Branding: Keep it Simple

Last Updated Aug 3, 2009 8:57 AM EDT

One business discipline that remains high on any manager's agenda come rain or shine is branding - the thing that (in theory) can help you secure price premium, win new business and deliver efficient marketing. So I was intrigued by Fast Company magazine's brief look at the design history of 12 iconic brands.

The nuggets presented - they're very perfunctory stories -- contain all sorts of lessons about good branding that are well worth nicking. All of them accentuate simplicity as a key attribute of good brand design. For example:

  • Think global. Federal Express execs realised that their name was antithetical to a global audience -- which is pretty important if you're in shipping. So they shortened it to the simpler FedEx and a brand was born. (It's a relatively young brand, interestingly, formed in the 1970s. An iconic image can make you seem so much more established.)
  • Be flexible. MTV's brand has appeared in thousands of different forms, but it's always recognisable. That allows it to be innovative without losing effect. Again, a simple design treatment -- big M, small tv -- works best.
  • Be obvious. Whether it's text-heavy McSweeney's covers or the iconic Tiffany gift-box, all of these brands are utterly obvious with the treatment of their names and, in most cases, what they're selling. Again, it's really simple - a lesson our marketing friends at companies like Aviva would do well to heed.
But two other lessons - not in the article - occurred to me after reading it.
First, the best brands become synonymous with their activities. You Hoover the carpet. You FedEx an important document. You Google a rumour. You simply cannot create that effect - it's not something you ought to have as an agenda item at a marketing meeting, nor something you can encourage people to do.

It has to happen spontaneously as a result of great (and usually innovative) products and service. That said, it helps if you have the right brand name. Two-syllables is best, judging by those three examples, including a hard consonant sound. Worth bearing in mind - just like the FedEx execs did.

Second, it really doesn't matter how you brand your product or service - so long as you stick to your guns. According to Fast Company, "Pharmacist Dr. John S. Pemberton used two main ingredients in the creation of his famous beverage, coca plant and cola (or kola) nut. Frank Robinson, his partner and the company's bookkeeper (chief financial officer, perhaps, in today's terms), named the drink Coca-Cola."

Heck, if the bean-counter can come up with the name, perhaps its success is down to the fact they stuck with it so long. There was no expensive marketing genius applied at its inception, they just called it what it was.

Equally, the Campbell's Soup label -- iconic even without Andy Warhol -- is just some old award they won a century ago on a two-tone background.

(Quick aside: a colleague once interviewed Sir Tom Farmer, founder in 1971 of the Kwik Fit chain that was sold to Ford in 1999 for £1bn. The highly recognisable blue and yellow livery was the result of having paint left over from a decorating job when he opened his first workshop - he was too broke to buy fresh stuff.)

But keep using the same brand long enough and it embeds. It's a great lesson in these times when companies feel they need to rebrand and rename their organisations all the time, at great cost. It's much better to be simple and take a (very) long view of branding.

(Pic: Tomás Fano cc2.0)