What makes the world’s most recognizable products so compelling?
The product itself has to be something of quality, of course. But quality alone doesn’t guarantee success.
The world’s best products have something else on their side: world-class product branding.
Product branding is an essential element to consider as part of a broader branding strategy because it gives your products a life and personality all their own.
Great product branding draws in customers and keeps them coming back.
Poor product branding, on the other hand, is confusing at best and can even be off-putting, actively hurting sales and recognition.
Let’s look together at product branding: what it is, and how it can benefit your business.
What Is Product Branding?
Product branding is the application of branding strategy principles to a specific item or product.
It’s the associating of a symbol, name, and design with a product to create a recognizable identity for that item.
Product branding can be deeply complex, with focus groups, multiple rounds of designs, and so forth.
But it doesn’t have to be. It can be as simple as designing a logo and choosing a name and packaging color.
Corporate Branding vs. Product Branding
Product branding is a type of branding, but it differs in several key ways from overall company branding.
Company branding remains static across the brand and should capture the entire scope of a company’s identity.
It can even hint at a company’s values.
But product branding is much more specific. It distinguishes a single product (or a family of products, like Lay’s potato chips) from competitor products and other offerings from the same company.
Sometimes, product branding even distances the product from the brand that makes it.
Let’s stick with our previous example. Who makes Lay’s potato chips?
Ultimately, it’s PepsiCo. But in what universe would you want to buy (much less eat) Pepsi Chips?
Pepsi is already so strongly identified as a product brand that it pollutes the brand itself, in a way.
Yet PepsiCo remains a popular and recognizable brand to the degree that changing to something more generic (like Funtime Snacks and Drinks) would be a perilous move.
The solution? Product branding.
PepsiCo can make chips, hummus, granola bars and breakfast cereals all day long. However, they should do so under distinct product branding identities, and that’s exactly what they do.
This graphic illustrates the scope to which the world’s biggest brands do this.
And yes, in some cases this came about by acquisition, not by organic product branding. But the principle remains.
Is Product Branding Worth the Investment?
Yes, absolutely: some level of product branding is worth the investment.
Why? Because you want to sell more product!
The purpose of product branding is to distinguish your product from the competition.
You’re also creating or narrowing the market to exactly the people you want to reach.
If you don’t invest anything at all into product branding, you’ll end up with a sea of bland, poorly defined products.
And your sales will show it.
The real question isn’t whether product branding is worth the investment. It’s how much you should invest into product branding.
And that will depend greatly on the size of your company and the margins of your brand.
This part isn’t rocket science: global megacompanies spend quite a bit on product branding. Startups spend a lot less.
But we’ve all seen examples of brands that should’ve spent more, right? We’re talking confusing, vague product names with logos that look amateurish.
What Makes a Strong Product Brand?
Creating a product brand isn’t difficult or complicated.
Creating a fantastic one? That’s another story.
There are plenty of intangibles in play in the area of product branding, just as with branding strategies as a whole.
There’s no strong reason, for example, that Amazon or Google works particularly well.
Those terms don’t tell you anything about what those companies do, and they barely even hint at anything tangible.
But we’d be fools to say that Amazon and Google aren’t effective brands. They most certainly are.
So there are certainly some intangibles in play here. Still, we’ve identified several principles of strong product branding.
Implementing these will get you well on your way to creating a successful, memorable product brand.
1. A Strong Product Brand Differentiates Itself from Competitors (Even Internally)
First, strong product branding creates differentiation.
When you see any Pepsi product (the soda product brand family, not the parent company), you know instantly that it’s a Pepsi product.
Even if it’s that weird new Zero Sugar Mango or the failed Crystal Pepsi — you know they’re Pepsi drinks in a matter of moments.
You’re not confused for a second that Pepsi is a Sprite or a Coke or a beer.
This differentiation is essential with competitors. If you’re creating a hot new cola, you wouldn’t dream of a solid red can with a cursive font, right?
But it’s important even within a single brand, too.
