When we’re talking about branding, we’re essentially talking about building emotional continuity with audiences, beginning with a clear understanding not of what you do or even how you do it, but why you do it in the first place. It’s an important first step toward realizing a golden maxim of marketing: how you think and feel about a brand is the brand.
In this second installment in our series on branding, I’ll be zeroing in on brand essence—the concept of understanding the ways in which people think and feel about your brand, beyond understanding the why.
As a word, “essence” suggests intangibles—feelings, impressions, emotions, and things of that sort. Try to describe the essence of something you love and chances are you’ll have a hard time putting it into words, even though it might very well be something you feel powerfully and intrinsically. On the one hand, it’s elusive; on the other, it’s a certainty. This is a powerful psychological duplicity, and it’s the interplay between essence and audience that differentiates a given brand from competitors who offer similar products or services.
Look around your own home from real world examples. For myself, I can use the Toyota Tacoma as an example. I’ve been loyal to the brand since before I had a driver’s license. Based on the way it was advertised and, by extension, the people in my life who owned them, I knew the Tacoma was built for rugged adventure. That little 4×4 could take me off the grid, down roads less traveled, into country where camping, fishing, and other backcountry hobbies were possible. Driving a Tacoma projects this lifestyle, and driving it is an extension of my identity. If someone asked me for reasons why I love the Tacoma so much, I would cite things like the rear locking differential or the fact that they’re lightweight and can go further in challenging terrain than a lot of other 4x4s. In the end, the truck makes me feel adventurous, and I keep going back because I understand that the Toyota Tacoma values endurance, durability and reliability, which is why it remains one of the most sought after 4-wheel drive trucks on the market. Normally, all of these details aren’t front of mind for me when I get in my truck. I have to sit down and honestly think it through before talking about them. But they’re always there, just below the surface, constituting the essence of why I’m so loyal to the brand.
The biggest brands out there understand how important essence is and go to great lengths to articulate it. It’s how they know their audience—what motivates them, how they want to be seen and understood, and what they expect in a product or service. Smaller brands can and should strive to understand their brand’s essence too, because it’s crucial to connecting with audiences, no different than the big brands.
Locating your brand’s essence
The best way to understand your brand’s essence is to map it out using a brand essence wheel. Doing so will ensure this knowledge resides at the core of your brand strategy. Essentially, the brand essence wheel will reveal details and attributes similar to the ones I rattled off about my loyalty to the Toyota Tacoma. What does the brand do for me? How would I describe the product if asked? How does it make me look and feel? Once you’ve answered these questions, you can go a layer deeper, and understand the facts and symbols. This might focus on details like when the brand was founded, or, in the case of the Tacoma, what size engine it has or what the fuel economy is. This layer also examines brand personality—attributes users feel or experience when interacting with the brand and its products. Finally, at the core of the brand essence wheel, is a brand’s promise.
Once you’ve successfully mapped your brand essence, you can begin thinking strategically about how to position it in the minds of your audience.
Brand Essence Wheel