The Difference Between Brand Image And Identity

Ed BurghardMarch 24, 20226 min

Image and identity are not the same and require different strategies to address problems.

After reviewing numerous RFPs seeking agencies that were written by economic development professionals, I realized these terms are not generally well understood. I have often found that agencies are contracted to help with a company’s brand image when in fact, the core business problem was actually one of brand identity.

The work needed to address a brand image problem is very different from what’s required to fix a brand identity issue. Contracting for the wrong work leads to a misapplication of resources, a loss of time and a lot of frustration.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the difference between image and identity is to think about it in terms of personal branding. If you are not familiar with personal branding I encourage you to read an article written by Tom Peters and published in the August 31, 1997 issue of Fast company entitled “The Brand Called You”. It provides a great overview of why personal branding is such an important concept for your career success.

From the perspective of a brand called You, image is what people think about you and identity is who you really are.

In the context of product, service or place branding, think of image as the current consumer perception of your brand. It may be an accurate perception, or it may include a number of misperceptions. For consumers who have actually tried your product or service, or have visited your location, their personal experience has a big impact on informing their perception. In contrast, identity is what your product, service or place actually is.

I frequently find that written brand identities often have an aspirational feel intended to help ensure the brand realizes its full potential. However, make no mistake, despite any lofty aspirations you may have, your brand identity is what your brand currently is.

Understanding the difference between your brand image and brand identity will help you know how to best deal with many of the market challenges your brand faces. A brand image problem is typically addressed with a communication campaign focused on either creating awareness of your brand promise and/or correcting any misperceptions around what your brand promise is. This type of effort can improve your brand image over time. Advertising and public relations agencies are experts at positively impacting brand image.

A brand identity problem generally means you need to invest in product development because the relevance or competitiveness of your brand promise needs to be strengthened. Addressing an identity problem requires you to revisit your organization’s strategic plan since you may need to make new investment choices to improve your ability to deliver the brand promise. I have found making an investment in new promotional claim development, packaging enhancement, or product performance improvement tends to deliver the greatest sustainable business success.

A brand identity problem can’t be adequately solved by hiring an agency to create a new logo, tagline, or advertising campaign. Nor can it be resolved by launching a public relations effort to strengthen your brand image. Neither of these tactics can fix a decline in your brand promise’s relevance or competitiveness.

Know The Difference Between Image And Identity

One example of how not fully understanding the difference between image and identity can lead to strategic errors, is the Eastman Kodak company. (I will be over simplifying Kodak’s challenge to illustrate a point.)

As you will likely recall, Kodak was a dominant company in its field for almost the entire 20th century. Their brand promise was to make it easy to capture precious memories by using their cameras. They coined the phrase “Kodak moment” to establish this promise in consumers’ minds.

Unfortunately for Kodak, their brand promise relevancy was being eroded by the advent of a radical innovation. Digital cameras were making the end-to-end process of “capturing precious moments” even easier by eliminating the need for film.

You might be surprised to know that Kodak executives were well aware of digital camera technology. In fact, in 1975 it was a Kodak engineer Steven Sasson who actually invented the first digital camera.

However, these same Kodak executives were unwilling to walk away from the lucrative profit stream generated through film sales and as a consequence, refused to invest in strengthening the relevance (and ultimately, competitiveness) of the Kodak brand promise.

Kodak tried to solve a brand identity problem (a decline in promise relevance) with an aggressive promotion campaign to sell more non-digital cameras and film. If we fast forward to 2012, it was easy to see the negative ramifications Kodak experienced because they treated an identity problem as an image problem. That year Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Admittedly, there are a lot of lessons you can take away from this Kodak case study, including one about the cost of executive hubris. But, the most important lesson is the avoidable penalty you will pay for losing sight of proactively managing your brand.

Not every example of mischaracterizing a brand identity issue as a brand image issue results in the drastic outcome Kodak experienced, though in my experience, it always leads to a loss of time, money, and leadership confidence. In truth, many companies can recover with an expensive crash program on investing in strengthening the relevance and/or competitiveness of their brand promise on an accelerated timeline. The smarter course of action would be to characterize the problem correctly in the first place so the right solution can be identified.

Strengthening Brand Image And Identity

When I was leading brands for P&G, I always had a product development initiative in place to strengthen my brands current perception (image) through additional reasons to believe the authenticity of the brand promise. And I had a separate initiative in place to ensure sustained relevance and competitiveness of that promise (identity) aimed at enhancing benefit delivery. I managed these two initiatives as related but distinct efforts with specific success measures.

A great example of a P&G brand that has applied this approach exceptionally well is Crest. The Crest image enhancement efforts include earning the American Dental Association seal of acceptance as well as investment in and publication scientific research on the health benefits of fluoride.

The Crest efforts to strengthen identity include development and introduction of Crest Whitening Plus Scope, Crest Whitening Expressions, Crest extra Whitening, Crest Multicare, Crest Pro-Health Complete Protection, etc. For perspective, the current Crest website displays 48 different Crest products, each of them contributes to helping strengthen the relevance and competitiveness of the Crest dental health brand promise.

If you aggressively invest in strengthening your brand’s positive points of competitive difference and/or in neutralizing your brand’s competitive disadvantages, potential brand identity problems tend to be addressed before they become marketplace issues.

You cannot cheat though. You need a specific brand image plan to impact consumer perception by better communicating your brand promise, and a related but separate brand identity plan (think product development) to ensure ongoing relevance and competitiveness of your brand promise. You must design and fund unique tactics for each plan. Conceptually it is easy. In practice though, you will have a limited budget and will need to make prudent trade-off decisions between the two. Choose wisely and you win. Choose poorly, and like Kodak you lose.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Ed Burghard and excerpted from his book Building Brands: What Really Matters

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