Sonic Branding: An Introduction : The building blocks of Sonic Branding

Around the same time as Daniel's writing of Sonic Branding: An Introduction, Robbie Laughton, executive creative director of Wolff Olins asserted that ‘the essence of any brand is a belief'. This week's extract from the book continues to explore the definition of a brand.

Chapter 10 - The essence of brand is belief

'Trust is a belief in reliability'. What McDonald’s did better than anyone else was to create belief among their customers that they were getting decent food at a good price and that the chain would always deliver the same portions in the same wrappers in the same type of environment. McDonald’s promised all of this and when customers walked through the doors, this is exactly what they got.

McDonald’s kept their promises and in doing so they became trusted as you or I would if we were to commit to something and then deliver. They were also very friendly. The brand spokesman was a clown, very unfunny but a familiar archetype that resonates all over the world as being friendly and unthreatening. The staff was trained, at least in the US, to be friendly too; politeness and courtesy were a part of the service. More than that, McDonald’s had a strategy for hosting children’s parties and generally looked after kids through happy meals, balloons and hats.

McDonald’s brand was based upon a belief that the brothers had in their way of doing things. Their ideas were strong and their execution was consistent. They made promises and kept them and customers grew to believe in the brand as a trusted friend. If it were not for allegations of sharp practice and environmental harm, the brand would still be everyone’s favourite, but more of that later.

The word belief came up time and again while researching this book. It certainly seems to be the case that today’s brand experts put belief right at the heart of a brand. In September 2002, we asked Tania Mason, editor of the Branding section of Marketing magazine to give us her definition of a brand: she described it as a ‘promise of standards’. This is very much in keeping with the McDonald’s brand story and it is pretty easy to understand.

Tim Greenhill, Managing Director of Greenhill McCarron also asserts that brands are based upon beliefs, which must be commonly held by the staff and customers of an organization. Does this mean that logos and trademarks have no relevance to a definition of a brand post-McDonald’s? Greenhill would argue that the traditional model of name and trademark are just as important as ever but today, not everyone is certain that brands, if they have belief, need logos.

The Times, in October 2002, ran a front page splash entitled ‘Death of the Logo’. The article was certainly not heralding the death of brands. The reference was to the current movement by fashion houses to completely rethink the logo and trademark. Gucci and Prada are at the top end in the world of fashion. They set the tone for everyone else and the trend they are currently setting, in a world post 11 September and the ‘Battle of Seattle’, has been to downsize or even in some cases completely remove the logos from their goods. In doing so, they are reflecting the times and may be defining how society will view logos for years to come.

This is not just another trend. It represents a growing feeling among those who work with brands that logos and symbols, which had come to be seen as a promise of standards, no longer mean as much as they once did, particularly in a world of counterfeiting. If the Gucci logo was a promise of standards but more Gucci bags on the street are counterfeit than real. then the promise is broken because part of the promise is exclusivity and self-expression. If anyone can have a Gucci fake, which can be of merchantable quality, then the Gucci logo is a broken promise.

The label has found a way to make a promise and keep it. It now relies more heavily on great design of unique features. Outside of Gucci, Christian Louboutin, the shoe designer, has taken to making his shoes with red soles. No doubt when he is copied, he will need to find a new way to differentiate his designs but for now he has found a way to make a singular promise.

Prada has created a unique retail space in New York. It is unlike any other store and provides the kind of experience that high—end fashion shoppers demand. The investment and effort it has made make the shopping experience impossible to copy and this allows many of the Prada goods sold to carry little or no evidence of a logo or trademark.

Reports of the death of logos are premature but it is clear that brands are no longer reliant upon them. Brands can now keep their promises through smart design and by providing a unique experience. This is a growing trend. Gucci and Prada confirm that brands are promises and a part of the promise is that they are exclusive or distinct. If counterfeiters can copy a logo then the brand promise is broken. Counterfeiters have done something good, however, in showing brands that simply slapping a logo on any old product is no longer good enough. The product or experience itself must promise something, not just the name.

Tim Greenhill makes the point that the primary purpose of brands is to be distinct: ‘Brands are just about the only way that companies can differentiate their goods and services. Manufacturing and technology are so good these days that pretty much anything can be copied almost as soon as it is launched.'

Where Mason and Greenhill’s definitions converge is in their contention that brands are primarily emotional entities — promises and beliefs. This is a far cry from the AMA or Interbrand who contended in the past that brands were trademarks or products but is entirely in keeping with the latest actions of high fashion. Robbie Laughton, executive creative director of Wolff Olins at the time of writing, asserts, as does this book that ‘the essence of any brand is a belief ’.“ It would be possible to leave our definition there but it is useful if we expand upon this and examine what in particular makes a belief into a brand.

Daniel M Jackson - CEO, CORD