Every business requires a brand identity: it is the public face of the company. It’s often the first representation of a company or person’s assets, purpose and motivations that its’ customers are likely to encounter. These properties are commonly referred to as the brand values. Marketing the brand values of a company correctly is increasingly recognised as one of the core concerns of any business, and is fundamental to the ensuing success of operations.
Graphic designers are called upon to relate the arrangements of images and words that comprise a brand and to communicate its value to the inner thoughts and behaviors of consumers. Marketers in turn are required to develop the standards of practise which govern good and fruitful creation and management of brands. Perhaps the single most important aspect of this is the role played by graphic designers, recruited to design the image that usually becomes the single-most typical incarnation of a brand and its’ values.
The purpose of this article is to answer the question “What are brand values?”, with a particular eye role played by graphic designers. Nike is one of the best examples of a company with clear brand values. The so -called ‘swoosh’, or tick to most of us, commonly goes hand in hand with the tagline ‘just do it’, in which Nike intends its core brand values to be communicated. Deceptively simple, the tick alone seems to embody the impulsive, expressive nature of the slogan; and both communicate an image of industriousness.
What Are Brand Values?
As suggested, brand values are the messages that an organisation seeks to communicate about themselves through the image of their brand. Over the past decades, there has been considerable change in the types of messages that companies seek to present. In the most recent edition of Creating Powerful Brands, Leslie de Chernatony and colleagues (2010) provide an update of a book first published in 1992, when considerations of brand value were different. The tendency had been toward standardisation and homogenisation, as companies sought a rigorously managed and risk-averse brand, that communicated professionalism and competency. In recent years however the tendency has been toward heterogeneity and what the authors describe as a ‘loose-tight approach’. It is tight in the sense that the company adopts a small core set of values that must be adhered to in all brand communication, and thus embodied in the brand image itself. Recalling the Nike example, they centre in on a core brand value that suggests that everybody can be perform like an athlete. It is loose then in the sense that country managers can tailor marketing or products to local cultural and societal norms: different types of Nike shoes are more popular in different countries, testament to their success in pursuing this approach.
In addition, consumers are increasingly seen as active interactors with brands and values, often times shaping the brand’s value, against an older image as passive receptors of communications. This mirror perhaps the move in the behavioral sciences to recognize the interactive role played by cognition and environment, that the two do not exist in separate spheres. This, as de Chernatony and colleagues suggest, has also mirrored the rise of the service sector and the corresponding demise of manufacturing. Services, such as those provided by graphic designers, rely more on the subjective impressions customers form: the customer experience or journey. This works most successfully when individual members of staff align their personal values with the brand values, and can then communicate these in a relatable manner to the customer. It is clear therefore that an understanding of the interaction between brand values and psychology is critical for any modern approach.
The Psychology of Brands and Values
The purpose behind brands is to influence consumers to buy their products, therefore how consumers relate to and comprehend the brand and its’ values is of central concern. A recent overview of the empirical and theoretical work in their field was conducted by Bernd Schmitt, the end results of which is the proposal of a consumer-psychology model of brands. For present purpose this model will be looked at in more detail, as it draws together many of the considerations of previous work on the psychology of brands. Schmitt distinguished three levels of user engagement with a brand:
• The first is object-centred and comprises the individuals interaction with the product itself, it’s utilitarian efficacy and aesthetic value.
• The second level of engagement is self-centred, and involves consideration of the role the brand or product plays in relation to the individuals self-concept: does the brand values and personal values coincide? Here is where the graphic designers often come in, feeding perhaps more directly than anyone else into the formation of the value communicating image.
• The final dimension is the level of social engagement, which focuses attention on the importance of social norms regarding a brand or product, will it gain the individual respect or social rejection.
Successful brands draw together all three dimension: recall again Nike, who are widely considered to make high quality products in their field, are laser-like in the focus on brand values of effort and success, and encourage consumers to think of themselves as part of a community of everyday athletes.
Shmitt further distinguished four psychological mechanisms that describe the individual’s mode of interaction with each level of brand value:
1. First the individual identify’s the brand by recognising a cohesive set of characteristics that sits apart from the norm – again drawing attention to the important role that a graphic designer might play in logo design. The visual properties of the logo and font directly relate to the likelihood of consumer identification.
2. The second mechanism is experiencing, whereby consumers become aware of the emotional reaction to products. If the brand value successfully complements the consumer experience, emphasising similar subjective priorities, then the consumer is likely to view the brand experience positively.
3. This is followed by a process of integration, as the consumer brings the product or brand values into line with their own personal values. Again this is likely to be aided by the proximity of views.
4. Once the values reach equilibrium, the next step for the consumer is a process of signifying their newly constructed value composition, and connecting with others of a like mind. There are as many different recommendation for approaches to brand value as there are theories in psychology itself, and there is a limit to the benefit of pursuing one particular theoretical account.
The benefit of Schmitt’s approach is to restrict himself to a general model of consumer behavior, that therefore retains validity and reliability. Previous theoretical approaches to brand value can then be considered in the light of this new account, as for example with brand personality which seeks to analyse and inform brands in terms of individual personality differences. This can be distinguished into attempts to change the way the individual identifies and experiences the object and brand, and attempts to integrate the brand value with personal values and social norms.
Graphic Designers and Brand Values
This is precisely where graphic designers most often come in, during the attempt to alter brand identification, experience and integration. There has been a recent trend, spearheaded by professionals like Creative Repute Design Agency, to resituate graphic designers at the centre of branding and marketing. This is a reaction against what they perceive as the commandeering of brand strategy amongst business graduates, who prefer to discuss it in terms of tone of voice, focus groups, and so on. Rather, the renewed call is for a brand approach which focusses on identity rather than spin. Perhaps making a clear visual statement and incorporating some subliminal messaging is all that a brand identity is capable of, and therefore should be considered as the central purpose.
All of this goes to point recall attention right back to our very own tagline: “We’ll build the designs that inspire your customers to fall in love with you.” There might truly be no better encapsulation of precisely what the best graphic designer can hope to achieve. What is love if not for someone or something that seems to complement one’s personal values. By creating loose brands that allow consumers to quickly identify and integrate values with their own, designers allow individuals to discover quickly and effectively just what is out there that they might be likely to find themselves ‘loving’.
Schmitt, B. (2012). The consumer psychology of brands. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22, 7-17.
De Chernatony, L. (2010). Creating powerful brands. London: Routledge