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Branding Basics

What Is A Brand?


What Is A Brand?

I recently had a conversation with a retired CEO who fancied himself a savvy marketer. He was recounting how he had participated in a rebranding project for a not-for-profit organization on whose board he served. He was very proud of this work and went on to tell me how they had carefully chosen the symbol to represent the brand in its logo. When I asked him what his brand’s unique point of difference was, he indicated that it was the unique symbol featured in the logo. When I asked him why people would choose the brand over its competition, he wasn’t sure how to answer. When I asked him what the brand’s promise was, again he wasn’t sure how to answer.

With my constant immersion in branding, I sometimes forget that some people still think that a brand is a logo or an ad campaign and nothing more, even some people who should know better.

A brand is a source of a promise to its customers. It promises relevant differentiated benefits. It does so not only to place itself into the purchase consideration set, but even more importantly, to be the brand chosen from that purchase consideration set. This is also sometimes referred to as the brand’s unique value proposition. Whether it is called a unique value proposition or a promise of relevant differentiated benefits, it is very important that the promise or proposition be delivered consistently at each point of customer contact, time after time.

While brand identity and advertising campaigns are important, they are only effective to the extent that they reinforce an underlying promise that is compelling to the brand’s target customers. Enough said.

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Jason Lim on March 28th, 2011 said

Enough said indeed. The situation you mentioned at the start of the post happens more often than marketers would like to admit. Sometimes I look at huge “brands” in our local industries and see nothing but “we’re cheaper AND better”. Very sad.

Paris Culberson on March 29th, 2011 said

In addition to these “already great points”, many people don’t understand that the life we live everyday is our Brand on full display for the world to see.

Lara McCulloch-Carter on March 29th, 2011 said

Hi Brad,

I subscribe to this blog and really enjoy the takes on branding. I do, however, have to disagree with your definition of a brand. I absolutely agree that a promise is a fundamental component of a successful brand. Not a promise that hangs on a wall or exists within the dusty pages of an employee manual, but rather one that runs as a narrative through everything a company does.

Today, anyone can say anything they want about your company, based on their experiences with you (your product, the way your receptionist answers the phone, your sustainability practices, etc). Based on research, these conversations about brands are more trusted than what we say about ourselves – so many people use testimonials, opinions and conversations to make decisions about what they think and ultimately do with a brand.

I think the important missing link in describing a brand as your promise is how the realities of your brand are perceived by others. A brand, in my opinion is your REPUTATION. Brands are now co-created by the company and everyone else. No longer are they dictated by the organizations that own them. Nor, do I believe, are they ‘owned’ by the customer – as some social media practitioners would you have believe – since it’s us who influence their experiences. A reputation is how you’re perceived, in large part, by what you say & DO.


Charlie Elberson on March 30th, 2011 said

I’d like to tag onto what Lara said above. Over the last couple of years I’ve appended the definition to include the brand experience. So, using your phrase it might read, “the promise of relevant differentiated benefits as they are consistently experienced by its customers.”

BrianFMartin on March 31st, 2011 said

Great article and also a fantastic observation by Lara. With social media, that promise has to be delivered through conversation. Sometimes it is the response from a brand (or lack thereof) that is the real key to seeing what a brand is or can be. There are some stellar brands that have been unable to take advantage of social media and use it effectively and then there are some like Method, Moosejaw Clothing, Starbucks and Dell who are taking advantage and doing extremely well. We’ve been lucky enough to speak with executives at all of these companies on our podcast and have gained some great insights. http://www.brandfasttrackers.com

David Smith on April 06th, 2011 said

Recently a new restaurant (Pl8) opened in our town. Word quickly got out that the food was phenomenal but rather expensive (you would never take your kids there) and that the atmosphere was swanky and chic. My wife and her girl friends decided a night out was in order and they went to try the new restaurant. What they found was that the food was really good (phenomenal was a bit of a stretch) and actually reasonably priced compared to other upscale locals. Actually, the experience my wife had was only hindered by the lights which were too bright for her taste.

The point of the above story is that the experiences had at the new restaurant derive the reputation perceived by the community. The brand is the overall experience – the taste of the food, the cost of the meal and even the lighting of the space. The proprietors have the opportunity to change the brand by making adjustments which will in turn affect the overall reputation.

Sadly, I also have to empathize with the first part of the story – that a brand is often associated with a logo; I just really wish this perception could be changed. I guess that ex-CEO on the board would be really disappointed with the brand changes recently made by Starbucks and Pepsi.

Good read and great comments.

Kristian on August 18th, 2011 said

I just happened across your blog and love the conversations. I too have been telling people for years what Lara has posted.

Identity, logos, products, customer service, warranties, and all else involved are building blocks to the brand. They are not the brand. They are ways in which we have influence over the market’s perception, but that is all. The brand is defined inside the market’s perception. The way they define and see the company is it’s brand.

In my estimation, it truly does not matter what the company thinks it is. Let’s say a puppy was separated from it’s mother at birth and adopted by a by a cat and her new litter. All throughout it’s growth, it feeds with the cats, plays cat games, and starts to believe it is a cat. The reality is, we all walk up and say, “How cute, look at that dog playing with the cats.” It’s definition of what it is has no effect on the fact that we see it as a dog, and we define it as a dog.

It’s the market’s perception that determines whether a company thrives or fails. It’s our job, with the use of the building blocks, to influence them into helping us live.

Brad VanAuken on April 21st, 2012 said

I will give a more detailed definition of a brand. I believe a brand is the personification of an organization or its products and services. By giving that organization or its products and services an identity, it/they can take on more human-like qualities – a name, a personality, a character, etc. A brand can also possess certain values and it can stand for something. A brand is either trustworthy or not, responsive or not, friendly or not, approachable or not, etc. And, of course, as for human beings, a brand can be trustworthy most of the time but sometimes untrustworthy, friendly most of the time but sometimes unfriendly, etc. Because the brand has an identity, it can also make promises. Ideally, the brand promises something of relevance and importance to its target audiences. The brand identity and experience should be carefully crafted by its brand managers and by the organization which it represents, but ultimately the brand lives in the target customer’s mind. And, it is perceived as the sum total of all of the experiences that customer has with the brand. Really, it is not that different than the way people are perceived. While I might dress a certain way, project myself to the world in a certain way, speak in a certain way, behave in a certain way, etc., ultimately people will perceive me through their own lenses filtered by their own past experiences with me and with the rest of the world. In any event, a brand is much more than a logo, which is only one tool of many a marketer has to create a certain brand image.

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