Your brand is one of your business’s most valuable assets.
But while the term is thrown around a lot these days, most business leaders couldn’t actually define “brand” if you asked them to—or tell you why your brand so important to business success.
If you’ve ever found yourself wondering “Just what is a brand, anyway?” (or even the more philosophical question “What is brand?”), this post is for you.
We’ll walk you through a brand definition, unpack all the elements a successful brand should include, and even make the case for why your brand is critical to the growth of your business.
After all, only by understanding what a “brand” is can you put this powerful tool to work for your business.
What is a Brand?
A brand is the sum of how a product or business is perceived by those who experience it—including customers, investors, employees, the media, and more. Branding is the process of shaping these perceptions.
A brand, then, is more than just a company’s name, logo, product, or price tag. It’s more than the marketing and advertising around these things. A brand is the consistent and recognizable feeling that all of these things evoke.
The fact that brands are essentially intangible doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely valuable business assets. The way a customer feels about a business influences their purchasing behavior, after all, which directly impacts the business’s bottom line.
There’s a reason the world’s most successful companies invest millions of dollars every year in strengthening their brands.
What are the Elements of a Brand?
To better understand what we mean by “brand,” it helps to break the idea down into a handful of fundamental elements. The elements of a brand correspond to the many ways a business or product can be perceived.
Understanding the different elements of a brand is also the starting point for any branding or rebranding initiative. Working with data and insights from brand research, the goal of a branding or rebranding project is to define or redefine each of the following brand elements.
The end result of such work is usually documented in a formal brand framework document, sometimes called a brand brief or brand guidelines. This brand framework document is an essential asset for marketing teams (and really anyone tasked with bringing the brand to life internally or externally). It helps to ensure the most important thing for any strong company brand: consistency.
Let’s take a closer look at 10 elements of a brand:
Any comprehensive brand framework starts with brand positioning. In positioning your brand, you define its distinct location within the competitive landscape—as well the place it occupies in the minds of those you serve.
Positioning begins by defining your brand category (i.e., the industry or vertical you operate in) so you can assess how your brand is differentiated from other brands in the same space. The best way to do this is with a competitive brand audit, which will provide valuable insight into your brand vis-à-vis your most salient competitors.
Are you a budget brand or a luxury brand? Are you edgy or traditional? Indulgent or pragmatic?
Each of these qualities exists as a spectrum in the mind of your customer. Where your brand exists on those spectra that are most 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.
An in-depth understanding of your competitive landscape, as well as insight into the needs of your customers will enable you to more effectively positioning your brand in a way is distinct and uniquely valuable to those you serve.
Brand architecture is the coordinated system of names, colors, symbols, and visual language that defines the organizational structure of a brand or brands.
Effective brand architecture is highly intentional, founded on research into customer experience, and structured to articulate a brand’s key offerings in the most intuitive way possible.
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.
The most quantifiable benefit of an intuitive brand architecture is that it brings your business’s range of offerings into sharper focus, enabling you to more effectively cross-promote them while influencing how your brand is perceived by customers.
Brand Compass (Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values)
Your brand compass is a summary of the most fundamental truths about your brand. It’s an invaluable tool for charting where your business is headed and, more importantly, why.
A brand compass is made up of four parts: your purpose, vision, mission, values, and strategic objectives.
Your purpose statement is the answer to the most fundamental question your company faces: why? Why do you get out of bed in the morning to do what you do (beyond making money)?
Your vision statement describes the ultimate end state you hope to bring about with your work. What would the world look like if your business was optimally successful?
Your mission charts the route to your vision by outlining what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, whom you’re doing it for, and why. This is your chance to spell out in detail the inspiration and direction behind the work you do.
Finally, your core values describe what is most important to your organization. They are the set of principles that unites your workforce and inspires their collective efforts. Your values are the foundation of your company culture.
Each part of the brand compass should strengthen and support the others. Together, they serve as a both an ethical framework for company culture and a strategic framework for business performance.
Of all the tools for brand development, only brand archetypes 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. They come to life as instantly recognizable characters in stories throughout the ages, from Gilgamesh, to Camelot, to Star Wars.
Brand archetypes are inspired by these timeless characters, like the hero, the innocent, the adventurer, and the sage. Each brand archetype is rife with intrinsic meaning and a narrative all its own.
Identifying which archetype your brand embodies gives you the foundation for a powerful story that will resonate with audiences because of concepts they’re already innately familiar with.
Brand personality is how your brand would look and sound if it were a person. Not unlike people, each brand has unique collection of characteristics and behaviors that make it relatable and identifiable.
Its brand personality is what makes REI the rugged, adventurous outdoorsman, and Red Bull the wild, adventuresome daredevil. Because these brands have cultivated engaging, consistent personalities, the way they look, feel, and sound is instantly recognizable—across channels and touchpoints.
