A review of VSI branding

Posted on Sun 06 June 2021 in books

I thought the book was pretty good. VSIs that don't deal with science are usually not as good, but this one uses a lot of examples and brings up interesting new concepts. It does tend to repeat ideas though, and it's more noticeable when you're writing notes as I am now. The book could have been shorter.

Before I read this book, I only really thought of branding as logos and slogans. I was aware that companies did more, but it never registered to me as important. Now that I'm done with the book I understand the values of brands better.

A nice thing about the book is that it uses a lot of brands as examples. For example, if the author wants to talk about emotion, he brings up how people are attached to IKEA furniture because they've built it. Or if he wants to mention brand loyalty, he brings up Apple. A lot of the examples are British however. It's easier to understand concepts when the author uses example, so this VSI works well.

More than just a logo

The big point of the book is that branding can be all-encompassing. It can either be run by a small marketing team, or it can the ultimate responsibility of the CEO. Brands also exist elsewhere than for-profit companies, and sometimes the brands are loosely organized. Open-source software is an example of a loosely-organized brand that nevertheless has a lot of pull on many people's behaviour.

At its most basic, a brand is a product, a logo, and a tradename. More complex brands can also include meanings and values. Increasingly, brands also include culture, such as a brand being a "corporate culture".

We see this today with brands and fairness. A lot of brands today stand for fairness and the idea that the customer is always right (or at least that their opinion is valued). When we see brands get involved in politics, they mostly go with fair and popular opinions. That's an example of how a brand is more than just a logo. The brand has become an entity that has to take a stand on things, or otherwise the public will turn against. The public expects it. Brands like that are definitely more than just logos, and I feel like they've become personalities.

Brands can grow out of smaller things, which shows how much brands can grow and emcompass a lot. Star Wars and Harry Potter were simply films and books, but they have become brands. They maintain a style over the years, and they interact with their fans. They've built something more than just the products themselves (not to mention all the merchandise). They also have to uphold values with the public, or risk fan backlash.

Some companies are brand-led. IKEA is a great example of this kind of all-encompassing brand, and the author likes to use it as an example. The IKEA brand has built an experience around its brand: the showrooms, the furniture flatpacks, and the meatballs. They both have furniture style but also a corporate style. The brand is an environment and an experience, not to mention an employee culture. I almost feel like IKEA is a theme park, and that's how pervasive the branding is.

All-encompassing brands do end up applying to a company's employees too. If you watch the Superstore series, a series about a fictional hypermarket from the point of view of the employees, you'll see how a brand can suggest things to customers but impose values on employees. The employees have to uphold the brand, so it becomes a code of conduct or even a passive form of management. Superstore is satirical so it makes fun of the branding. In other instances this kind of branding is important for finding and retaining employees.

Brands can directly do good things. Fair-trade products are a brand, and the brand raises prices to pay to the cultivators. Rather than some other price-raising scheme, the brand's ethics and value convince the consumer to go along with it.

Brands can be very valuable, more valuable than just trademarks. A company can sell their products at a premium because of their brand. Some brands are beloved by their fans, and they have customers willing to spend a lot of money on buying the products. Still, some brands have "loyal switchers", fans who buy other brands but are still positively biased towards their loved brand. All of these things are a bit intangible, so it's hard to come up with an exact brand value; however, many brand-researcher companies do calculate brand values (the author points out that these values vary by who calculates them).

Some brands are not really that effective. The author cites a poll that found that 80% of marketing directors thought their brands differentiated their products, but only 10% of customers agreed.

The five stages

The author identifies five stages of branding during history. This is the part of the book really helps to further understand branding. If you wonder "why are some brands different", part of the answer is that branding is complex and that it has a history.

These historical stages are not a one-way progression. Brands today exist at all of the five stages. Some firms will start at stage four and skip the rest, and their brand logo will be an afterthought. You can see this yourself by looking at the brands around you.


People put marks on things to show their property, but they don't get a lot of additional value out of it. With cattle this was an actual hot brand. Medieval families had mottos and coats of arms. Countries have flags. Today companies put their logo on their offices, cars, and coffee mugs.


