Labeling and branding. We see a lot of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. That’s a problem, not just for marketers but for our society as a whole.
Let’s first get the definitions correct. Words matter. Language seems to evolve overnight in the digital age but if definitions becoming purely subjective we lose all power to communicate effectively.
A label is “a card, strip of paper, etc marked and attached to an object to indicate its nature, contents, ownership, destination, etc” or “a descriptive word or phrase applied to a person, group, theory etc as a convenient generalized classification.”
A brand is a “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name” or a “particular identity or image regarded as an asset.”
Here’s the critical distinction: Labels are attached from the outside by others. Brands are organic and come from within. In short, labeling is an outside job and branding is an inside job.
Branding, at its highest form, is an exercise in authenticity, value creation and expectation setting. Labeling, even when done well, is really nothing more than name-calling.
Needless to say, we have more than our share of name calling in society today. Some companies mistake labels (not in a mean spirited sense like other forms of name-calling) for brands. When this happens the reason is almost always that brands have failed to do the hard internal work required to establish and discern their authentic connection with consumers. Often you see this when a brand attempts to connect with consumers through something external that is not organic to the business.
As I’ve written previously, often we mistake well intentioned acts of empathy and solidarity for authentic branding. Establishing common cause with consumers in times of crisis is a nice thing to do of course, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. But it’s labeling more than branding. It’s more sentiment than strategy. In those instances all a company is doing is affixing one’s name to a common object of concern. It’s name calling, albeit in a friendly, unthreatening manner.
True branding creates value in the minds of consumers. It fulfills an unmet need (or even better creates a need that didn’t exist before) through the authentic delivery of a product or service. Distinctions are drawn. Expectations are set and met. The best brands in the world consistently exceed them. Their businesses establish repeatable processes that consistently fulfill the brand promise and create value for all stakeholders: consumers, employees, partners and shareholders. Yes, people increasingly want to know that a brand’s business practices enrich and improve our world. But if your marketing doesn’t draw clear lines or address “what’s in it for me” it won’t resonate long term.
It all sounds so obvious and simple. Yet success, even for great marketers, often is elusive. Just because a thing is simple to understand doesn’t mean it’s easy. No one bats a thousand in this game. Labeling usually is the result of making too many compromises and taking short cuts to avoid the difficult work of building alignment around a brand’s core purpose and strategy.
If you see that happening in your business, if your campaign isn’t performing, it might be worth considering if your marketing has devolved to name calling.