Your brand personality should be evident in everything from your corporate identity to your brand story. It’s one of the most effective ways to create authentic connections with those you serve.
Whether we like it or not, we all relate to the brands in our lives like old friends. The ones we keep coming back to have reliable and relatable personalities. They make it easy for us to see the best part of ourselves in them.
Your brand promise is the solemn pledge you make to those you serve. Few things in branding are quite as powerful as a strong brand promise. Want proof? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when think of a Volvo?
If you said “safety” you’re in good company. The reason most people immediately associate safety with Volvo is that it is the brand promise the company has made to customers—and delivered on—for decades.
Your company brand promise can be communicated in many forms: taglines, messaging, advertisements, social media, and beyond. It can either be explicitly stated or implicitly suggested.
An explicitly communicated brand promise is more immediate than an implicit one, but it’s important to keep in mind: the more explicitly you communicate your promise, the higher the expectations that you will deliver on it.
Which brings us to the most important part of any brand promise: that it is kept—every time.
Your value proposition is your brand’s central or overarching benefit to those it serves. A good value proposition plainly explains how your brand meets the unique needs of its target audience.
Distinct from a tagline or slogan, which are generally written to be catchy, recognizable hooks across marketing and advertising initiatives, a value proposition is a more straightforward declaration of the ultimate value a customer can expect to receive from your brand.
Defining your value proposition is critical to ensuring that everyone within your brand is speaking in a unified voice when articulating how you improve customers’ lives.
A powerful value proposition has the following three qualities: It addresses customers’ needs, uses clear yet distinct language, and is believable and provable.
Your competitive advantage comprises the things you do better than any other business.
Defining a sustainable competitive advantage is critical for any business looking to establish competitive differentiation within the market landscape. For most businesses, a singular benefit like price or speed of delivery will never be sustainable as a competitive advantage.
This is why it’s better to consider multiple benefits when defining your competitive advantage. The intersection of three unique offerings is a reliable recipe for a sustainable competitive advantage that is believable as well as provable.
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’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.
Strong visual identities embody all of the defining elements of your brand, including your brand compass, personality, promise, and positioning. Which of the many types of logos you choose, for example, should be informed by strategic insights into how you want your brand to be perceived.
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 across channels and touchpoints.
A brand’s name and tagline are its most immediate manifestations of verbal identity. These key assets should be replete with brand meaning—either intrinsically or within the context of an extended brand narrative.
Much like its personality, one of the most important jobs of verbal identity is to humanize your brand, making it relatable to those it serves.
In every instance in which your brand’s voice is heard, whether in marketing collateral, advertising scripts, or website copy, its audience should be able to recognize it immediately—like an old friend on the other end of the telephone.
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.
Cultivating an engaging brand experience is one of the most powerful ways to stoke customer loyalty and set the stage for ongoing business growth. That’s because customers resonate with brands that have created a cohesive ecosystem of imagery, messaging, and product experiences.
Think of Apple. Every time a customer walks into an Apple store or sees an Apple ad on TV, they are transported to a minimalist world of design and imagination. The company’s brand experience reliably delivers on a creative yet intelligent style that legions of loyal customers want to be associated with.
As is evident with a brand like Apple, the best brand experiences are those born from purpose. They are meaningful, memorable, authentic—and, above all, consistent.
Why Invest in Your Brand?
So, why go to the trouble of defining all the elements of your brand outlined above?
The answer is that each element plays a critical role in shaping how your business is perceived—both internally and externally. And, as we’ve seen, how an individual perceives a brand determines how they will engage with that brand. This includes customers and employees alike.
Whether with corporate branding, healthcare branding, product branding, or any other type of branding, the ability to shape customer perception shapes purchasing behavior in immeasurably valuable ways.
And shaping the perception of internal stakeholders including employees and board members is just as important. Only by investing in employer branding can you hope to build a strong, authentic company culture that will attract—and retain—top talent.
In her seminal book Designing Brand Identity, branding expert Alina Wheeler encapsulates the upshot of branding like this:
“Branding is a disciplined process used to build awareness and extend customer loyalty. It 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.”
The bottom line is that 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.
When you understand how integral your brand is to influencing 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 business.
Let’s take a closer look at 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 customer 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 that unites them all.
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 a sales team because a good portion of their work has already been done—well before they engage with potential customers.
A strong brand 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.
Case in point: A white t-shirt from Hanes will cost you about $10. A white t-shirt with an Armani tag will run you north of $200.
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.
When you understand what it is, what it includes, and the measurable returns that come from investing in it, it becomes clear just how powerful a brand is as a business tool.
A strong brand 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, your brand is the way the world perceives your business. What could be a smarter investment than shaping that perception?