What is a brand, anyway?
The root comes from an Old English word for fire, to be engulfed in flames, even a torch or a piece of burning wood. For those of you familiar with livestock, or perhaps just obsessed with Yellowstone, brand as a verb is a pretty straightforward extension of the noun: it’s the mark placed (read: burned) onto something (or someone) designating ownership or property. Everything we as business and marketing professionals understand as brand today stems from this. As both verb and noun, brand is as much action as it is appearance.
Brand is thoughtful, attractive design, yes. But it’s also as much – if not more – what you do, which is an extension of who you are. In my own personal and professional life, I’ve put it this way: Brand is a values statement.
As Major League Baseball began (and completed) its World Series within the last week, this notion of brand and reputation came to mind, as two unlikely teams found themselves head-to-head for baseball’s biggest prize. The National League champion Arizona Diamondbacks barely got into the playoffs; the American League’s Texas Rangers were longshots coming into October with a potent offense and questionable relief pitching.
This is the Rangers’ third time winning their league and ninth playoff appearance in franchise history. In their 63rd year in existence, they finally broke through to a World Series victory. Casual observers likely only know the Rangers for Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. Their brand beyond that? A history of mediocre baseball.
The Diamondbacks are just over 25 years old. They won the World Series in their fourth season in existence, toppling the mighty New York Yankees in seven games. Their history and brand? Also mostly mediocre baseball.
If you’re a casual observer, there’s a reason you didn’t feel particularly compelled to watch this World Series: outside of their respective markets, these brands just aren’t very compelling. When you think of Texas sports in October and November, you’re thinking of some strand of football, whether it’s under the lights on Friday nights or the Saturday or Sunday varieties. When you think of baseball in Arizona, you probably default to Spring Training.
MLB has a problem with the World Series (beyond butting up on the schedule against the football behemoth, or the nascent basketball and hockey seasons, for that matter). On baseball’s greatest stage, these two brands just don’t resonate with a broader audience.
The most recognizable team in pro baseball is the Yankees. They exist in America’s largest market, have been around for over 120 years, boast the most championships and if you ask any random person on the street to name a famous baseball player, they will likely reply with Babe Ruth.
All of this is quintessential brand identity and cache. The Yankees are on the level of major American brands: Nike, Apple, Starbucks, Coca-Cola. You don’t need to know how to throw a curveball or be on Baseball Reference every day to be familiar with the interlocking NY (created by Tiffany and Co.!) or those famous pinstripes. Babe Ruth was and remains a transcendent pop cultural touchstone the likes of which can only be matched by Michael Jordan or Muhammad Ali.
So when the Yankees go 14 years and counting since their last AL pennant and World Series championship, that’s brand misalignment: the product getting by on its reputation rather than its actual performance. It’s the same as Apple’s iPhone 14, which wasn’t appreciably better than its predecessor, yet came with a similarly high list price.
What can we learn about brand, and particularly about brand strategy, from thinking about sports teams?
At the risk of being too obvious, design matters. Your company, products and services should look good!
Attractive logos and colorways are great, but if your website isn’t designed to be easily explored and enjoyed, or your content assumes too much or too little from your audience, brand will suffer. If those things that comprise brand identity -- products, services, support, marketing and sales -- fail to meet people where they are, most won’t show up, and those who do won’t come back.
Let's say you release a great product, but your brand isn’t quite connecting with the masses. Consider BlackBerry 10, whose qualities are still being implemented as new features by Android and Apple today, despite BlackBerry crashing and burning as a mobile device maker 10 years ago.
The team in Waterloo, Ontario had a great product with an eye for minimalist design and one of the better logos in the space, but the market already viewed them as an afterthought. Why? Because BlackBerry assumed they would stay atop the mobile device sector and dismissed what consumers wanted, notably pooh-poohing cameras in phones.
Assumptions about your audience matter, because they will affect how you approach, engage and sell to them.
