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Originally published in 2013

A colleague of mine and I were recently having “shop talk” over the weekend, discussing various marketing campaigns that we’ve developed over the past few years. The conversation eventually turned to the concept of branding. We compared products that have a well-defined brand, those that don’t, attributes of a brand, etc. As the dialogue became more and more abstract, my colleague finally said, “I mean, how are you supposed to explain to clients what makes a brand, when I have trouble explaining to myself?”

An excellent observation. A Google search I just ran for “building a brand” returned 469 million entries –web pages from ad agencies and consultancies, “how-to” articles, academic studies and more. Typically, ad agencies and marketing firms have their “proprietary processes” for brand development (usually somehow involving a circle, wheel or pyramid). Academics and psychologists discuss the effects brands have on consumer behavior and how brand attributes may influence our neuron firings. But what’s missing from the discussion is a clear definition of what we mean every time we say the word “brand.”

“Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” – From the American Marketing Association

The AMA’s explanation is relatively simple, but it doesn’t capture the modern concept of a brand. While most brands are competitive, a few, specifically cause-oriented ones, are not (at least not directly). Contemporary branding goes beyond being an “identifier” for different product offerings. Contemporary branding operates in the realm of emotion, memory, and experiential associations. Practically every company or product has a unique logo, but how many really have a brand?

My fellow MWB staff member, Creative Director Randy Lynn, has written about the idea of brands as people. Personification of brands is a good way to think about what a “brand” really is. I’m reminded of a particularly awkward scene in the Adam Sandler/Jack Nicholson movie Anger Management. In a group therapy session, the psychiatrist (Nicholson) asks Sandler’s character to “tell us about yourself.” Sandler first describes what he does, to which Nicholson replies “not what you do, who you are.” Sandler then rattles off a few things he enjoys doing, to which Nicholson replies “not your hobbies, who you are.” Sandler then launches into personality traits, to which Nicholson interrupts again saying, “you’re describing your personality . . . I want to know who you are.”

Trying to explain completely what a brand is, is very similar to trying to completely explain who a person is. You talk about traits and characteristics, but are never quite able to fully verbally express the multi-dimensional profile you have in your mind. We are better off accepting a brand as an abstract construct that, in the spirit of Justice Potter Stewart, we may not be able to explain what it is, but we know it when we see it.

While we may not be able to perfectly define a brand, the following list offers a few “guidelines” for helping marketers think in terms of “branding.”

  1. Brands are consistent, but “consistency” doesn’t make brands. Even “off brand” products on the bottom shelves of big box retailers have logos and package designs, but that doesn’t mean they’re branded in the same sense as Nike or Apple. These brands are typically utilitarian. They don’t, in most cases, stir any emotional feelings or associations.
  2. Brands are irrational. For the most part, anyway. There is no real reason to pay $75 more for an athletic shoe made in the same factory from the same materials that just happens to have a “special symbol” on the tongue, whereas its cousin does not. Of course, brand irrationality doesn’t always take the form of higher cost. Some brands have “low cost” as part of their DNA. For these brands, customers receive perceived “value” even when the real value is subject to debate.
  3. Brands are agnostic of media. Media is a channel by which brands communicate, but true brands can and do exist outside of media. Back to the “brand personification” notion, think of it in terms of the axiom “the clothes don’t make the man . . .”
  4. Brands are sustained. Some would argue this point, but I firmly believe that a true brand must be one that is sustained and sustainable. People’s personalities are shaped and formed as they matriculate, just the same as with brands. Related to point #1 about branding and consistency not being one the same, that is also true of brands and awareness. A “blitz” can create high awareness of a product in the short term, but if the effort isn’t somehow sustained, it won’t develop into a brand.

Seriously, you will know it when you see it.