What Is a Brand, and Why Does It Matter?

October 30, 2019 4 min read8

“Brand” is one of those terms that gets thrown around so often that it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s used to reference product companies like Coca-Cola or Tesla, service companies like WeWork or UPS, or even individual people who tout their own “personal brands.”

The term has a fascinating history, as it’s actually linked to the word “brand” that we associate more commonly with livestock. Throughout history, branding irons have been used to put marks on livestock to signify ownership. Knowing the owner of the animal has historically provided additional context about what to expect.

At first glance, this concept might seem to have no relation to today’s idea of a brand, but the two concepts serve the same purpose. Today’s brands don’t use branding irons, but they use similar symbols to create an association in the mind of the consumer. 

So, what is a brand, really?

At its core, a brand is a symbol that differentiates your concept—whatever that may be—from other existing concepts. It’s a signal to consumers about how they should set their expectations. 

“The Intangible Sum of a Product’s Attributes”

David Ogilvy, revered advertising executive, used his own brand definition. He defined it as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” This definition is widely accepted because it takes into consideration the fact that some product “attributes” can’t be seen, heard, or touched. Abstract attributes like the emotions a product makes you feel or the personality you associate with a company are just as important as tangible features. 

You’ve probably had the experience of associating emotions with a brand even if you didn’t consciously recognize it. Many people who think of popular outdoor brand Patagonia sense a feeling of adventure and exploration, while Disney is known for feelings of magic and child-like joy. Google’s messaging often taps into feelings of curiosity, while Red Bull’s messaging promotes thrill and adrenaline. 

Often, brands don’t explicitly tell you that you should associate these attributes with their brand. Instead, they convey these traits subliminally, weaving them through the themes of their other messaging and content. That’s the power of these abstract attributes—they can impact your perception of the brand without you even knowing it.

Another important point here is that the “intangible sum of attributes” will be different for every consumer. Your brand doesn’t have a fixed identify; it takes on a personal meaning and unique set of characteristics for each individual. In effect, each brand interpretation only exists in one person’s mind. You could even argue that there is no collective “brand” for any company—just a compilation of individual assessments. 

Brands are also not static, so they can mean something different to the same person over time. For example, a consumer might elevate her perception of a brand if it receives positive press or if she sees a compelling brand video. On the other hand, her perception might become more negative if she has an unsatisfying personal experience with the product or service. Every touchpoint with the brand provides an opportunity to influence the impression a consumer has constructed.

How should this impact my marketing strategy?

At this point, you might be wondering how your brand should influence your marketing strategy, or vice versa. Since consumers reevaluate their perception of a brand with every new interaction, marketing presents a powerful opportunity to nudge your consumers in a positive direction. There are two main points to keep in mind when it comes to optimizing your marketing strategy for your brand. 

Be Consistent

If your content is inconsistent, your audience may have a hard time interpreting your message. The goal is to make it easy for your audience to craft a general impression of your brand and the qualities (tangible and intangible) associated with it. To accomplish this goal, you may want to start with a discussion about which traits you want to associate with your brand. Once everyone is on the same page about those traits, make a plan to align your consumer touchpoints around them. 

Consistency presents a challenge for businesses whose departments are overly compartmentalized. If the person sharing video content on social media is using different guidelines than the person making product packaging, consumers may not be able to connect the dots. They could end up thinking your brand is two separate brands, or they might have contradicting perceptions that are difficult to reconcile. 

Avoid all of this by getting on the same page from the beginning. Your audience will sense the alignment, and you’ll build a stronger association in their minds.

Deliver on Your Promises

Since so much of a brand is rooted in consumer expectations, it’s crucial that your messaging sets accurate expectations. Don’t make promises that your brand can’t support, like exaggerating your product features or associating your service with a quality you don’t provide.

For example, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have very separate brands. Since their consumer bases have different shopping priorities, their messaging makes distinct claims. Whole Foods shouldn’t try to position themselves like Trader Joe’s, and vice versa. While they may be able to create effective marketing campaigns by mimicking each other, their audiences would be disappointed when the experience doesn’t match their expectations. 

What’s next for brands?

Ultimately, it doesn’t look like the term “brand” is going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it’s expanding and evolving as companies find new ways to engage consumers. No matter which approaches your marketing strategy includes, understanding the personal nature of branding is critical to making effective connections. 

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