What came first: The brand or the branding

I have a belief that runs counter to most others. I think that brands create themselves. And that this usually takes a long  time--not simply a corporate branding project. As advertising people, we can certainly design logos, create taglines and develop clever ad campaigns. But branding is far deeper than that. Branding is the indescribable yet virtually permanent relationship that a customer has with the product or company. It is that simple. It is that complicated. Anyone who tells you that they are going to "do your branding" by designing logos or slinging taglines is just taking your money.

Of course, marketers are correct in placing a high value on brand appeal--one that stands well above its competition. Sometimes this positive branding pays dividends in consumer perception. Other times it creates an aura of familiarity and trustworthiness. A well-branded product carries a communications power that can't easily be overcome by rivals. Loyalty among consumers is the ultimate benefit of effective branding.

As the story of Milton Hershey demonstrates, the primary ingredient in a successful branding effort is the product itself. When communications, innovation, customer service and other positives come into play, so much the better. Yet it is essential to remember that customer experience is key. Hershey spent years developing the right formulation for milk chocolate, which was regarded as an expensive, European delicacy in the 19th century. Ultimately he succeeded. America loved the taste. And Hershey's company thrived through its first 6 or 7 decades without benefit of advertising. Today, despite relentless competition from M&M Mars, Hershey still has dominant market share. 

So, it is possible to have a quality brand without advertising, but not without a quality product. 

Both Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways gained terrific reputations because their marketing successfully portrayed companies that offered value, quality service and a commitment to treat passengers with courtesy and respect. Southwest's "You're Free To Roam About The Country" is a line that reflects the airline's comfortably casual personality along with projecting other benefits including value and a wide array of destinations. JetBlue also successfully differentiated itself by offering not just cheap flights, but clean planes, leather seats and friendly, personal service. In the book, Brands that Rock (Roger Blackwell and Tina Stephan, 2004), JetBlue CEO David Neelman explains that "The brand is so much deeper than an ad could convey; it's about how to treat customers and how you treat employees.  How you treat one affects the other." Even after JetBlue's image was tarnished with a week of canceled and delayed flights following an ice storm in early 2008, the company has worked tirelessly and with remarkable public candor to do right by its customers.

Whether you're talking about milk chocolate, air travel or any other category, a brand is "purchased" with the currency of consumer perception. That is always rooted in the user experience not in the cleverness of the logo or catchiness of the tag line. Starbucks Coffee, for example, has no tagline. Logos for companies like Honda, Dell Computer and Campbells Soup are devastatingly simple. The Ford logo was basically hand-scrawled by Henry Ford on a box top over 100 years ago. Now, I have absolutely nothing against development of logos, creation of tag lines, corporate color recommendations and other exercises that are often sold as "branding" by communications companies and consultants. But a cool logo does not make a great customer experience.

There are thousands of design schools pumping out graduates trained on using their computers to design clever, colorful, sophisticated logos. And little ad agencies snap up these graduates because they tell clients that the most important thing they can have is a logo. Drop shadows, metallic inks, embossed geese--whatever the client wants, he or she can get. So every day, machine shops, tiny credit unions and local dairy owners walk out of their small agencies with logos that are more beautiful and dazzling than those of JPMorgan Chase, Buick, Microsoft or AOL. But they don't have a brand yet.

Advertising writers and art directors can be important to the branding process when their work successfully and creatively reflects the product differences that distinguish the brand. Branding cannot be done based on hoped-for realities. Honesty, humanness and warmth, which accurately reflect product realities work best in "branding." And so does a long, consistent effort to communicate these. Nike's infinite number of ads and commercials built around "just do it" have always been regarded as edgy. But there remains a casual, direct reality to the appeal. 

When Hershey broke its decades long moratorium on advertising in the 1970s it came out strongly with message built around its position as "The Great American Chocolate Bar." When you look at the line, you see that it is not a particularly clever piece of copy. However its reflection of the candy as an experience and as an American institution cast both the brand and the brand's customers in a glowing light. 

So, even though the tagline and other creative work was probably penned by some agency branding experts, it took the genius of Milton Hershey and at least seventy years of hard work by his employees to make the Great American Chocolate Bar.