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Branding lessons from brilliant books about branding

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Why read this? : We share branding lessons from 3 brilliant marketing books. Learn why brands must offer more than a functional benefit. Plus, what makes a brand charismatic and different. And the 6 key questions you’ll have to answer over your brand’s lifetime. Read this to learn these brilliant branding lessons. currently lists 70k+ marketing books. Read one a day, and it’d take you 192 years to get through them all. Clearly, that’s impossible.

Plus, chuck in all the marketing magazines, agency white papers and blog articles you see every day, and it’s no wonder some marketers say they don’t read books anymore.

But that’d be a big mistake.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

To master marketing and grow your brand, you have to constantly hunt for new insights and ideas. Which you get from reading about marketing.

So from our marketing reading list, we decided to pick out a few key branding lessons to share. It’s an important marketing topic that we haven’t covered much recently. So, enjoy this week’s branding lessons from 3 great marketing books. 

Branding lessons from Aaker on Branding - David Aaker

We start with David Aaker’s Aaker On Branding.

He’s a well-known marketing professor and author, known for his work on creating, building and managing strong brands.

This book outlines 20 principles he claims drive (branding) success.

These range from the idea that brands are assets which drive business strategy to the idea that silo organisations inhibit brand building. 

They’re all interesting. But for this article, we’ll focus on his 6th principle, that brands must get beyond functional benefits.

In our view, it’s one of the most important branding lessons you can learn.

Brands must get beyond functional benefits

He starts this principle by quoting Charlotte Beers from J. Walter Thompson who said “You cannot win the hearts of customers unless you have a heart yourself”. In other words, customers have emotions. And so should your brand. 

Yet, many marketers forget this.

They approach branding in a logical way. Brand identity guides full of well-thought-out words to describe their essence, values and personality. Tone of voice and design guides to drive briefs and creative approvals.

Graffiti of heart shape with illustration of a man hanging on to the heart

All important processes which make your brand stronger. But, when done logically, it’s easy to forget that customers rarely think about brands using logic. Emotions come first with customers. 

Aaker points out that strong brands make emotional connections. Customers have to feel something to connect with a brand. Otherwise, they won’t give it any logical thought. It’s why toilet paper adverts show cute puppies, rather than talk about how many sheets they have. You need an emotional connection before a logical one can happen.

Using emotional benefits to connect with customers

Aaker shares examples of how this plays out in successful advertising campaigns.

For example, he talks about a famous (among copywriters) music lessons advert from 1926, written by John Caples for the US School of Music. Its headline is “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I started to play …”.

It works because it taps into an emotional story we can all recognise.

lady with arms up in the air and happy smiley face

When you try to learn something new, you often fear (emotion) ridicule from others. But proving that ridicule wrong, and feeling proud (another emotion) of your new skills is very satisfying. 

It also shows the outcomes of his piano learning in a social context. He surprised (another emotion) those who laughed and changed their perceptions. He got the emotional self-esteem boost of his social group now admiring his skills.

Functional benefits? Meh

Aaker then states that many brands don’t get this. They push features and functional benefits before making any emotional connection.

For example, adverts that talk about car gas mileage, or kitchen appliance quality. Functional, yes. But do customers connect with those? No.

They might look at these later if the product is a high-ticket item with a high level of involvement. 

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

But that logical review is filtered by their initial emotional connection. He argues that in most purchase decisions, the rational brain plays only a small role, if at all.

There’s a similar point in Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy. (See our marketing inspiration article). He talks about how ideas which are “non sense” (more emotional) often work better than ideas which make sense (more logical). The key branding lesson here is customers are usually less rational than you think they are. 

Your brand has to make the customer feel something

You bring this to life as you create your brand identity by spelling out what you want the brand to make customers feel. Its emotional benefit.

Brand choice is often a form of self-expression. What you buy says something about you. (e.g. see the idea of badging in our role of packaging article).

