What is a brand?

Branding. You know the term. But do you know what it actually means? If you have trouble putting your finger on a clear definition for brand, you’re not alone. For a concept so common and critical to long-term success, it’s remarkable how many business owners have an incomplete picture of what a brand is, and why a brand strategy is important to their business.

When I said “brand”, what was the first image that sprang to mind? Something like this?


Well, OK, that *is branding*, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Maybe you pictured something like this:


No, your logo is not your brand.
A logo is usually (but not always) a central part of how you represent your brand visually–it’s a part of the visual identity of your brand, which is in turn only part of your brand. BRAND > VISUAL IDENTITY > LOGO.

Your visual identity is important. Visual identity is everything about how your business looks: imagery (pictures / illustrations / graphics / videos), how you arrange information and use empty “white” space, the typography (“font”) of the text, and your color choices. Your visual identity will be the first contact many consumers have with your brand, and a well-implemented visual strategy starts the customer experience off on the right foot.

Having a logo isn’t a requirement for a brand.
Clint Eastwood has a brand (or is a brand) and doesn’t have a logo. And his brand is well understood: Tough guy. Strong, silent type. Probably a good guy, fighting the bad guys. Isn’t afraid to get a little Dirty.

You know all this without a logo.

Would you be surprised to see Clint Eastwood in a light romantic comedy? I’m guessing “yes”, because comedies aren’t his brand (and romance movies, too). Sleepless in Seattle with Clint Eastwood instead of Tom Hanks would have been a very different movie. The consistency of his career choices–the movies he’s been in and the kinds of roles he takes–have defined his brand.

When I wrote “brand”, maybe you where thinking this?

Closer, but not the whole story.
Many people use the terms “brand” and “company” interchangeably. As in, ‘Gucci’ is a brand and ‘Apple’ is a brand. Or the idea that a brand is a product, or group of products. ‘Chex’ and ‘Heinz’ and ‘Cheerios’ are brands in a way that ‘Proctor and Gamble’ is not. This understanding of ‘brand’ isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s incomplete. Companies are often brands… but brands are never just a company.

When you read “Gucci” a moment ago, what did you think of? Luxurious? Expensive? Exclusive? Over-priced? Ridiculous? Whatever your impression of it was, THAT is its brand. Gucci opened its first shop in 1938; every year in business since has shaped our concept of the brand. The Gucci brand is what you think of it.

Marketing guru Seth Godin said, “A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product over another.”

Your brand is experiences, past and future

Your brand is the sum of every interaction that customers have had, and will have, with your business. Everything your customer knows about you – your name, your product or service, your logo and packaging, how you do business, if you’re reliable or a good value or humorous, the hold music you chose… these are all your brand. Your brand is a concept, and idea, and a promise.

An incomplete list of things that define your brand:

    1. Your brand personality and tone of voice
    2. Type and quality of products and services
    3. Customer service philosophy
    4. Business processes and policies
    5. Other brands you associate with
    6. Communication channels (how you reach your customer)
    7. Marketing approach
    8. Business and social networking
    9. Your brand values

Your customer knows how your business feels and what the experience your brand. Will they have to wait before being served? Do you always slip a little bit extra into the bag when you ring them up? Do you remember their name and if they have kids? Do you always greet customers with a smile? Is your product return experience a confrontation or a pleasure? All of these mental pictures they have about your business, the sum of the customer expectations both positive and negative, is your brand.

Or maybe Jeff Bezos said it best, “Branding is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”

OK, my brand is ‘experiences’. Now what?

First, the bad news: You are not completely in your control of your brand.

Sometimes, despite your best effort, the customer has a negative experience. An employee has a bad day. An order delivery date slipped. You misunderstand their request. Maybe their perception of your brand is shaped by something they heard from a neighbor or *gasp* your competitor. Bad brand experiences happen. There’s no way around this even as some companies have spent millions of dollars in a futile effort to manage their brand completely.

The good news: You are almost completely in your control of your brand.

While not complete, most things about your brand are up-to-you, the result of choices you make (or don’t make) about your business. It’s not all about spending money, either. Many brand choices cost little or nothing to implement. Designing your menu so that customers can easily read it in low lighting costs nothing. Choosing classical music instead of country, or vice versa, for your hold music, price: $0. Always using the same typeface on all your marketing materials: free. Matte finish instead of glossy finish? No charge.

“Brand building” is essentially defining and implementing a thousand tiny choices. The most successful brands have invested time in thinking about, and giving attention to, a myriad of seemingly minor details, all of which add up to make their brand.  Making all these choices can be hard (though there are tools that can help). Consistently delivering on the choices is harder yet.

Brand consistency is key

Whatever you decide about your brand, it should be a intentional decision and shared with your entire team, top-to-bottom. This isn’t a one-time exercise; your brand strategy shapes every aspect of your company going forward. It succeeds when you’ve clearly defined your brand, internalized it, and it informs your decisions. A brand isn’t a facade that sits between the customer and your business–it is your business.

One step at a time

Ok, take a breath. If you aren’t already thinking about your business in terms of a brand, this might feel overwhelming. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Brands are living, breathing things that grow and change over time. Your brand strategy is a process, not a destination, and a constant opportunity to improve and strengthen your relationship with your customers.

Look for incremental improvements, find the changes that give you the greatest return on your investment, and start with the things that are easiest to implement by your team. Celebrate small successes as you get used to a new way of working. You brand will get there, and your business will be better for it.

We’ll help build your brand

Grow is your dedicated resource for business strategy, brand building, and identity design. When you’re ready to make the leap, we’re here to give you a leg up.

Let’s get started.

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