All too often, companies think of branding as a one-time effort: they define the market positioning, create a brand and logo to reflect this positioning, and then take this brand into the world. All marketing activities that follow from this – advertising, public relations, promotions, customer communication – are based upon the defined brand identity. The truth is that brands develop over time and while they mature, the messaging needs to be revised.
Brands Reflect Perceptions (and Vice-Versa)
A brand is special, because it is an identity constructed in our minds and it creates an emotional as well psychological connection between the company and its customers. Each customer is likely to interpret the same brand in a subtly different manner. Thus, a brand isn’t a “one size fits all” representation of a company; rather, it is the composite of multiple individual perceptions and emotions. As Daryl Travis, in his book Emotional Marketing, notes “…a brand isn’t a brand to you until it develops an emotional connection with you.”
What many companies forget is that a brand is a living entity. Just as a brand shapes customers perceptions, it too is shaped by perceptions – both of its customers and of its staff. And as a company learns more about itself over time, as it begins to look at itself from different perspectives, its brand too must evolve and reflect this additional knowledge and intelligence.
A Few Examples
If you take a look at some software brands, you’ll clearly see this evolutionary process taking place. Here are some examples:
- Apple‘s original logo (pre-1976) depicted Sir Isaac Newton under an apple tree. However, this was soon replaced with the famous “bitten apple” silhouette, which had cleaner lines…perhaps intended to highlight’s Apple’s clean, smooth designs. Initially filled with rainbow colors, the logo has evolved into a monochrome design – first black and then the current transparent/glass version. In short, as Apple’s unique design culture has emerged and as customers have also begun to recognize (and expect) cutting-edge design from Apple, the brand has evolved to match and reflect these expectations.
- Another interesting example is SugarCRM which, back in 2004, had a tagline describing it as “commercial open source customer relationship management”. However, as time has passed and the CRM category has become well established, the company has dropped this explanatory tagline from its brand identity. The cube-shaped logo is a relatively recent addition, and perhaps is intended to represent how its product brings together different facets of information to create profiles of customer relationships.
The Evolution of Identity
A brand’s identity typically goes through the following phases, which usually manifest in the taglines you find in Website headers or advertising slogans:
- A young brand needs to be explained, thus a category-style tagline is chosen (just like SugarCRM did in its early days, see above).
- The brand has established itself in its category, the company has a strong identity and changes its tagline to an emotional one (think Apple’s “Think Different” slogan).
- The brand is the leader in its category and has a high visibility, the tagline is abandoned because the brand now speaks for itself (Apple or Amazon.com nowadays).
An analogy would be to compare brands with human beings. For example, when introducing yourself, you tell the other person your name, why you are there and perhaps what you do – just like in the first phase of a young brand. The better someone knows you, the more they will be able to decide how they want to relate to you and whether to enter a (private/business) relationship. The deeper the relationship, the more important emotions become. Once you and a related group know someone really well, you won’t have to explain to the group who e.g. “Marc” is, because they know him, thus the personal brand speaks for itself.
Given that brands are constructed in our minds, this analogy is actually quite powerful, because we are social beings and the way our mind works when it relates to something is greatly influenced by how we build relationships with other human beings.
What does this mean for you, the Open Source vendor? Simply this: as your product and your market evolves, you need to occasionally step back to refine and focus your brand strategy. In most cases, any changes you end up making to your brand strategy will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary, reflecting the changes in knowledge and perception that have accrued to the company over the preceding period. Doing this every two to three years will help ensure that your brand is relevant and in tune with the needs, expectations and perceptions of your customers and yourself. Essentially, your brand will go through different phases of its identity, just like a human being does as it grows older.