Branding is hardly a new concept and has been around in some form since the beginning of human civilization. Branding is how humans both connect to one another and distinguish their unique qualities, although it’s mostly used to describe the marketing efforts of businesses. It takes time to cultivate your brand (the Nike “swoosh” wasn’t globally recognized overnight), and marketing professionals can always improve their brand-awareness game with the help of quality branding books.
While online, digital marketing efforts have taken center stage in most organizations’ branding efforts, much of the branding expertise that gained traction before the advent of the internet is still relevant today. Keeping in mind the value of age-old advice while realizing today’s data-centric approach to branding and digital marketing in general, we present to you the best branding books to read in 2021.
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1. How Brands Grow, by Byron Sharp
One of the most famous quotes about advertising is attributed to John Wanamaker, a retailer in the 1800s, who supposedly said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.” Truth is, branding efforts often rely on conventional wisdom and guesswork, much of it grounded in myths. Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow is unique among branding books because it’s focused on debunking the myths on which marketers too often rely.
This data-centric book provides detailed analysis on what works and what doesn’t in the world of both traditional and digital marketing, whether it’s the true effectiveness of loyalty programs or the actual impact of advertising. You may be surprised to learn that much of the expense and time spent on branding efforts you assumed were effective may be better invested elsewhere.
2. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen, by Donald Miller
Sure, your ultimate goal as a marketing professional is to increase sales, but to get there you need to make genuine and lasting connections with customers. The best way to make these connections (and thus cultivate your company’s brand in a lasting way) is to tell compelling stories. As far as branding books go, Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand is tightly focused on the tried and true storytelling approach to marketing.
Miller discusses seven essential elements to any story, beginning with the main character who has a problem (i.e., your target customer) and ending with your call to action (i.e., “check out our solution!”) that results in a sale and ultimately a happy ending for your customer. This book scales to businesses and branding efforts of sizes and types.
3. Branding in Five and Half Steps, by Michael Johnson
Influential designer Michael Johnson gets at the heart of what makes certain iconic brands tick, discussing how a given logo or other branding effort was conceived and executed, and ultimately how it performed. He also discusses some of his own designs and their impact on the clients’ branding efforts, focusing on both the art and science behind successful branding.
Although Johnson is an artist at heart, he cuts through the jargon and myths still found in lesser branding books. Throughout the book, he points out the utmost importance of solid storytelling and empathy in building a successful brand.
4. Eat Your Greens: Fact-Based Thinking to Improve Your Brand’s Health, by Wiemer Snijders
Fact-based, data-driven intelligence is the driving force behind today’s digital marketing efforts, although there is still the urge to follow conventional wisdom and hope for the best among many professionals. Wiemer Snijders’ Eat Your Greens is a reminder that sugary flights of fancy that define creative branding efforts aren’t always balanced by the “healthy greens” of cold, hard science.
Like Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow and many other new branding books, Eat Your Greens seeks to debunk certain branding myths with the help of recent advances in marketing science. It’s a great companion for marketing professionals who rely on data and proven science to build their company’s brand identity.
5. Identity Designed: The Definitive Guide to Visual Branding, by David Airey
So much of a company’s identity and branding is tied to imagery. Think of the simple wavy line that is instantly recognizable as a Coke logo, or the green mermaid associated with Starbucks Coffee. David Airey’s Identity Designed differs from other branding books in that it is singularly focused on the visual branding. This includes the logo, of course, but also the product design, packaging, and all visual aspects of branding.
This book walks the reader through 16 different visual branding projects, describing in detail about the concept behind each one, the creative problem solving that occurred behind the scenes, and why it’s effective.
6. Designing Brand Identity: An Essential Guide for the Whole Branding Team, by Alina Wheeler
Accessible and comprehensive, Alina Wheeler’s Designing Brand Identity is a must-read for professionals who are new to marketing. Her book begins with the fundamentals of branding, which apply to both offline and digital marketing, using real-world case studies and illustrations to bring it all home. The recently published fourth edition contains 35 percent new material, incorporating today’s digital approach to marketing.
7. Brand New: The Shape of Brands to Come, by Wally Olins
Branding guru Wally Olins wrote numerous branding books, but Brand New was his final (and arguably best) contribution. Published just after his death in 2014, this book seeks to answer the big questions about marketing and branding in the digital age. For instance, how will globalization impact individuality, and how does that play into an organization’s branding strategy? And what is the role of corporations in making the world a better place?
8. Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy, by Phil Barden
As with many of the other newer branding books, Phil Barden’s Decoded takes a look under the hood of today’s most successful branding campaigns to investigate the science behind the magic. But instead of looking at marketing data, Barden’s book focuses on behavioral science and neuroscience to explore how certain brands and marketing campaigns impact humans at the primary level.
Fundamentally, this is a book about human psychology. You’ll learn about why people buy what they buy from a psychological and behavioral economics perspective, using multiple case studies to illustrate his points.
9. Building Distinctive Brand Assets, by Jenni Romaniuk
One of the best branding books available for marketing professionals who acknowledge the need to rethink how they build their company’s brand entirely. Instead of trying new branding techniques and simply hoping for the best, Romaniuk’s book stresses the importance of measuring and tracking data in order to both strengthen your branding efforts and anticipate problems before they occur.
This science-based exploration of how to build an effective, long-term branding strategy is divided into three distinct sections. The first focuses on creating distinctive brand assets; the second covers metrics and methods for measuring what works (and what doesn’t), and third discusses various types of branding assets and the importance of creating a “palette” of distinctive branding assets.
10. The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig
Considered one of the best branding books written, Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect was revised in 2014 with two new chapters and a new preface to account for radical changes brought about by the digital age. However, the fundamental throughline of Rosenzweig’s book is the fallacy that successful corporations can do no wrong—the assumption that if profits are up, everything’s good (hence, the “halo” effect).
This book seeks to remind marketing professionals, and business managers in general, that there is always room for improvement and that remaining successful is an ongoing process. With respect to branding, outside forces beyond a company’s control can unexpectedly turn south. Rosenzweig’s book helps professionals stay on top of things without getting complacent.
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