Why brand identity is more about customers than about you

All articles | Brand
Published Aug 12, 2021 | Written by Jeremy Knight

I've seen many different definitions for Brand Identity from various sources, but essentially, they all fall into two distinct camps. Both are in everyday use and can easily be confused. When talking about brand identity, you must clarify which one of these two definitions you are thinking of.

The first is the visual manifestation of your brand – what the audience sees in terms of:

  • Logotype and or symbol
  • Brand colour palette
  • Typefaces 
  • Graphic elements
  • And the way these elements combine to create a particular style

The second definition is broader and more encompassing – it's about what makes up your brand's character, its personality – (with the visual elements above a subset of this definition):

  • Visual Identity
  • Voice
  • Values
  • Personality
  • Message

In this article, we will be considering brand identity with the second definition in mind.

If your brand were a person

If you were to think of your brand as a person – what would their personality be, their character? How would they talk? What clothes would they wear? What would they believe in, and what would they stand for? 

It's a handy way of thinking about your brand – it will highlight what you stand for and your values. In theory, your brand could have any personality you like, be anything you want.

But you don't define your brand in a vacuum – your business is there to be successful, to make sales, to convince buyers to place their order with you.

The business's number one priority is being successful, and the number one priority of sales and marketing is to convert leads to make sales. 

So the number one priority for your brand identity is to enable those sales – to introduce your brand and set the scene for those lead conversions.

And that depends on the prospect being attracted to and liking your brand.

Supposing you are visited by a salesperson – depending on who you are, your style and personality, you may get along with that salesperson or not. 

If they are brash, arrogant and selling hard – that may jar with you, and you might not want anything to do with them or their company. On the other hand, if they mumble, don't come to the point, and you can't get a straight answer out of them – that might switch you off the sale too.

It is the same with brand identity – your success is dependent on buyers liking your brand. If they are buying your products, your brand has to strike a chord with them – they have to relate to your brand's values and messages.

So your brand identity needs to be more about your customers than about you.

Rather than thinking about what you want to say, what you want your brand to be like, you need to think of what will attract your target audience – what will they relate to?

Understanding your audience

For this, you need a deep understanding of that audience – not just the market. It's helpful to know where buyers are, what demographic they belong to, and what products or services they might be interested in. Still, none of that gets you closer to a relationship with that audience - these actual individuals who will be doing the buying.

A fully developed buyer persona – one that includes the prospect's lifestyle, hopes and fears, aspirations and ideals, along with their views on things like recycling and saving the planet, is vital. 

You could say those interactions create relationships – the more interactions you can have with a prospect, the more they will respond. 

But, if you try to initiate too many interactions – it could turn them off. In a survey for the Harvard Business Review, of the customers who considered they had a brand relationship, only 13% of respondents cited frequent interactions with the brand as a reason for having that relationship.

On the other hand, in that same study, a surprisingly high 64% cited shared values as the primary reason for that brand relationship.

It's worth bearing in mind that the study was for consumers who are way more fickle than B2B buyers. Consumers can easily be swayed by promotions, discounts, competitions and sales – factors that are not so powerful in the B2B world. This means that shared values are likely to be even more critical to B2B buyers.

Your choice of values is important

Brands with aspirations, lofty goals or a more significant purpose are generally more successful than those who just want to offer a better product. 

As younger generations see saving the planet as an imperative, brands that echo these sentiments will be favoured over those that don't.

Research by Sacunas in 2016 showed that 73% of millennials are involved in purchasing decisions, and Nielson statistics from 2018 pointed to their concerns about sustainability, with 85% of millennials saying it is extremely or very important that brands implement programs to improve the environment. And it's not just millennials – in all age groups, 65% or more respondents agreed with the statement, it is "extremely" or "very" important that companies implement programs to improve the environment.

And it isn't enough to pay lip service to these ideas – 76% of millennials will research to check if a company is authentic.

B2B buyers care about Ethics and sustainability

Ethical considerations are also becoming more relevant. A study by Cone Communications found that 87% of buyers will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about, and 76% will refuse to purchase a company's products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.

And suppose an individual's feelings on the subject were not enough. In that case, many businesses now have buying policies in place that dictate they only use suppliers who follow ethical and sustainable practices.

The B2B Elements of Value

Bain & Company developed a model for the Harvard Business Review that highlights brand identity as having significant value and importance, based on Maslov's Hierarchy of Needs – created in 1943 and still seen as relevant today. 

Bain has called their model the B2B Elements of Value. It is predicated on the idea that a supplier's business can bring various levels of value to a buyer.

The model, like Maslov's, is pyramidal in shape with the basics at the bottom and the more emotional values at the top. The further up the pyramid your business has matching values – in the buyer's eyes – the better your chance of ultimately making the sale.

The bottom layer consists only of the fundamental elements a supplier's solution must offer –

  • Meeting specifications
  • Acceptable price
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Ethical standards

In today's competitive environment, these are just the minimum requirements to be considered a contender – the "Table Stakes", as the model calls them.

At the next level are basic functional values – what the solution can do for the buyer's business, including adding economic value or improving the product or its production.

These are still rooted in product or service offerings, where identity plays little or no part.

At the third level up, there is a whole host of values based on the ease of doing business – covering productivity, operations, access, strategy, and relationships.

It is at this level that brand identity starts to creep in as some of the values include –

  • Transparency
  • Information
  • Responsiveness
  • Expertise
  • Commitment
  • Flexibility
  • Cultural fit

These values could be part of your brand identity.

The fourth level up is all about what the individual gets out of the deal – values that might aid their career or personal goals. Can using your solution decrease their anxiety or get them a promotion, for example?

And at the very top level are the inspirational values –

  • Social responsibility
  • Hope
  • Vision

As you go up the pyramid, what you stand for as a supplier and your brand personality become more relevant.

A buyer will consider each level in turn. If sellers are equally matched on price and specifications, the buyer will go to the criteria on the next level up, and those elements will become the deciding factor.

You can find an interactive version of The B2B Elements of Value on Bain & Company's website.

Matching brand values means more business

What does this mean in practical terms? If there is competition for the deal, the supplier whose brand values match from the bottom to the higher point on the pyramid will win the deal. 

It is no longer enough to match another's price and specification – you have to be more in tune with your buyer's aspirations, feelings and principles than your competition.

This model is backed up by research showing that more matching high-level values lead to more business and repeat business.

It is essential to recognise that the order of the values (especially in the middle level) may move around depending on the individual buyer, the industry and the circumstance of the buyer's business. In some cases, reliability may be the most crucial feature, while in others, an increase in product quality could be the critical value.

It follows then that not only should your brand identity encompass these higher values, but they need to be demonstrated in your content and marketing. It needs to be clear what your values are and what you stand for. What you're doing about sustainability and how you handle ethical issues.

Be authentic

As I mentioned earlier – it's no good just talking about these things – just ticking boxes – your business has to live them; they have to be genuine and authentic. 

This might seem difficult or tiresome, but if your company has a brand identity that is instilled in everyone in the business, from the directors to the lowliest employee, then that turns the entire company into a powerful brand marketing engine that will make a significant difference to the success of the business.

Giving the customer what they want

A successful business is all about giving the customer what they want. A good product? Sure. The right price? Definitely. But more and more, it's about giving the customer a brand they can identify with, a brand personality they can empathise with – a brand identity they can relate to. 

A successful brand identity is not about pleasing you – it's about pleasing them.

Published by Jeremy Knight August 12, 2021
Jeremy Knight