using the “metaphor of you” to explain the differences between product, brand, branding and marketing

“brand” is one of those overused buzz words in the business and marketing world. and in my experience, most people use it to mean “company” or “product”, but not “brand” in its true meaning. some even use it because it just makes it sound more important or smarter – making their product sound bigger than what it might actually be. “brand” just sounds good. on top of that, way too many marketeers confuse “brand” with “branding”.

if you ask me, a brand strategy is where your product, psychology, sociology, neuroscience and business meet. it’s what happens in the mindheart and gut of people when they interact with you. while branding is more like looking at puzzle pieces until you can identify the full picture – and usually, you don’t even have to use all the pieces for that.

and not every product needs to be a brand. it can just be a product or a commodity. and that’s perfectly ok. if your main objective is to sell or drive usage, and you don’t need or want to establish a deeper relationship between your product and customers, then you don’t need to build and maintain a brand. and in some cases, your company can have a brand strategy, while your product is just that – a product. not everything needs a brand strategy. it only makes sense if such strategy will matter and add value to your customers (yes, it’s about them), and if it supports your business objectives.

so I thought I would attempt explaining how I see the differences between these multiple layers. and since a product, brand, branding and marketing strategy behaves like a multi-layer identity, I thought I would use a metaphor you will be very familiar with: you.

first, I will talk about you, and how you also show up everyday with a multi-layered identity. then, I will apply the same layers to a product example: the ball pen.
here we go…

the metaphor of you

just like everyone else, you are a very complex individual. but somehow, that complexity can be decomposed into different layers and parts. from the smallest piece to the bigger-influencing factors.

your DNA
we all share the same building blocks. but somehow, depending on how they get arranged, we come out as very different people. even some other species like apes are pretty close to our genetic code (for example, chimps share a surprising 98.8 percent of their DNA with us). that should tell us that even the smallest variations in those tiny elements can make a huge difference.

human
your human body
as that DNA gets settled in place, it creates the code for the human body. and while we all look different, we mostly function the same way as humans. biologically, most of us check the same boxes. it isn’t as much our biology that sets us apart from each other. so it has to come from somewhere else…

your personality

the way you were raised, the context you grew up in, the life experiences you went through, the skills you developed, the knowledge you acquired, the culture you are part of, the values you live by, the people you met, the emotional reaction you have in specific contexts, etc. all shape your personality and mark who you are today. it also impacts who you will be friends with, who you will marry, and who you don’t want anything to do with. this is much more of what sets you apart from the crowd than any of your inherent biological characteristics.

your recognizable traits
while some of those have been defined by your DNA, like the color of your eyes or hair, most of it can be impacted by the choices you made. for example, the size of your nose changes if you had an accident, if you’re a boxer, or if you just pick it often. the colors of your eyes or hair can easily be changed. even things like your gender can be adapted to who you identify as on the inside.
dress code
your dress code
last but not least, based on where you go and who you are going to meet, you will most probably adapt the way you dress, what you do with your hair, how much make-up you put on, etc. you will tune things to “fit in” or to “be appropriate” or “respectful”. as Sheldon Cooper would say: it is the social convention.

applying the metaphor

how does this apply to a business context? introducing… the ball pen.

your DNA = the product’s components
there are thousands of ways to combine ink with plastic. and I’m sure you can find many of those in modern and contemporary-art museums around the world. but it has to be done is a pretty specific way for the ink to be contained within the pen, and for it to only come out when needed by the right extremity.

your human body = the product
once the right order has been found, you’ve got yourself a product. now every pen is not the next one. some pens can write in several colors. some use wood or metal as core materials. some are more ergonomic. some are small and some are big. and some cost a dollar to manufacture while some are made by hand in Switzerland by highly qualified artists and/or engineers. so one pen is not the other. and what brings them apart is the decisions taken in the product design process.

your personality = the brand
the way you talk, the words you use, the way you relate to people, your culture and values as a business, how you act and do things, what you stand for, etc. all those make you who you are as brand. not as a product. but as what your customers will relate to, identify with, and emotionally engage with. somehow, what makes you human as a product, as a company, as a brand. when
it comes to ball pens, they can either just be something to write with, or they can be a tool for self-expression, to build stories, or to fight illiteracy. something as small as a pen can have a higher purpose, a deeper meaning, a stronger story.

your recognizable traits = the branding
some parts of who you are can be very highly recognizable. it can be a color, a sound, a smell, a shape, a texture, a taste, or any combination of those. yellow can just look like a banana, but when it’s in the shape of two huge arches making the letter “M”, it means something different. a pen made out of plastic will feel different then a pen made out of metal or rose wood. it can scratch the paper, or roll over it as smoothly as your finger on your lover’s neck. it can have 250 pressure points impacting the thickness of the line – or just have an on and an off. and if some of those are unique and recognizable, they can be branding elements you use to tell the story of your product, as a brand.

your dress code = the marketing and communication executions
>if you try to sell your pen to a student for his/her studies, to a CEO for his/her meetings, to a hotel chain to place in all of their rooms, your story is going to be slightly different. but just like you would always be the same person in different clothes, your product and brand should always be at the center of your marketing – just dressed up slightly differently based on context and audience.
another way of looking at it is that if you are in a store that only sells pens, you don’t need to explain to customers that what you sell is a pen. the context takes care of it for you. the focus should be on why your pen versus the others. what yours does that others don’t. still the same product. still the same brand. but a different angle to your story which can translate into a different campaign or creative. always anchored into who you are.

it only makes sense when all of it comes together in harmony.

if it doesn’t, if there are inconsistencies (either over time or between the elements), just like when your pants are too tight, or when your sweater does not complement the color of your eyes, or like when you try to be someone you are not, people will notice. and they might call you out on it. especially your closest friends – or fans. those people who know you the most. some might even turn away from you. ever heard the phrase “I don’t know who you are anymore” in an argument?

components, product, brand, branding and marketing all together
so when you do marketing and communications, make sure that all layers match. staying true to what you are and what you do. that you leverage what makes you stand out – what makes you unique. that you dress according to who you are, where you go, and who you are about to meet. since, at the end of the day, it is about making sense, right?

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