What The Heck Is Brand?

Jesse Scribe
May 3 · 17 min read

The following is an edited excerpt from the book Forging An Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide by Lindsay Pedersen.

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The word “brand” is used broadly, disparately, and confusingly. Let’s reclaim it.

What the heck is brand?

Good question.

During my years as a classically-trained consumer packaged goods marketer at Clorox, I assumed everyone understood the answer as I do. I know brand to be the crux of commerce itself, the value your business brings that gives it the right to exist. Brand formulates the most direct route for a business to create, sustain, and scale value. Good brand is good business.

It turns out, though, that my reverence of brand is unusual, even among formidably savvy business leaders. The disconnect stems from the mistaken belief that brand is squishy, elusive, and superficial. And if there is a person who dislikes squishy, it is a business leader.

So, brand gets dismissed. It is handed to a talented graphic designer, or outsourced wholesale to a capable agency, or tucked tidily away inside a marketing department.

But listen up: underappreciating brand leads to your business suffering. It results in lost investment, revenue, employee engagement, focus, scalability, and purpose. Brand establishes the conditions to thrive. Dismissing brand results in a barren business, inhospitable for your customers, your employees, and all of us who benefit from knowing and experiencing the value you bring.

So, that’s the question behind the question of what is brand: what does brand do for my business? You can employ brand as your most important leadership tool by understanding the depth and breadth of brand’s layers — each of which I will explore in this chapter:

When I was a Clorox brand manager, I was responsible for the P&L. I was the CEO of my individual businesses, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Hidden Valley Ranch. I was on the hook for growing a healthy business — period. I managed relationships with manufacturers and retailers. I fine-tuned our sourcing and supply chain. I built a diverse, robust innovation pipeline. I drove demand through advertising and promotional tactics. My North Star for all of this leadership was our uncommon value to the customer, articulated unambiguously in our brand strategy. This brand-strategy-as-North-Star was my most essential tool for growing a thriving business.

The view of brand as a business leader’s North Star is so fundamental in the world of consumer packaged goods that I was puzzled when I left that realm and learned that this definition of brand was far from universally understood. What’s more: brand is equally as vital for companies outside consumer packaged goods.

Using my Clorox training, my MBA, and my fascination with leadership and behavioral economics, I founded a brand strategy consulting business. I left the Bay Area for Seattle — a tech hub, rather than a consumer packaged goods town. My career in brand building led people to wildly differing conceptions. When I shared that I was a brand strategist, I heard, “Oh, so you do logos!” I adore design, but believe me, I’m the last person you’d want to create your logo. “No,” I would reply. “I most certainly don’t do logos. I do brand strategy.”

It didn’t stop there. “Brand — oh yeah, TV advertising is fun,” or “Yup, we’ve got a brand — it’s the name of our company.” In more recent years, I’ve heard, “Oh, so like personal branding on social media!” and “We don’t do brand because we market with SEO.” It was bewildering. Some professionals I came across did make full use of brand. At larger consumer companies like Starbucks and T-Mobile, leaders — who often had also begun their careers in consumer packaged goods — used brand as the North Star. But I personally yearned to help leaders and entrepreneurs who most needed the focus a brand strategy provides, and these were the very people most likely to misunderstand — and underestimate — brand.

Ultimately, I understood the reality, which is that the word brand takes people to different places. There are reams of interpretations of this word.

The tricky thing is that everyone is correct — to a degree. All of those definitions are part of brand. Logo is part of brand. TV and social media are parts of brand. Naming is part of brand. So are your product, your customer experience, and your SEO tactics. So are your font, your tagline, your business’s personality, and the color of your employee uniforms. But none of those are, by themselves, brand.

Brand is the interconnected web of what our business means and how we deliver that meaning, all made possible by our special position in our customer’s universe.

