A brand is about a lot more than just about how it looks. “Brand” can be an important business tool if used well.
Yet “brand” and “branding” are terms that mystify many business owners. Even those who go through a branding process often emerge without a clear idea of the meaning of these words, and the value of using the brand strategy work they did during branding to guide their business journey.
It’s clear that to most people a brand is a logo. They associate branding with graphic design work, and as a rule, most businesses that I interview on my podcast don’t appear to have been guided by their brand strategy in their subsequent journey to success. Instead branding was an exercise they went through to get to their brand designs and that’s the sum total of its impact on their business subsequently.
A business’ logo and designs are not going to determine the reputation the brand builds, so it’s too narrow as a definition of a brand.
What Brand Means
If you ask people who believe that a brand is more than a logo to define what it is, you will often get definitions like ‘everything you do is your brand’, or people will quote Jeff Bezos saying that ‘your brand is what people say when you’re not in the room’.
However, such statements do more to confuse and obfuscate than to clarify what a brand is.
The picture is further complicated because branding and marketing are used interchangeably as if they mean one and the same thing.
When I wrote my first book ‘Legally Branded’ in 2012, I was mystified by the meaning of the word and consulted authoritative texts such as The New Strategic Brand Management (Kogan Page, 2011) by J. N. Kapferer. Apparently the internationally agreed legal definition of a brand is ‘a sign or set of signs certifying the origin of a product or service and differentiating it from the competition’.
This is the essence of branding – its origins as a way of burning an identifying mark on livestock with a branding iron to distinguish the ownership of cattle. Branding is fundamentally about creating a visual identity to stand out and be uniquely identified as your brand.
The identifying marks applied to cattle soon evolved into a stamp of approval, and source of origin.
While with cattle applying a logo was all there was to it, for a business branding involves more than stamping it with a logo, and other visual designs. After all, you need to first decide what look to stamp it with.
So, in practice, branding is as much about how you design your business as it is about your visual designs.
This definition of branding, doesn’t give founders of small businesses an accessible way to understand the meaning of the term “brand” so in my blog What is a Brand? Essential Reading For Every Business I used a practical approach to convey what brand and branding mean.
Instead of trying to define the terms in a succinct sentence or two, I drew an analogy to the personality and reputation of an individual.
To properly understand what brand means, think of an individual’s personality. When we talk about people, we say we like their personality, we don’t tend to say we like someone’s brand. I think it helps to make the word ‘brand’ more relatable, less obscure, to think of it as interchangeable with personality and reputation.
Gradually as we get to know a real person, we see different sides to them, and form a sense of who they are. We might even be able to predict how they will respond in certain situations, whether they can be trusted to see something through, or are likely to give up half-way, and so on.
Brand: Sum Total of Impressions
We form a mental picture, and associations when a person’s name is mentioned. What we think about them derives from a mixture of our past experiences of them, the impression they made on us, their appearance, our sense of who they are, what makes them tick, how they make us feel. That is their reputation or brand in our mind’s eye.
What we think of them is coloured by our own personalities and worldview. Our values, beliefs, preferences, and our past experiences of them will all impact our perceptions. This means there won’t be a universal view of a given person.
However, there will be some commonalities that appear again and again when people talk about someone. Certain objective facts about an individual that won’t be disputed by most people. For example, someone may have a bubbly personality, or seem grumpy. These are objective facets of people, that are likely to be noticed and accepted by nearly everyone who has contact with them depending on how core that behaviour is to their personality.
Similarly, as your business is also a separate person legally with an identity of its own that evolves over time it creates an impression on others through their experiences of your business. Gradually over time, when people hear your company’s name certain associations come to mind. It might encompass how your company has communicated with them, your products and services, any memory of your customer service, or handling of their initial enquiries and so on.
What you say as a business on your website, in your content on blogs, videos and social media, and how you run the business in terms of the quality of your products and services and customer service, all go to create an overall impression about your business. These gradually reflect on how you come across to others as a business.
That’s what people mean when they say everything you do is your brand or that every business has a brand whether they know it or not.
With time your business will evoke a certain response in others. Certain key aspects of your brand and reputation will be noticed more universally by others.
Setting your brand strategy as part of branding is how you can decide how to influence the perceptions about your business. That’s when you decide what you want your business to be known for, what qualities you will try to promote in your business so its identity, that is, its brand can develop over time and acquire the reputation you would want it to have.
