What the Hell Is Branding?
“Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception.”
First of all, What the Hell is a Brand?
Put simply, a brand is the subconscious feeling you get when you encounter a buisiness or product. It’s a heuristic for making quick and reliable consumer choices. But feelings are complicated, so lets break it down a little bit.
An article published in 2004 defines a brand in multiple ways. Together, these seemingly contradictory definitions demonstrate how complicated it is to define this term succinctly:
“A brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, design, or combination of these which is used to identify the goods or services of one seller…”
“A brand is not a name. A brand is not a positioning statement. It is not a marketing message. It is a promise made by a company to its customers and supported by that company…”
In 2004, online branding was starting to become very popular, and companies were trying to figure out what a brand could be in the digital world, which was still in its infancy relative to today.
The way we interact, and the frequency with which we interact with brands has changed drastically since 2004. The opportunity for a business to brand itself has grown exponentially. Opportunities for advertisements, content, and communication in general between businesses and customers have continued to expand almost as quickly as the universe. Because of this, the definition of a ‘brand’ is becoming more and more nuanced as the digital space to practice branding keeps growing.
The definition of a brand has evolved in the online space, with new leaders in the branding and marketing world trying to reframe its definition for the modern marketplace.
Gary Vaynerchuck describes it simply in this quote:
“At the end of the day there is only one thing that constitutes ‘brand.’ It’s how you feel in the moment you interact with the product, service or business.”
Clearly, a brand is many things. But for the most part, it is the customer’s perception of a particular business. This perception is shaped by the way the business or product is visually presented, the way it is communicated, and by the qualities of the product or service itself. A brand is everything the customer knows about and has experienced from a certain organization, all wrapped up into one perception.
If branding is the process of shaping that perception, then we must get familiar with the different aspects of a brand. You have to know your clay before you can mold it.
Is a Logo a Brand?
Not quite. A logo is a symbol which represents a brand. But if you ask yourself what you think about or feel when you see a certain logo, your answer to that question is much closer to the real definition of a brand. It’s those thoughts and feelings (like the excitement of exploring and discovering reasonably priced retail products) that you experience when you see a big red bullseye (Target). Unless of course you’ve had a really bad experience inside of a Target, in which case the bullseye might have a different meaning to you. That meaning is the essence of the brand in the eyes of the consumer.
A logo is simply a visual symbol to represent the perception of a particular company. The logo itself can play a part in shaping that perception. Bringing it back to the Target example, the fact that it is a red bullseye makes it eye-catching, and vaguely communicates the idea that you will hit the bullseye if you shop there.
In many of Target’s marketing campaigns the bullseye is shown over the eye of a cute dog. Attaching the idea of this cute dog to the logo allows the target to make that association in the customer’s mind. That way when they see the logo, it reminds them about all of those warm and fuzzy feelings they felt when they saw the dog in the commercial. This is an example of how a brand’s logo can be used to shape perception.
Is a Product a Brand?
Nope. Brands definitely provide products and services, but those products do not define the brand. Take Apple for example. iPhones, iPads and Macs are Apple’s branded products, but the brand itself is something bigger than that.
Why do more people choose iPhone over competitor phones with similar (or arguably better) functionality? It’s because people perceive Apple products differently. Something incredible about Apple’s branding is the consistency. Their phone looks like their computer which looks like their store which looks like their tablet which looks like their commercial which looks like their website which looks like their packaging which looks like their logo. Not only do all of these different channels of communication look the same, but they feel the same too.
That feeling, that perception of Apple, is communicated so clearly and consistently that people are more inclined to have confidence in the products, even if they aren’t necessarily better than the competition. The perception of Apple can even be described as a promise to the customer. When people buy Apple products, they put their trust in that brand promise, and if it is delivered, that promise (or perception) is validated.
Is a Name a Brand?
A name is similar to a logo in that it merely represents a brand, but the brand itself is whatever the public perception of that name is.
Chevron & Arco. In Southern California, the first name means pricey gas and the latter means cheap gas. The latter also means a slurpee machine inside the convenience store. Those descriptions represent the public perception, aka the brand of the two gas station chains.
Some brands are so successful that they become synonymous with their product. Take Xerox, Band-Aid, or Kleenex for example. Many people refer to a photocopy as a Xerox, even if they made the copy in their own home. The same goes for bandages and tissues. In this way, brands can become the definition of a product or word as their influence and market share strengthens.
However, very few brand names ever accomplish this level of success. Whether it is a stroke of luck or a truly unique product, the societal adoption of “Band-Aid” as the common term for a small adhesive bandage is the ultimate achievement for a brand name.
Branding is getting personal.
The rapid expansion of branding and advertising opportunities is not secret to internet users. In reality, individuals have been provided the tools for branding themselves within social media apps.
The idea of ‘self-branding’ is a hot topic, especially with the rise of influencers and small businesses who reach their audiences almost exclusively through social apps. With social media, people now have the ability to curate their own visual, written, and aural communication. Individuals have the ability to shape the perception of themselves online, and this has endless parallels with shaping perception for a brand.
Direct two way communication between brands and customers is now a common practice. Brands can now respond to their customers in real time, and speak up about fast moving news or social issues that their audience cares about.
There are seemingly endless opportunities for a brand to communicate with consumers in today’s world. Not only with mass audience targeting, but with the targeting of very specific demographics, such as a woman under 30 who shops at Target and has previously clicked on an ad for a certain pillow brand. With all of these different channels and targeting options, the definition branding continues to grow. Brands have to constantly be shaping this perception, or else they will become irrelevant.
Is Marketing the same thing as Branding?
Branding is much more than marketing, although it is one of the major ways a brand is communicated. The core values of the company also contribute to the brand identity. Branding is an internal effort as much as it is an external one, and a brand relies heavily on the quality of the product and the skills of the employees themselves, in addition to optics and communication.
Companies may have the resources to hire the best marketing company ever, but if the quality of the service or product is not up to par, the brand will fail. In order to avoid that mismatch, your brand should be a reflection of the product or service that you provide, and the culture within your company. The beliefs and values of the employees, and the way they communicate, is largely overlooked in the branding puzzle.
The Branding Train
Mentioning all of these different pieces of a brand serves to illustrate how many cars your company is pulling on the branding train. One train: the brand, the perception of the company, which pulls many cars: the logo, name, design style, colors, company culture, writing tone, social media presence, website, products, advertisements, employees, and the list keeps going on.
If you are still asking yourself, ‘What The Hell is Branding?’ I suggest you think about how you want your company, or your products to be perceived. How do you want it to feel to your audience? After you have the answer to that question, try to communicate that perception or feeling through every single aspect of your company. That is no simple task, but it is a powerful force in determining longevity and cultural relevance for your company.
By Adam Higelin
Adam Higelin is a University of California, Berkeley graduate with a BA degree in Integrative Biology. He is a passionate writer with a love for the environment, botany and music. A special focus on research based, scientific writing has allowed Adam to pursue his dream of educating and inspiring people to better themselves and the lives of others.