Back to Basics —
A working definition of Brands and Branding.

by John Furgurson on January 14, 2010

Welcome to the new-and-improved Brand Insight Blog. I’m moving forward this week by going back… back to fundamentals and to the most frequently asked questions of all:

  1. What exactly IS branding, anyway?
  2. And why should the average business owner care?

No doubt, the semantics of marketing and branding can be very confusing. Every firm, consultant, author and marketing professor has a slightly different spin on the subject of branding, and it’s easy to fall into that classic, insider’s trap…

So I’m attempting to aggregate the best of them, and boil it all down to something you can actually use in your day-to-day business.

First, let’s distinguish between “brand” as a corporate mark or logo, and “brand” as an overriding business concept.

When business executives talk about “the Nike Brand” or “the Pepsi Brand” with a capital B, they’re not referring to the new logo. They’re referring to something more wholistic. More conceptual. And far bigger than just design.

This, from Wikipedia: “A brand is a symbolic construct created within the minds of people and consists of all the information and expectations associated with a product or service.”

“Symbolic Construct” seems a bit academic to me. How about “gut feeling.”

Or this simplified definition, from the book, BrandSimple:  “A brand is what your product or service stands for in people’s minds. Brands live in your head… Mental associations that get stirred up when you think of a particular car or camera or watch or pair of jeans.”

Scott Bedbury, of Nike and Starbucks fame, concurs: “Brands become living, psychological concepts we hold in our minds for years.”

In Brand Warfare, David F. D’Alessandro, CEO of John Hancock said, “A brand is whatever the consumer thinks of when he hears your company’s name. Branding is everything…”

And everything is branding…

The words you choose. The way you behave. The conversations you have. The card you hand out. The promises you make. The people you hire. The values you hold dear. The values you could care less about. The vendors you choose. The money you make, or don’t make. And, of course, the experience people have with the product or service you provide.

Like it or not. it all matters. Because it’s the culmination of all those little things that makes “the brand.”

Which leads to another worthwhile distinction:  The difference between the noun “brand,” and the verb “branding.”

“Some companies equate branding with marketing,” says Jasper Kunde, author of Corporate Religion.  “Design a sparkling new logo, run an exciting new campaign, and voila, you’re back on course. They are wrong. Branding is bigger. Much bigger.”

If a brand is a set of mental associations about a company, then BrandING is the process of helping people formulate those associations. If advertising is “getting your name out there,” Branding is attaching something to your name.

It’s a never-ending effort to conduct business in a way that will result in a better “brand”. It goes way beyond advertising or marketing communications. Because what you SAY does not carry as much weight as what you DO.

Branding is really about doing the right thing.

In The Best Of Branding, James Gregory said: “A corporate brand is the product of millions of experiences, with vendors, employees, customers, media, etc.”

If you’re doing right by all those people, your “branding” efforts will pay off in spades. On the other hand, if your company has no heart — and stands for nothing more than making money — then your branding efforts will flounder in a sea of unkept promises and unbelievable marketing hype.

Starbucks stands for something.

Howard Shultz said, “we built the Starbucks brand first with our people, because we believe the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of customers was to hire and train great people. Their passion and commitment made our retail partners the best ambassadors of the brand.”

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation that suggest the only people involved in branding are the graphic designers and the ad agency dudes. At Entrepreneur.com they say “ The foundation of your brand is your logo.”

Nonsense. The logo is a reflection of your brand. The foundation of your brand is your operation. And at Starbucks, the operation revolved around two things… the people and the product.

Another prominent website missed it completely when they defined branding as “The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.”

Branding is not, exclusively, a marketing practice. It’s also a customer service practice. A management practice. An HR practice. An R&D practice. Even a manufacturing practice.

The Saturn Brand was never about the cars. It was about the state-of-the-art manufacturing plant right here in the USA, the no-haggle sales process and the dealer business model. In other words, it was about the whole operation, which really was a fresh new approach to the automotive industry.

Unfortunately, the brand behind the brand was GM.

Tom Peters says, “Branding is ultimately about nothing more and nothing less than heart. It’s about passion… what you care about. It’s about what’s inside you, your team, your division, your company.

The trick is figuring that out. Defining your passion. Naming your values. Being true to yourself. And then aligning your operation accordingly. So everything you do comes from the heart.

That’s why every business owner and executive should care about branding.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sesu Dasse January 17, 2010 at 12:53 pm

I never deny that branding is something beyond logo or marketing hype as you said in your article but why nine out of ten companies spend hell lot of money to brand their products and services. I also accept that their marketing campaign would not gather mass unless and until it makes customers happy. I would like to summarize that marketing hype and delivering satisfaction should go hand in hand or compliment each other. What is your take? I would highly appreciate your comment. Thanks

john furgurson January 18, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Successful companies that “get” branding know that hype alone won’t cut it. Instead, they build satisfaction into their operations and then let their marketing messages reflect that. They deliver a lot, and say little.

Ishan Ghosh January 18, 2010 at 6:43 pm

One of my favourite definitions of branding is one I came across a few years ago, “It’s what they say about you when you’re not in the room”. Says it all.

Derek Fisch February 2, 2010 at 7:41 pm

“Tom Peters says, “Branding is ultimately about nothing more and nothing less than heart. It’s about passion… what you care about. It’s about what’s inside you, your team, your division, your company.”

Well… not quite. Even the beginning of this article disagrees. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your passion is if people don’t get it. Branding is ultimately about what people think and, more importantly, feel about your “passion… what you care about. It’s about what’s inside you, your team, your division, your company.”

Your brand is what you stand for in the mind of the consumer. If you’ve communicated your passion to them in a way that they understand, believe and care about, then who you are and who people think you are will be in alignment. That’s the definition of a successful brand.

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