Insights into Branding

Sam Hollis, Senior Brand Strategist, on how he got hooked on branding.

Imagine your mind as an enormous vault. In this vault are thousands of little drawers bearing the names of people, things, places. If I say ‘Barack Obama’, you could go to that drawer and take out your opinions, feelings and judgments about him that are inside. There might be a few or a lot, but there are some. You probably weren’t actively or consciously aware they were there. But when you needed them, you could consult the drawer and pull them out. Some are based on what you’ve seen on TV, some on what you’ve heard, some on your own thoughts about what he stands for and how he measures up to your view of the world.

Daniel Kahneman would call this ‘fast thinking’. His book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ explains the phenomenon of the human fast thinking system that bypasses the requirement for analytical rationalisation of active data and instead relies on recall of previously formed opinions learnt over time and stored ready for consultation.

You have a drawer for companies, too. Apple. Volkswagen. Innocent. You could tell me about these organisations, reciting words like innovative, reliable and honest. These traits are brought to mind quickly at the prompt of stimulus such as the name spoken aloud, or sight of a corporate logo. Your drawer contains lots of associations with these organisations, a mixture of personal experiences and exposure to media.

Controlling the content of these drawers is the remit of branding.

That’s how I first got hooked. I worked in marketing for years before getting into branding. If marketing is essentially the act of convincing an audience that your organisation or product offers value (benefits that outweigh cost), then branding is about creating desire for your organisation or product in the first place.

So goes the saying: if your brand is strong enough you don’t need marketing.

When I went to university I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. I studied English Literature and Philosophy, and while it’s tempting to post-rationalise this by relating it to a voracious appetite for books combined with an inquisitive mind and a desire to seek out universal truths about our existence, the reality is I wasn’t good at any other subjects and the course looked pretty undemanding on my time.

As I started to form opinions on what kind of job I wanted, I spent time perusing the CVs of my peers and made a mental note that the words littered across their resumes – organised, proactive, attention to detail – were not things I possessed. But I was starting to build confidence in my ability to mentally navigate through complex intellectual problems and articulate solutions. And I was drawn to the creative industry and creative people.

I got a job as a marketing assistant at Watson Wyatt, then joined a direct marketing agency, WDMP Communications before joining the marketing department of BSkyB. After four years running various marketing channels and ignoring the nagging feeling that I didn’t love the work, I moved into the brand team. After a couple of weeks I was in love. It had taken eight years but I knew I’d found my place in the world.

The thing about brands is that (as a rule) the really good ones have something in common – they’re authentic. They tell the story of the organisation: why it exists, what it believes and what it contributes to the world.

Simon Sinek’s golden circle model explains that before talking about ‘what’ you do or ‘how’ you do it, you need to be clear on ‘why’ you do it – don’t sell to people who need what you have, sell to people that believe what you believe. That’s how you win hearts and minds, and it’s true as a leadership model for employees as well as a selling methodology for consumers.

So to build a great brand, the organisation needs to stand for something. And that’s the beauty – there are so many intricate layers involved in the practice of branding, from the complex process of defining organisational purpose, bringing that purpose to light through the articulation of a coherent brand story, breathing life into a brand through the creation of visual identity systems and design, and the practice of engaging employees in the brand and mobilising them around a common cause. It requires huge amounts of strategic thinking, a variety of skill sets and high levels of communication and facilitation to bring large numbers of senior stakeholders together on an emotive and subjective area.

During my time at BSkyB I was fortunate to lead a project involving the definition of a new brand purpose and values, and the engagement activity to roll this out across the organisation. I loved it. And as soon as it finished, I jumped ship and joined BrandPie so I could work on these kinds of projects full time.

When I approach projects with new clients now, the questions I ask aren’t related to "How do we convince people to buy more of your stuff?", they're "Why do you exist?", "What’s in your DNA?" and "How do we tell that story?". The brand needs to be an accurate reflection of the company; the onus is on the company to be valuable.

Working in branding, you learn to tell the difference between the people that just recycle and recite the same old stuff, and the ones that produce original thinking and can create huge value for clients. Right now I have a studio of passionate and creative designers totally committed to their art, I have colleagues who are among the smartest people I’ve ever met and I have peers who challenge and energise me.

It’s an evolving discipline and keeping on top of industry trends and shifting market dynamics in order to stay relevant requires a real interest in the craft and a dedication for what you’re trying to achieve. But I consider myself enormously privileged to have found an industry that is intellectually rewarding and creatively fulfilling, and I can’t see myself doing anything else anytime soon.

originally published on FutureRising