A newly created business has no background or history. It will develop a reputation (that is, a brand) which you can control. The name you choose, what the business does, how the business becomes known, what your business aspires to do, all these details and more determine the brand it will develop.
Rather than letting it evolve haphazardly you can influence the direction of its brand by designing the business intentionally.
And if you’re rebranding, then that’s the time to rethink the branding you started out with, to refine your thinking for the business, perhaps set a new vision for it.
Some business owners believe that brand is not applicable to them because they are small. That it only applies to well-known household name businesses.
While there is undoubtedly a difference between a brand that is well known such as the Apples of this world, and one that is still relatively unknown, it’s nevertheless the case that every business, and indeed every person is a brand in the sense of evoking a reaction and making an impression on others. Some brands are just less well known than others. Some may be well-known to a micro community and others may not be known yet because they’re just be getting started.
So, there exists an axis ranging from a brand that’s not known or understood in the market, to one that has become known by a sufficient size of the market to be a “brand”, a household name in their market possibly, in the sense of a brand that has succeeded, and has real traction in a community.
Design is Not Just How a Brand Looks
Design is about how your business works, not just how it looks. Just as an individual’s looks matter, and impact the impression we form of them, so your business’ visual appearance matters of course. In fact, the evidence-based research from the Ehrenberg Bass institute indicates the visual dimension matters a lot.
Creating the visual identity of your business is an enjoyable aspect of branding or rebranding because you get a transformation of your ideas into appealing visual designs which can be very exciting.
However, to get a worthwhile result leave the designs till you have worked on your brand strategy and got as far as you can with it on your own.
By deciding the brand you want to create strategically, and determining the reputation you want the business to develop you will have a much better chance of influencing the way you build the brand. You need not risk it getting a reputation randomly over time, and most importantly you can ensure the visual identity designs support the overall impression and feelings you want your brand to evoke and convey.
Get Started Using low-cost Designs
Clearly a new business needs some designs to get started. If you’re just starting out, then depending on your business model and intentions for your business, I recommend you get going and prove the concept while using low-cost designs, and even a temporary name. Think through your brand strategy about the brand you want to build as you get market feedback. That process is bound to impact your vision for your business, and result in decisions about the brand you want to build.
Then with the concept proven, the next step is to engage in more expensive design work for your business, and possibly a new name, and website to properly launch your business. These decisions involve fundamental intellectual property considerations which are foundational for your business. I’ve written many blogs about what intellectual property means, such as Is a Brand Intellectual Property? Definition of Brand and Intellectual Property.
Although I use the word brand and business interchangeably the term “brand” or “business” mean different things. Your “business” is your company—the organization that produces your products or offers your services. Your “brand”, on the other hand, is the image or identity or reputation that your business projects—the way that consumers perceive your business.
Designing the business includes deciding what products or services you will sell, what barriers to entry you will erect, how you will turn your knowledge, skills and insights into a new concept and business.
Bear in mind that if you don’t create a successful business that meets a market need, then no amount of ‘visual identity branding’ will turn your business into your desired type of brand. This leads into the second word I want to define, namely, branding.
What Branding Means
Branding is the activity of creating the visual identity for your brand. It’s the process by which you put your best strategic thinking for developing your business into a visual identity. It involves turning your business philosophy, and how you intend it to function as a business into visual designs.
In order to determine who your brand is, you first need to have asked yourself some searching questions, and done some deep thinking about the business you want to build, the brand you want it to have so it is reliably known for delivering a specific promise.
Branding gives your business a visual identity. It gives consumers something to relate to and connect with. Branding makes your business memorable. It’s the face of your company and helps consumers distinguish your business from others.
Your branding supports your marketing and advertising efforts It helps consumers to recognise you again if they’ve come across your brand in the past.
Marketing is often used interchangeably with branding but is quite different. It’s the activity you engage in to bring a product or service to market. Sending out branded messages and communications to make sure your product gets out to market and gets sold. It overlaps with branding but is distinct.
Branding determines what your product looks like, and what kind of vibe it gives. Marketing is about bringing those efforts out there in the world.
To conclude your brand is primarily about how you are known. With time a strong brand becomes associated with a specific promise.