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Robert Jones is a strategist at Wolff Olins where he has helped build brands like Barclays, National Trust, Oxfam, Tesco, and Virgin. With a wealth of branding experience under his belt, Robert is the author of  “Branding: A Very Short Introduction” which you can get hold of at good bookstores and online.

 

“Branding is the most powerful commercial and cultural force on the planet.” Please explain.

Commercial: I think there’s a very strong argument that branding is the single, most powerful commercial force because brand represents a third of the total value of the stock market. So totally intangible stuff to do with brand, and I can’t think of another thing in the business world that takes up as much of the value there is in the world as branding.

Cultural: I think it’s the most powerful cultural force simply because it’s the most ubiquitous cultural force. Of course, religions are very important forces, political parties are important forces, but there are very few that reach pretty much every corner of the planet and affects virtually everybody. For instance, in the most remote parts of the world, you’ll still see the red of Coca-Cola, and you may also see the red of Manchester United. These things are just pervasive.

How would you describe branding?

It is a very complex thing, and everyone has a different definition. The important thing is that it’s not the same thing as logo, or a slogan, or a color. It’s the bunch of ideas that a company, or a product, or a service stands for in the minds of people out in the world. So IKEA for example, the brand is not the IKEA logo, or the blue and yellow colors, or any of those things. It’s this idea of accessible, affordable, Scandinavian design and its place in our lives. That’s what the IKEA brand is. And that’s why it is so powerful. That’s why brands are so valuable because they are in our heads. They worm their ways into the minds of millions, billions of people, and that’s what accounts for their value.

The really interesting thing which people forget is that when we talk about brands being in the minds of people, those people are not just consumers. They are also employees. So brands are very powerful in the external marketplace, but they’re also incredibly powerful inside the organization. Everybody in IKEA knows exactly what they’re trying to achieve. The brand is built into them to such an extent that if you work in IKEA, your focus on affordable design means that you would never dream of flying business class. There’s no rule that says you can’t fly business class, but you just wouldn’t dream of it because that’s not the brand of IKEA, the brand that, as an employee, you belong to. The founder, Ingvar Kamprad really looks after that brand, whenever he flies to a country to inspect some of their stores, he will always take the airport coach, and always stays in a cheap hotel, he’s the original personification of the brand and still going strong.

 

Why do we still fall for brands?

Brands give us meaning and belonging, which are deep human needs. Apple for example, compared with other smartphones or other computers, has an additional meaning to do with the importance of design and the need for machines to think about human beings and to behave in human-like ways. One of the stories about Apple that really matters to me is that Steve Jobs was very influenced by his father, who made furniture. His father used to say that it’s really important to design the back of a sideboard or a cupboard because even though it’s up against the wall and nobody will see it, it’s a mark of the integrity of the thing that you’re making, an effort of your integrity. Apple, much more than its competitors, thinks deeply about the integrity of its products.

It’s all of that meaning that I get from Apple. There’s also a sense of belonging to like-minded Apple users and fans. There’s that social sense, we live in an age of the smartphone culture era, an age of sharing, and brands give us things that we can share with others. When I teach every year, I get a new group of students every September, and they come from every corner of the planet. But within about 20 minutes, they are relating to each other through the medium of the brands that they like and share because they know them, because brands are so universal or a cultural currency that bring people together. That’s why we can’t help falling for meaning and belonging.

 

What are the dos and the don’ts in branding?

It’s important to appeal to both sides of us as human beings, the rational side, and the intuitive and emotional side. The two really big things on the rational side are to keep being useful, to give people something that they want and need, and to create products with real integrity. Also to stay slightly ahead, giving people new things that maybe they’re only just beginning to discover that they need. That would be the secret of a brand like TESLA, which is a very small car company that is more valuable than many of the very big car companies because of its brand.

The other half of it is the intuitive part, which is to make sure that you are in tune with your customers and your employees, share values with them, and lead a little bit in terms of those values and those emotions. A brand that isn’t constantly coming up with fresh things both for consumers and employees will gradually die, but it’s also important to stay true to yourself. Keep refreshing, but don’t start lying, don’t be false to yourself, don’t do things that aren’t in your heritage. People will see through untruthful, inauthentic brands very quickly. Three things to go for: something big, something simple, and something true.

 

Connect with Robert on Twitter at @robertjones2.

About Jörgen Sundberg

Employer Brand Consultant, Speaker & Author. Host of The Employer Branding Podcast.

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