For nearly two years, I have been working on re-branding the organization I work for (read this article for more information). It's definitely not for the faint of heart. A brand is often confused with a logo, but it is much more. An organization can own its logo, but often the perception of its brand is in the eye of the beholder.
Branding is about identity and belonging: products are marked with signs and symbols of their origins, and people do the same to announce their allegiance to groups and tribes. Signs are descriptive labels, while symbols hold meaning – either positive or negative. Originally, branding was the application of a visual sign, such as a rancher’s name burned into the hide of a cow to communicate ownership, but gradually it also became a potent symbol of quality and reputation, depending on the owner.
A successful brand captures the essence of a product, person or organization. It communicates information at the speed of light, conveying images, emotions, sounds, pushing us to react. If I say "Coca-Cola," what's the first thing that pops into your head? Is it the red and white logo, or a jingle, or the way you felt when you drank an ice-cold soda on a beach last year? Does this make you more likely to feel like drinking a Coke right now? Organizations believe that their branding can set them apart from the competition and sell more product, so they invest heavily in creating a brand that will make you want to buy their offerings.
Consider the evolution of Apple's branding:
Yes, the first image is Apple's actual first logo and it lasted less than a year, before the company found its essence in the simplicity of its name. While the shape has remained the same over the years, the way Apple thinks of itself has clearly changed. For the first two decades of its existence, the company saw itself as a maverick in the computing industry and this was indeed its multi-colored identity. Apple was for the rebels. As the organization and its market share entered mainstream culture, Apple came to define itself by its sense of style, which is clearly reflected in the sleek designs of its more recent logos.
Finding one's essence is where the hard work really happens. While Apple had a clear and vibrant identity, most other organizations struggle to find the inner core that makes them unique. The challenge lies in uniting internal stakeholders around key ideas and descriptions. If the team can rally around the essence you are proposing, they will embrace the brand. Remember, a brand is more than a logo, so the organization is really creating a central identity for itself. With any luck, this will involve frank discussions about work culture and values. No one person can make the decision, if the brand is going to last.
One of the most difficult lessons I learned during this most recent process was that the brand has to be a good fit for the organization. If it doesn't fit, you have to go back to the beginning and reassess all of the steps of the process. This means missed deadlines, loss of political capital, and a waste of resources. However, these are worth sacrificing if the brand does not fit. At the other end of the spectrum, after 20 months, I have learned to let go and allow the brand to stand on its own, knowing that it will continue to evolve, just like the Apple logo above. For now, it describes who we are and where we're going.