In this article, we’ll go over what brand image means, why it matters and present you with five case studies that show what this concept looks like in action.
Starting a new brand is an exciting, and oftentimes complex endeavor. At its most basic level, branding your small business involves creating a website, crafting a brand personality, and designing marketing assets like logo design and campaigns to tell your story to the world.
One of the goals of branding is to ensure that you capture the attention of your target market. And above all, forge a lasting and trusting relationship with them. As a branding expert, my best advice for achieving this long-term goal is to be mindful of what audiences think about your brand.
This is where the concept of brand image comes in. Shifting the focus from what you want your brand to represent, to what customers really think about it, evaluating your brand image is all about understanding if you and your audience are in sync.
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What is brand image?
Quite simply, your brand image is like your brand’s reputation. It’s a dynamic force you should always pay attention to. Brand image refers to how audiences perceive your brand and how customers feel about their experience with you.
The consumer opinion is influenced by many factors, such as the quality of your brand’s products, the impression you make through marketing, and levels of customer service.
For the most part, your brand image should be easy to manage with mindful branding efforts. The tricky thing about it is that brand image is always changing, and can be influenced by external factors, too. Special trends, current events, and in particular the assessment made by other customers, can always shift audiences’ opinion of your brand - for better or worse.
To understand brand image better, let’s put ourselves in the role of the consumer:
Say you decide to eat at a new local Italian restaurant after seeing an advertisement on Facebook. It was an enjoyable meal, and you think to yourself, “This restaurant is pricey, but worth it because of the intimate atmosphere, quality Italian food and great customer service.” With those 19 words, you’ve cemented a brand image of this restaurant: you perceive it as a restaurant you can trust when you want to treat yourself to a good meal out.
On the other hand, if you went to the same restaurant and found that the food wasn’t authentic Italian and you experienced poor service, you’d likely decide that this restaurant wasn’t trustworthy or worth the money. Despite it’s convenient location, you’d have conjured a brand image that will prevent you from eating here in the future, let alone recommend it to friends.
What is brand image theory?
The brand image theory as Philip Kotler defined it, is a branding concept that explains how consumers form perceptions and attitudes towards a brand based on their experiences and interactions with that brand. According to Kotler, the brand image is created by the sum total of all the experiences that consumers have with the brand. These experiences come from consumers exposure to and interactions with advertising, packaging, product quality, customer service, and other touchpoints.
The way brand image theory works is that consumers will have a more favorable attitude towards a brand if they have had positive experiences with it. Consequently, brand image can greatly influence consumer behavior and purchasing decisions. The theory highlights the importance of creating a consistent and positive brand image through all of a brand's marketing and communication efforts.
Kotler also suggests that a strong brand image can help a brand stand out from its competitors and increase brand loyalty among both potential and existing consumers. This can be especially important in highly competitive markets where consumers have many options to choose from.
Types of brand image
There are several types of brand image that can be created:
Functional Image: This type of brand image is associated with the practical benefits that a product or service offers, such as reliability, quality, or durability.
Emotional Image: This is associated with the emotional benefits that a product or service provides, such as happiness or security.
Personal Image: This type of brand image is associated with the personal attributes of a product or service, such as style or uniqueness.
Social Image: This means an association with the social status that a product or service conveys, such as luxury, exclusivity, or sophistication.
User Image: This type of brand image is associated with the people who use a product or service, such as athletes, celebrities, or parents.
Symbolic Image: This is associated with the symbolic meanings that a product or service represents, such as freedom, adventure, or success.
Different brands may choose to focus on different types of brand image, depending on their target audience and marketing goals. The goal of brand image building is to create a consistent and positive image of the brand amongst consumers that differentiates it from its competitors.
Brand image vs. brand identity
Since they are often confused, let's compare brand image with brand identity. When you start building a brand, you’ll think strongly about how you want to distinguish it from others. This is the catalyst for establishing an authentic brand identity, the unique voice and visual appearance that helps you communicate your brand’s message to audiences.
Your brand identity is like its personality, a culmination of choosing a brand archetype, creating a logo, developing your brand’s voice, choosing brand colors, and more. These elements are the foundation for your brand, and are used to influence your products, services, appearance, content, and marketing efforts.
