Branding, an Introduction

Last week, I threatened to start writing more. Not only writing, but publishing (sounds important!). I also mentioned an Intro to Branding-ish talk I had with some new clients. Well, folks, watch me push my glasses up my nose and do the thing! With no particular cohesion, then, some introductory thoughts on branding, written and published:

What is branding?

Yesterday’s trendiest, jargon-iest, business-iest buzzword has become today’s most predictable, ubiquitous, go-to soundbite for people who also say “innovative” too much. “Branding” has been simultaneously imbued with and stripped of meaning to the point that it has come to mean very little to some and nearly everything to others. I lean toward the latter overreaction, as you’ll see. Especially when “everything” refers to the degree of importance rather than literal definition.

As for definitions, that’s where I like to start: A brand is everything. It is the total, collective perception of a product or organization (or person or service or cause or experience, etc.) — good, bad or otherwise. For clarity, a brand is not the product or organization itself, but a set of associations that transcend it. It’s an idea that lives in peoples’ hearts and minds, a culmination of perceptions. Again, a brand is an idea.

Branding (the verb) refers to the act of expressing the idea and crafting the perception so that it’s accurate and favorable. Branding (the noun) refers to the tactics, the execution, the manifestation of the idea.


Now we take a turn toward Nerdville. (“Where have we been so far?” you ask.) Successful brands communicate an essence, giving people a reason to care, vote, buy, choose. They inspire action. But if a person’s interactions with a product or company are wildly varied, incongruent or contradictory, where does that leave the person? How can they trust what they’ll get when they start to care or decide to vote, buy or choose.

Consistency is key. People are animals, and like Pavlov’s dogs, they need a repeated stimulus before they know the drill. (I can say that — I’m a person, too.) They also need a degree of frequency (once doesn’t do it), and anchoring (attaching their internal emotion — the idea — to an external symbol). From this perspective, branding can be viewed as training. If you want people to think anything in particular about you, your product or company, you must train them. It might happen randomly, but I don’t know any untrained dogs that salivate when a bell rings.


Now in downtown Nerdville, we gather in the city park, form a circle, grab hands, and dig into ancient literature. From the get-go, people were made in the image of a creator. Wired to seek a connection greater than ourselves, we constantly look for it in the world around us, usually without cognizance. Questions of idolatry notwithstanding, we crave places to belong and ways to connect, and we do so through images, literal and figurative. This is, essentially, branding.

By packaging a product or company, creating a symbol, we give people an access point to larger ideas so that when they decide to vote, buy, or choose, they are doing so because they see themselves it that choice. They buy that phone, vote for that candidate, and choose that team to root for because it aligns with their idea of themselves and/or their world. The currency in these exchanges are symbols — visual, verbal, tangible manifestations of the idea — to which people attach as a means of belonging. Belonging to what? An idea. Something outside oneself.

We are physical creatures interacting with a physical world in visual, verbal, tangible ways, seeking something bigger. All of this works because people operate in these terms innately. They always have. Give people a sense of belonging that meets their aspirations and they will climb over one another to get it.

Push vs. pull

People like Harley-Davidson motorcycles (if they like Harley-Davidson motorcycles) because they associate them with ideas like freedom, adventure, rebellion, American, power, and high quality. Generally speaking, they don’t like them because of cc’s or curb-to-weight (I don’t even know what that means) or because they are slightly more economical than the exact same bike from another manufacturer — because in the mind of the consumer, there is no exact same bike from a different manufacturer. If there were, classic “push” advertising, telling the consumer what to buy and why, might work. But it’s not necessary when the consumer clamors to buy, “pulled” by the idea of what they gain. (Which, for the record, is an association with the ideas freedom, adventure, etc.) It’s like the desire has already been planted in their minds.

Branding is everything

My goal here wasn’t to convince anyone of the importance of branding. But dang! If it wasn’t apparent that good branding means battles are often won before they’re fought, I’ll wax esoteric on that another time. For now, you have a little more knowledge and long-winded excuse to cite Pavlov and the Lord in the same conversation. For that, you are welcome and I am sorry.

Originally published at on April 29, 2015.

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