An authentic brand is a way to give a business, product, person or, for our purposes, a destination a persona. This helps potential clients and customers form an emotional connection and lead to long-term success. A recent trip to Paris made me reevaluate how we portray those personalities and exactly how in-depth branding can really go.
Creating a brand is not rocket science. Anyone can create a logo, write a mission statement, and develop a communication strategy. Effective, compelling branding, however, the kind that creates long-lasting connections, is no easy task. It takes patience, experimentation, and a willingness to explore the complexities of a brand persona.Oftentimes it’s easier to appeal to the masses and present a highly idealized version of a business instead of digging deep down into a brand ethos. While this approach is tempting, because of its potential broad reach, it can also make for a confusing customer experience.
Case in point? Paris.
Paris is arguably the most heavily marketed city in the world. From Eiffel Tower lamps to ready-to-wear emblazoned with “J’adore Dior,” Americans are seemingly caught in an eternal whirlwind romance with the City of Light. There is simply no other location in the world that has been positioned to so completely convey love, glamour, and “la bonne vie.”
Of course, we all know it takes more than a particular setting to really live a great life, but everything that we ever see of the French way of living tells us that the secret lies in Paris. The women are always beautiful, the men ooze romance while spending their days being stylish and recreating Monets, and the nights drinking fine wine and discussing Sartre with their friends and lovers.
As I discovered a few weeks ago, it turns out Paris isn’t quite what it seems from the pictures.
Like many young(ish) American women, I’ve spent most of my life being fascinated by Paris. For a long time I blamed this on my Grandmother’s genes, but in truth, it had less to do with my heritage and more on brand messaging.
Paris, for me, was the epicenter of fashion, food, and culture. Everything I saw, read, or watched that had to do with the Parisian way of life (which was a considerable amount—I’ve nursed a serious crush on Paris for much of my life) told me that this was a city where art and fashion were valued, philosophies nurtured, and love prized above all—what else could you possibly need to live well?
I finally made it to Paris a few weeks ago now and it’s taken me this long to process what I experienced. Maybe the feeling is a bit like meeting your “soulmate” online, talking every night and building anticipation, and then finally, months later, meeting them in person.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Paris, it just wasn’t exactly what I imagined it to be.
In the waning hours of my vacation, I found myself wandering around Montmartre wondering, “Can branding ever truly capture the real essence of a city/person/business or are we limited to broad-stroke stereotypes?”
This question popped up throughout my visit. It bothered me so much that I ended up spending my remaining time sipping a little morning Muscadet, nibbling a croissant and contemplating the human condition as it relates to brands.
How very French 😉
How Paris is Branded
When you think “French” what do you imagine? Is it a striped boatneck top and beret paired with skinny cropped pants, a bouquet of fresh flowers, and baguette nestled in with a bottle of fine wine and a cigarette? This is basically the caricature of a typical Parisian, and one that I think we would all recognize.
But just how a caricature does not necessarily fully reflect the nuances and complexities of a person, so can branding sometimes paint “broad-strokes” rather than a detailed portrait.
Paris is for lovers…right? That’s basically the overarching message behind the city’s branding. Those who love fashion, food, wine, luxury, or someone special will feel right at home in the world capital of love and beauty.
From simple images of the Eiffel Tower peeking out over the tops of flowering trees, to umbrella-sheltered couples kissing in the rain in front of the Arc de Triomphe, what we see of Paris is highly romanticized.
Hollywood has also had a long-standing love affair with the City of Light. Who can forget Audrey Hepburn learning the proper way to crack an egg in Sabrina or Carrie Bradshaw nibbling pain au chocolat while wandering the streets alone and fabulously dressed in Sex and the City? Or Ewan MacGregor’s starry-eyed serenades outside of the Moulin Rouge?
It’s easy to get the impression that Paris is wholly defined by its reputation de amor. Plenty of notable artists have lived and loved in Paris, and some of the greatest minds throughout the ages have helped to shape history there. When we think of Paris, it’s only natural to envision a utopia of sophistication and decadence, fueled by passion.
French food is considered to be the pinnacle of cuisine, french clothing the height of fashion, french kissing…well that speaks for itself. If everything that we associate with the Parisian lifestyle is centered around beauty, luxury, and indulgence—how can we possibly expect the city itself to be any different?