Take OtterBox, for example. The company’s main product area is phone cases.
Its first two popular product brands were the OtterBox Defender and the OtterBox Commuter.
We think these are both very strong product brands. The Defender is the bulky, ultra-rugged case that protects phones from nearly anything.
The Commuter is a slimmer but still protective case designed mainly for (can you guess?) commuters.
Consumers aren’t typically confused about the differences.
But from there, things fell off a bit. Later series include Symmetry, Aneu, Figura, and Lumen. You can kind of guess what some of those are, but none of them speak with the clarity of the original two.
The differentiation just isn’t as strong.
2. A Strong Product Brand (or Sub-brand) Narrows Itself to a Submarket
Let’s go deeper down the rabbit hole of Pepsi products.
When you see Pepsi Zero Sugar, you know pretty quickly what’s going on there, too (spoiler alert: there’s no sugar).
At first glance, people might think this is bad.
It will certainly limit sales. Kids don’t want it, and neither do people who don’t like artificial sweeteners.
Actually, this is exactly what we want product branding to do for us. The branding itself shrinks the target audience down to a specific submarket.
So Pepsi Zero Sugar is actually a great product brand.
It instantly shrinks its market down to only those people who want sugar-free soft drinks that taste (sorta) like Pepsi.
3. A Strong Product Brand Illustrates the Product
Lastly, the best product branding gives consumers an instant idea of what’s in the packaging.
The name, the logo, and the packaging imagery all work together here.
Take Ruffles potato chips. Ruffles could be a clothing or fabric brand, but the packaging shape and the imagery on it make it clear that we’re dealing with potato chips.
And once those elements put the consumer mindset into chip territory, it’s pretty clear what Ruffles means about the chips themselves.
The catchphrase “Ruffles Have Ridges” drives out any chance of misunderstanding, too.
What Are Some Examples of Successful Product Branding?
We’ve already shown you a few examples of successful product branding in the previous section.
Here are a few more to get your creative juices flowing.
Apple: MacBook Air/Pro
Any post or article anywhere talking about great brands is going to include Apple for all the obvious reasons: they make tons of money and everyone wants their gear.
But what about product branding?
The company has had plenty of successes, but some duds along the way as well.
- The “book” portion (along with product design and packaging) make it crystal clear you’re getting a laptop.
- “Air” suggests thin and lightweight (and the rest of the branding matches).
- “Pro” suggests a professional-grade device, likely with a higher price.
- Last, “Mac” tells us it’s a Mac, not a PC.
And that’s just the words.
Product imagery, advertising slogans, and so on reinforce all the points above and create additional interest, too.
Equate: Anything and Everything
This one’s counterintuitive, but hear us out.
Equate is Walmart’s generic brand for pharmacy and health and beauty goods.
The packaging isn’t interesting. The logo design isn’t, either. At first glance, you might expect it to be on a “bad product branding” list.
But take a step back and think about the goals of this product branding.
It exists to tell consumers “This is a cheaper but reliable alternative.”
And by using a consistent product branding approach, Walmart has certainly succeeded here.
Consumers instantly recognize Equate products, even if they don’t exactly spark joy.
The branding differentiates the products and narrows to a submarket.
Starbucks: Packaged Coffees
Starbucks is another successful, instantly recognizable brand.
Its packaged coffees, sold in grocery stores, certainly succeed in product branding.
Primarily, they differentiate themselves from other grocery store coffee through the association with the Starbucks brand.
Consumers know what they’re getting: strong (arguably burnt?) coffee with a consistent reputation.
Wrap Up: Achieving Good Results with Product Branding
We hope this article puts you well on the path to creating your own product branding — one that succeeds in its particular market or submarket.
Of course, there’s always more to learn.
For a deeper dive on branding strategies, including brand positioning and content experience as a category, you should check our recorded webinar with Mark Organ, CEO of billion-dollar company Categorynauts.
Mark will join Diego Gomes, CEO at Rock Content, to discuss a range of topics that include and expand on product branding.