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Great Branding Is Invisible

The thumpf of a BMW's door closing, the muted click of calculator buttons, a human on the phone. It hooks you in.

"The devil is in the detail" is a cliché that happens to be true, but let’s turn it around: The magic is in the detail. What constitutes quality in a product, besides the raw materials you choose? The attention paid to detail.

Look at a knock-off Gucci handbag and consider its original counterpart: The difference, besides the "leather" chosen, is in the stitching, the inside lining, the zippers, and so on. In short, quality resides in the hidden details that aren't obvious to most—until you touch the product and look at it up close. It's craftsmanship that gives luxury fashion brands longevity and which lets them weather trends.

Brands are no different from the products and services that they represent. Frantically searching for the one "Unique Positioning Statement (UPS)" or logo design that is going to simultaneously sum up precisely what your company stands for and differentiate it from the rest of the pack is in some ways a meaningless battle. Taglines may be catchy, but they don't, in the end, make people buy products. What determines whether a woman buys Chanel No. 5 or Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey Florale? Not taglines but how either smells on her skin.

What makes you so special?

What makes your brand unique and better than the competition is the compounded totality of many little things. That means you can’t just consider the attention given to producing an outstanding service or product—you also have to think about how the sales force and support team treats its customers and how the receptionist answers the phone.

The Jawbone UP24 fitness tracking device is a good example. After diligently tracking my sleep, workout regime, and diet, I became properly addicted to the wristband and to its accompanying iOS app. When the band suddenly stopped working, after three months, I flew into a minor panic. All my data (and exercise momentum) would be lost, I worried. But Jawbone turned out to have an excellent support system. They troubleshot the problem with me seamlessly, on email and over the phone. They used human beings, not robots. I followed the progress of my issue via a concise thread on their support ticketing system. After they quickly exhausted all possible solutions and saw that the device was still malfunctioning, they shipped me a replacement band immediately. I became loyal to the brand thanks to the humane and efficient treatment I received. The extra attention taken by Jawbone to make sure that their staff was professional and courteous—while making sure that I never got lost in a maze of telephone drones or automated emails—made a huge difference.

Keep the details invisible.

It’s the combination of myriad details that shapes brand image in the minds of customers. These details may be transmitted subconsciously. Not everyone recognizes that hand stitching makes a serious difference. Expertly executed details, imperceptible to most, should create a sense of magic and wonder. Think of an upmarket German car, such as an Audi, BMW or Mercedes. When you are at the BMW showroom and you step into, say, a 5 Series model, the satisfyingly clean thumpf sound that the door makes as you shut it signifies quality. There’s no rattling, no sound of sheet metal being slammed, just that confidence-inspiring, compact sound. It’s the sound of outside noise and discomfort being sealed off while you enter a safe, comfortable place. Behind the steering wheel are carefully wrought details, too: the smell, the way the seat feels, the feel of your hands on the steering wheel, the way the dashboard buttons have a certain resistance, and so on.

For those who remember, think about the perfect resistance and muted click of the Hewlett-Packard scientific calculator buttons, compared to their competitors Casio and Texas Instruments. The latter two companies clearly hadn’t spent a lot of energy thinking about what it would feel like to press down the keys. And it made a difference.

Advertising and branding should be thought of in the same way. Yes, the big idea is important, but success hinges on its execution, consistency, and attention to each and every word. Do define the brand with succinct messaging, but also trust that consumers will recognize the collective positive attributes of the brand rather than just its tagline. Make sure your communications are well crafted and recognizable. All touch points need to be carefully considered, down to every HTML email campaign.

Apple and Crate & Barrel stand out as excellent examples of how to design the perfect email. Google’s emails, on the other hand, lack consistency and seem rather haphazardly generated. Emails from Apple and Crate & Barrel are advantageously laid out, with beautiful imagery that's logically arranged and information that's easy to digest (if not concise). They're not afraid to make us scroll; they don't cram content above the fold.

All these details, you may think, aren't invisible at all. What's really invisible is the brand's aptitude to carefully organize every detail, whether we see it or not. It all adds up, and that's a lot.