Once, I heard Malcolm Gladwell share on Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast that the word brand reminded him of the word Africa. I yelled at my phone, “Yes!” If you are discussing the townships near Johannesburg, or the Maasai tribe outside Nairobi, or the camels in Morocco, or the fighting in Qatar, or the beaches of Mauritius, or even the geological land mass of the African continent — you are pointing out aspects of Africa but not Africa. When one person says “Africa,” this person might mean Egypt when the listener might be picturing Ghana. What a confusing conversation that would be.

The subject of brand evokes this same misinterpretation and resulting confusion. We all use this one word as though everyone else’s understanding of it is the same as ours, but chances are it’s not. And most of us do not consider brand in its entirety and, therefore, lose its potency. Someone says, “brand is dying,” because they define brand as traditional TV advertising, which indeed is declining. The listener is thinking of brand as the character and soul of a business, and they think, “Brand is certainly not dying. What a strange thing to say.”

Here’s why this matters: there are massive consequences to dismissing brand. To conflate brand with one of its many manifestations is to miss its power.

Brand reflects and taps into the human experience. It connects the business to the customer in a human-to-human way. Using brand gives your business a doorway into your customer’s world. Done well, it forms your scalable and enduring competitive advantage.

So, do not confuse brand with one of its aspects and conclude that brand is squishy, elusive, or superficial and therefore not worthwhile. By not using brand, you forego the most elemental tool for guiding your business. You make it more difficult for your customer to engage with you and less likely that your business will thrive.

Good brand really is just good business.

What is a “good brand”? A good brand is one that unleashes your competitive advantage. I call this an “ironclad brand.” To define your ironclad brand, I formulated a method that harnesses classic marketing frameworks and then hones them into steps to an optimal brand.

At the end of this process, you have an ironclad brand strategy to serve as your North Star. I wrote this book to share with you this method and the ways the resulting ironclad brand strategy can create value for your business.

In writing this book, I interviewed business leaders and brand experts to shed light on the importance of brand from a variety of perspectives. Regardless of your industry, brand can be your tool for creating value. The rest of this book will show you how.

Now let’s examine brand from the different angles I mentioned earlier, so you can fully grasp what it is and how it fuels your business.

Brand Is What You Stand For

A brand is what you mean to your customer. It is the place you occupy in your customer’s mind.

Everything you do as a business either reinforces your meaning, solidifying and growing its place in your customer’s mind — or it weakens that meaning, blurring its place in your customer’s mind. If your business sells shoes that enable customers to run fast, then everything you do either reinforces or blurs your meaning of fast shoes. If your business is hospital software that streamlines patient check-in, then everything you do either reinforces or blurs your meaning of streamlined check-in. When your brand is clear, solid, and unambiguous, your customer better understands your exclusive value and meaning.

Why is it important to mean something? We humans are meaning-seeking machines. We crave it, we want it, we need it, on all levels, from practical to existential. From customers to employees to stakeholders, we are all looking for meaning throughout our experiences. “She winked at me; what does that mean?” “My direct report left for another job; what does that mean?” Discerning meaning is part of what makes us human. It’s why we have religion and philosophy. It is why some political leaders resonate more than others. It’s why we do volunteer work or write books or create art. When a person or a business boldly stands for a chosen meaning, the rest of us are more likely to see and embrace that meaning.

Kellogg School Marketing Professor and co-author of the classic Kellogg On Branding, Tim Calkins, agreed with me in a recent conversation. He shared, “A brand is your distinct meaning, and it brings with it all sorts of different connotations. So, ask yourself as a leader, ‘How are we going to end up with the brand that we really want to have?’”

Brand Is A Relationship

Brand is the relationship between your business and your customer.

Whether you are a deep-pocketed business or one with zero budget, whether your audience is mass or niche, whether you sell to businesses or consumers — all of us have a relationship with our customer. We humans are a hyper-social species, hardwired to have relationships with the people, animals, businesses, and things with which we interact. (Some people even name their cars.) And today, most businesses are serving customers who have access to a growing voice and a growing set of alternative dance partners.

