Branding. It's more than the logo on your stationary or the slogan under your email signature. Branding is everything your company does to market your product--consciously or unconsciously. It's everything your employees do, too, from the customer service they provide to the impression they give when attending a conference.

Over the past two years, I've conducted research on some of the most popular brands in the world. As an exercise, I asked clients to take a few minutes and list the first few words or phrases that came to mind when they see specific brand names.

The results are intriguing, to say the least. Here are a few lessons I hope you find valuable in your own brand-building efforts:

5. McDonalds

Positive impressions: Golden Arches, cheap, a familiar taste wherever you go in the world, great playground

Negative impressions: fast food, unhealthy

Despite being ranked by consultancy Interbrand as the ninth most valuable brand in the world, McDonalds CEO Steve Easterbrook acknowledged this week that big changes are needed.

No kidding; same store sales have fallen six straight quarters in the US. Many view McDonald's as a dinosaur, with hip and innovative brands like Chipotle and Shake Shack steadily eating away at market share.

On the positive side, McDonalds still knows how to keep kids happy. If they can get them a little more healthy, they might have something to build on.

Lesson: You can't rely on past success. There's a fine line between sticking to what works and quickly becoming obsolete.

4. Mercedes

Positive impressions: luxury, quality, comfortable, safe

Negative impressions: older owners, expensive, old-fashioned

Results for Mercedes were interesting. Despite many positive impressions, one negative impression stood out: 'old fashioned'. The following thought was echoed frequently in comments: "It's hard to think of Mercedes as anything other than 'my father's car'."

In Germany (where I currently live), this is the prevailing attitude. But it's beginning to change. For example, I recently spoke to a gen-X executive who just bought his first Mercedes E-Class. I found it amusing that he felt the need to justify his purchase: "I know what you're thinking, 'Mercedes--man, old person's car.' But it's not like it used to be. It's actually quite sporty."

Mercedes has worked hard to target a younger demographic, and it seems to be working...albeit ever-so-slowly.

Lesson: Changing your brand direction takes time. As branding expert and famed Shark Tank investor Daymond John puts it:

"Your message has to remain the same. It can't change all the time, because branding is a long game."

If there's a need to pivot, make sure you're in for the long hall. After that, it's all in.

3. IKEA

Positive impressions: nice design, good price, DIY, Billy, Kttbular

Negative impressions: like walking through a maze, poor quality, horror on the weekend

Overall, IKEA scored quite well on our survey. Despite a reputation for ruining relationships, the furniture behemoth from the little country that could continues to endear itself to customers around the world.

Somewhat amusing, however, was the fact that participants mentioned Kttbullar, IKEA's famous meatballs, as often as the furniture lines. And like McDonalds, IKEA knows families--it's not uncommon to come to one of the stores on an evening or weekend and find the restaurant packed with families with small children.

Which inevitably leads to spending significant amounts of money on furniture.

Brilliant IKEA. Brilliant.

Lesson: Specific aspects of your brand may play a larger role in luring in customers than you realize. Make sure you're crafting an experience.

2. Toyota

Positive impressions: 'The everyday car', reliable, Japanese efficiency

Negative impressions: recalls, boring

There's a reason they're the number one carmaker in the world. 'The Toyota Way', the company's famous philosophy and values system, has played a larger role in building this gargantuan brand than the most expensive marketing campaign.

And despite several high-profile quality issues in recent years, Toyota is still the picture of durability in the minds of many.

Lesson: Be consistent. If you can build a reputation for quality and reliability, your ability to absorb hits increases dramatically.

1. Apple

Positive impressions: design, innovation, easy to use, stylish, exclusive

Negative impressions: expensive, proprietary

Not surprisingly, Apple scored the highest on our survey. What's really compelling, though, is that most participants would not describe themselves as Apple fans; in fact, a majority owned another brand of mobile phone.

Still, many who didn't own a single Apple product admitted that the first impressions that came to mind were positive. That's the result of years of design-centric philosophy, and a refusal to compromise.

Lesson: Haters gonna hate. Focus on building a brand that you're proud of, and be patient.

Because in the end, you control your brand. Make sure you don't lose yourself in the process.

Published on: May 7, 2015
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