Photo by Pablo García Saldaña on Unsplash

What is Branding, Really?

A More Down-To-Earth Definition That Any Business Can Apply

The first year into launching my practice as a freelance brand strategist was filled with mistakes and lessons. Among them was assuming I could simply copy and paste what I had learned about brand building in the context of big agencies and consumer brands, onto my much smaller, mostly Midwestern clients.

What I discovered in the process was that branding had a bit of its own branding problem.

And despite an infinite array of expert-coined definitions, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what branding actually is.

Also pretty pervasive is the belief that it isn’t applicable “to our type of business”. That maybe it’s something to think about down the road, but not before more pressing activities like marketing and advertising start to payoff.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise given the way the industry has tended to treat the subject of branding — with far too much preciousness and exclusivity, and far too little focus on implementation. I found myself having to admit that what might sound brilliant in a slide or blog post, doesn’t always translate to real world execution.

Still, I continue to believe strongly in the value and legitimacy of intentional branding — especially today. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make it more tangible to the small(er), less sexier business. Pushing myself to go beyond abstract models and esoteric ideas, and get down to the brass tacks.

To start, I’ve done my best to distill a few key terms and concepts into simpler, more actionable language.

First things first, what is a brand?

Simply put, a brand is a reputation. It’s what people think of when they hear your name.

Brands extend beyond businesses. Individuals have brands. Professions have brands. Cities have brands. Political movements have brands.

They work as shortcuts to help us understand and categorize all the complexity in our life, filtered through the lens of our own experiences.

Branding is for everyone, because it already exists everywhere.

Important to note, that a logo, a campaign, or a particular aesthetic may be among the associations that customers make to a brand. But just as Nike is more than the swoosh, Coca-Cola is more than its ‘Share a Coke’ campaign and Steve Jobs was more than his black turtleneck and blue jeans ensemble, a brand is made up of the total sum of associations a person attributes to a given entity.

Brands work to help us shorten the distance between a perceived need and the decision to take action. When we’re inundated with options, many of which are functionally indistinguishable, a brand helps us to decide to either ‘add to cart’ or to seek out a better solution.

During a recent Amazon search for a new toaster, I was overwhelmed with options, many from brands I had never heard of. So I ended up choosing a Black and Decker despite it not being in the top results, the highest reviewed or the lowest priced — because it was attached to a name I trusted. I had a certain set of expectations about what Black and Decker meant, namely that it was a brand with history, from a company known to make reasonably good products — at least good enough for the purposes of toasting bread.

Because brands live in the minds of others and can be influenced by any number of variables, we tend to underestimate the role we have in shaping them.

But it’s actually much more significant than we think.

So what is branding?

If a brand is a reputation, then branding is the strategic practice of influencing that reputation.

It’s the opposite of leaving perception up to chance.

Branding focuses on being conscious and intentional about the variables to perception that are within our control.

Perhaps the biggest myth of branding is that it is a finite effort. You hire an agency, they run a workshop, create a style guide and maybe a brand story, and poof, you have a brand.

But strategic branding is ongoing and should both ground and guide every aspect of a business. It amounts to deciding on what we want to be known for and then identifies the things we must do to achieve that end.

It’d be great if all we had to do to influence our reputation is tell people who we are. But brands are also defined by behaviors. And today’s consumers are paying extra close attention to behavior, to validate if what we say actually lines up with what we do.

A strong, strategically-managed brand will show little to no daylight between who it thinks it is and how others perceive it.

How does a brand become itself?

If it’s not something tangible like a logo, and it just sort of exists amorphously in people’s brains, how does a brand become a brand?

Brands are brought to life through our decisions over time (conscious or otherwise).

And it’s not just the obvious ones — like deciding on fonts and color palettes or the look and feel of a website. It’s our return policy, our manufacturing standards, the ingredients we use, the packaging we choose, the price we charge, our origin story or the way we sound in our copy. It’s all the things we do that have the potential to influence how others perceive us.

The big and seemingly small decisions that add up to a much broader story that customers tell themselves (and others) about who we are.

The main function of a brand strategy is to establish a framework to guide and align those decisions. So that ideally, every decision a business makes is adding value to the brand it wants to create.

It’s the difference between just acting out of what feels good or easy in the moment, and acting with purpose and intention for the good of the long-term health of our brand (and our business).

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