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What Building Brand Identity Means & What Actually Works

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I'm about to commit web content suicide with a long-winded introduction that doesn't just get right to the actionable takeaways you'll get by reading this article.

Wanna watch a car wreck?.... 

I never really thought I had much to say about brand marketing or creating brand identity. That's why I never really wrote about it before. It's not because, if I'm honest with myself, that I have nothing to say. My failure to share what I think is a very important perspective on a topic so many people fail to understand comes from a personal failure of my own. I often fail to realize the value that I have. I generally feel that my knowledge is limited, that the learning of one thing just means there's even more to learn. It's a double-edged sword. The trait allows me to constantly push myself, but it also means I gloss over my own strengths. It usually takes someone else to notice a certain level of expertise within me that I end up partly believing it myself.

That's what happened when a few folks at different times described my career in terms of helping to build the Rank Ranger brand. Until that moment I never really thought about sharing my views on brand building and even now I don't consider myself an "expert." But I did start to concretize and formalize my thoughts on brand building as a result. So if you're still reading after that longwinded introduction, here's what I think brand building really is at its very core (and why we fail so badly with it). 

What I Think Brand Identity Is Not

Gingerbread Man Headphones

Sometimes the easiest way to explain a hard concept is by explaining what it isn't. When trying to put my thoughts on what I think brand building is and what brand identity is at its core, I felt like I was jumping too many steps. It felt that the impact of my outlook was getting watered down and glossed over. So I'm going to start with some of the common misconceptions around brand identity that I see out there. 

I didn't get this list from some other post from whatever site. These may not be the top 5 most common misconceptions about brand identity. These are what I think to be the latent underpinnings of some of the brand-building I see going on out there. 

It's Not an Association 

More often than not, and I'm guilty of the same, I see brands trying to build associations. I see them trying to get consumers to associate them with traits like trust, reliability, competency, and the like. This is not brand building and in my opinion, has very little to do with brand identity. 

This is getting the user over the final hurdle of clicking the Pay button once they have already connected with your brand's identity but still think of you as some cold and untrustworthy machine and not a living entity. Building associations around trust and authority, to me, are about getting rid of that final fear when the charade that a brand can even have an identity (more on that later) falls away. (That's not to say there are not other reasons driving consumer anxiety.) When the facade of your brand falls, you need one last thing to get the user to open their wallets and that's the notion that many others have done so and only with positive results. 

Positive sentiment is not an identity. It wouldn't be for us as people and it, therefore, is not for your brand either. 

It's Not a Personality 


This is the easiest trap in the world to fall into. Giving your brand some pizzaz and charisma is not an identity. If someone defined you by your charm and charisma would they be doing you justice? If you said yes you're just vapid. Giving off the impression that your brand is fun-loving, beyond just being shallow, has very little to do with identity per se. 

I get the notion. It's the idea of channeling your inner-identity through your brand. And I'm not saying that's bad per se, nor am I saying that there's no impact from that sort of thing. I'm just saying that I don't see that as building brand identity... at all.  

To me, that's like saying a piece of furniture has a personality. Furniture definitely has personality. A really well-crafted intricate piece of furniture channels the inner-creativity of its designer. But would you say that furniture has an identity? Let's not mix up the concept of personality with the concept of identity. Sure, your brand comes off like a well-tanned surfer having the time of their life, but you still don't have any identity, not even close. 

If People Have Identity Then Your Brand Needs to be a Person 

Air Jordan Fabric

I want to dispel the most common myth about brand identity, namely that brands have any. A brand cannot have an identity. It's like the spoon in the Matrix, the sooner you realize the truth that there is no brand identity the sooner you'll be able to craft one.  

I'm going to leave you hanging with what I mean here for a few moments. I think again that here too I need to build up to what I'm talking about and how I see things. I need to offer my "brand identity weltanschauung" for what I just said to make any sense at all. 

When Brand Identity Works 

Why do we try to create sentiment around our brands? Why do we try to give them personality? It's because we recognize truth which is that brand identity is the manifestation of the brand as an actual person. There is a certain precognitive reality we're all aware of. We all know, deep down, that only people have an identity (animals as well, but we're not trying to channel our inner-dog when building our brand's identity). 

