Think about the many products you buy and the brands that market to you as a consumer. From aspirin to automobiles, bath soap to beer, candy bars to cosmetics, each of us has a least a few favorite brands that are go-to choices in a particular category we purchase. But how and why did those brands become our favorites?

The answer is not only that they deliver benefits we care about. It’s also that they’ve found ways to communicate those benefits effectively and to reinforce them in our actual experience.

For example, as a friend in consumer packaged goods has shared with me, if the speckles in a box of detergent are made with (inert) blue paint, more consumers believe the wash comes out whiter. Change the colored specks to green, and more believe the wash smells fresher. Those little specks are signals to reinforce a brand’s core promise.

First, of course, my friend’s company had to decide which segment of the market they were pursuing. Imagine a pie chart that depicts the primary interest of various consumers in the detergent business: What product attributes does each group most care about? The answer is more complex than just whiteness versus brightness. Some consumers love to see high-suds detergents in action, for example. When they peek into the wash and see lots of bubbles, they enjoy feeling that their clothes are being cleaned with diligence. Other consumers prefer low-suds products, believing that they’re better and safer for the planet’s ecology.

On-target branding must start with defining the target market and the primary benefits most prized by that particular segment. Every aspect of the brand should reinforce the fulfillment of its core promise, helping the product hit a communications bullseye that is relevant and meaningful to the intended purchaser

Obviously, then, the name of a product that promises brightness should feel quite different from one that pledges freshness. The design of the packaging must support that choice, from the wording and look of text to the appearance of a sales brochure, advertising to prospects and so on. The more each detail is aligned, the more you’ll have a little army of product elements that all march together for maximum impact on your desired buyer.

Even after purchase when the product is being used, those built-in signals (like the specks) reinforce the delivery of whatever has been promised. The more congruent these elements are, the more you’ll avoid what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — the kind of inconsistency that would occur, for example, if the colors and font of your logo didn’t support a single overall message.

It’s easy to note the impact of color. One of the most famously successful examples of branding in the world is Coca-Cola. You won’t find its specific red on any standard Pantone color chart that designers and manufacturers use in creating the looks of their products and messaging. But since 1948, Coca-Cola red has been the globally known symbol of what’s still the No. 1 best-selling soft drink in the world.

Branding signals like logo colors for individual brands can even become communicators for entire categories. Have you noticed how widely shades of red and yellow are used across the fast food industry? McDonald’s, Burger King, Johnny Rockets, Wendy’s and Pizza Hut all use red and yellow. Some say red and yellow represent ketchup and mustard. Others point to those colors as being happy and celebratory. Makes for a pretty good mood to be in for lunch or dinner, wouldn’t you say?

None of these choices are haphazard. The color blue is perceived as a symbol of security and trust. Fully a third of the world’s top 100 brands use the blue in their logos. Think Volkswagen, IBM, Walmart and GE. All are brands with an active stake in consumer trust.

Other research has shown the importance of not just choosing your branding colors carefully, but sticking with them over time for the sake of brand recognition. Next, consider the ways the shape of a logo or an element within it can affect our perception of a brand. Some symbols are universal. The symbolic heart, for example, is documented as representing love and caring for centuries. The five-pointed star goes back even further. These are icons which retain branding relevance today, from hearts for Valentine’s Day merchandise to five-star reviews for movies and restaurants.

The point is, nothing, no element of a design, is too small to be carefully considered. And again, consistency matters. One global brand I admire in this regard is Heineken. No matter where in the world you see this brand and no matter how its design has evolved since 1864, you’ll always see a five-pointed star worked into the brand’s design. According to Heineken, brewers have used this symbol since the Middle Ages to symbolize the water, barley, hops and yeast used to make beer, along with a fifth element that represents “the magic of brewing.”

The bottom line is this: when it comes to branding your product or service, no choice should be arbitrary. Don’t jump into the water with immediate decisions on the color, shape and font of your logo, or the marketing tagline you might use to define your brand in a pithy, memorable way.

Instead, begin with the marketing pie chart I mentioned. What segment are you pursuing? Only after that crucial definition of your brand’s targeted market — and assuming you can deliver on what you promise — should you choose the expressions of branding (text, color, imagery, sounds, etc.) that support and reinforce the core identity you’ve decided to stand for.

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