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How Does A Brand’s Style Impart Values?

May 13, 2019

Style affects brand identitySociety impels us to conform but individualism drives us to stand out. Tribalism induces us to band together but curiosity draws us out onto lonely explorations. Where, as individuals, do each of us fall on that safety-seeking/risk-taking continuum? Where, on that same continuum, should we position our brands? And how do we make sure our brands can be recognized by kindred spirits – by the correct market? With all the tools available to marketers these days, visual style – semiology – is still the most direct, visceral connection to human beings. Businesses need to signal to their markets that they share values. That way, the market will feel safe in letting the brand into their lives. It’s all about showing the market something they recognize and trust. We can understand the phenomenon the moment we walk out onto a busy, urban street.

Instantly, we’re bombarded with messages. There’s a new brand identity every way we turn. We see billboards, shop signs, signs in store windows. Busses drive by advertising the latest family film from Disney. Cabs have placards for ambulance-chasing attorneys. Street vendors hawking bootleg handbags, belts and watches. A car drives by with the windows rolled down and the radio blurting out an ad for a mattress store. Everybody is wearing t-shirts promoting sports teams or other brand names. We check our mobile device and have to wait four seconds before we can skip the rest of the ad. It’s a visual and audio cacophony. How do we deal with it? We filter it all out.

There’s an internal switch we all have that allows us to function in overwhelmingly multi-stimuli environments. We’re each able to tune out messages that we don’t recognize as important to us. This “off” mode allows us to navigate the streets, focus on what’s important – obeying traffic signals and not bumping into people – and doing what we aim to do. But what if, as we’re crossing Time Square or some other busy place, we hear someone call us by name?

We stop. We turn around. We see a friend waving to us from across the street. The message got through our filter. Why?

Recognition. First of all, we recognize our name. But in this world of automized personalization, that alone is not enough to stop us in our tracks. What’s more effective here is that we recognize – or think we recognize – or think we might recognize – the voice that called us. We turn and we recognize the face of the caller. We recognize the caller’s wave and body language. We recognize the big smile that let’s us know the caller is happy to see us. And we recognize how the caller is dressed in the same manner that most of our friends dress. We drop the filter, cross the street and happily share some of our life with our friend.

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that your market will recognize and trust.


In much the same way, brands have to be recognizable to their markets. My first branding project was for a gift shop on a busy city street. Thousands of people walked past the store every week. Very few of them stopped in. The pedestrian traffic was mostly young, urban professionals, very energetic and hip, very much the “seize the day” mentality. By contrast, the gift shop was old fashioned – dowdy, even. The shops on the street that were constantly busy had younger, hipper brands. We changed the name of the gift shop, brightened up its facade. Sales doubled within one year. What happened?

Prior to the rebrand, the shop had been virtually invisible to the passing foot traffic. It looked dark and dank and no fun at all. It could not break through the market’s screening-out filter. Pedestrians ignored it – if it even registered on their radar at all. When we changed the name and identity of the place, we sent signs (semiology!) to the market that this place was their kind of place. It really was worthy of being part of their lives. Shopping here was going to be something they’d be happy to do. Once the market recognized the shop as being hip like them, sales took off like a rocket.

Years later, we advised a tech company that was having trouble with their B2B sales. We looked at their potential customers: Nokia, Motorola, General Electric, and more. We rebranded our client, giving them a brand identity that was the equal of those market-leading brands. Once the buyers recognized our client as “belonging” in their league, sales started to tick up and never stopped.

Today we’re advising a new, online marketplace that’s starting up. Can’t reveal too much about it but the business model is something similar to Amazon or AirBnB or Uber. To launch a successful brand, the startup will have to generate the kind of trust – on both sides of the transaction – that those businesses enjoy. (Talking about business models only, not about individual controversies that might be distracting these firms at the moment.) They will need a brand identity that will put them in that pantheon of marketplace brands. That way their market will recognize them as being well-run and trustworthy.

The image that illustrates this article is very appealing to a very specific market. Now, it probably does not appeal to the typical Brandtalk reader. However, most will know someone who finds this image to be “super cute”. After all, it’s sending out what semiology would call all the right signs: bejeweled lettering, skin-baring fashion, slender young model with an Ariana Grande hairstyle and, of course, a “girly” color palette of pinks and pastels. The brand that created this image is speaking to the precise demographic most likely to buy its product lines. It’s saying, “We’re just like you. Our values are your values.” Their market will respond.

Brand recognition and brand identity can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Before you can design a brand identity, you have to determine how it wants – how it needs – to be recognized.


Best Branding Reads – Week of May 13, 2019

Five Considerations for Future-Proofing Your Global Branding Strategy in 2019
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Another goodie for us logo geeks.

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