A Brand is a set of values.

Don’t be confused. You, the consumer, are the product of branding.

The doctrine of “no-self” in Buddhism describes the idea that there is no single, indivisible, permanent self. You are not your perceptions, your thoughts, your feelings, not even your body that replaces every component of itself many times over during a lifetime. There is no permanents self, but what you call your self is an ever-changing amalgamation of aspects (skandhas). Among all other attributes, your values and judgments are a collection that changes and evolves, defining who you are from moment to moment.

Your brand loyalty is part of these aspects of you. From the monolithic “I’m a Ford man” to the far more subtle tendency to buy local, or naturally sourced, or Non-GMO, your consumer choices define you to yourself.

In the same way that smiling can make you feel happier after about 20 seconds, or how action can precede motivation and even thought, the act of buying tells you something about yourself. Namely, it’s telling you that you are the sort of person that buys X.

In this sense, the brand is not only a story that is never directly told but known by the consumer, it is the story about the consumer that they know instinctively. Incidentally, a consumer doesn’t even have to spend money on the product to participate in branding. Not buying X is a way of telling the story about yourself to yourself, too. By not buying you are either actively rejecting the brand or having to go without. In either case, the branding is further solidified as either a “not me” brand or a “someday me” brand.

If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader, sell ice cream”.

– Steve Jobs

The reaction to your brand being “not for me”, actually helps your branding. It reinforces an idea, an identity. The opposite of being disliked is not being liked, it’s being ignored. The emotional valence attached to your brand is important, it is energy and it will drive people to notice and engage with your brand. This energy is crucial, it is key to successful branding. If your brand engages your audience enough to have an opinion about it at all, you’re doing something right.

Why your logo doesn’t matter, but your values do.

Having an opinion and a judgment about something is an expression of value alignment. When you look at an Apple product and consider all the elements — closed development system, pricing, sleek design, brand history, the last ad of theirs you saw, etc., etc., you are comparing your values to the perceived values of the brand. Whether you choose to buy an Apple or not, you have engaged with the brand values represented by every aspect of the experience with the brand.

For many branding people I have worked with, it is frustrating to be dismissed as “the logo designer”. The building of a brand is a community-based process, a conversation with your audience and consumer, as well as literally every interaction the brand has with the public. To build an authentic brand you don’t even need a logo. The logo is an afterthought, a symbol that is designed for recognizability. The logo is a sort of talisman that serves as a reference point to the amorphous totality of the experience of millions with your company. It is a totem, and while the power of billions of dollars should be represented by a well-designed totem, just having the totem won’t give you the power.

When you consider feelings about companies that are lucky enough to inspire feelings in you, the graphic identity may be part of what inspires feelings, but if the relationship has any depth (and thus value, loyalty, etc) the identity package serves as a framing device for how the brand makes you feel.

Does Coke or Converse or Harley Davidson make you feel free, irreverent, and rebellious? If you value these things, then you will respond. By resonating with these feelings you help reinforce the brand. Buying the product, you enact the brand values through yourself. You act out the desired identity. While on your local, individual level the brand helps reinforce your view of the self as rebellious and irreverent, there are thousands of you out there reinforcing the irreverence of the brand.

A person whose values do not emphasize rebelliousness and irreverence will not become part of the natural brand tribe. This is good for the brand. The role of the brand identity is not only to attract and engage the in-group members but also to provide cues to out-group members. In other words, brand positioning is as much about communicating the right message to those who are “not your audience”. You can’t build a brand by trying to appeal to everyone. If you have to piss off someone, make sure they’re the right people. In a weird way, they are your brand ambassadors, too.

The second Sunday school teachers and accountants start driving Harleys while still being their milquetoast un-rebellious and reverent selves, the Harley Davidson brand value gets washed out. The worst that could happen is they become the default, disinterested choice for transport. They become a mere commodity, losing all brand cache. The brand would become worthless, incapable of commanding a premium, and simply fade into the hell of price competition.

A brand is a totem. By representing a set of values and giving the consumer an outlet to express them, the totems help consumers express themselves. Trying to cast too wide a net, for a brand, means being really lukewarm and non-committal to the core forces that drive their consumer’s identity. No one likes that, and no one wants to express themselves through a turncoat, inauthentic brand.

As an aside, the abundance of cheap goods and the ubiquitous presence of brands thus limit authentic personal expression. If you get used to expressing yourself through buying, your expressions are limited by what is on offer. Eventually, the consumer thinks in terms of Nike vs. Adidas, which becomes the stand-in for mainstream celebrity vs low-key niche performers, or football vs soccer, or whatever. While much hay and elbow-biting could be made about some idealistic notion of free expression and the human soul, the abundance provided by the market is wide enough to capture most attitudes without having to make sneakers in your own garage. In pursuit of authentic self-expression, consumers will choose brands that mesh with their values, and if there is a gap to fill, a brand will pop up to fill it relatively quickly.

If you are trying to build a brand, concentrating on the values will be key. Figuring out what they are, and how to authentically serve them is key. It’s really hard to fake authenticity, and practically impossible to fake it for a long time.

Figure out the real, actual values you’re willing to stick to in your business. What’s worth more than money? What’s worth sacrifice? That is where your brand starts.

Your customer wants to see themselves in your brand.