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Brand essence and your brand identity

Brand identity

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Why read this? : We go deep into brand essence this week. Learn how you define it and why it matters so much. We go through the 5 key criteria which all great examples of brand essence share. And we share examples of good and brand life brand essences. Read this to learn the essentials of brand essence. 

We see lots of other marketing companies claim they’ll share free insights with you.

But then, you realise you need to sign up for an email.

Or there’s a limited time discounted offer.

Or, there’s an informal 30 minute face-to-face coffee chat required. Not that there’s much of that happening, right now, with Covid-19 and all that. 

So this week, we thought we’d be different. We thought we’d share an insight, no strings attached. 

Two people sitting at a table with coffee cups in front of them having a conversation

And it’s this. Of all the many topics we cover on this website, the most connected page is the one on brand identity. It has by far the most links to and from the page.

We found this out from our website analytics where we get most of the digital data about our business (life’s pretty exciting during a near lockdown).

We validated it when we looked at search trends around brand expertise. People don’t search much on marketing terms. But when they do, it’s often brand identity they search for. 

It was a surprise / a-ha moment for us when we saw this. Because we certainly didn’t intend to focus our content on brand identity.

We figured brand identity would be similar in importance and connectivity to all the other marketing content we’ve created. But the fact brand identity is what’s come out as the most connected business topic (and we have a lot of topics) is significant.

It’s really brought home the importance of brand identity. It links together everything you do in marketing. 

Brand identity - The DNA that defines your business

We knew brand identity was important of course. We’ve worked in marketing a long time, so d’uh.

But it reinforced just how much brand identity weaves through everything you do as a business. And how important it is to marketing success.

But if it’s so important, then how much time do you actually spend on brand identity? We bet, probably nowhere near as much as you should.

We have to admit we didn’t spend much time on brand identity when we first launched our brand. Better to be quick than to be perfect. 

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

When we started Three-Brains, it was based on our belief that connecting marketing expertise, creative expertise and e-commerce expertise together helps businesses succeed. This connected thinking helps businesses outperform their competitors.

We wrote about this in our story when we launched. But we realised recently this belief isn’t our actual brand identity. It’s only a part of our brand identity.

It’s one of the tangible assets that lives in the middle of our brand wheel. Along with other tangible assets like our colour palette and our logo design

(Our full brand identity guide covers how to create a brand wheel by the way). 

So, we’ve taken the current Covid-19 quiet time to work on refining our own brand identity.

While this post isn’t about blowing our own trumpet, there’s a few things the brand identity process and in particular getting to your brand essence brought to mind, that we’d like to share.

Brand identity wheel showing elements of brand identity including essence, values, personality, and benefits

Brand essence - 5 key criteria

Your brand essence is a short snappy statement that’s central to everything you do.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

And yet, it’s probably the toughest part of building your brand. Because it needs to be short, memorable, meaningful, distinctive and also unite and bring people together at the same time. That’s quite a chunky old challenge for mere words. 

Let’s pick those apart a little.

Short and memorable

Well, obviously, there’s the challenge of squeezing the brand essence into a small text box. Because that’s all the space you get on whatever brand wheel, diamond or pyramid you use to capture the details of your brand identity.

So, it has to be short.

Writing short is often harder than writing long. We’re reminded of the famous Mark Twain quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling

But making it short also makes it easier to remember. That’s because we remember information easier when it’s broken into short chunks. (see our design psychology article for more on chunking).  And it’s important everyone remembers what your brand essence is. 

Part of the challenge to define your short and memorable brand essence is it forces you to make choices. One of our favourite pieces of wisdom came from a colleague who used to tell her kids, you can do anything you want. But you can’t do everything you want. 

That applies to your brand essence too. It’s impossible for it to cover everything you do. You have to write it so it focusses on the one big thing which sums up your brand. You have to choose what that is. 

Safety if you’re Volvo. Happiness if you’re Disney.  Dotardity if you’re Donald Trump. (thanks for that one North Korea).

The shorter something is, the easier it is for people to remember it. Keep your essence short. 

1 or 2 word essences are easy to remember. But it’s often hard to be so concise. And 3 word essences can also work, because 3 is an easy way for people to remember things when you’re telling a story. Any longer is pushing it though. 

Volvo logo on a car bonner grille

Relevant and distinctive

You then need to make those 1, 2, 3 words relevant and distinctive, That can be a bit of a creative thinking challenge.

How do you make your brand essence not sound generic, the same as everyone else? How do you avoid playing it safe?

As per our business books that stand out article on distinctiveness bias, people won’t notice or remember anything that looks or sounds like everything else. You need to be different to stand out.

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

One of the challenges is brand essences are often crafted by teams. And everyone on the team has their own view on the essence. Because the essence applies to everything you do, it’s one of the tougher marketing decisions you need to make. 

Which means you often end up with a bolted together compromise essence. One that’s meant to keep internal teams feeling like they’ve contributed.

But that’s not what it’s for. It should focus on what it means for external communications. You need to bring the essence together in a more unifying way that focuses on the customer.

Unifying

By all means put together a team to craft the brand essence. But when it comes to the final decision, it should be up to the brand owner identified at the start of the brand development process.

Someone who has both the authority and responsibility to make the final decision. And it should come down to the brand owner to make that final call on brand essence.

