Ah, the fundamental question at the heart of it all: just what is a brand, anyway?
“Brand” is one of those words that everyone in business and marketing uses, but not everyone actually understands.
In what follows, we’ll bring clarity to the concept by exploring questions and topics including:
- What is a Brand?
- What is the Business Value of a Brand?
- What are the Elements of a Brand?
- What is Branding?
- Why Invest in Branding?
- The Takeaway
Only by understanding brands and branding can you put these powerful tools to work for the growth of your business.
What is a Brand?
A brand is the way a product, company, or individual is perceived by those who experience it. Much more than just a name or a logo, a brand is the recognizable feeling these assets evoke.
Think of a brand. Any brand. We’re pretty big fans of Apple around here, so we’ll go with that.
What is the Apple brand?
It isn’t computers and phones and other cool stuff we can’t live without. Those are the products Apple manufactures.
And it isn’t slick TV ads or dramatically staged presentations or chicly minimalist storefronts. That’s all marketing and advertising. It’s admittedly pretty cool marketing and advertising, but still.
Even Apple’s name and logo don’t encompass what we mean when we talk about the Apple brand.
It turns out the Apple brand isn’t any “thing” in the classical sense of the word. You can’t hold it or hear it or even touch it.
That’s because brands live in the mind. They live in the minds of everyone who experiences them: employees, investors, the media, and, perhaps most importantly, customers.
Simply put, brands are perceptions.
What is the Business Value of a Brand?
Brands are business tools that drive measurable ROI. Apple’s brand may be intangible but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the single most valuable thing that Apple owns.
As we learned in the previous section, Apple’s brand is how the company is perceived by those who experience it.
The forward-thinking, seamless experience of the Apple brand has become an inextricable part of the identities of a legion of devoted followers.
The Apple brand is the reason you literally couldn’t pay many Apple customers to use any other product.
For this reason, Apple’s brand is the company’s ultimate competitive advantage. And as such, its brand is Apple’s most valuable asset. Nothing else even comes close.
A strong brand increases the chances of customers choosing your product or service over your competitors. It attracts more customers, at a lower cost per acquisition, who are happy to pay a little more and will buy a little more often.
To better understand what a brand is and why it is so valuable, let’s start by breaking it down to its fundamental elements.
What are the Elements of a Brand?
Brands comprise a variety of different elements. It helps to take a look at the most important elements of a brand, as these are the purview of the next concept we’ll explore in this post: branding.
The fundamental elements of a brand include the brand compass, brand archetype, brand personality, competitive advantage, brand promise, visual and verbal identity, and brand experience.
The brand compass is a summary of the most fundamental truths about your brand. It’s the outcome of the work done in the brand strategy phase, including research and positioning.
A brand compass charts the direction your company is headed and why. It is made up of five parts: your purpose, vision, mission, values, and strategic objectives.
Your purpose is the answer to the most fundamental question your company faces: why? Your vision is the ultimate end state you hope to bring about with your work.
Your mission outlines how you plan to achieve your vision and your strategic objectives are real world milestones you establish to measure your progress.
Of all the tools for brand development, only brand archetypes can give your brand the strength of a profound, shared human experience dating back tens of thousands of years.
Inspired by thinkers including Plato, Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell, archetypes are ideas or concepts that every human is innately familiar with, by virtue of being a human, regardless of culture or society.
By identifying which archetype your brand embodies, you can tell a powerful story about your brand that will resonate with audiences because of concepts they’re already innately familiar with.
Brand personality is the unique spectrum of characteristics and behaviors that are unique to a brand. Its personality is how your brand would look and sound if it were a person.
Brand personality is what makes Apple the chic, minimalist auteur, or REI the rugged, pioneering outdoorsman.
A brand’s personality is the reason it is identifiable to its loyal customers and the basis for the highly personal relationships they form with it.
Your competitive advantage is the thing you do better than any other business.
Defining a sustainable competitive advantage is critical for any business looking to differentiate itself from its competitors. Just as critical is clearly articulating your competitive advantage to your target audience.
For most businesses, a singular value proposition like price or speed of delivery will never be sustainable as a competitive advantage.
Developing a framework that takes into consideration your business’s unique value, the customers you serve, and the competition you’re up against is the best approach to defining your competitive advantage.
