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July 07, 2009

Brand Identity Is More Than Image - The Case for Product Informed by Brand Truth


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Brand Identity and Product Model for a Media Company


Identity is not just image.  Not even in the world of media companies.

Brand Identity goes far beyond a company’s logo and tagline. It is the unique expression of a deep belief system that must live at the heart of everything that emanates from and around a brand entity, manifesting itself not just in what are considered creative marketing communications conventions, but just as (if not more) importantly, in the essence of the product experience the brand delivers. Product naturally and deeply infused with brand identity innately conveys differences that are immediately experienced and observable (no product data sheet required). They are noticed even when you’re not looking for them. What I’m talking about is NOT a logo branded on an object, but the user’s (direct) product experience itself.

Everything in the brand ecosystem – from what it says to what it does - should be thought of as a potential medium upon which brand identity is insistently and consistently embedded. It’s core to the DNA. Identity remains constant, while a particular medium and its implications may change with time and place.

When brand identity and product truth are in alignment, there is an opportunity to create not just product satisfaction, but enthusiasm - to outperform the competition, over deliver on expectations, and even dare to surprise (in a good way) and delight the user community.

What is Product for Media Companies?

We often think of product in very simple terms (a car, a shampoo, a camera, a vacation destination) and models (only what the company creates that is obvious to the consumer) that miss much of the essence of 21st century product experience. For purposes of this post, product most broadly defined for a digital media company (or traditional media company with significant digital presence) includes its media content (text, video, photos), technology platforms, unique experience applications and capabilities, and its “user” community. These represented by 3 of the 6 areas in the outer ring of the model.

The Model

This model of brand identity is an extension of one first introduced in an April 3 post in this blog. This is a framework in which brand identity is at the heart, informing the surrounding ecosystems of communications audiences (ring 2) and vehicles (ring 3), as well as all the implicit and explicit ways that identity should manifest in the tactical aspects of the business (outer ring) – from product to content to monetization and partnership strategies to personality. This post focuses on the newly added outer ring.  The details of the rest of the model are at the original post, but briefly here:

Center: Brand identity defines what you stand for, as well as what you stand against.  More than a tagline; it should inform, and be in the DNA, of everything in the rest of the model.

Second Ring:  The “audience” ecosystem is comprised of the various groups with which the brand communicates and which will inevitably communicate back.  (The medium is about conversation, not just broadcast.)  For each of these, brand identity manifests in a unique positioning statement and communications architecture.

Third Ring: This is the portfolio of communications vehicles (both digital and real world) that will be relevant for different members of the “audience” ecosystem at different points in time. Brand identity drives their strategic plan and creative execution.

Fourth Ring: For Challenger Brands in particular, brand identity must manifest in all areas of the business, beyond the traditional creative venue of marketing communications (ring 3). These include product experience (product, content and community), business relationships (revenue generation and audience building), and the nature of the brand’s personality and greater connection to the world at large.  These are represented as discreet elements in the model for purposes of discussion, but obviously influence each other greatly in the real world (e.g. Content: accessibility impacts Audience: engagement.)  All of these elements also have unique relationships with the various members of the “audience/user”’ ecosystem.

Brand Identity and the Arena of Product

Products have just as much opportunity to touch people emotionally as does a marketing campaign. Product is often thought of as pragmatic and not creative, yet it can be (and should be) just as creative and "emotional" an expression of the brand identity as any marketing communications campaign.

For media companies, content is what has traditionally been first thought of as the core of the “product” offering. For today's robust media company, it is but one third of the product trifecta, with product platform and community providing the "context for the content", rounding out a media company's product offering. So how might we think of the relationship between brand identity and these three components of product?

(1) Content:
How does brand identity inform decisions about the design and production, timeliness, location and sharing nature of the content?

Design/production values and accessibility: Does the brand identity demand a polished Hollywood look , or something more of the order of garage or homemade?  Is production solely from professional sources, consumer generated or a curated mix of the two?

Timeliness vs Quality Tradeoff: Where along the continuum of "content that reflects the most current moment" to "in-depth thoughtful production" does the brand identity determine for the media mix? In the online world, where immediacy is possible, the decision has to be made about what expectation to set.  And the closer to the immediacy end of the spectrum, traditional quality measures may decline.  However, "immediacy" in and of itself may be a new measure of online content quality.

Distribution/Location: Different distribution locations provide different opportunities for discovery and also context for content, and context of media is often as critical as the nature of the content itself. Does the brand identity reflect a philosophy of a controlled walled garden, a free range system where search and discovery are critical, or somewhere in between?

Sharability: Does the brand reflect an attitude of open sharing or one of "close to the vest?" And is sharing defined as inside the brand community or into any possible group.  Again, in the online world, the power of the passed link (to content) is undeniable in building a brand's power.

(2) Product Platform: How does brand identity inform the product platform specification, execution and evolution?

Convenience/Ease of Use/Speed: What guidance does the brand identity provide in relationship to setting priorities and making tough development calls in relationship to the ease of user access (convenience of search and discovery), to ease of use (once product/content is accessed), to speed of use (how product/content performs/responds in reaction to user's actions)?

Performance: Thinking about product performance now needs to go beyond the functionality and industry benchmark metrics touted in the worlds of industrial design and high tech. Both the left (logical/analytical) and right (creative/emotional) sides of the user's brain must be seen as equally important.  What does the brand identity say about how the user should feel when engaging with, using or watching/reading the "product?"

Engagement Experience: Is all engagement "deliberately planned" or is there room for "spontaneous engagement" through discovery, recommendation or other means? Does the product treat users as audience, participants or co-creators?  What other objects or experiences need to surround the core product?

