Branding needs a re-brand

What do you think of when you hear the word “branding”? Honestly?

I’m guessing that as you contemplate an answer, the logo’s, colours and images of brands that you love and feel passionate about will most likely flash through your mind; perhaps Apple, Virgin Atlantic, Pret, Twitter, your favourite coffee shop, sports club, city or even a celebrity you admire (or fancy!).

If so, then you’ll be happy to know that all is well and that you had a completely normal response to the question. We all recall the brands we love by their visual elements; colours in particular are a powerful cue for us. What’s even more interesting is that the mere thought of a favourite brand might also induce desirable feelings of pride, passion and belonging. We have to realise that to achieve this immediate recall of a brand and to have these powerful associations evoked in us, the respective organisations have had to invest a lot of thought, insight, focus and money into creating and developing their brands. And their brand building efforts will have taken YEARS, with much refreshing and realigning along the way to adapt to changing market dynamics and customer expectations.

But here is the problem. Too often we hear the term ‘branding’ being used loosely and interchangeably with logo’s, websites, colours and imagery to the extent that the actual term has become somewhat displaced and often leads to confusion. This problem exists in many industries but, from experience, I can confidently say that it is particularly prevalent in healthcare. Time and time again I’ve seen that even the most senior executives in healthcare will be discussing their organisation’s brand and the content of the conversation will be something like this: ‘Our branding is fine. Besides, we have no money for a new logo. Our website might do with a lick of paint though, and…um… we should probably start a Twitter account”.

The real stuff behind ‘Branding’ or ‘brand: –development, -strategy, -building, -management”, is lost. And this real stuff is to do with market differentiation, competitive positioning, staff development, the organisation’s story and values, how to engage customers, how to grow and be sustainable and relevant in changing times.

I appreciate that I am not the first to bang on about the fact that there is more to branding than the visual identity, but I’d like to be the first to propose that we try to stop the recurrent misunderstanding of what ‘branding’ is actually about. Branding needs a re-brand!

The way to do this is to introduce new words and phrases altogether; ones that simply describe what we mean by ‘branding’ and what we are trying to achieve with it. We could start by considering the following terms and phrases:

  1. Effective positioning of your organisation in your markets of choice
  2. Giving you more influence with a range a stakeholders that are important to your business
  3. Creating the long lasting impact that you want your business to have
  4. Fostering a reputation in the minds of your customers that matches your organisational values and purpose

These terms more accurately describe what we are all trying to achieve (or should be focused on achieving) when we enter into ‘branding’ initiatives. At Saffron Steer we use these terms and phrases in our everyday language. They really do help our customers to grasp what it is that we are jointly trying to achieve in developing their brands and takes them far away from the visual elements of their brand into the real meat of the business!

I had the privilege of discussing the importance of language with Professor Sir Muir Gray, one of the great minds in healthcare today, and with whom I’ve had the privilege of working a few years back. He has suggested on several occasions that we need to get the language right to be able to progress. He made this observation during our discussion:

“Branding has a wooly image. Clarity of language can make an important contribution.  Sometimes it is right to drop an old term completely e.g. A+E should be called ‘SFS’, or System Failure Service. Sometimes it is good to introduce a new term e.g. we need better ‘value’ not just better quality healthcare. Sometimes we need to clarify what we mean by a term.’ (Prof Sir Muir Gray)

His thoughts certainly fuel my ambition to help to create a language in the health care brand strategy space that is more meaningful, clear and simple. We need this to progress. Narrative alone, however, is not going to be enough. Narrative, and new language, needs to be followed by behaviour and must be used to drive that behaviour. That’s when the magic happens.

There will be much more about this and how we practically translate narrative into behaviours in future “Away from the Heard” blog posts.

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world’. (Robin Williams in his role as the teacher John Keating in Dead Poets Society)

Thank you for reading this post. I’d be interested in any views or discussion that it might have stimulated. This has been ‘Away from the Heard’: The Saffron Steer blog.