It's often said, that if you ask 10 professionals in the field of branding what a brand is, you'll get 11 different answers. Branding is a topic of complexity, deeply rooted in both our hearts and minds. This article should help clarify how brands are more than what we see, touch or experience. Logos, corporate identity manuals, advertising, signage, websites, social media, events, tastes and sounds do make up a large part of a brand, but they run deeper than this. A brand is feeling, and this is worth repeating:
A brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service or company.
Why is there often confusion?
It's okay to have conflicting viewpoints about brands, as the word 'brand' is used as a shorthand to describe so many diffferent things in today's language. We have to understand that the topic of brands and branding isn't a simple topic either, so they can't really be reduced to a simple explanation. This is often where a large part of the initial confusion comes into play. Malcom Gladwell uses a brilliant metaphor to explain this:
"I have the same feeling toward the word “brand” as I do toward the word “Africa.” “Africa” is an incredibly problematic word for me. It’s a word used with great frequency to describe an intricately complex area made up of people, countries, and cultures that have no more in common than we do with Uzbekistan. But because it’s a convenient word, and a well-known word, and a geographically defined continent, we use that word to sum up and generalize everyone who lives within the continent."
The subjective nature of a brand's perception is also another reason which makes for a somewhat confusing discussion. What's true for you about one brand, may not be as true for me. Take Coca-Cola for example; in the minds of some it can be the perfect beverage to accompany almost any occasion, and for others it's a well marketed global contributor to diabetes and chronic illness.
The fact is, is that brands are dynamic, living entities that change and develop with time. They live in our minds as consumers, intertwined with our thoughts and feelings about the world. These thoughts and feelings are complicated, which can often make our relationship with brands hard to describe.
However complex and confusing branding can be, there are still many aspects of brands we can identify and influence. It helps to take a looking at the history of branding, and how brands have evolved.
The history of branding
In her book Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman explains the origins of the word and the first use of the trademark:
"The word “brand” is derived from the Old Norse word brandr, which means “to burn by fire.” … In 1876, after the United Kingdom passed the Trade Mark Registration Act, Bass Ale became the first trademarked brand in the world after submitting its now-quintessential red triangle for trademark status. The act gave businesses the ability to register and protect a brand marker so that a similar icon couldn’t be used by any other company."
In earlier times, the primary objective of branding was ownership and differentiation from the competition. Since the industrial age and the creation of the first brands as we know them, our world and economies have grown in size and complexity, and so have our brands. They now require more attention to customers perception, and to the accumulated meaning that lives at every customer touchpoint.
Thoughts from branding titans
Thinking of a brand as a 'gut feeling' it places a focus on the broad, intangible nature of branding. It allows us to see past the objects and 'things' we create to identify our products, people and companies. It's a robust way of defining a brand, encapsulating the common themes from many leading branding professionals. Let's take a look at what themes arise from a host of clear thinkers around the world.
David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising,” defined a brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” When we think about a brand with our gut, we're thinking about that intangible sum of everything coming together. Ogilvy's definition shares commonalities with the description from the one of marketing's most influential names Seth Godin, one of . He describes the brand as a shortcut, held in our minds:
"I believe that 'brand' is a stand-in, a euphemism, a shortcut for a whole bunch of expectations, worldview connections, experiences, and promises that a product or service makes, and these allow us to work our way through a world that has thirty thousand brands that we have to make decisions about every day."
A brand can also be described as a promise, as stated by Psychologist Daniel Pink: "...I think a brand is a promise … a promise of what you can expect if you use the product or service, or if you engage in the experience." Here Pink talks about expectations, which are linked to the feelings we hold for people, companies and products.
When exploring the blog of E-commerce Shopify, I came across this. Their articulation helps to explain the nature of split-ownership between companies and consumers:
"Your brand is how people perceive you wherever they interact with your business —both the impressions you can control and the ones you can't."
All of these descriptions share a coherent theme; that a brand is a perception, idea, expectation or feeling which is (at least partially) held in our minds. Seeing brands as these 'living' mental frameworks enables us to then have the conversation of what smaller, and often more tangible parts can go into building and shaping those feelings.
Putting this into practice - understand, strategise and build
Our best efforts to create our desired brand identity lie with three steps. The first is understanding the definition, which we have done here. The second step is to develop the strategy to help guide our brand, which can be thought of as a road map to shaping the desired perceptions and connections our company or brand is looking for. Lastly, using the strategy we've developed, we can get to building the 'things', and processes that will take shape.
Successful brands refine and repeat this process as companies, people and culture develop and change over time. Creating this foundation is a strong way to shape the gut feelings your customers and clients have about your company, product or personal brand.
I hope this article brings some clarity to the wide world of branding. If you're interested in refining your identity, then let's collaborate.