What is a brand?

Brands and branding defined, and the essential characteristics of brands

The modern practice of branding grew from the consumer products that have always lined our supermarket aisles. Brands have now grown to include the stores themselves, the businesses behind the products, and onto almost anything a group of people can produce, offer or stand for.

Whatever the entity, there is a basic definition that all brands have in common. At it’s most basic, a brand is the ideas and perceptions audiences have about a product or service.

Your brand starts with the promises you make, and then comes into existence through the reputation you have for delivering on those promises. This is two-way relationship: your efforts to express yourself, and the responses your audiences have.

The important point is that a brand is earned. Your brand doesn’t come into being just because you have a well-packaged product or content-rich website. Your brand exists when, and only when, your audiences are motivated enough to give you a share of their attention.

Brands and branding

There is an important distinction here between “brand” and “branding”.

  • Brand – is all the perceptions people have about you. Brand in this sense is a noun, the asset of the collected goodwill (or otherwise) that exists in the minds of your audiences. Your brand is an outcome that happens with your audiences.
  • Branding – is the all activities you undertake to define, connect and grow the brand with your audiences. Branding is an on-going process (the verb if you like), and your brand is a response to the stimulus of your branding activity.

How do brands work?

Brands exist because they are built on basic human instincts.

When surrounded by choice, or presented with something new, we tend to do two things. One is to categorise – we put stuff in boxes (“what kind of thing is this?” or “what does this remind me of?”), and the other is to attach meaning and nuance (“is this for someone like me?” or “how does this make me feel?”).

Even if a product or service did absolutely nothing to develop or promote their brand, we would still categorise and build a set of perceptions based on our interactions. They would have a brand in the mind of their audiences whether they choose to or not.

In practice, brands become mental shorthand – a brand acts as the key to a mental repository. Once a brand is embedded in the mind of a consumer, it is a container for all the collected associations, memories and perceptions that person has – both positive and negative – about a product or service. The brand is the name someone gives that container.

You can see this working for yourself. Think of a brand name like Coca-Cola -product features might immediately come to mind like the taste, the red logotype, the contoured bottle, and the dark liquid. There may also be the advertising taglines and jingles, the fridge at your local store, and the Santa advertisements. And there could also be associations of globalisation, sugar, obesity and chemicals. All of these, and more, could be in your mental container marked “Coca-Cola”.

Branding ideals

There are a range of terms commonly used to describe the essential characteristics of successful brands.

  • Meaning
    Your brand must stand for something relevant and of value to audiences.
    Meaning helps build consensus, and provides a rallying point.
  • Authenticity
    Being true to the organisation, and practising what you preach.
    Is about self-knowledge and connection to origins, purpose and values.
  • Differentiation
    Standing apart from the competition by making your brand distinctive.
    Being easily recognisable as unique, with unique advantages to your audiences.
  • Relevance
    Knowing your audience and how you can contribute to their lives.
    Being helpful, as well as easy to understand, purchase and use.
  • Coherence
    Being consistent and reliable, this includes a seamless presentation across all channels.
    Your brand doesn’t need to be exact, but it must feel right wherever it is experienced.
  • Commitment
    Your brand is understood and protected all levels of your organisation.
    Making constant efforts to keep your brand healthy and supported.