Your brand promise is the solemn pledge you make to those you serve. Think “safety” and Volvo. For decades, Volvo has promised their customers the safest cars on the market. And they’ve delivered on it.
Your brand promise is expressed in many forms: taglines, messaging, advertisements, social media, and beyond. It can be explicitly stated or subtly implied.
An explicit brand promise is more immediate than an implicit one, but it’s important to keep in mind: the more explicit your promise, the higher the expectations that you will deliver on it.
The most important part of any brand promise is that it is kept—every time.
Your brand’s visual identity is the integrated system of visual elements that make it recognizable and differentiated. These include your logo, color scheme, typography, photography, iconography, etc.
An effective visual identity will embody all of the defining characteristics of your brand, including your brand compass, personality, promise, and archetype.
Your brand’s visual identity is its stamp on the world—an aesthetic system full of meaning that has the power to communicate your brand’s essence in a visual instant to all who experience it.
In contrast to its visual identity, your brand’s verbal identity is the integrated system of words and messaging that differentiate your brand and make it recognizable to audiences.
A brand’s name and tagline are its most immediate face to the world. They should be replete with meaning—either intrinsically or as the result of methodical brand narrative.
Its verbal identity humanizes your brand, making it identifiable to your customers. In every instance in which your brand’s voice is heard, whether via marketing collateral, advertising scripts, or website copy, your customers should be able to recognize it immediately—like an old friend on the other end of the telephone.
What is Branding?
Branding is the act of shaping how a company, organization, or individual is perceived.
Customer perceptions themselves don’t go out and buy iPhones. But they are critically important for one reason: perceptions dictate behavior.
Even perceptions that we’re unaware of have the ability to profoundly affect how we act. Research in experimental social psychology has shown that while we might think we’re in total control of our actions, our behavior is often influenced by stimuli we’re completely unaware of.
How an individual perceives a brand (consciously or unconsciously) wholly determines how he or she will engage with that brand. The power of branding hinges a very important truth about perceptions:
Perceptions are malleable.
Branding has the power to shape our perceptions because those perceptions are susceptible to being shaped. They practically cry out for it. Whether we know it or not, we are constantly searching for meaning and order in the world around us. Without it, we’re lost. We want our realities to make sense.
As far as our brains are concerned, there’s no practical difference between perception and reality. What we perceive is what is real to us. This is where the real power of branding lies. If branding can shape our perceptions, and our perceptions are our reality, it follows that:
Branding has the power to shape reality.
That might sound like hyperbole, but in a very real sense, it’s true. The power of branding to architect consumer reality is why companies like Apple spend millions of dollars on it every year.
Whether with corporate branding, healthcare branding, product branding, or any other type of branding, when you effectively leverage the ability to architect reality, you’re able to sway consumers’ purchasing behavior in immeasurably valuable ways.
Let’s take a closer look at three important elements of branding: brand positioning, brand architecture, and brand experience.
Brand positioning is critical to communicating your brand’s unique value to those you serve. In positioning your brand, you define the unique place it occupies in the minds of those you serve.
How are you different than your competitors? Are you a luxury brand or a budget brand? Are you provocative or conservative? Indulgent or practical?
Each of these qualities exists as a spectrum in your customer’s mind. Where your brand exists on the various spectra that are relevant to your brand category is how it is positioned.
Brand positioning shapes customer preferences, dictates buying behavior, and serves as the basis for customer loyalty. The world’s strongest brands are positioned in ways that feel timeless and intrinsic.
A brand audit is one of the best ways to assess your brand’s positioning and that of your top competitors.
By first understanding your customers, your competition, and your brand’s unique value proposition, you can ensure your brand is positioned as distinct, valuable, and impossible to forget.
Brand architecture is the coordinated system of names, colors, symbols, and visual language that defines a brand or brands.
Superior brand architecture is highly intentional and intuitive, founded on research into customer experience.
Brand architecture systems are commonly categorized as either monolithic, endorsed, or pluralistic. Monolithic brand architecture comprises a singular master brand and multiple sub-brands. Endorsed and pluralistic architectures comprise parent brands with varying relationships to the divisions over which they preside.
An intuitive brand architecture is the best way to bring your business’s range of offerings into focus, letting you better cross-promote them and gain control over how your brand is perceived by consumers.