But this emotional feeling is often glossed over in brand development as it’s hard to define. You’re trying to use your logical brain to explain an area that’s not based on logic.

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

But it’s what makes your brand most likely to connect with customers. Customers buy brands because they like the way they make them feel. That goes beyond pure functional benefits.

For example, all cars get you from A to B. That’s their functional benefit. But, some customers like the excitement of driving. Why is why (amongst other reasons) they buy expensive Porsches and not reliable Toyotas. Porsche taps into a set of emotions for them that Toyota doesn’t.

That’s not to say you ignore functional benefits. Some drivers will be concerned about fuel efficiency, for example, and they’ll buy Toyotas. But functional benefits are there to support the emotional benefit. Even Toyota leads with the slogan, oh what a feeling.

This should give you a good feeling for the first of our branding lessons. Use your emotional benefit to make customers feel good about your brand. 

Branding lessons from The Brand Gap - Marty Neumeier

Marty Neumeier is another highly regarded marketing author.

His book The Brand Gap also covers the need for brands to lead with emotional benefits over functional ones. 

He calls brands who do this charismatic brands. They form such strong connections that customers believe they’ve no substitute.

They dominate markets and charge premium prices. He cites examples like Nike, Coca-Cola, Apple and Disney. He argues such charismatic brands have a clear differentiated competitive strategy.

They support this with a strong dedication to aesthetics, which he calls the language of feeling. In a society which is information-rich and time-poor, people value feeling more than information.

He argues it’s a brand’s aesthetics which makes customers feel connected to a brand. And as he says, any brand, with enough courage and imagination can become a charismatic brand.


Differentiation is key to being a challenger brand. It’s linked to what’s known as the Von Restorff effect.

This psychological bias makes us pay more attention to things that are different than those that are similar. (See also our books that stand out article for more on this).

For example, if we say A,B,3,D,E, your eye’s immediately drawn to the number as the odd one out, right? Because it’s different.

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different

Neumeier argues differentiation is at the heart of any successful brand. He suggests you start by asking yourself 3 simple questions about your brand :-

  • who are you?
  • what do you do?
  • why does it matter?

He gives us the example of John Deere :-

  • who are you? We’re John Deere.
  • what do you do? We make farm tractors and related equipment.
  • why does it matter? It matters because generations of farmers have trusted our equipment.

A simpler version of a positioning statement

This is essentially a simpler version of a positioning statement. It covers the brand name (who you are). Your frame of reference (the category is what you do). And wraps up the other elements – your target audience, benefit and rationale – into a single statement of why those matter.

In John Deere’s case, it’s the long, trusted relationship farmers have had with the brand. Trust is the emotional driver. Without it, there’s no brand connection. If you don’t trust someone, you fear what they might do. If someone breaks your trust, you’re angry. Disappointed. All emotional drivers.

Hand holding old fashioned looking compass

Why differentiation works

Neumeier’s view is that differentiation works because it taps into how your brain works.

Your brain wants to know where to focus attention. So it filters out what it considers irrelevant or trivial.

That includes anything that’s already known or expected. Instead, your brain looks for what’s unexpected. What’s different. It looks for contrasts. (See also Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 approach in our thoughts about thinking article which covers similar ground).

Three columns with twelve rows of the three-brains logo - one logo has had the colour altered so it stands out from the other 35 logos

Examples of contrasts in design he gives include subject and ground; big and small; dark and light; rough and smooth; and many more. Your brain makes meaning of these contrasts by comparing them to what you already know. 

It’s this combination of extra attention to make sense of the contrast, plus the distinct meaning associated with that contrast that matters here. It’s what makes differentiation such a key branding lesson. 

It creates a strong and distinct position for your brand in customers’ minds. This then plays out in tangible brand assets like your logo, colour palette and icons. Plus, all your intangible assets like your essence, values and personality

Brands that differentiate themselves like this are far more likely to become charismatic brands. Brands who dominate their category. Who charge a premium, seen as having no substitutes by customers. 