What we do then is try to inadequately superimpose an identity onto our brands. We do this by creating sentiment, user associations, brand personality, etc. The truth is that no attempt at superimposing identity will work. 

What does work? Tying your brand to a person. I want to showcase some examples of this concept in the wild so as to help advance my earlier proposition that a brand per se cannot have an identity. 

Here are some that stuck out to me: 

1) Nike: As much as I hate his guts, New England Patriots head coach showed me Nike's true power by naming his dog after the brand. I didn't catch it at first because when I heard his dog's name was Nike it didn't phase me. But then it hit me. Why didn't it phase me? I mean if someone named their dog Reebok or Adidas I definitely would have thought that was bizarre. 

It's because Nike is represented by a person whereas Reebok and Adidas are not.

I understand why you're looking at me sideways. Nike isn't represented by a person. There is no one person who is the spokesperson of Nike. There is no one person who carries the identity of their brands on their backs. 

No, there is no one person. There are many. 

When I was a kid (and still to this day) Nike meant Michael Jordan to me. Perhaps to the current generation, it means Colin Kapernick or whomever. 

What Nike does is take the top athletes in the world and use them to manifest their brand. In return there is a sharing of identity, Michael Jordan becomes associated with Nike but Nike also becomes a part of who Michael is. There is identity symbiosis. Except Nike doesn't do this with one person. They've used multiple athletes, each representing what it means to be the generation's top talent, to create an aggregate identity of being a champion. 

That is, Nike gets its identity as being a champion not from itself, but by borrowing it from the real people who manifest and represent the brand. They use what I'll call a multiple representative model to siphon identity from its ambassadors. [For the record, I think using spokespeople is a poor man's version of the concept I'm laying out here.]

As I said earlier, there is no brand identity (inherently). 

2) Disney: I could have used 100 different examples to showcase the use of fictional characters so as to build brand identity. From McDonald's (Ronald McDonald) to Planters (Mr. Peanut) nothing beats the mouse when it comes to building brand identity. Disney has used its Mickey Mouse to portray the brand as creative, entertaining, and downright magical! 

Having already stated the above with Nike, the concept here isn't hard. Instead of using actual people to represent who your brand is, you can use a fictional character. The point remains the same, in order to create identity Disney borrows it from a character it created itself.

[Mascots and gimmicky characters are the poor man's version of this identity construct.]

Fictional or not, the concept is the same, there is no brand identity, there are only "people."   

3) Sports Teams: I know that how sports teams portray identity is very similar to how Nike does. However, the nuance in one of the major ways a sports team builds identity, I think, is the most parallel to how your average brand builds identity. 

In sports, there's a term called a franchise player. This player is so good, and is so popular, that they become the face of the franchise. Over time, the players come to represent who the team is.

Take the New York Yankees. If you asked a fan (such as myself) who are the Yankees you'd get answers like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter. In other words, you would get people. We identify our teams by the players who have played for them. If many of these players are successful over a long period of time, we might come to define the franchise as "winners." In others, whether as a loser or a winner, any identity the team has comes from the people who represent it over time. 

Not to go too far down a sports wormhole, but take Derek Jeter who I just mentioned above. Jeter, while not my favorite Yankee player growing up (I had an affinity for The Warrior, Paul O'Neil) he was who I thought of when I thought of the Yankees (still is actually). People say that Jeter personified what it meant to "be a Yankee" via his amazing play and purely humble personality. 

The truth is, to a large extent it's the other way around. Jeter, by being both great and humble, defined the Yankees (as we know them now). He gave the Yankees an identity via his own. Babe Ruth, the all-time Yankee great was not known for being calm and humble, the man was a 1920's version of John Belushi in Animal House. Jeter's personality was captivating and as part of his inherent ties to the team, he lent that identity to the franchise. 

 Why? Because only people have identities, not brands. 

(I'll come back to how this closely mirrors how most brands truly build identity.) 

Why Does 'Brand as a Person' Work? 

Drinking Champagne

I can't see a way to relate to identity without speaking or thinking of the concept philosophically. If you want to speak to the meta issue preventing brands from truly creating an identity, the lack of taking the issue to its natural philosophic implications would be it. Perhaps philosophical is the wrong word, I mean existential really (which, of course, is a branch of philosophy). 