Brands have always been in this relationship, this dance. Millennia ago, before the appearance of today’s brand regalia, businesses had relationships with their customers. For example, the pre-industrial-age, small-town butcher made a promise and faithfully fulfilled that promise time and time again, which made his relationship with his customer ever more meaningful for both.

Today, with the web and social media and the countless ways customers can communicate with a business, it is even more important that businesses deliver value to customers. There was a time when the business with the most spending power had the loudest megaphone and, therefore, the most powerful brand. Now, the customer has a megaphone, too. and once again carries clout in the relationship. The feedback loop demands a mutually-fulfilling relationship. Businesses must carefully make distinctive promises and deliver on them faithfully.

Compounding this rebalancing of clout between business and customer, the web’s platforms have democratized the megaphone so that businesses with small budgets can initiate and fuel conversations as well. Dollar Shave Club produced its launch promo video on a shoestring ($4,500), posted it on YouTube, and created a business so valuable that monolithic Unilever purchased it in 2016 for $1 billion. All businesses now can access the megaphone with their particular audiences, so all businesses now can say what they stand for, and thus relate directly to their customer. It increasingly behooves all of us to have clarity on our own distinctive meaning as a business so that we can activate that meaning with vigor and message it with laser focus.

Brand Is Your Promise And Your Fulfilment Of That Promise

When a brand has integrity, its promise is true. The business makes a promise and delivers on that promise. It is not merely what you say you do — it is what you actually do, how you do it, and why.

Don Knauss, a brand-building giant who was previously CEO of Clorox and head of North American operations for Coke, told me: “A brand is a promise of performance. Any transaction between two parties requires a promise of performance. To sustain your business over time, you’ve got to, first, be very focused on defining your promise of performance and, second, be diligent about delivering consistently. If you can’t do these two things, you are not a sustainable business.”

These are your foremost decisions as a leader, so approach them with care. What do you promise? Do you promise to deliver a scrumptious-tasting dinner? Do you promise to make a company’s internal communication more fun? Do you promise to eliminate a software system’s downtime? Do you promise to bring a busy single parent an afternoon of rejuvenation? Do you promise to help an outdoorsy family find a safe hike? Do you promise to make a home-buying experience more enjoyable?

Brand strategy is stepping back to distill the value you promise and deliver. When you define it with precision, brand sets your meaning into sharp relief, helping customers see you and relate to you and organize you in their heads exactly the way you hope they will. As Don Knauss urges, “If you are in commerce, you need a brand strategy.”

Brand Is A Filter

A brand captures and guides our attention. It serves as a filter for customers as they perceive your business, shaping how they see you and believe you. We humans need these filters. When faced with too much information, we use cognitive shortcuts as filters to tame sensory overload.

Behavioral economics has demonstrated and codified many of these mental shortcuts in recent decades. For example, the availability bias is a cognitive shortcut that leads people to make decisions based on the information most easily accessible in a given moment. The availability bias explains why we fear sharks more than we fear cows or vending machines. While the media ensure we know about every shark attack, we seldom hear about deaths caused by cows or vending machines, even though both are statistically more dangerous than are sharks.

Another cognitive shortcut we use as a filter is the confirmation bias, in which we seek and interpret new data that confirms our existing beliefs and theories. When interviewing a job candidate whom we have pre-judged as highly capable, we privilege inputs that confirm that judgment, and ignore inputs that suggest otherwise. A reporter writing an article on a controversial issue may unconsciously elevate the perspectives of experts that support his preconceived conclusion. I promptly notice when my fiery, mischievous son teases his more serene younger sister, but I miss it altogether when she picks on him.

Humans are hardwired to simplify — even if it means erroneously oversimplifying. We see only what we deem relevant. We use these cognitive shortcuts not because we are unintelligent or bad people, but because we need them. These shortcuts conserve cognitive resources. Oversimplifying may be erroneous, but it once equipped us to survive in the wild.