Brand essence - real-life (paraphrased) examples

We don’t want to break any confidences of previous businesses we’ve worked with. So, we won’t share exact brand essences. But thanks to thesaurus.com, we’ve paraphrased the essence of 2 brands we know well to show examples which meet our criteria for ‘great’ brand essences.

And to show the opposite, we’ll also share another example which is far from great. 

Unavoidably audacious

The first was a premium alcohol brand with an identity built around confidence and success.

Its essence (or close enough to it) was “unavoidably audacious”. That’s a great essence.

Unavoidable creates a sense of confidence or inevitability which when aligned with audacious creates a very distinctive start to the brand identity.

This set the tone for every packaging development and every piece of marketing communication for the next couple of years.

Michael Schumacher racing suit hanging in a display cabinet

Resulting in great sales growth. Double digit sales growth. Consecutive years in a row.

(see our being audacious for competitive advantage article for more on this). 

Pragmatic opinions

Similarly, another alcohol brand but with a very different target audience set its essence as “pragmatic opinions’.

It was the sort of brand older guys would drink with their mates at the end of an evening.

They didn’t really care what people thought of them anymore. They had strong opinions about how to fix the world and no fears about sharing those opinions. 

So pragmatic opinions then as the brand essence. 

Neon sign saying "I am Bold"

A great essence. It related to the target audience, the consumption moment, and found a distinctive position compared to competitors. 

It led to great sales growth, a unique position in the market and award-winning advertising campaigns.

So good it's worth talking about - meh?

So 2 good examples to learn from. How about one which wasn’t so good?

Well again, with some paraphrasing, here’s the essence of a well-know food brand : “so good, it’s worth talking about”.

See the difference between this essence and the previous ones? 

6 words. Not short. To be fair, it was fairly relevant to the moment the product was consumed. (it was ‘good’ and it was consumed with other people).

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

But is it memorable? Distinctive?

Could that essence be any other brand? Yes, of course it damn well could.

You can probably think of half a dozen other brands that could have that essence. Which means it should really have gone back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, it didn’t. 

This was a brand which was limping along with low growth rates mainly fuelled by innovation, sales promotions and lots of price discounting.

But bland and forgettable advertising campaigns. Several of which didn’t even relate back to this brand essence at all. It was so average, it isn’t worth talking about.

Now, having a short, memorable, relevant, distinctive and unifying brand essence doesn’t guarantee you business growth.

But it’s a hugely important step in the brand development process.

Brand essence and a challenging question to ask yourself

So, if you’re creating, reviewing or refining your brand essence right now, have a long think about whether it meets those criteria.

Is is short and memorable?

If you have a team of people working on it internally or with the agency, throw in a surprise “what’s our brand essence?” question in the middle of a teleconference. See if everyone can say it without having to look it up.

That’s a good test to see if it’s memorable.

Question mark spray painted onto a tree trunk among a wood of trees

Is it relevant and distinctive? Could one of your competitors put there logo above your brand essence and say the same thing? 

Go on. Try it.

And does your essence bring people together? Does it kill any ambiguity or lack of clarity about you and what your brand stands for?

A small confession

We’ve a small confession. When we launched Three-Brains, we’d didn’t have a brand essence. Or really a clearly defined brand identity. And yet, here’s us stressing how important it is.

Like many business owners, we just had too many other things to worry about. We knew we’d get to it eventually, but it wasn’t top of our launch plan list.

And that was a mistake.

As we said at the start we’d a story about why we started and what we were trying to do. But the consequence of not building the brand identity up front is a bit of disjointed content that didn’t have a common theme. It didn’t hang together well.

And so a lot of people on first encountering us, probably didn’t know what we stood for. Why we were different. Just another marketing consultancy. Plenty of those about. 

Now we have a brand essence

It’s 3 words long. And it’s memorable, relevant and distinctive. It’s going to be part of everything we do from now on. 

And you know what?

In these challenging times, we’ve seen a lot of other marketing consultants and agencies pushing out ads about why their so-called marketing expertise matters ‘right now’. 

And it’s pretty clear, they’re following a formula.

A cut-and-paste approach to business. But if they were true marketers, they’d realise this approach has no short, memorable, relevant, distinctive and unifying essence. We don’t believe those guys will be successful in the long-run.

Don’t be one of those guys. Get your brand essence sorted and set yourself up to succeed.

And your brand essence is …

Oh yeah, we hinted at that before. And then went away from it.

Well, actually, our brand essence is what we think will make us more competitive in the challenging times to come. So it’s not something we’re going to share right now. And it shouldn’t be something you should share either.

Your brand essence isn’t your slogan or brand strapline. But those should come from what’s in your brand essence. 

Brand identity

So you’ll see our brand essence come out through our intangible and tangible assets.  Which if you’ve read our (free! no download or email sign-up) brand identity guide, you’ll know come next in the process.

Watch this space.

Check out our guide to brand identity for more on this topic. Or contact us if we can help you create and refine your own brand essence. 

Photo credit

Brand identity : Photo by Patrik Michalicka on Unsplash

Conversation : Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling (adapted) : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Volvo : Photo by Adam Cai on Unsplash

Flowers : Photo by Photo by Rupert Britton on Unsplash

Schumacher outfit : Photo by ZU photography on Unsplash

I am bold : Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash

Question Mark on Tree : Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

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