Branding lessons from Marketing Management - Kotler

Finally, we get to Philip Kotler’s Marketing Management. This has long been a core text on marketing degree courses.

While its main focus is on the marketing mix, it also shares an interesting set of questions to work through as you create, build and manage brands. 

He argues over a brand’s life, there are 6 key questions you’ll need to answer :-

  • should a brand be developed?
  • who should sponsor the brand?
  • individual of family branding?
  • should other products be given the same brand name?
  • should 2 or more brands be developed in the same product category?
  • should the brand be repositioned?

Should a brand be developed?

A question asked before a brand is even brought to life. Brands need a reason for their existence. Kotler outlines a number of these reasons. 

First, it’s needed to identify specific products to better manage orders and fix problems. Easier to know what a customer is talking about if they ask about “a case of Victoria Bitter” than just “some of your beers”, for example. 

There are also legal benefits to branding, as it helps prevent competitors from copying you.

Man in a red shirt holding an iPhone towards camera showing a Nike logo

Branding is also needed when your aim is customer loyalty. Branding gives them something to be loyal to.

It also helps with segmentation. You can offer different products to different segments under the same brand. For example, Nike is the overall brand. But it offers different products for different sports e.g tennis, athletics and football. Plus, it also uses the brand to offer different services e.g. Nike stores, and the Nike running app. (See also our recent logo evaluation article for more on Nike’s branding). 

Branding where customers don’t like brands

It gets interesting in areas where customers may have negative perceptions about branding. For example, some see brands as unnecessary and just a way to raise prices. That’s what is behind the success of own-label products, and eco food stores where you buy packaging-free loose ingredients. 

However, arguably the branding in those channels is still there. It’s just switched from the physical product itself to the retailer. Which brings us to the next of Kotler’s questions.

Who should sponsor the brand?

Next question is who (if anyone) should sponsor the brand. You usually ask this in the early stages of creating a brand, and have 3 main choices :-

  • manufacturer brand.
  • private (own-label) brand.
  • mixed brands. 

Examples of manufacturer sponsored brands would be Kellogg’s cornflakes or Heinz ketchup. The manufacturer’s name is prominent, and they spend heavily on marketing to support their brand. 

Supermarket central aisle with lots of displays and signage on view

Then there are private (own-label) brands. These are sold under the retailer’s name (especially in grocery), usually at a lower price than manufacturer brands. They don’t spend so much on marketing. Instead, they rely on price and their guaranteed shelf space. 

Some suppliers will only do private label. But others will do both. They’ll have a mixed portfolio. They sell their own branded products but also supply private label products. They get production economies of scale which help boost profitability. The alcohol category is a good example of this.

Individual or family branding?

Next is whether you should have individual brands, or build a brand family. This usually comes up once your brand starts to grow and you want to launch new products. Kotler outlines 4 options.

First, you can have individual brand names where each brand the company owns in a category runs separately. For example, Proctor and Gamble owns haircare brands Braun, Head and Shoulders, Herbal Essences, and Pantene. But to the shopper, they all appear as separate brands.

Close up of the centre of a Volkswagen steering wheel

Then, you can have a blanket name for all products. For example, Heinz is the brand, and the product name is then functional e.g. ketchup or chicken soup.

Next, you can have separate family names for all products. For example, the Volkswagen Group owns and runs many brands beyond VW, including Audi, Bentley, Porsche, SEAT and Skoda

Finally, you can have the company name but applied to individual product names. For example, as Kellogg’s do with Rice Krispies and Special K

Which option you choose influences how you manage your brand portfolio, particularly for launching innovation. As per our Ansoff matrix article, innovation growth comes from how you mix existing and new products and markets. 

Going after existing markets with existing products favours using the company or parent brand, as it’ll already have awareness and consideration. 

