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Off the Deep End: A Breakdown of Brand Identity

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This is a topic I've been wanting to dive deeper into for a while now, and after coming across an excellent thread topic (actually two) by @QCS, and one statement in particular, I've decided to do just that.


Before I continue, I wanna say this: I see a lot of "best of" (or "worst of") topics of discussion both in the Creamery and elsewhere. That word "best" is incredibly subjective, and without some concrete substantiating criteria by which to measure it, it can pretty well leave the interpretation up for grabs.  When I see it, my first inclination is to ask the question, "By what metric are we measuring "best"?"  (Thankfully, @QCS actually answered that in his thread, so props for that.)  And--not directed to anyone in particular, just making a point--"favorite" is not equivalent to "best", but I've seen it happen all too often around these parts.  So I just want to establish that point real quick.


Now, back to the brand identity thing, the purpose of this thread.  We've had this discussion around these parts before in years past, but now that I'm further along in my career and life experience, I'm going to lay out the way in which I break this down now, that it might clarify some things for anyone for whom this may not be too clear.  (And bear in mind that my explanation is just one explanation--but it is not THE explanation, so feel free to contribute your own input on this. it's a discussion thread, not a domineering thread.)  First of all, the subject of brand identity is a little more complex than some realize, and although I personally can separate the two into something somewhat black and white, both brand and identity need each other to function, as they really do work in tandem.  That said, here's how I break this down: visual identity and brand.  Follow me on this.


The visual identity, I say, is what you're looking at.  Since we're talking about sports, let's call that the sum total of logos, uniforms, team colors, fonts, etc, and how they're all used.  All of that visual stimuli tells you who (or what) that team is.  In that way, it's just like advertising.  The core purpose of advertising is to make one aware that a product or a service exists.  (In this case, we can swap out "product or service" for "sports team").  That's it...just simple awareness.  The way in which that advertising is used is what gets one's brain to churning, and that leads into the second part: the brand.


Some think that a logo, for all intents and purposes, is the team's (or company's) brand, and while that is not incorrect, I think that it may be incomplete.  Let me give you what I mean.  When we speak of a brand, that takes into account the sensory and emotional stimuli and feedback one experiences upon viewing.  That engages the subconscious part of the brain (which, scientifically, is roughly 95% of the human brain).  This is the reason why, when one looks at the current San Diego Padres, absent a present emotional connection to the team, one is likely to think firstly not of the Padres, but of UPS--because UPS's signature color is brown, and it's been buried so deep for so long into our subconsciousness that more often than not, if you see that color out in the wild, UPS is probably the first place your mind will go.  (For those who remember that thread, a whole lot of that particular tangent of conversation happened in there, too.) UPS may have originally designated that color on purpose to distinguish themselves, but the point is: look at the effect it's had on our minds all these many years later.  I'll use another example: pinstripes.  Unless you're primarily wired in the business world, your mind may have gone to the realm of sports first when you saw that word, and if that was you, this next part is for you.  Many teams in MLB use pinstripes for their uniforms--but unless you have a preexisting emotional connection to one of those teams, what team did you likely think of first when you saw "pinstripes"?  I'm willing to bet dollars that it was the New York Yankees.  Why? It's because they've a/ had them so long and b/ had so much success in them that their visibility is so buried into our subconsciousness that anytime we hear or see "pinstripes" that's likely the first place our minds will go.  This speaks, in a way, to marketing.  Whereas the core purpose of advertising, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is simply to make one aware that a product or a service exists, the core purpose of marketing is to persuade one to partake of said product or service, and it uses advertising to do that.  I like to use that analogy to illustrate the difference between and at the same time the cohesion of visual identity and branding, which is how we get brand identity.


