If you own a business or are the founder of a startup you’re probably fed up of hearing everyone telling you that you need a brand. You’ve probably heard a thousand times how branding is what made Apple, Nike, Coca Cola and [insert Fortune 500 company here] the giants that they are today. What they rarely tell you is exactly why building a brand is beneficial and what even fewer people ever talk about is how a great brand is made. Well, we’re gonna take a crack at it and try to explain why and how a brand is built.

But first let’s define what is a brand.

In a nutshell It is the manifestation of your positioning in the market: a combination of visual identity, message, and the public’s perception of the business or product. 

When most people speak of branding they are actually speaking of visual identity, things like logos, fonts and colors used in packaging/marketing materials. But a brand is composed of much more than that: a brand is shaped by every little aspect of a business, from how you interact with your customers to how you make your products and even their price. So it’s important to be conscious of this when making any kind of business decisions, as they can boost or harm your brand. For the sake of brevity we’re gonna keep the discussion in this article focused on the three main elements mentioned above.

 With that being said it’s true that visual identity is the foundation of a great brand, because marketing is a very visual activity and it is with marketing that great brands are made.

That’s right, great brands are not made great by designers, they are made great by advertising and marketing. 

A designer can create an amazing visual identity for a product but what they create is not a brand yet, it is only the foundation of a brand. A visual identity does not become a brand until it is paired with a message and that message reaches an audience that relates one with the other.

Visual identities are not brands.

How then do we create that relationship between visual identity, message and audience? That’s right: through marketing and advertisement. I said it already didn’t I?

Every time a person comes into contact with your product or service whether it’s an advertisement, a social media post, a blog post or simply see it on a shelf you are imprinting your brand in their minds. This is called creating memory structures, which in turn stimulates mental availability.

But what are memory structures and mental availability? 

Memory structures are associations we create in the minds of our customers (or prospective customers) which are related to your product. Marketers are able to shape these memory structures using the messages they convey through their marketing activity both on a conscious and subconscious level and as this happens the brand is being built in the minds of your audience because, like I mentioned before, public perception is part of the brand.

The combination between visuals and message creates memory structures in your audience’s mind that allows them not only to remember you before your competitors when they need a product or service, but it also makes them more receptive to your advertisements. This is mental availability. In simple terms, it’s the ability of your customers to see you and remember you before a competitor. 

Think of memory structures as the foundation and mental availability as the house. A house that you build in people’s brains. Weird isn’t it?

How does mental availability make your audience more receptive to your advertisements?

We see so many advertisements during a day that our brains have become trained to actively ignore them, but less so when those advertisements are from brands we know.

When your prospective customers see your advertisement it’s very likely they won’t remember your brand or your product or even the advertisement itself (https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2017/understanding-memory-in-advertising/). In a way advertising and building memory structures are essentially the art of training the mind to pay attention to you. This is done through repetition. Although “ad fatigue” is a real thing, advertisers and marketers need to find a balance in which the audience is seeing the message enough times to pay attention to it but not enough to get sick of it. 

 The human brain is programmed to reject the unknown and embrace the known and comfortable, so the more contact you have with someone, the more they feel comfortable with your brand, and the more attention they pay which in turn makes them more likely to buy from you. (There’s a concept called the rule of seven which isn’t really a rule but it illustrates how curiosity and desire to buy is built through familiarity and repetition).

Note however that to use mental availability to it’s full potential your brand needs to be unique and easily identifiable. That means having a unique visual identity, AND using that unique identity consistently across packaging, marketing materials and advertisements.  

A unique visual identity is one that stands out when placed in a group along with your competitors. If your customers have a hard time telling you apart from the competition it makes it hard to build proper mental availability because they can easily confuse who is speaking to them, in the worst scenarios you might even end up advertising for your competitors. It is not enough that your product is different, it needs to look different so that your prospective customers can easily identify who is speaking to them.

The job of marketing and advertisement is developing mental availability.

And where does message enter in the brand building process? 

Through the tone of your communications. Are you a serious brand, or are you playful? Are you high end or value oriented? Furthermore what problem or need does your brand fulfill? Your message should tell your customers how to think of you, what to think when they see you and in what situation they should think of you. The message is the link between visual identity and public perception.

 Now some people would argue that this applies mostly to consumer goods. Those people have probably not spent an entire afternoon looking for software because after two hours every SaaS out there starts to look the same: they all use the same or (very similar) shade of blue against a white and/or very light grey background. (What’s up with that honestly? When did someone decide that SaaS branding needed to be blue?) This is a mistake, instead SaaS and software products should be striving to have a unique style on their website like Mailchimp or Gumroad does. 

To summarize things down a bit we can say that branding and marketing have a symbiotic relationship, they work together and make each other stronger.

So how are great brands made? Over time: nurtured with every piece of content you publish, with every product you release, with every advertisement that you run, with how you treat your customers, and even where your products are sold. You cannot design a brand, you can merely design a visual identity. A brand is shaped by both your efforts and how your audience receives those efforts and perceives your place in the market. 

These are concepts followed by the largest brands in the world across all industries, and of which the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute and Byron Sharp are the biggest proponents. We’re big fans of them and they are a huge influence in Mercury’s Strategic Marketing’s approach to marketing strategy.