How does branding work today? The answer might surprise you.

how does branding work

I’m a lifelong student of branding. The strategy to build a meaningful and lasting emotional connection to your company is endlessly fascinating! I’ve been thinking a lot about how life in the fast lane of marketing is changing … how does branding work right now?

In my books, I’ve contended that in this world of overwhelming information density, branding is more important than ever (although how we get there is radically different!).

I’ve had a few experiences lately that made me wonder … Is what we consider “branding best practices” actually in decline? Let’s see what you think …

What’s in a name?

A few years ago, I was in the market for a new suitcase. The choices are overwhelming and I didn’t want to spend the time doing the research, even though the decision represented a critical part of my traveling lifestyle success.

I remembered that a road warrior friend of mine had recently posted about new luggage he purchased. He gushed with an enthusiastic review of the quality and lifetime warranty. I reached out to him, found the brand, and made the purchase within minutes.

Two years later I was telling somebody else about this purchase and could not remember the brand name (I have not been traveling during this pandemic of course!). Literally, I would have to go into a closet and look at the thing to know who made it. There’s an interesting lesson about branding today in this story.

Changing dynamics of a brand

The first point is that there was no amount of “traditional” marketing or advertising that could have influenced my purchase of this very expensive suitcase. My friend was a trusted expert (an influencer to me) and I bought it based on his recommendation alone. The brand name and its marketing strategy didn’t matter, at least to me.

Two-thirds of our marketing occurs without us. This purchase is a perfect example.

After my purchase, I registered the product online, but have not maintained any connection with the brand. No newsletter, no brand content. Honestly, I just want to be left alone. I don’t need any suitcase news.

The suitcase I bought was large, appropriate for a week-long trip. At some point, I will need a day trip bag replacement. As long as the first suitcase performs, I’ll probably buy the same product in the smaller version, even though I don’t even recall its name. I am buying out of habit, not because of any brand effort necessarily. Of course this how we buy the bulk of our purchases — habit.

In a world where social media posts and reviews disproportionately dominate purchase decisions, branding is something more subtle than huge ad campaigns and jingles. Where is this going?

How does branding work today?

I’ve seen several opinions lately that our traditional idea of branding is over. Some big brand marketers now claim that our job is to make our product relevant in cultural moments.

What would that look like?

Let’s say there was a viral luggage “fail” on the web — some news story about an unlucky traveler that became a meme. Could this luggage brand chime in with a funny and human commentary that reminds us that this misfortune would never happen with their products? The timing would have to be impeccable, the language right on target, but this could put the brand back in view for me. It might even build emotion to the product.

I recently wrote about how Ikea jumped on the Bernie Sanders meme in a hilarious and appropriate way. In this little image, Ikea made its product relevant in a cultural moment:

how does branding work

The evolution of branding

So, let’s get back to the original question: How does branding work right now? This is such a big topic and my thinking is still evolving. But here are a few things that seem certain:

  1. A brand used to be what we told you it is. Today, a brand is what people tell each other.
  2. Two-thirds of our marketing is occurring without us. The new marketing strategy requires us to consider how we can earn our way into that two-thirds. A whole new mindset!
  3. Branded content is probably only relevant if it moves into the “two-thirds conversation” and is used by fans to spread a relevant brand story. The economic value of content that is not seen and shared is zero.
  4. With the demise of advertising (we are in a streaming world!) I believe this idea of brand-building “cultural sparks” instead of setting the traditional “bonfires” has merit. I’m eager to explore this trend.
  5. Increasingly the personal brand is the brand. I don’t know who made my suitcase. My friend is the face of the brand.
  6. I absolutely believe that branding is more important than ever. But how does branding work? This is going through a transformation, literally month by month right now.

As I said, I’m still reading and learning about how branding works today. I am only sure that “branding” is much different than it was five years ago, and it will be different again five years (months?) from now. Thanks for joining me on this learning journey and please leave your ideas in the comment section below!

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions. He is the author of some of the world’s bestselling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Follow Mark on TwitterLinkedInYouTube, and Instagram.

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