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The A - Z of Branding

Brand Marketing

They say factories make products, but customers buy brands. This is largely true, but what is the connection between product and brand, and when does the brand process begin? Does brand precede business or is business the cause and brand simply a consequence or the effect of the business?

Let us consider the mind set of an entrepreneur in order to begin the ABC of branding.

All entrepreneurs who start something significant begin with an idea, a concept vision or dream. This, in my view, is the starting point of a brand. Often the personality, attitude, name and even reputation of the entrepreneur are associated with the entrepreneur’s vision.

However, for the concept to attract financial and other support the entrepreneur must develop and refine the concept into an offer he or she believes will satisfy a fundamental human need and be wanted or sought by enough people able and willing to pay for the envisioned product or service.

Through a process of firming-up the value proposition implicit on the product or service, and by clearly defining a potential set of buyers, changes and additions are made through an ongoing research and development cycle. This ongoing transformation is about adding individual identity as entrepreneurs know that consumers have choices and therefore search for points of meaningful difference.

They seek products and services that will add, in their perception, more value than alternative offerings.

The A-Z of branding, therefore, is all about ways of creating and adding as many layers of desired value as possible. It begins with the conceptualising of the product or, in the case of Google, a service.

Embedded in the initial concept and prototypes will be the vision, value set and competitive intent of the entrepreneur or founder. It is the originator who implicitly assumes a role of both leadership and management until other resources can be afforded to enable the delegation of brand management.

Certainly the value offer and identified market needs to be presented in a business model by which market take-up against the costs of purchasing, manufacturing, and selling the product is forecast.

In my experience, entrepreneurs who succeed have a persistent enthusiasm for their vision that becomes a magnet for attracting start-up capital and professional support. Branding is not what you append to the product or service. It contains that which is embedded within the tangible offering. We can then add many layers of value to increase the brand uniqueness.

Products, services and the organisations behind them can be complex so the challenge is to design an easily recognisable symbolic representation of the brand’s ID. This is achieved by design; the giving of a name, selection of a typeface, a colour or palette of colours, and a logo. 

An icon like the swoosh of Nike or crocodile of Lacoste. It can also include package design that can add significant tangible, as well as a perceived aesthetic value, as we see in the packaging of cosmetics.

To gain traction in the market the various intrinsic and extrinsic elements of a brand must align and work together so the offer is ultimately perceived as being desirably different from competitive brands. We call this the formulation of a brand identity or how the entrepreneur wants the brand to be experienced.

This takes us to other aspects of the A-Z of the brand process. We now have to communicate the offer to a market in a way that is appropriate to the brand’s identity.

This communication therefore requires relevant creative concepts and the selection of appropriate media. As always the challenge for this aspect of the process is to ensure that the communication devices are integrated and remain true to the brand’s unique character, but there is more to the brand alphabet.

Perhaps the greatest challenge now is the consistent and ongoing quality and delivery of the product or service. This necessitates an effectively designed, led and efficiently managed business model. Value adding must be sought and found wherever possible within the entire value chain of business, from inbound to outbound logistics.

Therefore collaborative networks of suppliers, distributors and even competitors need to be created. Competition today is not simply between direct rivals but between the respective networks of brand associations.

With brand business success the challenge, increasingly, is for brands to remain strong internally. Research underscores the imperative for all staff to be brand supporters. To sustain this brand loyalty requires ongoing organisation development, change management and skilled, cross-functional brand management. A brand weak inside will unravel through uneven delivery and service outside. Yet if one analyses budget disbursements, very little resources are given to impactful internal brand campaigns. 

To sustain the additional resources required by growth, new brands may need to be offered or new products and/or services must be added to the initial brand. This takes us into brand extensions and portfolio management that must result in architecture that makes sense to consumers and the market. This is a large part of modern branding and affords many strategic opportunities.

However, if done incorrectly, it can weaken the original brand. It is at this stage when decisions such as building a House of Brands, like Proctor & Gamble or a Branded House, like Colgate have to be taken. There is often a temptation to make one brand mean too many things, to extend or stretch it so far that it loses its ‘shape’ and unique identity.

The XYZ of modern branding is about how to keep the brand fresh and of continued interest to existing customers, but also to become attractive to new customers.

The size of most markets creates  the challenge to ensure continuous shared meaning between the brand promise and the needs and wants of increasingly overwhelmed customers.

This requires brand thinkers to continuously add value, but often this becomes incremental and insignificant if we focus only on the product or service. Modern consumers also want more meaningful value to be added to their communities, societies and environment.

This should be anchored to the original values and vision of the founder or entrepreneur and this can be executed through sponsorship, good labour practice, internal behaviour and what has become known as corporate social investment.

Good brands and businesses are good because they offer decent products and services which are then communicated in an honest, albeit entertaining, way.

The Zen of branding for the 21st century, in my opinion, needs to be the creation and addition of meaningful social and economic value. It is not simply about profit. Profit is an indication that a brand can be sustained year on year. It is because of the social and economic value that reputations are won and lost. A positive, long-lasting reputation is perhaps the zenith of branding.

We are developing better reputation and equity measures to assess the asset value of brands. We do need to get these measures right because increasing social activism led by ‘no logo’ thinkers such as Naomi Klein question the very existence of brands.

This school of thought often misunderstands the holistic A to Z process of brand development, and simply focuses on the mass communication devices which stimulate demand and can indeed have the effect of encouraging consumerism.

This is an important argument as it encourages us to get back to the authentic substance of brands. Surely, brands must at least not cause harm and, at best, provide genuine value to society.

From concept to market, from growth to reinvention, the A to Z of branding is a process that can never be fully done. It is cyclical, forever seeking differentiation and cohesion that will deliver to all stakeholders while the game of competition is to neutralise any gained brand advantage.


Gordon Cook is National School Navigator for Vega The Brand Communications School, which he co-founded together with the Imagination Lab initiative  In addition to lecturing to full time and part time students, Gordon also does corporate training for Vega. 

He has lectured Strategic Marketing Planning and Strategic Execution on two MBA programmes and is a regular lecturer on executive and professional management programmes at The Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. 

Gordon has also lectured and examined on the RAU Masters programme in Communications. He is an executive member of The Think Council, part of South Africa’s Design Council. He is involved on various judging panels such as the Business Day/BASA – Business & Arts South Africa Awards.

Gordon is contactable at Vega The Brand Communications School on +2711 883 0130 or Gordon@vegaschool.com


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