The question to me isn't why does brand identity work when it does, but why does identity work? Why do we feel like we need identity altogether? What is so troubling to us about a corporation or a company simply being corporate? Why do we need to humanize the brand with identity? 

I don't intend to deeply answer these questions here. I only want to point out that the way I see things, there is a very primordial drive at work here, the drive to connect. For whatever reason, we want to connect with brands, and brands want to connect with us. We want to connect with they who provide for us. This is very parental, isn't it? 

Connection is only possible with something that has vitality, with something that has an identity. Only people have identities (again, I'm leaving animals out of this for now, so everyone who owns a dog, please keep it cool). There's something captivating about the depth and recesses of identity. Identity is synonymous with "being" and "being" is ineffable, which makes it simply captivating. 

But what if you try to superimpose identity onto something that has none? What if you try to animate that which has no life? Wouldn't that be tantamount to idolatry? 

Isn't that what we do when we try to give a brand, which is an inanimate (perhaps ethereal) object, identity? Trying to superimpose identity onto a brand, to me, is a form of marketing idolatry. It might work a bit, but it's very easy to unmask.  

That's why I feel there is no alternative to using "people" to build a brand's identity because only people possess the commodity. I think that's why you see brand's that siphon identity in this way become in a sense legendary. These brands have given their consumers the ability to connect.

Brands parading around an endless stream of artificial personality are about as connective as the wooden puppets they actually are. Whereas brands that borrow their identity from genuine sources have tremendous lasting power, as the impression they make speak to us in a totally different way. We identify with these brands as the people who represent them, not the constructs some marketers are fabricating behind the scenes.  

Where Your Brand Identity Construction Begins 

Construction Handshake

I think you already know what I'm going to say here. It's not hard to see. Still, I have to verbalize it nonetheless. While you could hire world-class athletes to represent your brand and while you could rely on a captivating piece of fiction as well, I think you know where your brand's identity should come from... you and the people you work with. 

The brands I see out there that really resonate with me, are the ones where the people who work there take a public role on social media, within their content, and so forth. And I'm not talking about a post on Twitter showing how much fun the staff is having. That to me comes off as being cheap. I'm talking about instances where the brand puts their people out there front and center, offers opportunities for interaction, and showcases their thoughts, ideas, and success! 

To bring it full circle, this model of brand identity is pretty much what works for sports franchises. Which again, is why I highlighted the paradigm above. Instead of star players, a company can build identity for itself by showcasing star employees. Just as a team siphons identity from its franchise players, a brand can borrow everything that the people who work for them represent. 

In truth, that's all I've done with my own brand identity efforts. I've tried to become a reliable source of information, ideas, and insights and I've tried to inject a bit of personality into it all. In the process, I've been able to infuse Rank Ranger with a part of my own persona (of course, Rank Ranger's identity goes well beyond my own). That is, I've worked to try to introduce folks to our brand through me as a person so that when someone interacts with me and hopefully sees me as responsive or engaging or insightful they'll feel that they will get the same with Rank Ranger.

The beauty of this is that there's perfect symmetry. When using your own team members to build identity none of the false pretenses of a celebrity for hire comes with it. Michael Jordan is not driving Nike with the same ambition that he used to drive to the hoop. However, Jessica from marketing who is part of the public face of your company is! 

Before You Leave... 


Brand identity as sourced in people is the convergence of two entities (the person and the brand) so that the sharing of identity can take place. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who will disagree with me. All I'm really trying to do here is share my personal outlook on the topic. Of course, elements like product identity and how a company behaves in the real world play a role in a brand's identity. I'm not denying that in what I have said here. Rather, I'm pointing out my belief that aspects such as a strong product identity are either sources in "person" identity or only have any legs to stand on when attached to a person and their identity.

Again, these are just my musings on how I think about brand identity. Nothing less, nothing more. Take 'em for what they are! 

About The Author
Mordy is the official liaison to the SEO community for Wix. Despite his numerous and far-reaching duties, Mordy still considers himself an SEO educator first and foremost. That's why you’ll find him regularly releasing all sorts of original SEO research and analysis!

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