Scalability: Does brand identity indicate a boutique audience or one of potential global dimensions? How does that impact plans for scalability of platform, content, audience and interaction?

(3) Community and Participation: How does brand identity inform the nature of the desired relationship with the "user" communities to the product platform and its content?

Types and Varieties of Engagement Opportunities: Communities contribute to, but rarely take over (hijack), the manifestation of brand identity. They congregate around brand identity.  The levels of content engagement that are provided and enabled by a brand will define, in large part, the extent to which the users/audience will co-create and co-define the product.

Levels of Interaction: Brand identity reflects an understanding of "audience or user" and their predisposition to engage in certain online media behaviors.  The group's technographic profile should guide the level of complexity and intent of online experiences  - understanding when, where and for whom enabling creating, curating, commenting, or sharing of content is important.

Ability to Personalize: Personalization of product may be one of the deepest forms of engagement one can have with brand identity. Providing a platform or experience upon which one can put their own unique stamp is powerful; and pride in that personalization promotes sharing. Enough said.

Lessons Learned

Brand identity needs to be as much a part of the core DNA of product as it is for marketing communications. Both are  physical manifestations of how the media brand wants to attract and interact with its users/audience.

Brand identity and product truth are inextricable interlinked. They must be if a media brand is to be successful.  And in a Web 2.0 world, product truth becomes concrete in a product experience that is shared equally by the content, product platform (technology and experiences) and the communities that surround them.

For a media company, the question will then be to make wise choices as how to best prioritize resources against that which comprises product: content, platform and surrounding community - deciding in which cases brand identity suggests performance "at industry levels" and where it demands exceptional commitment to excellence and user/audience delight. Egv_tiny_blogicon


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Your mandala of Brand Truth is brilliant and worth meditating on beyond the stolen minute I've given it, so forgive my comments in advance.

That said, what you've developed here from your April post has now grown to no less than a potential Philosopher's Stone of Branding. I am still processing your radial model in all its scaling network glory, but one idea strikes me already to be the organic evolution from here--how do you begin to measure Brand Truth as it informs the various satellites orbiting your core brand Sun?

Certainly, your reference to Sharability and the Power of Shared Links provides some initial bearing on a metrics beat, but what would make this inexorable as a pitch to brands is if you could add layers to the third porfolio orbit that describe reach, measurability, and impact such as ROI/SROI/Brand Awareness--these would be the value to the brand. In the expanding universe of so many viable options and tactics, how do we advise brands on the best choices for marketing and strategic communications? Apps like Visible Technologies and Buzzlogic in addressing the quantification of influence seem to be a step in the right direction.

But what about the influencers and consumers, themselves. Where is the value to them and how can it be measured? If truth, itself, is some kind ultimate expression of providing value for individuals as well by brands and their offerings--it is perplexing to think about how we can qualify and quantify it when its definition has been so very elusive and the province of debate by sages and pundits for millennia.

Is Brand Truth, then, an objective, ideal state that is a touchstone, in turn, which describes various subsets of value that can be quantified even if they are subjective to the end user, audience or consumer? Is truth like Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Potter Stewart's definition of pornography--we know it when we see it? If truth is something we experience emotionally, can it be measured--if so, are we talking about a new kind of Brand Essence as Brand Spirit and as measured by fMRI? fMRI research has recently indicated that similar regions of the brain are engaged by brand logos and religious icons. I now pronounce you Man and Brand? Is Brand Truth about sharing the love?

Budda said, "The truth is what is useful." The etymological derivation of our word for "truth" is related to the Old English word "troth" (as in Shakespeare: "By my troth.") meaning "faithfulness". Do the best brands and products fulfill needs that are essential to the species and therefore, inspire our faithful commitment and loyalty? If so, that may be the essence of Brand Truth, but how do we measure this successful connection? Maybe we've discovered a real use here for the hedonic component of the Consumer Price Index.

But what about our mania for more stuff? Yogis would not call this "truth", but "desire nature". Is the current meltdown all about financial markets replacing manufacturing as our systemic truth or is it really a question of what we value as a society and the fact that we've chosen debt and vapor to stand in for gold as legal tender? A quick comparison of state education budgets vs. Wall Street bailouts easily tells that story.

I am inspired by your post to think about the impulse driving brands to connect with consumers by being true and providing real world value and that it is where the corporate social responsibility movement, the Green marketplace, and social action have all been taking us. The question presented by your New Model of the Brand Universe is whether profitability is becoming the weak force and value evolving as the gravitational force that will be at the center of some symbiotic future marketplace. One can only hope. And now, a word from our sponsors...

A "macro-question" for you, Liz: What do you honestly think about the idea of the branding of the reality around and even within us? I acknowledge that it's a real thing; is it a healthy thing? Is it a good thing?

If you think it's a good thing: why??

Consider my comment/inquiry a message in a bottle from the other side of the socio-economic sea: where is the value? How does "branding" make me a better person? How does marketing make me a happier person? How does advertising make me a truer person? How does any of this make me a person who can make the world a better place -- if even just a little bit? Or even make the world of myself and my close loved ones a better place?

How can the regular guy and gal keep up with the tsunami of information and evolution, and is it worth it to even try, or is all this just a sound and fury signifying nothing?

What do you think, Liz?

I'm asking these strange and hard questions because I have an inkling that you have an inkling about what I'm talking about.



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Liz Gebhardt

  • © Amanda Jones
    Digital and traditional (live & broadcast) media/ marketing strategist and producer living at the intersection of Web meets (live) World. More than two decades of experience in building media and technology businesses, content programming and distribution, brand stories and integrated communications campaigns.

    Believes that strategy is all talk unless it can be executed in a way that delivers on both the creative and business promises. Embraces the role of navigator of the uncharted path vs. passenger along the known road.