What is a brand?

4 minute read

Defining what a brand is can be hard, and often gets misleading or superficial answers. Over the years I tried to come up with a reply that avoided some of the traps, while avoiding existing canonical definitions:

A brand is the complete expression of an entity (company, product, person, etc) that is being communicated, creating an experience in the public, both rational and emotional.

This means that everything that interacts with the public creates the brand, which means including elements such as:

  1. the visual appearance (name, logo, colors, identity), the most external and superficial side of it.
  2. the user experience (interaction design, visual design, industrial design, packaging, …), how people perceive and feel the product or service as a whole.
  3. the employee interaction with the public, at any level of the hierarchy, and how each employee embodies the brand itself.
  4. the customer support (speed, cordiality, efficacy, …).
  5. the discussions generated in the media, both traditional and social.

All these “points of contact” (and more) are able to create an experience and a rational and emotional response in the public, both users and non users.

This is why it’s also hard to define: every point of contact shapes the brand, every point of contact has to be included. Also its consequences can be many and huge (awareness, emotions, money, trust, etc).
At the same time it’s important to recognize that while every point of contact matters, brands also need to have a single focus. They need to be the one thing that comes to the mind of the individual when they think a specific thing or need. The clearer is the association, the strongest is the brand. This requires a very focused “idea” at the core of a brand, answering in a way “who are you?”.

Given its complexity is also understandable why often the whole brand gets reduced to the surface aspect of the logo, as it makes the whole concept easier to grasp, even if it’s just the tip of a huge mountain. The logo is powerful, but its power comes from all the work that it symbolizes: it represents in a single point the brand, but it’s not the brand.

The best brands have all these elements aligned, cooperating to communicate a single focused value. That happens at all the levels, and that’s why “changing a brand” is really an operation involving the whole public identity (either of the company, person or product), and at the same time a deep an operation of change management. Still, a surface change could be the trigger to start this kind of change, because the brand is something that influences the outside of the company as well as the inside.

 

As I mentioned “what is a brand?” often gets more simplistic explanations, so here’s a couple of notes about them:

  • A brand isn’t “the gut feeling”. The gut feeling is something that the brand creates, not the brand itself (you can’t “design” a gut feeling, but you can design the things that generates it).
  • A brand isn’t “like a person”. The thinking around being like a person is a way to design some aspects of a brand (style, tone, channels, …), but it’s not a definition.
  • There’s usually a more operative definition of brand that includes logo, typeface, and possibly a style guide. That’s only the visual part of the brand, it’s very important but it’s not everything. Unfortunately being the most superficial part, it’s also the component that is more easily understood, and what the clients tend to request most.
  • Reducing a brand as the “identity of a company” is effective in some operative work on the outside, but it’s an abstraction that risks to ignore that a good brand strategy has to work also toward the inside of the company. The people inside the company need to understand it, and to embody it in a way, and this is very hard, especially for organizations that treat branding as purely outside marketing.
  • Brands can have different stages of maturity. This is indeed true, and designing a strategy for a brand at an initial stage is very different for a brand at a more mature stage. Often a small brand is blown to something too big, too soon, and that creates a disconnection that the public can see.

 

Note also that in general brands are concepts grounded deep in perception and (social) psychology, so if we get to its depths, we end up with concepts that are far less business and marketing oriented, and more psychological. Of course, we need to draw the line at some point, but it’s good to keep it in mind.

 

Further readings:


The above is the expanded version of an answer I gave to “What is a brand?”  in 2011 on Quora. I didn’t expect however to become the top answer, and to have up-votes keep coming in over the years. I took that as a sign it was worth the review and expansion above.