brand management: the truth of a brand lies within itself. It is not by interviewing consumers or consulting oracles of sociopolitical trends that the brand will discover itself. Roots last, trends don’t. They indicate the present direction of the wind, the energy that pushes consumption.

The values that Or angina has conveyed since the beginning are: spontaneity, humored friendliness. Or angina is a healthy, natural drink, a mixture of pulp and water. Disembroils sunshine, life, warmth and energy.All combine latently to give a typical taste and feeling of the South (underlying it all, there isa common model: the Southern model).

The word ‘model’ reminds us that a strong brand is always the product of a certain culture, hence of a set of values which it chooses to represent.In the case of Or angina, Southern values seem to be a potent alternative to the North. Living in the South means both looking at the world and experiencing it in a different way.

The Accosted shirt now only represents 30per cent of the company’s world sales. It is nonetheless a core product, since it conveys the brand’s original values. This shirt was indeed designed at a time when tennis was still being played in long trousers and shirts with rolled-up sleeves. In 1926 (Caperers and Laurent 2002), Rene Accosted asked his Friedman Gillie to make a ‘false’ shirt: something that would look like a shirt (so as not to shock the Queen at Wimble don), yet would be more practical, die airy (hence the cotton knit), sturdy and with straight sleeves.

Thus right from the beginning, and by accident, Enlaces’s shirt came to embody the individualistic and aristocratic ideal of living both courageously and elegantly. Whatever the occasion, a Accosted is always appropriate:perfectly suited to the person who, overall, cares to respect proper dress codes, but not in very minute detail. Accosted is neither trendy nor stuffy: it is simply always appropriate.

All major brands thus have a core production charge of conveying the brand’s meaning.Chan el has its gold chain, Calumet its pearl sand Van Clef a patented technique of setting stones in invisible slots. These features do not merely characterize the products, they actually embody the brands’ values.

Dup ont, on the other hand, does not seem to have much at stake: it certainly endorses super blighters, but beyond them is there any dynamic brand concept in evidence? In terms of ready-to-wear clothing, 501 jeans are at the heart of the Levi’s brand and of the carefree and unconventional ideology it represents.(On this point, it is significant that the product most frequently worn with a Accosts is a pair of jeans.) Conversely, brands such as Newman suffer from never having created a real core product, one exclusive to the brand which conveys its very identity.

These examples serve to illustrate a key principle for brand credibility and durability:all facets of brand identity must be closely linked. Moreover, the brand’s intangible facets must necessarily be reflected in its products’physique. This ‘laddering’ process is illustrated by the Benton case (Table below).

Table: Brand laddering process: the Benton case

  • Physical attribute: co lour and price.
  • Objective advantage: the latest fashion.
  • Subjective advantage: the brand for young people who want to be ‘in’.
  • Value: tolerance and brotherhood.

Likewise, Accosted’s identity prism can neither be dissociated from the story behind its famous shirt nor from the values of its emblematic sport, tennis.

The power of brand names

The brand’s name is often revealing of the brand’s intentions. This is obviously the case for brand names which, from the start, are specifically chosen to convey certain objective or subjective characteristics of the brand(Steel case or Pampers). But it is also true of other brand names which were chosen for subjective reasons rather than for any apparent objective or rational ones:

they too have the capacity to mark the brand’legitimate territory. Why did Steve Jobs and Steve Won choose Apple as their brand name? Surely, this name neither popped out of any creative research nor of any computer software for brand name creation. It is simply the name that seemed plainly obvious to the two creative geniuses. In one word, the Apple brand name conveyed the exact same values as those which had driven them to revolutionize science.

What must be explained is why they did not go for the leading name style of that period, die International Computers, MicroComputers Corporation or even Iris. The majority of entrepreneurs would have chosen this type of name. In deciding to call it Apple, Jobs and Won wanted to emphasis the unconventional nature of this new brand: infusing the name of a fruit (and the visual symbol of a munched apple), was it taking itself seriously? With this choice, the brand demonstrated its values: in refusing to idolize computer science, Apple was in fact preparing to completely overturn the traditional human/machine relationship.

The machine had, indeed, to become something to enjoy rather than to revere or to fear. Clearly, the brand name had in itself all the necessary ingredients to produce a major breakthrough and establish a new norm (which all seems so obvious to us now). What worked for Apple also worked for Orange. This name reflected the founders’ values, which materialized into user-friendly mobile phone services. Similarly Amazon conveys strength, power, richness and permanent flow.

The brand name is thus one of the most powerful sources of identity. When a brand questions its identity, the best answer is therefore to thoroughly examine its name and so try to understand the reasoning behind its creation. In so doing, we can discover the brand’s intentions and programmer. As the Latin saying goes: nome nest omen – a name is an omen. Examining the brand name thus amounts to decoding this omen, die the brand’s programmer, its area of legitimacy and know-how as well as its scope of competence.