Going after new markets or launching new products is trickier. You have to weigh up the customer’s perception of the existing brand, with the creative freedom you get creating a new brand from scratch.

Diversification, where you go after new markets AND new products usually requires a fresh brand approach. You want to distinguish your new offer from any existing brand association.

Should other products be given the same brand name? 

This is a decision about brand extensions, taken once the original brand is well-established. (See also our role of packaging article for more on this).

It’s about looking for new ways to grow the brand by adding new products, based on the strength of its core offer. 

Brand extensions aim to grow the brand by :-

  • giving the brand more to talk about.
  • pulling in extra customers.
  • giving the brand more online and in-store presence. 
Supermarket shelves showing different varieties of Arnott's Shapes snacks

For example, think about what Diet Coke and Coke Zero do for Coca-Cola. Or what Blue and Black Label do for Johnnie Walker. 

The main watch-out is that you don’t damage your core brand by extending it too far. Or in ways that customers don’t buy into.

For example, there was much speculation when Porsche launched its Cayenne SUV that it’d hurt the image and sales of its core sports cars. But it didn’t. The customer targets were quite different. But we’ve seen it have mixed results in other areas e.g. when infant formula milks try to expand into adjacent categories like pregnancy supplements and baby food. 

Should 2 or more brands be developed in the same product category?

This decision is whether to take a multibrand approach to cover more areas of the market. It’s what companies like Proctor and Gamble and Volkswagen do, per our earlier examples. 

The driver here is the potential increased scale and market share of having multiple brands in the category. It can let you occupy different areas of the market e.g. having a premium-priced offer and a low-cost one. 

However, there are challenges with this approach. For a start, you’ll need clear, distinct positionings for each brand. You’ll also need separate brand teams to run each brand, and some internal controls to make sure your brands don’t cannibalise each other. 

Plus, if your overall market position grows too strong, you run the risk of running into anti-monopoly laws. You might be challenged for having too much power over the market. 

Should the brand be repositioned?

Kotler’s final branding question is should the brand be repositioned. This usually comes up when business isn’t going so well. It’s usually caused by category changes. e.g. :-

  • customer preferences shift.
  • competitors launch new products.
  • retailers change their approach e.g. launching private label brands.

Changes like these hit sales, which forces you to reconsider the positioning. It’s a challenging task though. There are examples of brands who’ve done it successfully. Volkswagen did it very well on Skoda for example, which used to have a terrible reputation.

But there are many more examples where it hasn’t worked. It usually takes significant time and money to get customers to change what they think about a brand. Plus, you risk losing the goodwill and brand equity customers had from your original positioning. There’s no guarantee your new positioning will succeed.

Conclusion - Branding lessons from brilliant branding books

Branding is a key area for marketing. It’s how customers know who you are. How you get them to remember and like you. And it underpins all successful activation.

This article shared 3 key branding lessons from some of the best books on branding. 

Aaker on Branding explains why it’s so important to go beyond functional benefits. If your brand can’t create an emotional connection with the customer, they won’t care enough to look at what your product does. No matter how well it performs.

Book open on someone's lap as they read a story, lit by sparkling lights

The Brand Gap reinforces the importance of differentiation in branding to make your brand charismatic. If your brand doesn’t stand out, it won’t be noticed. Or remembered.

And finally, Marketing Management shared 6 key questions to answer over the lifetime of a brand. From when you first create it, to what to consider if it runs into trouble with its positioning.

For more branding lessons, check out our brand strategy section or our where to focus your marketing brain article. Or get in touch if you’re looking for ideas and insights on how to strengthen your brand.

Photo credits

Phone with Nike logo : Photo by Kristian Egelund on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Heart graffiti : Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Happy woman : Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by on Unsplash

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Red tulip / Yellow tulip : Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Person holding compass : Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Volkswagen : Photo by Julian Hochgesang on Unsplash

Person reading with sparkly lights : Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

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