What is Brand Thinking?
The Essence of Brand
Words by Simon Vieira & Olivia Perry
Before we get into the rationale behind the term, and we take you through a quick tour of the history of brand, let’s talk about our vision for this article.
We wrote this piece in the hopes of offering a new, more effective thinking method, and to bring clarity to a massively misunderstood word, brand.
Brand is like teenage sex — everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone else thinks that everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.
Long before the digital revolution and the avenues of traditional advertising were established, a brand was used to distinguish one’s property from another’s. The word brand is derived from firebrand, a burning piece of wood used to permanently mark property.
Eventually, firebrands were replaced with branding irons, and the marks themselves became synonymous with the term. Brands became closely associated with craftsmen’s products, but they are perhaps most well remembered for their role in livestock.
One rancher’s cattle was marked with a circle while another rancher’s herd was anded with a square or another identifying symbol.
The idea of brand evolved in the 19th century with the rise of packaged goods. As producers expanded their product lines and more competing products became available, the business world adopted the concept of branding as a way to differentiate their packaged goods from the competition. [Emotive Brand]. [Forbes]
With the advertising boom and the introduction of psychology into marketing, brands came to embody more meaning than the actual company or product they were selling.
The development of brand management, what we now call marketing, picked up in the 1950s with leading consumer packaged goods companies like General Foods and Unilever at the helm. [Skyward].
Brands developed personalities; became movements and ways of living, representing not just the product or business, but the company’s culture, employees, politics, beliefs, and aspirations.
You don’t have to work in marketing to recognize that the meaning of brand goes way beyond just a logo, but to actually define the term is less straightforward.
Why is that? Just like the concept of a brand expanded from cattle to selling dried goods, it’s continued to evolve with our changing culture.
It means different things to different people at different times, often appealing to a person’s emotions rather than their rationale or logic. [Emotive Brand]
The Essence of Brand
We can distill a brand’s essence into three macro components: the business, the product(s), and the customers’ perception of the business or product.
But it’s not just the concept of brand that’s changed over time. The technology revolution flipped the old school business-development model on its head.
A business used to start with complicated legal structures, then the passion or product; from there, you would build it up and attract customers.
In today’s world, it takes three clicks of a mouse to start a business, and the result is a modernized, brand-first business model where the product is built, modified and shaped after the initial customer base has been cultivated.
Old School Model
Business → product → customer
Customer → product → business
Take Dropbox for example. The company secured its initial customers based on a landing page before the product was launched, or even fully developed.
Because the brand is what initially draws customers today, brand is more important than ever — and they need a strong sense of ‘why’ to survive.
Customers aren’t just looking for high-quality products anymore, they’re looking to invest in companies that are trustworthy and stand for something.
Businesses run into trouble when they invest hundreds of hours into building a brand, but when the launch takes place, the customer doesn’t receive the brand the way it was intended.
We need a more agile approach. Instead of building up to a high-stakes reveal, securing customer validation at each step of the development process is critical.
But let’s come back to brand thinking.
There is an excellent quote from the bestselling marketing author Marty Neumeier on the relationship between brand and customer,
“Your brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.”
With that in mind, the number one priority with brand thinking is putting customers at the heart of the business.
What Exactly is Brand Thinking?
Brand thinking is the act and process of channeling all problems in an organization through its brand. Basically, there are many frameworks for thinking and problem solving, and among the most popular are business thinking and design thinking. Brand thinking plays by a different set of rules.
Business thinking is about channeling multiple problems into a single solution. This kind of consulting usually involves a cool investment of a few million dollars from a company, and the solution is often presented in a 500-page document. It’s not exactly a user-friendly model.
Design thinking was developed in the last 20 years in response to the inefficiencies of business thinking. This model aims to understand the problem, or multiple problems, first.
Then prototypes are quickly developed for multiple solutions and tested with consumers to determine which solution works best.
Brand thinking combines components of both these models, channeling multiple problems through a single lens, your brand, and turning out multiple possible solutions.
These solutions are quickly validated through testing, and the best solution is presented.
This framework doesn’t just allow you to think outside the boundaries of the traditional methods; it will enable you to pivot and implement changes at a much faster speed. Brand thinking gives everyone in an organization, including their customers, the tools to filter all their problems into one focused starting principle — brand.
Filtering these issues through a brand lens unifies all departments and hierarchies: an accounting problem becomes a brand problem, or an HR issue can quickly be resolved by looking at it from a brand perspective. Survival requires speed, after all.
Let’s take a closer look at the HR example. Say a company is hiring and has three strong candidates. How do you pick one? From a brand thinking perspective, you look at which candidate archetypes the values and personality of the brand best, or which candidate resonates most with the company’s mission and vision.
By the way, have you ever tried coming up with a vision and a mission statement before? It can be a painful process if you don’t understand brand thinking.
Trying to add meaning to the words for your mission or vision statement without having a clear picture of the brand is like trying to build a house without foundation first. Brand thinking provides that foundation.
Brand Thinking At a Macro Level
We will explore the deeper mechanics of brand thinking in a future blog. For now, let’s examine the 3 systems that structure brand thinking at a macro level.
The strategy system is the blueprint of your brand. It’s the map, and as we know, maps are the building blocks of incredible adventures.
This system governs your brand’s hypothesis, customer archetypes, mission, vision, value proposition, why, how, what, values, and personality. The strategy system prompts us to ask the question: are the brand’s values, personality, and north star well articulated and understood?
The design system is the exterior and interior of your business. It’s what people see, both your employees and customers. This stage of brand thinking has us determine whether the design system clearly represents the strategy system.
Why a design system? Again, Marty Neumeier put it best,
“Because [aesthetics are] the language of feeling, and in a society that’s information-rich and time-poor, people value feeling more than information.”
From the tone of voice to the look and feel of your business, the design system is your compass.
The growth system governs your analytics, allowing a universal scientific approach to identify what’s working with your brand and product.
It helps relay feedback straight from customers about what parts of the systems are reliable and the specific areas that need adjusting.
The lessons learned make it easy for everyone to either tweak the strategy or design system or double down on what’s working. Like any growing entity, this system requires consistent maintenance so your business can become a living breathing ecosystem.
By using brand thinking, businesses have the opportunity to use their brand as a guiding force to filter and solve their problems, whether the issue is in HR, marketing, accounting, or another department.
With today’s advanced technology, launching a product is easier and more efficient than ever. Unfortunately, brand has become secondary in the process.
Brand thinking brings it back into focus, unleashing brand as an empowerment tool rather than just a set of standards, merging your business with your brand into one solid unit.
We use brand thinking as a teaching system to help us and our clients think about brand in a new way, harnessing it as a problem-solving tool to unlock businesses’ full potential.