Your Logo Is Not Your Brand

by Andrew Stanten

This has been a thorn in my side for quite some time.

It floored me a few years back to learn that a very reputable college in our region paid mid-five figures for some “rebranding” work. The firm they hired took the school’s existing logo, changed the font and swapped the colors of the two lines that underscored the name. Rebranding? Not by a long shot. Did it do anything to communicate the essence of the college to prospective students? Did it generate the emotional appeal necessary to move alumni to donate? Did it articulate why a Ph.D. should apply for a teaching position?

The reality is that many small business owners equate their “logo” with their “brand.” This misperception is reinforced by graphic designers who advertise “branding” work when what they are actually doing is designing a logo, letterhead and matching business cards. I’m not dismissing good logo work or the role it can play in the overarching identity of a company. But let’s be clear: If it doesn’t involve strategy, messaging, emotional appeal AND visual identity—then it’s not branding. Period.

If you trace the concept to its origins, you can see why people equate a brand with a logo. A “brand” is an identifying mark. Ranchers used them to tell one cow or horse from another. If you’re lucky (and spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising), a logo may one day come to represent your brand. Think Nike swoosh, McDonald’s golden arches, Major League Baseball red-white-and-blue. Instantly identifiable. But your logo is not your brand. In fact, many companies do just fine without any logo whatsoever.

So what is your brand? Most simply, it’s your promise to your customers. It’s the combination of visual, verbal and emotional attributes that define your company and distinguish it from the competition. And it should be consistent everywhere. Sales pitches. Magazine and newspaper ads. Website. Billboard. Truck signage. Even down to how the receptionist answers the phone. Your brand permeates everything you do, everywhere.

Building a strong brand is a multi-step process. It starts with a hard look at the core values of your company, whatever they may be: Customer satisfaction. Responsiveness. Hipness. Price. Honesty. Tech savvy. Quality. Atmosphere. (Haven’t done a line-item of your company’s core values? What are you waiting for?)

Once your specific core values are written down, take a hard look at the competition and figure out what you do better, where you fall short, where you want to compete and how you are going to win market share. With that competitive environment in mind, the next step is to create compelling, credible, consistent messaging that supports your business goals. This is easier said than done. Many businesses struggle with creating truly effective and distinctive messaging. Once your core messaging is final, then—and only then—do you have the emotional foundation for creating a look and feel (design, logo) that mirrors your values and supports your messaging.

Customers and prospects are initially attracted or repelled because of the emotional impact of your brand. First impressions matter. How your brand makes people feel and react are the two key drivers of brand perception. So when a logo design shop says they’ll create your brand, ask them if they’ll interview your executive team. Find out if they’ll craft your “elevator speech”—that short verbal overview that defines your business and engages prospects. Will they help you extend and reinforce your brand through a trade show strategy? PR? Point-of-purchase? Advertising? Social networking? Sponsorship?

So go ahead and hire a graphic designer—when the time comes. But you’ve got a lot of homework to do before that happens.