Many brands make every effort to acquire qualities which their brand name fails to reflect or simply excludes altogether. ‘Apple’sounds fun, not serious.

Other brands simply proceed by ignoring their name. The temptation for a brand to just forget about its name is caused by a rash interpretation of the principle of brand autonomy .Experience indeed shows that brands become autonomous as they start to give words specific meanings other than those in the dictionary.

Thus when hearing of ‘Bird’s Eye’, no one thinks of a bird. The same is true of Nike. Mercedes is a Spanish Christian name, yet the brand has made it a symbol of Germany. This ability is not only characteristic of brands but also of proper nouns: we do not think of roofing when talking of Mustache. Thus, strong brands force their own lexical definitions into the glossaries: they give words another meaning. There is no doubt that this process takes place, but the time it requires varies according to its complexity.

A name – like an identity – has to be managed. Certain names may have a double meaning. The purpose of communication then is to select one and drop the other. Thus, Shell naturally chose to emphasis the seashell meaning (as represented in its logo)rather than the bomb-shell one! Likewise, the international temporary employment agency, Eco, has never chosen to exploit the potential link with economy suggested in its name.

On the other hand, it does use its name as a natural means to reinforce its positioning in the segment of high quality service: its advertising cleverly plays upon the theme of duplication – those stepping in from Eco will of course perfectly duplicate and echo those stepping out of the company.

Generally speaking, it is best to follow the brand’s overall direction as well as its underlying identity, whenever possible. All Hugo Boss is entirely contained in that one short, yet international, name – Boss: it conveys aggressive success, professional achievement, conformity and city life. Exxon is a harsh name all over the world because of its abrupt and its sharp X: thus it simplicity promises efficiency.

Brand characters

Just as brands are a company’s capital, emblems are a brand’s capital equity. An emblem serves to symbolize brand identity through a visual figure other than the brand name. It has many functions such as:

  • To help identify and recognize the brand .Emblems must identify something before they signify anything. They are particularly useful when marketing to children, since the latter favor pictures over text, or when marketing worldwide (every whisky has it sown emblem).
  • To guarantee the brand.
  • To give the brand durability – since emblems are permanent signs – thereby enabling the company to capitalize on it.Thus Hermes’ legendary horse is the common emblem of ‘Equipage’, ‘Ama zone’and ‘Caliches’.
  • To help differentiate and personalize: an emblem transfers its personality to the brand. In doing so, it enhances brand value. But it also facilitates the identification process in which consumers are involved.

Animal emblems are often used to perform this last function. Animals symbolize the brand’s personality. It is quite significant, in this respect, that both the Chinese and Western horoscopes represent human characters by animals. The Greek veneration of animals reflected their conception of a certain spiritual mystery.

The animal is not only allegorical of the brand’s personality but also of the psychological characteristics of the targeted public. Wild Turkey symbolizes the independent mind and free spirit of the drinker of this particular bourbon. The red grouse, symbol of Scotland and a rare bird, has been chosen as the emblem of Famous Grouse whisky in order to reflect the aesthetic ideal of its consumers.

Emblems epitomize more than one facet of brand identity; that is why they play such crucial role in building identity capital. The world of whisky is filled with wild, rare, untamable animals that symbolize the natural, pure and authentic character of this alcohol. The associated risk perceived by the customer is thus reduced.

They also demonstrate, as we saw above, the brand’s personality:the red grouse is known for its noble gait and carriage; the wild turkey is stubborn and clever bird symbolizing independence in the US. These animals also represent the brand’s value and culture facet, either because they are geographical symbols(the grouse for Scotland, the wild turkey for the USA) or because they refer to the brand’essence itself.

Many other brands have chosen to be represented by a character. A character can, for example, be either the brand’s creator and endorser (Richard Bran son for Virgin) or an endorser other than the creator (Tiger Woods for Nike). It can also be a direct symbol of the brand’s qualities (Nestle’s bunny rabbit, Mr Clean, the Michelin bibbed).

Some characters serve to build a certain relationship an dan emotional, prescriptive link between the brand and its public (Smack’s frog, Gesso’stinger). Others, finally, serve as brand ambassadors:though Italian, Isabella Reselling the type of French beauty thalamic promises to all women.

Such characters say a lot about brand identity. They were indeed chosen as brand portraits, die as the brand’s traits, in the etymological sense. They do not make the brand, yet they define the way in which the brand brings to reality its traits and features.

Visual symbols and logotypes

Everybody knows Mercedes’ emblem, Renault’s diamond, Nike’s swoosh, Adidas’three stripes, Nestle’s nest, Yo plait’s little flower and Acadia’s bat. These symbols help us to understand the brand’s culture and personality. They are actually chosen as such:the corporate specifications handed over to graphic identity and design agencies mainly pertain to the brand’s personality traits and values.

