Branding is a vital element of the marketing mix, and is often seen as the step that takes a client from product awareness to making the decision to purchase your product or service. In a competitive market, the definitive edge does not often come down to pricing and negligible differences in the quality of a product or service; instead, it lies in the perceptions of consumers. This is to say that the competitive edge resides in what your brand has come to mean in the world in which the client lives.
To put this another way, and to borrow some terminology from the field of linguistics and semiology, each brand is a sign that suggests a multiplicity of meanings that combine to create a general impression of a company. This impression provides for a sense of what values are associated with the brand in question. If the client/customer identifies with those values, either through self-image similarity or through a respect for the values evinced by a brand, the chances of him/her taking business to that brand is dramatically increased.
One relatively recent example of the acute awareness that brand image plays in the decision making processes of a consumer comes from the world of golf. Whereas I would prefer not to dwell on this for too long, the example demonstrates the above points with particular rigour. When Tiger Woods’s indiscretions came to light, some of his biggest sponsors reacted swiftly with condemnation and the termination of their contracts with the golfer. Brand managers at these multinational organisations were quick to realise that infidelity is not something that they could afford to have associated with their brands.
The conflict, essentially, in the above example comes from the contradictions that would arise between brand identity and brand image should the companies have made the decision to continue their endorsement of Woods. Brand identity is the complex of associations that the respective company would like their brand (as a representative sign) to bring to mind in the perceptions of their client base and the public at large. Brand image is the real perception that the public and consumers have of the brand. The difference between the two (that is, between brand image and brand identity) is that identity constitutes the ideal impression that a company would like to project whereas brand image is the impression that currently exists in the collective (cultural) consciousness of the market.
Referring back to the example cited above, a company like Tag-Heuer has a brand identity of reliable and trustworthy precision. If they were associated with indiscretion, and even deceit, the brand image would be contrary to the identity on which the company depends for its share of the market.
Whereas good, insightful branding cannot overcome the difficulties imposed by low quality and inferior products, a good product stands to suffer market neglect if it remains invisible due to incorrect marketing. A crucial element within the marketing strategy is the branding of the company which produces the good/service for sale. When investors, for example, consider Stellenbosch property, one key factor that will be examined is the reputation of the quaint town itself: its general reputation gives an indication of whether or not it will remain a sought after real estate investment in the future. In other words, the property prices are influenced by the town’s branding. Similarly, hotels in Cape Town are often marked by the general impression of Cape Town in tourists’ eyes, as well as by their individual brands.
One last way to think of this dynamic is that two levels of advertisement essentially take place: the first level is advertisement of the product itself (what it does, how much it costs, etc.); the second level is a much longer term form of advertisement, and operates at a level that underpins or endorses the specific product/service on offer: this second level is the plane on which branding operates, and it is this second level that largely influences a person about to buy an iPad, for example, that their money spent is well worth the while.