Finally, brand experience includes all the ways a customer can experience your brand. How it looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes. From your website and mobile experience to your in-store and product experiences, and everything in between.
The best brand experiences are those born from purpose that are meaningful, memorable, authentic—and, above all, consistent.
Cultivating an effective brand experience is the most powerful way to stoke customer loyalty and set the stage for the ongoing growth of your business.
Why Invest in Branding?
As we’ve seen, brands are ultimately perceptions. It’s ironic, then, that the hesitancy of some CEOs to invest in branding boils down to a matter of perception as well.
It isn’t easy to draw direct correlations between successful branding and quantifiable returns. But the simple fact is you can’t put a price on the value of developing a truly authentic brand.
The operative word here is “investment.” Too many companies see branding as just another expense counted against their marketing budget.
But when you understand how integral branding is to influencing consumer behavior, you see that it’s more than just a tactic.
Branding is a long-term strategy that can yield measurable returns throughout the life of your company.
Take a look at just five of the top returns you’ll get from your branding investment:
Attract Ideal Customers
Central to any branding initiative is customer research. In-depth interviews, focus groups, and online surveys enable you to precisely identify which customer types align with your company’s purpose and values.
With this information, you can create clearly defined audience personas and craft messaging that’s specifically targeted at your ideal customers.
Ideal customers aren’t just more likely to buy what you’re selling; they’re also significantly more loyal in their relationship with your brand. And few things are more valuable than brand loyalty.
Increase Marketing Effectiveness
The easiest way to make your marketing efforts more effective is to invest in the brand they stem from.
When your brand is cohesive and well-articulated, your marketing initiatives will be too. Branding encompasses the essential “first steps” that define your core messaging, brand personality, and tenable marketplace position.
The customer research involved in branding allows you to develop targeted marketing campaigns that are highly relevant to your most valuable customer segments.
A bold new identity makes every marketing touchpoint more engaging, while the guidelines and templates that come out of branding will save you time and money on the content of all your future initiatives.
Close Deals More Easily
Ask any salesperson on the frontlines of commission warfare and they’ll tell you: Well-defined, strategically positioned brands are just easier to sell.
That’s because value propositions are built into the brand narrative of a well-positioned brand. This takes a huge weight off of the shoulders of its sales team because a good portion of their work has already been done well before they engage with potential customers.
Branding gives your sales force a unique advantage, better enabling them to close deals quickly and confidently.
Command Higher Prices
It’s true what they say: customers don’t buy products, they buy brands. And customers are willing to pay premium prices for brands they perceive as superior.
A white t-shirt from Hanes will cost you about $5. A white t-shirt with an Armani tag will run you north of $150.
Effective branding enables you to position your company as an industry leader with value propositions that none of your competitors can offer.
This type of meaningful differentiation has tangible value built into it. It solidifies your worth and allows you to command higher prices for your goods or services.
Boost Business Value
Never underestimate the power of brand equity. In addition to justifying increased price points on your offerings, it can also have a positive effect on your share price.
Stronger brands realize stronger financial performance. The long-term result of branding is that your company itself is worth more when you’re ready to exit.
Not unlike the cost of home renovation, an investment in branding delivers valuable returns when the time comes to negotiate a selling price.
In her seminal book Designing Brand Identity, branding expert Alina Wheeler encapsulates the internal/external upshot of branding like this:
“Branding is a disciplined process used to build awareness and extend customer loyalty. It requires a mandate from the top and readiness to invest in the future. Branding is about seizing every opportunity to express why people should choose one brand over another. A desire to lead, outpace the competition, and give employees the best tools to reach customers are the reasons why companies leverage branding.”
Leading an industry as an organization, outpacing the competition, empowering employees—according to the experts, branding is an indisputably powerful process.
When you understand what a brand is, how it is created, and the measurable returns that come from investing in branding, this power becomes evident.
Branding pays dividends over the life of your company, enabling you to attract better customers with lower marketing costs, all while commanding higher prices for your offerings.
Smoother sales, increased customer loyalty, the multifaceted benefits of brand equity—the list of benefits goes on.
At the end of the day, though, your brand is the way the world perceives your company. What could be a smarter investment than shaping that perception?