Marketing types and other nerdy, font-loving folks (myself included!) often get too hung up on the transient and granular aspects of branding. How does the logo look? What configurations are acceptable? Has the color palette been established? And let’s not even wade into the weeds of typography.
Yet, a brand is distinct from these considerations. Logos, color palettes, and fonts are all used in branding (that is, the communication of a brand), but they don’t define the brand itself.
My soon-to-be alma mater, Mizzou, and its Truman mascot is an example. The university’s tiger symbol has been reimagined at least 15 times throughout the decades, according to the MU Archives. When most people think of Mizzou, they might not even think of a logo. Perhaps the historic Memorial Union or stately Jesse Hall come to mind instead.
1. Iconic visuals. For Mizzou, its six iconic columns and its administration building with its distinctive dome are not only landmarks but are also symbols of the university and all that it embodies. People gravitate toward symbols and such icons, usually distilled to simple shapes, are more salient and memorable than often text-heavy logos.
Using multiple icons broadens the reach and potential interest to the brand’s various target groups. For example, the iconic rock “M” at Faurot Field likely appeals to a different crowd than those who fancy Memorial Union and its gothic architecture.
Though buildings might be the most common manifestation of iconography, it doesn’t have to be a structure or architectural feature. Maybe it’s a signature outfit or apparel item that defines your brand or it might be trademark equipment or machinery that’s revolutionized your industry or market.
2. An established, yet flexible group culture. No matter if the brand is an educational institution or a clothing line, the people that buy into it are likely incredibly diverse.
Traditions or rituals can unite these people with staggeringly different demographics. The bevy of Mizzou rituals, such as Tiger walk and prowl, homecoming, and the M-I-Z, Z-O-U chant, lend a common experience and sense of unity to the participants. Some traditions are open to all while others, such as Mizzou’s secret societies, are available to only a select few.
Having some traditions open to all lets potentially everyone interact with the brand while reserving some traditions for a select group taps into exclusivity marketing and can make a brand more valuable.
Though the culture should be defined, leave room for both formal and informal adaptation. Participants might (and should) organically evolve aspects of the brand alongside decision-makers, who will also want to strategically introduce or phase out elements of the defined group culture, as appropriate.
3. A rich, narrative history. Missouri, founded in 1839, is the first public university west of the Mississippi river, a fact you’ll likely know before even stepping foot on campus. This tidbit is plastered all over admissions materials and is endlessly repeated by admissions reps and administrators alike.
Mizzou has more than 175 years of history to cherish, but if your brand was recently founded, consider apparel line Hollister as inspiration. John Hollister Sr. founded the company in 1922 as “the fantasy of southern California,” according to the company.
In reality, Abercrombie & Fitch created the child brand in July 2000 and developed an imaginary history to accompany its supposed 78-year-old brand. People buy into history. They like to feel a part of something bigger than themselves and a history allows them to do this.
4. A defined set of values. Mizzou’s values are respect, responsibility, discovery, and excellence.
Don’t be afraid to define your brand more concretely, though. Cultivate your brand’s values by determining what attributes you want to emphasize or de-emphasize. Think how you’d how you’d like your brand perceived or how its members should act. Cool and classy? Elegant and exclusive? Your pick.
Through branding, you can change how you communicate these values and in what formats, but don’t change the values themselves once they’ve been established.