What is important about these symbols and logos is not so much that they help identify the brand but that the brand identifies with them. When companies change logos, it usually means that either they or their brands are about to be transformed: as soon as they no longer identify with their past style, they want to start modifying it.

Some companies proceed otherwise: to revitalize their brand sand recover their identity, they milk their forlorn brand emblems for the energy and aggressiveness they need in order to be able to change. Just as human personality can be reflected in a signature, brand essence and self-image can be reflected in symbols.

The brand’s creator: early visions

Brand identity cannot be dissociated from the creator’s identity. There is still a lot of Richard in Virgin’s brand identity. Inspired by its creator, Yves Saint Laurent’s brand identity is that of a feminine, self-assured and strongminded30-year-old woman. The YSL brand celebrates the beauty of body, of charm, of surrender to romance, and is flavored with hint of ostentatious indecency.

Allomorphic’s flaming Mediterranean looks permeate her perfume products and explain why she is so successful in South America, in the US Sun Belt (Florida, Texas, California)and in Europe (Spain, France, Germany). The relationship between a brand and its creator can last far beyond the death of the creator.Chan el is a good example of this: Arranger does not try to imitate the Channels, but to interpret it in a modern way.

The world is changing: the brand’s values must be respected, yet adapted to modern times. The same holds true for John Gallia no and Dir, or Tom Ford for Gucci.When its creator passes away, the brand becomes autonomous. The brand is the creator’s name woven into a set of values panda pattern of inspiration. Thus, it cannot bemused by another member of the creator’family. This was confirmed in court in 1984when Olivier Aphids, son of the founder of the Ted Aphids ready-to-wear brand, was refused the right to use the word ‘Aphids’.Even blood kinship thus does not entitle one to use brand name equity in the same sector.

Advertising: content and form

Let us not forget that it is advertising which writes the history of a brand, retailer or company. Volkswagen can no longer be dissociated from the advertising saga that helped it develop. The same is true of Buddies and Nike. This is only logical: brands have the gift of speech and they can only exist by communicating.

Since they are responsible for announcing their products or services, they need to speak up at all times.When communicating, we always end up saying a lot more than we think we do. Any type of communication implicitly says something about the sender, the source (who misspeaking?), about the recipient we are apparently addressing and the relationship we are trying to build between the two. The brandidentity prism is based on this hard fact.

How is this implicit message slipped between the lines and conveyed to us? Simply through style. In these times of audio-visual media, a30-second TV ad says just as much about the style of the brand sending the message and of the recipient apparently being targeted as about the benefits of the product being announced. Whether or not they are managed, planned or wanted, all brands acquire a history, a culture, a personality and a reflection through their cumulative communications. To manage a brand is to proactively channel this gradual accumulation of attributes towards given objective rather than just to sit and wait to inherit a given brand image.

Yet what is inherited can also be a boon .Volkswagen tightly controls its marketing, but entirely delegates its communications to its agency. Thus all Volkswagen cars are launched under the same name, no matter what the country. However, the Volkswagen style is definitely a legacy of the advertising genius, Bill Bern bach: indeed, he succeeded in making the entire DDB network follow the stylistic guidelines which he had defined. It isthmus through the memorable VW Beetle campaigns that both the brand’s specific style and scope of communication began to take shape.

Both in its advertising films and spots, the VW brand has always freely played with the motifs of both the cars and the logo. The brand’s style of expression is one of humored hum our only, as shown in its attitude of self-derision, false modesty and impertinence towards competitors as well as in the use of paradox. Volkswagen’s advertisements have thus built a powerfully intimate relationship with the public. They appeal to consumers’intelligence, reflecting the image of the pragmatic people who prefer functional features to fancy ones.

The paradox of Volkswagen is that it has always managed to speak of a quite prosaic product in an almost elitist, yet friendly and humorous style. This has enabled Volkswagen to introduce minor modifications as major developments. The selling points put across in the adverts are based on facts and on certain values, which the brand has always conveyed, such as product quality, durability, weather resistance, reliability, reasonable prices and good trade-in value.

But this advertising style, though created outside the Volkswagen company, was not just artificially added to the brand. Who could possibly have created such a monstrous car with an insect name (the Beetle), which so completely defied the trends in the US automobile world at the time? It could only have been an extremely genuine, honest creator, with a long-term vision.

To encourage its own customers to buy, the brand had not only to flatter their ego and intelligence but also to acknowledge them for breaking away – if only this one time – from the stylistic cliches of North American cars. In a tongue-in-cheek style, the brand manages to convey its value sand its culture. The Volkswagen style is Volkswagen, even though it was created buyer.

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