Talk to someone who "gets" branding and they will likely be able to recount the Oprah-like "aha" moment when they started to comprehend how it works. I've heard things like:
* "It was like a lightbulb went off."
* "It's like a domino effect...once one domino fell into place, they all did."
When I began working as a brand consultant in 2001, the going was tough. Most of the time, what passed for "branding" was really advertising. And of course, if you aren't into marketing, pretty pictures that say "Buy Me" are more appealing and more intuitive as an investment in communication.
Man was it tough.
Customers had questions like:
"Where's the ROI in what you are suggesting?"
"I don't have time to do all this assessment and strategy - can you get me something fast?"
The ROI part was huge. (Similar in fact to trying to sell social media to those who have never used it before.) Of course it's a defensive mechanism, not really about the money. Customers understand that these tools ultimately lead to changing organizational structures. Not everyone can handle that.
Nevertheless we did countless PowerPoints showing branded items vs. non-branded items. Just photos. We would say, "See? Value of a brand? Understand now?" We looked at each other in frustration as the customers nodded their heads at the other brands, but seemed to not understand how the analogy applied to them.
Sometimes the customers did get mad. We would describe to them the difference between their self-perceptions and the perceptions that their stakeholders had of them. They would question our methodology and even our competence.
We tried to explain that the results were valid. That the gap in perception was costing them money.
In the end the strategic part of branding was always a tough sell, while the pretty pictures were easy.
Fast forward a decade and now everybody is talking about branding, or so it seems. The value of a name, a reputation, an image, a promise is incontrovertibly understood. But one thing that people don't understand, still, is that branding is a science with principles that can be learned. While some are born geniuses in this field, others can simply study the core principles that make brands great, and apply those principles to every area of their lives in order to be successful.
I think I understand why people mis-associate branding with advertising, and think it's the department of creatives rather than savvy businesspeople. In reality, branding was born out of advertising. And advertising was not born in the laboratory. It was born in creative hothouses where writers and graphic designers sat over the work for hours and days, emerging with a "brainstorm" to sell to the client.
Back then, creativity was necessary to substitute for the lack of large-scale, sophisticated, computer-assisted techniques that we have at our disposal today and will see more and more of in the future, including for example:
2. Computer-generated analysis of consumer profiles vs. buying habits - psychographics, demographics, location, etc.
3. Computer-assisted marketing research that takes input from many people at once to generate a product prototype
4. The creation of shopping environments in which to study consumer behavior in a controlled way
5. Marketing research studies conducted as scientific experiments
This is not to say that art, creativity, genius has no place in branding (and marketing). To the contrary: People who are born with this skill (the Howard Schultzes, Madonnas, Richard Bransons, Donald Trumps, etc.) can shortcut much of the science because they "just know" what to do.
But for the rest of us, particularly those charged with managing millions of dollars in brand investments, it is worthwhile to take the time to study the tactics that work. To take branding seriously as a science, not an art. Because when you understand what the principles of branding are and how to leverage them, your chances of success in any endeavor are exponentially greater.
Basically, it comes down to this: Be the same shlepper as everybody else, and keep on saying that "my product speaks for itself." Or, face the fact that branding matters. Roll up your sleeves, study it and get smart. You'll put in less effort and be more successful, in the end - whether you're promoting your personal brand, your product, your service, or even a social cause that you believe in.