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Branding is the difference between the $10 no-name trainers you can get at an open market stall in some countries and the $100 ones at the cool Nike store. It’s not just about the price difference, but also about all perceived values people are willing to pay more for.
Branding is the layer of communication on top that turns a generic item into a recognizable product. And it is what people remember about the product - “the wool minimalist everyday shoes” or “the affordable hipster glasses with home try-outs” or “the personalized shampoo and conditioner that even let you choose your color and scent”.
Of course, you could go without branding, but it’s hard to imagine how you’d connect with your target audience - who are these people anyway? What would you say about your product? What’s the backstory of creating it? Why should anyone buy it? Without branding, you can probably do wholesale and let others worry about the customers. But margins won’t be great and no-one would know it’s your product. That’s where branding makes the difference - even without changes in the quality, but only in the communication, your brain child could be the next Casper, Luxy Hair or Harry’s!
Let’s talk more about why branding makes it all work.
Why is branding important ?
Branding gives identity to products. It defines and connects them to the public through design and visual identity, storytelling and communication.
There are endless “makes” of clothes, sneakers, bags, watches, etc. but you can think of a few brand names that stand out. Fashion marketing in particular is an industry where branding really elevates a product. Imagine a person wearing Louis Vuitton, or Under Armour, or Victoria's Secret Those brands have claimed their space - with their own voice, aesthetic, appeal, values - they have an identity unlike the nameless ones.
Product branding conveys the subtle but powerful self of a product and its purpose.
As Emily Heyward of Red Antler said for TechCrunch,
“A brand-led company is a company with clarity of purpose; a deep understanding of why it exists and why people should care.”
Product branding attracts the target buyers
People take clues from the overall look and feel of a brand when choosing. The website, style, imagery, colors and fonts, product design, copy and brand voice show the character of the brand - is it fun or serious, trendy or classic, affordable or luxurious, practical or showy.
The brand resonates with the right people and shows the rest they’d better look elsewhere. That's why different cosmetics brands choose different beauty bloggers to work with in accordance with the brand image they want to project - glamorous or natural, edgy or classic feminine, etc. People don't buy products - they buy into product identities.
Product branding represents values
What your product is about, what problems it solves and what it stands for should be seen through the branding. Rothy’s shoes are made of recycled plastic bottles and that’s all over their marketing - every person buying them knows, and probably chooses them because of that. Plus, they ship without excessive packaging, only in the shoe box and a signature ribbon from recycled materials.
Consistent branding enhances the customer journey
A cohesive look and messaging across platforms helps people understand the brand, and gives people the key points to remember the brand by: the colors, the feel, the puns used in the copy, the aesthetics of the lifestyle associated with the brand.
If the next step in the customer’s journey doesn’t involve the same anchors, people may be lost and confused - that brand was fun and friendly, what happened? That’s one of the main reasons many DTC brands don’t sell on Amazon at all - they cannot control the experience there and feel disconnected from their customers. Branding goes bust there, all products are listed in the same way.
Product branding should be built in
When launching your product, you should plan for how you’re going to communicate what it is all about. Launching a generic item first and trying to differentiate it later is a bad strategy.
Apple is the textbook example of creating products with the brand DNA in mind. Its design is so recognizable that people can instantly tell it’s an Apple product without seeing the logo. That consistency builds a whole ecosystem of related products and once people start using one of them, they want the other ones as well - sometimes only for the sleek look.
If you take all shaving subscription boxes launched in recent years, they all brand themselves as the easier, hassle-free, affordable alternative to monopoly brands. The whole idea of a challenger brand is to do things differently - more democratically, as they say - than incumbents and their branding has to show it. Just compare the brand experience billie and Gillette Venus provide:
Interestingly, there are companies that launch first and think about the brand after. Even the successful Birchbox had trouble with Birchbox Men and rebranded to Birchbox Grooming months after launch.
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Bic also made a notorious flop with Bic for her, which was not only named tastelessly, but colored in bright pink as the only option for women. This kind of sloppy branding earns only negative media and don’t get the company very far.
In today’s highly competitive environment, it is no surprise some entrepreneurs even out branding before the functionality of the product. You do need a good story to tell investors if you are seeking millions in funding.
However, as Juicero’s sad end proves, the branding has to match the merits in order to succeed over the long term. People may buy once, but if they get disappointed with the sub-par quality, no amount of inspirational talk would help.
In this case, signature design, proprietary technology, innovative revenue model and outspoken founder only highlighted the bare truth that the juicing machine did not work. Its branding as a revolutionary product turned into a joke.
The effect of branding on acquisition
Customers buy when they trust and like the brand. So your branding should give the right signals to your target group.
For example, Casper appeals to urban millennials who can’t stand the hassle of mattress buying, but also are not sure how to choose such an item. Casper’s whole communication and policies encourage people to try it since returns are easy, and the modern, playful imagery reflects the multifaceted everyday life of this target group - something their parents would not identify with.
Differentiating your brand also allows you to choose your price point instead of price match incumbents. Some like the new razor brands prefer to go below the market as their mission is to democratize shaving. Everlane’s commitment to radical transparency of the value chain is a strong selling point which does not compromise the quality of the products. Whatever pricing strategy you choose, branding lets you communicate and justify it.
The effect of branding on retention
When branding is thoughtful and attractive, people are more drawn to the products and easily become regulars and advocates. It may seem excessive, but cool packaging, a small freebie, a fun insert, a relevant follow-up email, a kind refill reminder and courteous customer service go a long way in customer’s memory.
Native Cosmetics became the success it is today by making sure customers stuck around. In its shipping boxes, customers found not just an awesome message, but also instructions on how to switch to it from another brand, which can be an unpleasant period for some.
The founder Moiz Ali says that people love the authenticity of the brand and its commitment to improvement based on user feedback. This involvement of users in the formulation of the product, unheard of with incumbent brands, has resulted in as much as 50% of revenue coming from loyal customers. Ali built his brand in such a way to stimulate repeat orders as he believes consumer brands’ key to success is customer retention.
The effect of branding on referrals
One of any good branding’s most valuable traits is that it is memorable, it stays in people’s minds and gets them talking. If your brand gets word-of-mouth referrals at grill parties or at playdates - you’re in luck, your branding is working. No-one talks about generic trinkets off of AliExpress, they talk about cool things that caught their attention. On top of that, people love introducing their friends and family to new things - like being the “influencer” - so they’re willing to share any interesting product they came across.
Good branding can get you far since it gives people something to discuss and maybe brag about. Look at Bomb Cosmetics - with their signature shape and eye-catching colors, they’re easily identifiable. For people unfamiliar with the brand, explanation is also easy and provokes curiosity so next time at the mall they’ll surely recognize the brand.
Branding opens up ways for your product to scale. It turns a shoe, a bag, a vitamin pill, a water bottle into a lifestyle. Product branding is the reason people shell out €10 for a pair of Happy Socks when they could get generic socks for just a euro, or why Kanye West's white tees cost $120 instead of $3.50. Branding is the opposite of generic and it is a must for modern companies looking to stand out, beat cheap stuff sold by the kilo and make money.
Murry Ivanoff is the founder and CEO of Metrilo, an analytics and marketing platform that helps ecommerce brands grow through retention and customer engagement.