What’s in a Brand?

Your brand is the essential piece of your business’s long-term viability. But what does brand really mean? The word has changed over time, developed new meanings, and is often confused and conflated with other terms.

At its essence, the word brand means a lasting impression. Think: wild west cattle branding, circa 1860s. Farmers would mark their livestock with a hot iron, using an alphabetic and numeric system to keep track of what was theirs, and what wasn’t. But branding cattle was about ownership, not loyalty, and I believe branding extends beyond products, purchasing power, and profit.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “You can sell them, or you can compel them.” Selling may move your product, but it won’t create evangelists. To create true brand disciples, you have to create an ethos. You have to capture their imaginations. And the only way you do that is through stories. Your brand is a story about why you exist — and it’s one that must be told. Your product is more than just stuff. It’s a reflection of you, your employees, and your customers. It’s your thumbprint on the world.

Brand vs. Brand Name

When most people think brand, they think brand name. Although a brand name is part of an overall brand, there is a distinction between the two; they are not interchangeable parts. Brand is not just a product, a name, a corporate identity, or a logo. Brands outlive product cycle, they are multidimensional, and they require strategy. Remember Banana Frosted Flakes? It’s okay, neither does anyone else. Or what about Dunkin Donuts cereal? Nope! But Frosted Flakes and Dunkin Donuts live on. The brands have sustained product launches and product failures, but remain strongly imprinted in the consumer consciousness.

That means something more is going on here.

When you think about brand, you should think about relationships. A brand, essentially, is an unspoken promise between customer and brand. Brands inspire. They have purpose. They create community. They occasion loyal followers, what some call “brand ambassadors,” and they exist in your customer’s mind, not shopping cart.

Drive Over Function

Brand is less about function and more about drive. Of course function matters. You want your product to deliver, consistently, but it’s the emotional connection you establish with customers that creates and builds brand loyalty — your customer’s lasting desire to engage with you.

Let’s say you purchase Tide laundry detergent. The price per ounce for the bargain brand makes it the better buy, yet you continue to purchase the pricier name brand version. Have you ever stopped to think about why? The discount brand will wash your clothes effectively, but Tide captures your business during each visit to the grocery store. At some point along the way, you were told a story about Tide, and you believed that story. It could be nostalgia. My mom used powdered Tide from that large, orange and blue cardboard box. Even the smell can bring me back to childhood. It could have been a commercial that was compelling enough to make you a life-long Tide consumer. It could have been a number of things, but you can distill that down to one thing: we don’t buy what we need, we buy what we want.

What’s In A Brand?

Brand is built on a few core concepts.

1. Meaning. Meaning is important because when you know who you are, you know what to do. Out of your meaning (or purpose) should come your story and your strategy. It’s the starting point. It’s the why.

2. Storytelling. We are hardwired for storytelling. It’s how we make sense of the world. It’s how we share our lives with others. Your brand is only as strong as the story you tell about yourself, and the stories that people tell about you. Be captivating, be engaging. Explain to your customers what’s at the heart of your brand.

3. Positioning. Adam Kleinberg, President and CEO of Traction, an interactive agency based in San Francisco, said that “Positioning is the art of sacrifice — of sacrificing the things you could be to uncover the one thing you should be.” In other words, stay focused. Be one thing, only one, and stop trying to be everything to everyone.

4. Design. A brand’s visual identity and logo are essential to crafting the overall brand experience. As branding guru Saul Bass once said, the duty of design is to “symbolize and summarize.” One glimpse a well-crafted visual identity can communicate a brand’s story, values, and aspirations.

5. Relationships. We’ve been here before. Brand is a contract between you and your customer. It’s an exchange, a dialogue, an interaction. Like all good relationships, you must establish trust, providing more than just a product or service. Be sincere and be transparent. Your customers will stay loyal.

6. Consistency and Adaptability. Seems like a contradiction in terms, right? A good brand is both consistent and adaptable. Confusion can kill your brand — consistency builds trust, and trust breeds loyalty. But, adaptability is equally important. Adaptability is the ability to tell the same story in a different context. We live in a rapidly-changing world. Tastes evolve and design paradigms shift, but your brand needs to maintain relevance. Find the balance between innovation and maintaining the essence of your brand.