People brand things to differentiate them from the rest. If you're selling quality clay pots, you put a marking on them to say that this is a quality pot, not an average one. The brand is then something that identifies a maker and can command a price premium. The branding is valuable as a way of building reputation, but it doesn't do anything else yet.


Brands cause emotions and loyalty. In the 1960s, marketers start talking about the "unique value proposition", and they make the brands more valuable. This is pretty much what we consider run-of-the-mill branding: marketing campaigns, designs, and slogans. Brands connect products to values and bigger ideas. Brands start to make us feel good so that we spend more money.


Brands create belonging. Brands get associated with a way of doing things. They include the employees, who get involved in the brand (for better or for worse). Brands are no longer just logos and marketing, they are the companies. Branding pervades the company, and it's not just something that marketers do anymore.

You will have noticed how some companies get the reputation for having free meals/alcohol for employees or a relaxed atmosphere for better creativity. That kind of branding affects the employees, and it also makes the consumer's opinion of the brand higher.

These brands can go stale however, which the author doesn't talk a lot of. Google used to have a reputation as a great, creative place to work, but it has lost some of that brand reputation. Amazon's reputation for efficiency and quality made people buy with confidence, until third-party sellers and fake reviews started making people buy a bit more carefully. (Something the author didn't foresee.) When brands are fused together with their companies, I think they both either rise or fall together.


Brands cause action. Brands like Youtube and Airbnb make their customer do things. The customers are the product being sold to other customers. The brand now encompasses people outside of the company. I think Wikipedia is a good example of this because its brand has kept a good reputation over the years.

These brands too can bad. Brands like Youtube, Facebook, and Reddit have suffered slowly over the years. These brands try to stick to the early internet idea of free and care-free speech, but that's an era that's come and gone. The more people use these action-brands, the more controversial content shows up.

Brands and companies

In brand-led companies brands can be synomous with corporate strategy. Brands can as much be for customers as they can be for employees and shareholders. A quick company rebranding can be the start of a new corporate strategy meant to raise the morale of employees and shareholders. Brand-led companies are tightly integrated to their brands, so their brand-people are near the top of the organization.

The brand-culture (see above) is an alternative to the command-control organization. Instead of telling employees what to do, the brand can to that. Go against the brand and it's the same as being insurbordinate. I think this can be pretty dystopian-sounding; however, if employees like their brand, it does make things simpler and more interesting. I think this ties the fate of the company and the brand together however. If a brand gets into a scandal, it will cause its employees to do some soul-searching.

The alternative to the brand-led company is the brand-supported company. This is a company with a more self-contained branding department. The author gives the example of Dyson, which have a strong brand but insist they're more about their products.

Brands are not always one-to-one things. A company can have multiple brands (a portfolio). Large corporations like Unilever and Proctor & Gamble own a lot of different brands. Some cat food is made by Mars, for example. In Canada, wireless providers run cheaper "fighter" brands alongside their flagship brands. The fighter brands have hip marketing and promotions, but are still part of the same company.

Some brands can be licensed to many companies, such as the case of franchising. Lots of restaurant chains license their brand to franchises.

Creating brands

The author explains in detail the different kinds of effort that go into making brands. I'll summarize them. Analysts and researchers use data to determine the best brandings strategies, likely using big data. Art and creativity are also used, and these groups come up with brand strategies. Consultants analyze the businesses to come up with goals and the strategies to achieve them. Technologists come up with online experiences in website and apps. Finally, brand coaches can educate employees on how to represent a brand.

The author also mentions ways that brands are publicized. Paid media are the traditional advertisements and the like. Owned media are a company's own website, blog or magazine, which he says are often more effective than paid media. There is also earned media: when reviewers or other people or groups say good things about you. Earned media is very effective.

The author mentions that there are two strategies for branding: keeping your existing customers happy versus finding new customers. Personally I come across a lot of the latter.

Final thoughts

The book was written in 2015, and I felt like it was too optimistic. In those years it was hard to imagine how brands could start going wrong. The author didn't foresee how political strife and fake reviews could undermine the public's confidence in the big internet brands. It's almost like the book was written at the peak of a branding bubble: a few years later, the shine of branding has gone dull.