A brand is a filter too, one that when authentic helps both the customer and the business. A brand can help a customer to see your business effortlessly. Brand ties your business to something already in your customer’s head, making it easier for the person to engage with your business. Brand creates a similar neural pathway leading the customer to choose your business with ease.

Brand also serves as a filter for leaders and employees, bringing clarity to the choices you face as you build your business. It pulls a company together internally around the same vision. “Does this idea help me to become better at delivering my brand promise to my target customer? If no, then discard. If yes, then proceed.” You, too, are prone to cognitive fallacies like the availability bias and the confirmation bias, as your mental bandwidth is scarce, too. Brand can filter so that you focus on what matters most.

Brand Strategy Is The Deliberate Articulation Of Your Business’s Meaning

While brand is the meaning you stand for inside your customer’s mind, your brand strategy is the deliberate articulation of that meaning. Brand strategy distills your promise so you can make choices across your business to carry out that promise. Brand strategy answers the questions: What kind of business are we, and what kind of business do we want to be? What do we want to mean to customers? Tarang Amin, CEO of e.l.f. Cosmetics, echoed my thoughts when he told me, “Brand strategy is a tool that guides the choices you make and the priorities you set to reinforce what you mean in your customer’s mind.”

By distilling what you stand for, you give yourself a tool to guide the choices you make to grow the business you want. Brand strategy is about getting to self-knowledge. It’s about defining your business as its best possible self, so that it can become more of that — more of its most intentional, most purposeful self.

When you reflect on your life, you might ask, what kind of a person am I, and what kind of person do I want to be? Do I want to take risks and embrace adventure, or exercise prudence and caution? Do I take pride in being direct, or in being tactful? Do I favor alone time, or social time? Do I live a quietly expressive life, or a loud one? Do I stay within the lines most of the time, or am I someone who breaks rules? The outcomes of these choices define the way we show up, the friends we attract, and the meaning we stand for.

Defining your brand is similar. It is applying self-reflection to your business. What kind of business is this? What kind of business do you want it to be? Carolyn Feinstein, CMO of Dropbox, agreed. ”Brand strategy is: what are we at our core? What is it that we want to be to the world? Why do we exist beyond the products that we build?” The act of defining who you are itself creates meaning for you in the work you do, and as significantly, for your employees who cannot read your mind, and who crave direction and purpose.

It’s useful to have one single brand idea internally and externally, from employees to customers, from front-line workers to senior leadership, because then the meaning reverberates and harmonizes. All your musicians play in concert. A brand strategy provides a unifying song sheet to facilitate business-wide harmony.

One of my favorite brands is Volvo, because Volvo’s articulation of “safety” is clear, bold, and unambiguous. No matter where in the world I go, when I say “Volvo,” people complete the thought with “is safe.” Volvo has stood for safety — has used safety as its unifying song sheet — since the company’s roots in 1920s Sweden. Everything Volvo does reinforces “safety.” Volvo’s head of brand, Sven Desmet, told me that brand strategy “is how I tell employees and customers what I stand for.”

Volvo is safe all the way to its fibers. Every product detail, every customer touchpoint, every aspect of corporate culture stems from the ideal of “safety.” Volvo’s engineers build everything for the sake of optimizing safety. The shape of the car is boxy, which both looks safe and is safe structurally. The car itself feels firm and safe to drivers. It does not accelerate as would a sports car. Volvo has elected not to take patents on many innovative safety features, including the three-point seatbelt that they pioneered and is now standard on all cars. Volvo dealerships are upscale but not flashy. There are play rooms for customers’ kids. Salespeople dress conservatively but casually and are trained to discuss safety features. The buying experience is nurturing. When recruiting, Volvo seeks people to join the company who resonate with the safety intent.

All these things, big and small, coalesce to fortify safety. The customer’s entire experience of Volvo adds up to a car that is safe to drive. It is an orchestra of musicians all performing a single song in perfect harmony.