What best distinguishes brand identity from brand image is the fact that your brand identity reflects your own perception of your brand. Of course, it’s also the way you hope others will perceive you - but that’s not always the case.
Brand image is what other people think about your brand, and it's an important thing to be aware of. Oftentimes, even your best efforts can result in a good brand. In the words of Scott Cook, co-founder founder of Intuit, “a brand is no longer what we tell the consumer it is - it is what consumers tell each other it is.”
Why is brand image important?
These days, it’s not enough to have a great product or service. Customers think of the brands they interact with as people, and seek businesses who echo their own values, lifestyle and interests.
Your brand’s image matters, and it will impact the general attitude towards your business and associations with it in the following ways:
Brand image will impact what people think about you, even before they experience your business firsthand. Based on their associations with your brand - whether that be word-of-mouth, social media, or first hand experience - audiences will develop an impression of your business with every interaction.
Imagine a customer visiting your website for the first time. They arrive at your homepage to find a seamless website design, finding all the information they’re looking for easily. Despite the fleeting nature of that experience, it will leave a lasting impression on customers. In this case, visitors to your site will think of your brand as professional, organized and fresh - until they’re proven otherwise.
Brand awareness refers to how recognized your brand is, and with a positive brand image you can expect to gain popularity. By developing a strong brand identity and marketing strategies (and learning how to increase brand awareness), profound levels of recognition can result. Additionally, by upholding high levels of customer satisfaction, you’ll become a brand that audiences remember and eventually - depend on.
Take a brand like Apple, for instance. Apple’s famous logo, and its history of delivering quality products (not to mention, killer marketing campaigns), result in a level of awareness that makes their brand image universally synonymous with technology and innovation.
Your brand image often depends on proving your value to your customers, employees and community. Upholding a clearly defined mission and purpose, and showing your importance in your area of focus will prove value and brand equity, especially to audiences who seek these qualities.
A car company like Toyota, which demonstrated their commitment to the environment by making the groundbreaking Prius, will make a strong impression on car-buyers who resonate with their efforts of reducing pollution. Along with other aspects of the car, like its price, appearance and size - this added value is something eco-friendly consumers will recognize when making a purchase.
It’s not rocket science: a well-balanced brand image generates healthy conversions. Building your brand’s sparkling reputation will lead more people to use it. Whether it's through personal experience or word-of-mouth, becoming a brand people can depend on will make it easy to convert potential buyers into loyal customers.
Proven ways to boost your brand image
Maintaining a positive brand image isn’t a one-off task. Throughout your brand’s lifetime, you’ll need to actively manage its presence to ensure audiences continue to embrace it.
Here are some practical and proven methods you can use from the time you start, and whenever your brand image needs a boost:
Have a strong brand identity
If you want a good name for yourself, your brand identity is the place to start. As we already mentioned, this refers to the characteristics that form your brand, and the elements used to communicate to customers; such as your brand voice, business logo, or colors.
Creating an authentic way to represent your brand will allow your target audience to acknowledge you amongst the sea of competition. Your brand identity is often your first chance to establish your brand image. Invest in it from the start, and pay careful attention to the feedback you receive from friends, colleagues - and of course - customers.
As your brand grows, maintaining consistency will become increasingly important to your community. If fresh content or rebranding are vital to your brand image, be careful to hold on to some aspect of the familiar voice you conceived at its start.
Pro tip: One way to ensure harmony as your brand evolves is to create a brand style guide.
Make a professional website
Having a website is a chance to make a lasting impact on audiences. A well designed and updated website is like a virtual hub for your brand image. Home to your About Page, logo, FAQs about your brand, contact pages, an online store and more, a website makes it possible to inform and communicate with customers, engage new visitors and promote your brand.
Having a website also shows customers that you’ve got it all together. Plus, if you invest time creating a website that looks good, it's sure to make a strong impression.
Use strategic marketing strategies
Never forget about the power of marketing and its ability to shape customers’ perception of you. Inbound marketing campaigns, influencer marketing, social media marketing are all ways that you can communicate your current message to brands.
Today, most of our interaction with brands happens online, especially on social media, where close to half of the world’s population spends an average of over 2 hours a day. Crafting the right social media marketing will give your brand the opportunity to amplify its image by connecting with large audiences on a consistent basis.