How Paris Really Is
That heading is a bit misleading. Everyone who visits Paris will come away with their own impression of it. What I can share, as a lifelong lover of all things French and a first-time visitor is my overall impression.
The first night that I spent in Paris, I was so overwhelmed by excitement and anticipation that my head was spinning. By the end of day two, I turned to my husband and said, “You know, I don’t think I like it here.”
By the third night, I had fallen completely in love.
Paris is very complex. You can almost feel it in the air—there is a current of intensity that runs throughout the entire city. Nothing is simple, in Paris. It is a truly beautiful city, but what makes it beautiful is not just the flowering trees and iconic structures. The twists and turns, the dust and grime, the oddly shaped building and uneven rooftops—all of these peculiarities come together to form something truly visually interesting.
And the light in Paris—I have never, ever, in my life seen anything like the light in Paris—is what makes it so beautiful.
Paris, at the risk of sounding cliche—reminds me of a really beautiful woman. She is not beautiful just for the way that she looks, or dresses, or styles her hair. She is beautiful because of her history, her culture, and her confidence.Sometimes a little severe or intense, Paris is no twenty-something socialite who measures their worth by likes and follows—Paris is a woman of substance. She lived a lot and learned much and found a way to make her knowledge and history her own.
Can that be Translated to a Brand?
If Paris has such a complex and multi-layered persona, can that ever be fully captured by a branding message? When I came back home to the States, I didn’t think so. Brand messaging has become so hyper-focused and lighting fast to keep up with the digital landscape that it can be difficult to communicate anything too detailed.
Brands and businesses are increasingly focused on one overarching identifying factor, in order to differentiate themselves from a sea of competition. While this laser-beam approach can be useful when trying to get a single idea across, it doesn’t really lend itself to developing full brand personalities.
Why is this important? After all, businesses, at the end of the day, exists to sell a product or service and make a profit. Assigning a “personality” to a business seems a bit excessive.But it works. Let’s compare two American staples: McDonald’s and Starbucks. Both can be found on nearly every corner in most American towns and cities. Both are fast food juggernauts—the tops of their respective “food chains.” So why are consumers prepared to spend the same amount of money for a single cup of coffee with some foamed milk and flavored syrup at Starbucks as its costs for an entire meal at McDonald’s?
It’s certainly not for nutritional reasons (did you know that a Venti Mocha has more calories, fat, and carbs than a medium french fry?) but it has a lot to do with branding. Starbucks has become much more than a coffee company—it has established itself as a staple of the American lifestyle.
Freelancers, business professionals, and students alike use their local Starbucks as a meeting place and extension of their offices. New moms gather to swap baby stories and sip lattes from weathered leather armchairs while indie rock plays softly in the background. Starbucks has become the epicenter of the American community. McDonald’s, on the other hand, remains simply a quick way to get cheap food.
By broadening its brand focus from simply product and prices to an experience and a natural extension of a community, Starbucks feels less like a mega-corporation and more like going to a super cool friend’s house. One who always has interesting decor, great taste in music, and makes a killer cappuccino. Is it the best coffee in the world? Or course not, but in the end, that doesn’t even matter.
*Fun Fact: The McDonald’s in Paris makes an amazing espresso and has the kind of dessert display that we reserve for fine dining restaurants in the States. The macaroon selection alone made my head swim.
Determining How Far Branding Can Go
At the end of the day (or trip) conveying the true essence of a brand, business, product, or even place is a complicated process. Oftentimes the people who work on the actual business have a very different perspective on it than the audience that they are trying to reach.
By taking a little extra care and time, and trying to gain a deeper understanding of what it is that we are trying to market, the actual messaging is given the chance to grow organically. Once we have a clear enough vision of what the brand does, how it operates, and what makes it unique, an authentic brand persona is given the room that it needs to form naturally.
Shifting our perspective from the familiar can help us to see how our brand is being perceived by the outside world—which is invaluable insight when trying to communicate an over-arching message. From time to time, we simply need to shake the dust of pre-conceived notions off our branding shoes and spend a little time being a tourist in our own businesses.