Consider the contrast between Volvo and another excellent car brand: BMW. While Volvo stands for safety, BMW stands for driving performance — it is the “Ultimate Driving Machine.” I know that not only because of what they say, but also because of what they do and how they do it.

BMW engineers craft a car with responsive acceleration that enables you to drive fast and feel like you are driving fast. The exterior is high-design beautiful: glossy and aerodynamic. The interior focuses on the driver’s ability to enjoy the road. There are no coffee cup holders on the driver’s side in many models. A dealer once told me as I searched in vain for a place to put my coffee cup while test-driving a BMW, “Coffee is for passengers, not drivers.” There are no play rooms at the BMW dealership because BMW is focused on the driver, not on the driver’s family. The customer’s entire experience is the single song of driving performance, reverberating in harmony.

The power of brand strategy is this singularity, this laser-sharp deliberateness. When you make the concerted effort to define your distinctive meaning through a brand strategy, you approach the question of who you are with intention. Pinpoint your meaning, your particular reason for existing, your distinctive song, and then play it in concert. Volvo’s song is safety. BMW’s song is driving performance. Etsy’s song is celebrating the soulful artisan. Salesforce’s song is intuitive sales enablement. Slack’s song is team collaboration that is both effective and fun. Nike’s song is shoes that win the race. Nordstrom’s song is phenomenal customer service. By approaching the development of their brand strategy with humility and empathy, these brands identify a song their audience deeply wants to hear — and that only their business can play.

Brand Fuels Differentiation

Consumer-packaged-goods leaders, such as those at Clorox, Proctor & Gamble, General Mills, and Nestle have been using the power of brand for decades because they have to. Consumer-packaged-goods companies are bastions of excellent brand building because the largely-undifferentiated products force brand excellence. When your products are pretty much the same as those of your competitors, you better have an outstanding brand.

Brand works in these unforgiving, product parity conditions. Take a look at the economics of the Clorox Bleach business: a bottle of Clorox Bleach contains essentially the same bleach as store-brand bleach — 6% sodium hypochlorite, 94% water. But the consumer price of Clorox Bleach is often double that of store-brand bleach, and Clorox Bleach still wins 65% market share of the bleach category.

That’s because the Clorox brand stands for something different from the others, something that resonates and motivates the target customer. Most bleach customers are willing to pay the price premium because they receive more value from Clorox than from the alternatives. Clorox stands for feeling like a good, competent, loving parent. The target customer values this, and Clorox can deliver this.

So, we filtered our choices on which bets to place based on this question: will this initiative tactic partnership / innovation enhance our ability to make our customer feel like a great parent? If yes, pursue. If not, find something else to pursue. We at Clorox needed a hard-working brand strategy to thrive in the parity product categories in which we served. Despite a parity product, our brand dominated the market in both sales and profit margin.

Brand Is Your North Star

Working in the fertile brand-building environment of Clorox, I learned the value-creation power of brand. Now that I have spent over a decade building brand-driven growth strategies for businesses in numerous industries, I am continually astonished to learn that most leaders ignore brand. They use brute force to try to grow, eschewing the power of focus and empathy, foregoing insight about human nature to attract customers.

When every element of your business is aligned around a single brand strategy, you leverage human nature to work for you, and all parts of your business work in concert. This creates a compounding loop of goodness for customers, employees, and investors. Operating this way simply makes growth easier and more gratifying.

Successful brand strategies are not squishy, elusive, or superficial. They are logical, proven, and always ready to guide you. When you create a brand strategy deliberately and carefully, you define the business’s North Star that will clearly guide every decision you make and every decision your team makes. Brand forms your most durable competitive advantage. It lights your way to creating purpose, value, and scale.

In this book, I share with you the what, why, and how of an ironclad brand strategy.

Now let’s dig in.

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To keep reading, pick up your copy of Forging An Ironclad Brand: A Leader’s Guide by Lindsay Pedersen on Amazon.

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Jesse Scribe

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