Get feedback from customers
Whether through online testimonials, in-person interactions, or comments left on your website and social media pages, customer feedback is one way business owners can get a handle of how their brand image affects the public.
If the feedback is negative or in conflict with your brand’s identity, that’s a sign that something needs to change. Perhaps you need to improve your messaging, or adjust the appearance of your logo. Positive feedback is an indication that you’re on the right track, and presents an opportunity to hone in on what methods work best for your brand.
Improve your brand offline
In this online-centric generation, it’s easy to forget about the importance of face-to-face interaction. Don’t. Being involved with your community by participating in fundraising activities, or hosting events and sponsoring events are all ways to humanize your brand and improve its image.
If your business involves in-person interaction, such as owning a store, keep in mind that each encounter can alter the perception of your brand. Reinforce exceptional customer service, making sure your employees represent your brand well.
Brand image case studies
In the examples below, some of the most well-known brands today do an excellent job at paying attention to their brand image. Notice that various factors have encouraged them to shift their brand identity over time, in order to get the responses they want.
01. Velo by Wix
In 2019, just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Wix released a new product to accelerate website development for users, calling it Corvid. You can already anticipate the challenge here.
While the name - which was inspired by the super intelligent family of birds, Corvidae - didn’t initially present a problem, as soon as the pandemic hit Wix was faced with a slew of confused users with negative reactions. Suddenly, the public asked why Wix would name a new product after a pandemic (well, they didn’t), and many reported that Wix had appeared careless and insensitive.
To address this branding “oops” and reclaim their positive brand image, Wix responded by renaming the product to Velo by Wix. Even better, a rebranding campaign highlights the issues with their original name, using eloquent levels of transparency and humor.
Since its start in 2007, Airbnb’s brand image has evolved from one that emphasizes functionality and convenience, to one that underscores belonging and community.
The brand realized that in order to mature their brand image, they need to be known as more than a convenient way to travel. Knowing that the experiences and passion of their customers have become a crucial part of the brand’s story, Airbnb set out to share this renewed mission with the world.
By strengthening their brand identity with a new logo idea, brand colors and a fresh company voice in 2014, Airbnb set the foundation for a new era. The company changed their slogan from “Forget Hotels” to “Belong Anywhere,” and developed more powerful tools for telling their brand story, such as advertising campaigns, user-generated content, and publishing the Airbnb Magazine.
03. Burger King
Burger King has a brand reputation for being convenient, affordable and tasty. But as the world becomes more health conscious, like most fast food chains, it struggles to keep up with the trend.
Although Burger King doesn’t exactly need help in the brand recognition department, the company realized it was time to rethink how their brand is perceived if they want to stay relevant. Now is a time when they need to address the ingredients in their products, and prove that they listen to their customers and are committed to their health.
With this, the brand launched a modernized brand identity in 2021, including a new restaurant logo, packaging, uniforms and digital marketing campaigns. Burger King’s modernized look is clean, trendy, and attractive - but most importantly, it highlights a respect for quality ingredients and taste.
04. Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany’s venerable brand image is rich with associations. The excitement of receiving a little blue box is accompanied by feelings of luxury, sophistication and timeless elegance. With an already trusted reputation, Tiffany & Co. is recognized around the world and throughout pop culture as one of the most iconic jewelry lines out there.
In 2018 Tiffany’s released their “Believe in Dreams” campaign as a way to pay homage to a new generation of customers: millennials. In the commercial below, the bond we already have with the brand is amplified, starring its trendy and fashionable character. This campaign allowed Tiffany’s to expand on their already flawless brand image, showing the world that they’re the go-to jewelry retailer for any age.
In 2009, American juice brand Tropicana decided to refresh its brand identity with a new look. After replacing their famous packaging, the unfamiliar design was met with criticism by Tropicana’s customer base, with many of them rejecting it. After just two months, the company noticed a 20% drop in sales.
The experience was not a total failure (albeit a costly one). Tropicana quickly realized that these negative reactions were detrimental to their brand image, and after a few months returned to their original packaging design.
When asked what went wrong, Neil Campbell, former president of Tropicana explained: “We underestimated the deep emotional bond they had with the original packaging. What we didn’t get was the passion this very loyal small group of consumers have. That wasn’t something that came out in the research. Those consumers are very important to us, so we responded.”