Now, there's one more aspect I want to touch on here: what you look at and how you respond to it are steps that are carefully thought out in the strategy process of brand building (if one is smart, that is).  Those of us who've been in this arena know all too well about this one--we call them "vision boards" or "mood boards".  That's basically the storyboard, or storyboards, that are used to help us get from concept to completion.  (This phase is where a good art director and project manager can make all the difference in the world.) Why do I draw this out? Because while the organization can have a goal of what they intend for their brand identity to represent from their side, the end-user or consumer (or sports fan, in this case) can interpret the finished product an entirely different way.  The best results come when the end viewer's interpretation and emotional response matches or exceeds the vision and goal put forth by the organization.  When that doesn't happen, or when there isn't a clear focus in that strategy and planning process on the back end, that's when you end up with stuff like the LA Rams--interpretations can be all over the place.  I guess to sum all that up...when looking at brand identity, it's two sides to the same book: the inside content, and the outside cover.  (Side note to aspiring authors: bear this in mind when looking to publish...just as important if not more so as the content of the book is the cover of the book, since that's what eyes will see on the shelf first, and while the long-held adage "you can't judge a book by its cover" may hold some merit, business wisdom merits that you defintely had better have an attractive cover--and a catchy title--to persuade someone to pick that book up in the first place.)  When the emotional interpretation and response to a brand identity matches up with the organization's vision and purpose for the same, that brand identity tends to be a success.  Of course, there's no better marketing strategy than winning, either, which is how the brand identities of the Yankees, Packers, Cowboys, Steelers, Maple Leafs (for the most part), and Red Wings (to name a few), as well as Penn State, the Alabama Crimson Tide, (the) Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines and USC Trojans have remained so ubiquitous over time, despite several of them probably not being the most visually appealing on their own if one was to separate the prestige from the threads (especially Alabama and Penn State).


Anyway, I just wanted to provide a little science behind how this concept works, and allow you to build out and draw your own conclusions from there.  Test yourself out on different brands and identities out there and see how you interpret them, or write out a list of colors and see what your first association with those colors are, and see if it's either a well-known company or a particular sports team.  Report your findings here. 😁



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I think you're absolutely right. A brand extends beyond just the visual logo package that a company/team uses and is more so the associations people make with that logo/service/ad/whatever. For example, the Warriors have what most would consider to be an ok visual identity (it's not my favorite and I'd prefer if they switched back to San Francisco) but with the insane amount of success in the past few years their brand was forever tied to Golden State. It's why people say that after success teams can't switch uniforms because those championship-winning uniforms are associated with the success and that has become part of the team's brand completely outside of their visual identity. Conversely, if a team is bad or something bad happens, whatever look the team is sporting then becomes forever associated with that bad thing. When you think of the Charlotte Bobcats, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the all-time worst season in NBA history, not anything else about the brand or players. That's why it's important to have not just a good-looking visual identity but a winning and successful brand. I think this is commonly achieved through success, whether throughout time (Yankees, Celtics, Lakers, Canadiens, etc) or immediately (Golden Knights). However, it's also possible for a look associated with bad teams to become the most popular look a team has because it resonated with the fanbase the most. Then it becomes a balancing game between keeping the look fans like the most and taking care to not spoil it by being awful. 

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I think a brand also draws its meaning from the values and the lifestyle with which it is associated. Mountain Dew can never be dignified; while Perrier can only be dignified. 


Changing these associations is very difficult, hence the failure of the "this is not your father's Oldsmobile" campaign. It was always going to be your father's Oldsmobile.


Though in some extraordinary circumstances these associations do change, as brands such as Starbucks and Facebook went from implying hipness to trumpeting a total lack of hipness. This occurred when those companies reached a certain size — namely, the size past which they no longer needed to concern themselves with positive brand associations in order to make money. But few companies ever reach that level, so the associations that are tied to their brands remain a key determinant of each brand's degree of success.


The relationship of this to sports can never be straightforward, on account of one particular factor: the naming of sports teams after cities or other localities. Every team's brand identity is, to one degree or another, tied up with the "brand identity" (so to speak) of its home area. Sometimes this is extreme, as with teams from cities in Florida and Texas — it is no accident that the Marlins and the Rangers are the only Major League Baseball teams that wear their locality name on the front of their home jerseys, where most teams wear their nickname.

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