Posted on Leave a comment

Why are some brands higher functioning than others?

One thing all high functioning brands have in common regardless of industry or audience, is that their brand is NOT based on a set of design rules, logos, colors, or creative alone. Their leaders have transcended the minutiae of marketing’s “rules” to follow, to think more holistically about their brand – and specially one that understands their audiences very well.

Instead of being stuck in seeing their brand as a set of checking boxes, their brand is continuously evolving and improving – just as technology, social issues and people’s lives are adapting – it is not “set and forget.” They view their brand as something larger than the design alone. Something that helps set their north star: for decision making across the organization, and in helping guide every area of the business.

High functioning brands are clearly defined with a strategy, a shared promise, a well-defined personality, and an inspiring driving purpose. It isn’t owned by one department, but is widely known, shared and trained from the CEO down to the frontline teller.

Every employee is keenly aware how important guarding and living out the brand is to their success. They know that their culture and alignment with people who love the brand and their community, is as important to the effectiveness of the brand as any piece of creative. Sometimes that includes taking risks that make leaders feel uncomfortable, if you hope to stand out for something authentic and important.

So, the design system and brand identity you create, the voice and words you use, and the stories you tell are all about forming authentic human connections. And it’s the connections where the power of the brand comes from, not just the output of the design.

The difference between brand and branding

To help answer the question of why some brands are higher functioning, it’s also helpful to step back and define the difference between a brand and branding.

The simplest way to think about brands is that they are the perceptions and expectations people have about you – whether they’ve used you yet or not. As consumers we have perceptions and expectations about every organization we come across.

And every organization has a brand. Some are much higher functioning like Apple, while some are lower functioning or worse yet, stumbling and in need of repair (think Wells Fargo, Volkswagen). What it really comes down to is how well leaders use the tools of branding and culture-building to shape perceptions, attitudes and experiences – for both their customers and also their own employees.

So, the difference between brand and branding – is that branding is the systematic, active managing of the tools and things that you can control – in order to better achieve business goals and shape brand experiences.

The financial business has this extra challenge of competitive overlap – products, services and offerings look so much alike. Yet some financial brands still operate, communicate and execute far more effectively, making them easier to like – and choose.


When we talk about some brands being more effective than others, it really comes down to using branding tools better in order to connect with people. The creative identity, execution, and especially storytelling has to be really solid to truly connect with your audience – emotionally or experientially. And when all things are basically equal among competitive brands, make them like you more.

How has branding changed?

If you trace the roots of what we think about branding today, some of it is a print legacy from 40 or 50 years ago going back to Saul Bass and Paul Rand. They defined brand with a logo, a color palette and a typeface.

Ten years ago, maybe you needed to do lots of education on the concept of brands. Today we all kind of get what a brand is. We might not be able to identify exactly what the details of a brand are; but we do know which brands we like – and don’t like.

There are so many different tactics today to deploy in modern branding: from social media, websites, videos, digital marketing and experience design. You must be able to execute on so many levels just to keep pace with the rising expectations people have of your brand and the experiences they have: good, bad or painful. Sometimes you only get one shot at a first impression; just seconds to get it right.

A high-functioning brand needs to move and adapt. It must allow for motion; changes in the environment, and even work at a variety of sizes. And many organizations have simply not been able to execute well enough to stand apart from competitors, or to create brand preference.

Nuts and bolts trends emerge quickly in this digital age: details like having responsive logos. They are more complicated when they’re bigger, and less complicated when they need to be smaller. If we want to think about branding and high functionally branding, we have to think about the brand system being more important than just the logo or colors, which in the past drove the brand system.

Modern high-functioning brands really need to operate holistically. Because it really is about the experience and expectations consumer have of brands they choose – and sometimes stay loyal to. All of those little creative bits, and details that are about creating a shorthand that connects back the brand to the feelings we have, that ideally, we’ve already established in our brand platform to keep our focus on.

What can organizations do to make their brand high-functioning?

Knowing your audience very, very well is so important, because every high functioning brand gains energy and some of its power from relating to the audience it’s communicating with. If everyone from the CEO down to the frontline teller believes in the brand, can articulate it clearly, and cares about their culture, that’s as important to the effectiveness of the brand as any piece of design.

So, the keys are to think holistically about your brand; have a really strong point of view about your distinction; align your culture consistently around it; and then narrow your focus around a clear set of audience targets. Those are foundational elements of building a more effective brand. Sometimes that even includes being willing to let some things go you’ve been doing.

And last, you’ve got to be willing to take some risks, let yourself feel uncomfortable. Most of our clients ask for some version of, “we want to stand apart and differentiate in our market.” But in order to really achieve that, you sometimes have to break old rules and safe thinking. And probably do some things that are going to feel a little bit strange. And the reason it feels weird – when you get that little knot in your stomach, is because you’re doing something totally new. So, a lack of a knot in your stomach could be a warning sign that you’re not pushing your brand forward hard enough. Your future growth is not about pleasing the board, or ensuring older audiences feel comfortable; it’s about winning an emotional connection for consideration and interest from your target audiences. 

What people learn time and time again is that any brand that’s too rigid and too tight will just break. And so high functioning brands are all about long term durability, and flexibility That is shared across teams and departments. You’ve got to give up ownership to lots of different people, who share responsibility of owning and living out the brand – driven by a clear focus, strategy and fluidity to evolve and grow the brand. When the brand becomes an aligned system of inter-connected parts and people executing almost like a symphony, you end up with something far stronger, not weaker.

Original Post