This is a little bit of art and science and fairly subjective: a company can present and position themselves in as strong a position as possible, but without understanding what people want or how they perceive them, that company will never reach its goals. Sometimes, and I might say most of the time, the best marketing stakeholders aren’t even in-house.
While playoffs work in many capacities across sports, they don’t in baseball. It’s a six-month regular season and, when there are so many teams eligible for October baseball after 162 games, grand playoff schemes diminish the value of getting there. I suspect that if the Diamondbacks and Rangers made it to the World Series in the earlier playoff format, two teams from each league play one round to get to the Fall Classic, the narrative of two unlikely teams getting here would resonate more with the public; after all, they actually earned the right to be here.
In contrast, March Madness works because there are many basketball conferences, schools of varying sizes and resources and a very short season. If you’re a sports fan, you likely don’t remember who won last season’s World Series, but you almost certainly remember UMBC, Butler, George Mason, Loyola Chicago or Florida Atlantic.
In either case, an overarching brand identity people are allowed to understand (even if they can’t articulate it) is no small part of its success. Positioning yourself and your product in a way your intended audience can easily recognize and engage with lends itself toward brand and marketing victory. Nobody should flip channels, see baseball in late October and be surprised by or wonder why teams are still playing. They’re “the boys of summer” for a reason.
If your visual identity is strong, but your business’ process or health isn’t quite there, neither is your brand.
Football figured this out a long time ago: the stakes were too high with a single-game championship, so everything around that game became an event. The Super Bowl is an unofficial national holiday: two weeks of hype leading to it, a day-long pregame, a massive halftime show and, of course, the ads. With all those props, the game itself is a bit of an afterthought.
But what the NFL figured out early on is that the Super Bowl has to be more than 60 minutes of football: it’s an entire experience of which the game is just a part. People who don’t even like football watch the Super Bowl because there’s something to capture everyone’s attention.
To be fair, they also understand that it’s a Sunday night in February. What else is there to do?
A healthy brand delivers on every front, attractive design, compelling goods or services, sustained attention before, during and after the sale or presentation. It welcomes engagement, respects the audience and always offers value people can clearly recognize. It need not be excessive like the Super Bowl; it just needs to understand that there's more to a business relationship than the conversion.
Pro football saw its opportunity to dominate one day in winter and delivers on its promise to be entertaining to as many people as possible. Baseball saw it wasn’t growing as well as it should and responded with lazy gimmicks and promotions, adjustments to its playoff format and rules changes, the latter two addressing assumptions made about and catering to people who weren’t watching baseball games anyway.
There’s a reason football is America’s sport and baseball is facing a fate like boxing or horse racing. One delivers on its brand promise based on a clear understanding of what it is. The other doesn’t.
There’s a lot of analogy here centering on sports and major sporting events, but the overarching theme is clear: Your brand is far more than just a logo or product. It’s a combination of appearance, strategy, understanding the audience, being sensitive to context and willing to offer something of value while being OK with the fact that not every person will become a customer right away, while others never will.
People tie a company’s tactics and offerings to brands all the time, for better or worse. At Kuno, our strategists and design experts seek to create a consistent, well-aligned and thoughtful approach to brand and marketing, identities that look good and are both engaging and meaningful, and approaches that leave people feeling good about building a relationship with our clients. Marketing is a longform medium, inclusive of moments, events, opportunities and engagements, all of which define and refine your brand over time. Brand is as much a values statement as it is a killer product or game-changing service. It’s all of the above.
Perhaps you’re an established entity like the Yankees, with a strong brand that needs realignment with presentation and execution. Or the Rangers, an established brand looking to scale and elevate itself in the space. Or even the Diamondbacks, a younger, rooted entity with spots of success but seeking to establish a championship tradition.
We’ve worked with businesses from dynamic startups to major enterprise-grade players and Fortune 500 companies across sectors, helping them find themselves as brands and delivering robust solutions that elevate brand awareness, accelerate sales cycles, and cultivate meaningful business relationships through multi-channel content, paid media, website design and SEO. If your sales or marketing efforts need a game-changing team, contact us for a consultation.