Ok, I’m going to pose a simple question. What exactly is a brand? Now wait, wait, wait! Sheesh! Give me a minute before you write this off as just another boring fluff piece addressing a topic that everyone has already come to a consensus about. I want you to consider that what a lot of people know to be true about brands is wrong. And it’s no fault of their own. In the design and marketing industries there are an overwhelming number of terms and definitions thrown around. Many of these words and phrases are very closely related or mean the same thing. Or, even more confusing, they mean something totally different depending on the context they’re used in.
Maybe you know a great deal about what it means to have a brand. Or maybe you’ve heard about it and only have a partial understanding of it’s meaning. Heck, maybe you’ve never heard about it at all. Either way, by the time you finish reading this, I hope to have provided you with clear information and insights that gift you with a better understanding of brands. Or, at least confirmed what you know to be true.
So, here’s my question again. I want you to ponder your answer before you continue reading.
What is a brand?
I think it’s easier to approach this question by first establishing what a brand is not. So, here goes. A brand is not:
So, wait. If a brand is none of these things, then what the heck is it? As defined by branding legend Marty Neumeier, a brand is “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” That’s right! A brand is not a self-proclaimed status or characteristic. In fact, it has nothing to do with the people who own or work in a company.
A brand is what other people say it is. And until there are enough people experiencing the same gut feeling, the company doesn’t really have a brand.
Companies do not dictate or control what their brand is. Much like you and I can’t control what another person thinks or feels. We can, however, influence these thoughts and feelings. This is exactly what companies do. They take strategic steps to sway the way individuals feel when they think about or encounter their products or services. This is the art of branding.
What is Branding?
Branding is any and every step a company takes to shape its perception in the eyes of the public. With that being said, let me clarify another misconception. Branding is not just designing a visual identity. It goes so much deeper than what things look like. Branding is research, clarity, application, and consistency.
While the branding process is different for each organization, it generally includes:
As you can see, the development of a visual identity falls way down on the branding list. That’s because it takes all the strategy above it to truly create an identity that is appropriate, unique, memorable, and effective.
And the process of branding never stops. It is iterative and continual. Because companies learn and grow and things like economies, technology, and customer preferences often change, there must be a regular analysis and refinement of their branding. This helps to ensure that the brand can pivot and innovate when necessary.
Why does it matter?
Brand. Branding. Blah, blah, blah. Why should you care. Maybe you shouldn’t lol. Unless you’re a business owner. Then you should definitely care! It’s very difficult to compete in saturated markets (this just means there’s a whole lot of people offering the same thing you are) if you can’t stand out. This is especially true for small businesses trying to compete with large retailers.
How does a local coffee shop compete with the likes of Starbucks and Dunkin’? They do it by tailoring their offerings to a specific type of coffee drinker. Maybe someone who appreciates an intimate setting with more personal service. Maybe someone who has a little more spare time and prefers to enjoy their coffee from a mug instead of a plastic container. They do it by creating an atmosphere in the mind of that customer.
This is achieved through branding. And if you want to do it successfully, you need to go much deeper than a logo or color palette. You need to know who you are, what your value is, and who it’s for. Then do everything in your power to get that message to your target audience. This is how small businesses survive.
So, let’s review. A brand is not a name, logo, or color palette. It’s the gut feeling people have when they think about your business. You can’t control your brand, but you can influence it through proper branding. This involves defining your business, scoping out the competition, identifying your target audience, and crafting a message and visual identity that will resonate with them. Branding is how small businesses compete and survive in today’s markets.
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