What is a brand?
The quick version of this article
Branding started out simple. Then humans do what we do. We made it stupidly complicated and corporatized it so we could sell boatloads of shit to people who didn’t want or need it. But the times they are a changin’. People today care more about authenticity, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability. The concept of brand is evolving into something more human — something that reflects deeply-held human values and attracts customers on that basis.
If you want more detail, read on.
If not, maybe consider having a sandwich and a glass of juice.
Era 1: Brand as visual symbol (logo)
It all started out so innocently.
700–1400: The Old Norse word “brandr” meant “to burn”
1350–1450: In late Middle English “brand” came to mean “to mark with a hot iron”
Mid-1600s: “Brand” signifies a mark of ownership
(dates are approximate)
That guy’s cow.
So far, so good. Ask 10 people what “brand” was, you’d get the same answer. There were no branding conferences, no branding textbooks, and mirabile dictu, no branding agencies or consultants.
Very straightforward. And quite human. Not very humane though from the cow’s standpoint. But hey, nothing’s perfect.
By the early 19th century, “brand” refers to a type of product manufactured by a particular company with a particular name, and the brand is a mark not just of ownership but of quality.
This is still quite human in the sense that actual people and their craftsmanship stood behind the brand. But trouble was brewing. By this time the industrial revolution was in full swing, and people were poised to complicate and generally fuck everything up.
Era 2: Brand as growth strategy
I’ll let you just enjoy this for a while.
Boy is this complicated stuff. Now you do need brand seminars, conferences, textbooks, consultants, agencies, shamans, and Ouija boards. Ask 10 people what “brand” is and you’ll get 10 stammering, confused, semi-literate answers — all different, and mostly wrong.
That said, the above is, perhaps, the best framework for thinking strategically about a brand. David Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler, luminaries of the brand-strategy world, were among the first to posit that a brand was more than a logo. That it was a set of associations in the minds of people who interacted with the brand in some way; and that those associations could be strategically managed.
I’m not going into depth on their Brand Leadership Model here. In fact, I’m about to tell you why I believe it is no longer the right way to think about brands. That said, I think every brand manager should familiarize themselves with this model as it provides very good training on important brand-management concepts.
The point I want to make about this — and similar — models is that they conceive of brands almost as manufactured objects. You sit down and conduct a “strategic brand analysis” which consists mostly of looking outward, and on that basis you develop a “strategic identity system”.
Brand in this view is a system of concepts and assets designed to create brand equity — the financial value created by turning a commodity product into a branded product. By successfully building a brand you can get people to pay more for the same product, recommend it more to others, and remain loyal above and beyond what reason alone would dictate. Brand in this view is a strategy you pursue.
In a sense, most modern brands are corporate fictions.
The associations that people form of those brands — when the marketing team is doing its job well — are associations that were strategically chosen to grow a business.
There is no authenticity to this type of brand. No provenance.
It’s all made up out of thin air. There are no actual human beings who passionately stand for what the brand purportedly stands for. The people working on a brand were staffed on that brand because they had the technical skills to succeed or because it was a good development opportunity for them. In large corporations, the people working on a brand team will be reassigned to another brand within a few years to facilitate their growth — and there will be no regard for what those people actually care about, believe in, stand for and against.
By the by, I’m talking here about big corporate brands, not small founder-led or driven brands. The smaller ones get it. They start businesses and brands because they are passionate about having a positive impact on one or more communities. Those brands are built from heart and soul. There are actual humans behind them who are committed to what the brand stands for. Those brands are unique because people are unique. They have personality because people have personality.
But not the corporate brands. Those do not come from within the human soul. They are simply choices made to drive financial gain. Or, put more darkly, corporations manufacture brands to trick people into buying more stuff and paying higher prices for it.
This soulless and non-human way of looking at brands is now bumping up against new generations and new ideals. Today, we care more about authenticity and provenance. We care more about the human values that sit behind the brand — and we often want to know who those humans are and whether they actually live in their own lives the values they’re trying to sell us through their products.
Which brings us to…
Era 3: Brand as an expression of human purpose and values
Today, brands are increasingly about expressing human ideals and connecting with other humans around them.
As I mentioned above, the little ones already get this. They never needed to be told about heart and soul. But you can see the big corporate brands struggling with this. They’ve at least partly heard the message about authenticity and humanity. And, bless their hearts, they’re trying. It’s a bit like watching a toddler learn to walk. You know there’s a better future ahead for them when they become fully ambulatory. But at times it’s cringey to watch; and sometimes downright hysterical.
We’re in a fascinating time now for companies and brands. There’s some good news and some bad news (for companies).
I’ll start with the bad news. It’s how I roll.
The bad news is you have to change. The way you build and manage brands has to change. It has to be more authentic (not manufactured authenticity, actual real authenticity). You have to adopt a broader view of the impact you have on the world and do much more to have a positive impact. And no, you can no longer purchase expiation for the sins of how you make money through acts of philanthropy. You also must now care about the culture within your company — and truly live on the inside the values you espouse on the outside.
That’s the bad news. (Well, to me it’s actually good news.)
The good news is that, conceptually, brand building is much easier. Easier because you don’t have to concoct a bunch of fictions. Easier because you don’t need complicated brand positioning briefs with a brand promise, USP, RTB, mission statement, brand pillars, brand voice, blah blah blah. Nobody ever understood that shit anyway.
What you need to define a brand in an authentic world is far simpler.
You need to have a purpose — though you can call it a mission, a north star, a raison d’etre or just “Fred”. Your purpose is an articulation of why you exist — the problems you want to solve; the impact you want to have.
You need to have values.
And you need to have a personality.
This is good news because it’s much simpler (being authentic is always simpler than living a lie).
As Mark Twain is rumored to have said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” Much easier. So long as you can summon the bravery to be honest about what you really stand for and then to really stand for it.
It’s good news because unless you’ve been so beaten down by society as to scarcely be human anymore, you already have values and a personality. And you likely have a purpose — though for most people it’s hard to locate and articulate.
Finally, it’s good news because it’s liberating. We no longer have to work for soulless brands that tell stories we don’t believe in and sell products we don’t care about. We no longer have to show up for work suppressing who we really are and what we really believe.
What an era to be building a brand in! So, if you’re in the brand-building business, rejoice! Give yourself a big “huzzah”. Then go be your wonderful self and work for brands that believe in what you believe in. Lean all the way in and bring those beliefs to life. Forget the complicated brand-positioning documents. Just reach into your soul and bring that wonderful goodness to life in your work.
Yes, easier said than done. But much more worthy work.