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What is Branding Strategy and the Soul of a Brand?

Early in my career, I was asked to conduct a benchmarking analysis of global brands. A study conducted through interviews of the marketing, sales, and leadership teams of the most prestigious brands on the planet to see what they were doing well and what others could learn from them. Well before Facebook or Google, at that time the most admired brands from fashion, technology, and automotive were Mercedes-Benz, Chanel, Levi-Strauss, and Hewlett-Packard, to name a few. Our study yielded useful insights, ideas, and practices from different industries that would be presented to global marketing communications teams. We followed up by brainstorming how we could adapt these insights to our own marketing programs. The exercise was a triumph.

But more than just a successful project, that analysis introduced me to the intricacies of branding, imparted to me by some of the best marketers in the world. I learned what it meant to have and to hold a Montblanc pen in one’s hand – and what seeing that signaled to others. I recognized the importance of a welcoming environment for shoppers as equal in importance to the shop’s inventory. And I came to understand an idea that ever since became embedded in my marketing mind: the soul of a brand.

The soul of a brand has two dimensions:

  • First, the emotional essence or connecting point of a brand – the values, purpose, authenticity, and relevance to clients/customers. It is the image conjured when someone sees your logo or hears your name. The soul evokes an emotional bond.
  • Second, the rational brand positioning, the specific benefits and differentiating features that set your brand apart and promise value.

To lay a foundation for business growth requires both emotional and rational dimensions. So why then is this so confusing and so hard for so many to accept?

For some, they merely equate the brand with a description of the goods or services offered but nothing about identity and the why: their values, purpose, mission, or vision. For others, they hop right into the brand positioning and the benefits of the brand/company versus others in the marketplace without first establishing why they are even in the marketplace. And then there are those who ignore both, thinking branding and brand positioning is only for the big, strong, and iconic. Completely ignoring that deliberate decisions were made to build those brands into the icons we know them as today.

In my work I try to distill this and find the soul of each client’s brand.

Let me give you an example…

I recently watched a 1997 video of Steve Jobs explaining Apple’s Think Different campaign. The campaign, and Apple’s mantra, was about the core value Apple placed on creativity, something Jobs felt touched the soul of the company. Think Different honored those people who with their passion changed the world for the better – such as Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King. Each thought differently, focused on change, and as a result were able to push the world forward. Articulating this value enabled Apple to speak to their consumer, someone who was also passionate about creativity and change for the better.

Jobs also spoke about Nike and Just Do It. The Nike campaign spoke to honoring great athletes and great athletic excellence. The articulation of this value might help someone achieve their athletic excellence with Nike. No product benefits needed. Even to this day, in both instances, you get a clear visual in your head about the brand. Its values. Its soul.

Today, before embarking on a client Marketing RoadMap, and well before turning to a website redesign or the creation of content for traditional or digital campaigns, I ask the client to step back and focus on brand strategy. And help them express their brand, the values connected to it and the company, and what that emotional essence feels like. Only then do we move on to what internal stakeholders and external audiences perceive as core differentiators and their positioning in the market.

Our goal is to help create branded messaging that will resonate with clarity to targeted audiences, so our client’s brand – and soul – can occupy a specific place in the market and in the mind of clients and prospects alike.