What makes a brand great is elusive—it’s hard to pin down or express in words. But you know it when you see it.
As Marty Neumeier explains in The Brand Gap,
A brand is not a logo. A brand is not a corporate identity system. It’s a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.
Shaping that ineffable, hard-to-pin-down gut feeling is the foundation of what we do as designers and strategists. Those gut feelings you have toward your favorite brands aren’t born out of thin air. They’re the result of hundreds and thousands of decisions, each made with precise intentions that build layers of trust between a business and its audiences.
And they all begin with a unique brand DNA.
Unique DNA is the heart and purpose of a brand. It’s a shared understanding of what it's offering, who it's offering it to, and how it's authentically owning a specific contribution to the world.
Having a unique DNA is how great brands become meaningful parts of their customers’ lives—banners that people are eager to wave in the world and identify with. Beyond gut feelings, great brands are powerful arbiters of people’s understanding of themselves because their DNA—who they are and what they stand for—is so well defined.
In his famous 1997 speech, Steve Jobs outlined the importance of core values and what that means for Apple:
It's a very noisy world. We're not going to get a chance for people to remember a lot about us—no company is. So we have to be really clear about what they want them to know about us. Our customers want to know what we stand for. What we're about is not making boxes for people to get their jobs done (although we do that very well). Apple is about more than that. We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That's what we believe.
And with that, Jobs unveiled the iconic Think Different campaign—a campaign that completely encapsulated Apple’s unique DNA and, in turn, brought the brand back to life after a 6-year slump in sales (and near bankruptcy). It changed our very perception of the brand: purchasing an Apple product was a decision to self-identify as someone who “thinks different.” Not only that, but it has become a guiding ethos that’s reflected in everything Apple does, from marketing to packaging design—just think about how Apple has completely altered our notion of what an unboxing experience feels like.
Similar to how human DNA is a framework that’s repeatedly replicated to create a unique individual, brand DNA—when clearly defined—can be duplicated across a company to produce a distinct brand that stands apart from competitors. When you think about the companies that do this best, you see the brand shining through in everything from product to customer service—take Southwest Airlines as an example, empowering employees to live its brand purpose, “we exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives.”
Ami Iannone, Brand Strategy and Copy Lead at RocketAir, says,
The difference between a good tagline and a true brand DNA is this element of using the brand values as the core blueprint for each decision the company makes—truly and thoughtfully replicating the brand's DNA in each choice and interaction.
Defining a unique brand DNA is a large part of creating a strong brand strategy. For a startup, this can be done from scratch as it gets off the ground or even earlier than that during product development. Or, for a more established company, it can be part of rebranding work.
Building a unique brand DNA takes the best components of all great brands—incredible care for customers and a thoughtful approach to product, design, and copy—and combines it with the pieces that make a brand different. It’s not just about identifying a gap in the market, but finding how a brand can add true value.
At RocketAir, we do this by interviewing founders as well as existing and potential customers. We engage deeply with competitors that occupy the same spaces and industries. We reverse-engineer great brands, examining the work that they do, how they cultivate their branding, and how they support their audiences to build communities around their products. And to avoid homogeneity, we also look beyond direct competitors.
Looking for inspiration from outstanding brands outside of a client's vertical or industry is one way to make sure that we're innovating and differentiating. Creating opportunities to stand out instead of blend in.
Then, we define that unique insight or perspective that will truly create a differentiated brand. We ask questions like: What is this brand giving and adding to people's lives? What is it like to be a customer who engages with this brand? What do we want that experience to feel like?
Your answers can (and probably should) be ambitious. But they must also be authentic to who you are and what you’re offering to the world.
Once you’ve found your unique brand DNA, you’ll have a foundational blueprint to build upon. You can use that defined rubric to measure and consider every subsequent decision. For example, Southwest Airlines and each of its employees can ask themselves: "In this instance, which decision would best connect people to what's important in their lives?"
If you struggled to answer any of these questions, you might want to learn more about how we help companies find their unique brand DNA. Check out our work.