What is brand and branding?

Branding: It's Everywhere

Everywhere you go you are inundated, and dare I say attacked, by branding.

We are surrounded by products, services, and organizations that have been thoughtfully and intentionally branded.

Think about your day today.

From the time you woke up to this very moment that you are reading these words, you’ve interacted with branding - what shirt did you choose to wear in your closet, what brand of coffee did you brew or buy, what car did you drive, what mobile phone did you use, what computer do you use, what restaurant or activity are you going to frequent after work today?

All our decisions, whether we like it or not are driven by branding.  

Brands: An Extension Of Who You Are

Going a bit further, I believe that we actually see ourselves as a composite of the brands we choose to join. Notice I said “join” and not buy.

We associate as part of a certain group when choosing a specific brand. It’s not just a mere transaction, it’s your personality, your character. We want to identify with the people we either see ourselves as or want to become.  The parent who loves their children and will do whatever they can do to protect them -- even if it means buying a Volvo. Or the adventurer who buys outerwear designed for Everest, even though they live in the city and are walking from their apartment to the gym.  Or the environmentalist who buys shampoo that comes in a “green” certified, recycled bottle that also has an upscale feel.  Is she buying the shampoo or the image the shampoo reflects? Why that shampoo after all?

This is why we’re not really buying, but choosing amongst all the options that surround us each day.

La Croix
Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Personally, I’m made up of many brands just not one. I’m a Levi’s person for jeans, a Sony person for cameras, a Patagonia person for outerwear, an Airstream person for travel trailers, an Apple person for phones and computers, a LaCroix and Liquid Death person for seltzer water, a Qdoba person for burritos, currently a Jeep person for my car but secretly (and don’t tell my Jeep this) I’m really a Tesla or Rivian person, I’m a S’well person for water bottles, and Colorado person in the winter and a Pure Michigan person in the summer.

The list goes on and on.  Take a moment and think about the brands you affiliate with every day and how they make you feel. What do they say about you?

What kind of [Insert brands or the products/services you use each day] person are you?

Because when we choose to join a brand, we are also telling the world who we are.

So if we are surrounded by brands, impacted at every moment by branding it begs the question:

Deep Dive: So What Is Brand And Branding?

As the strategist and leader of the creative direction of the Colorado branding agency, Wildstory, it’s a question I hear almost every day. And while I think the question is usually rooted in general curiosity it’s a really big question. We should all be aware and thinking of branding for the reasons I previously mentioned.

When we choose to join a brand, we are also telling the world who we are.
- Marc Gutman

This is a question I’m going to answer in this article.

Today most branders quickly answer this big question with a simple answer: A brand is not a logo. And this is not incorrect but it's also not the full answer. And I believe you deserve more than an oversimplification of what might be the most important question any Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Marketing Leader, or Entrepreneur will have to answer for their business to be successful in today's competitive marketplace. So I'm going to give you the full answer in hopes you will understand how vital brand and branding is to to your business.

But for that, we’ll need to start at the beginning.  There are a ton of books on brand theory and proclaiming the “father” or “mother” of modern branding.

Yet the origins of branding were not the brainchild of one individual. Branding is innate to humankind and has been with us from the start of civilization.

A Brief History Of Branding

Branding started as a way to literally brand or sign your property.  Think of cattle roaming and grazing. There had to be a way to say these cattle are mine.

A brand was nothing more than a signature.

If we travel in the way-way-back machine and go back even further, it is believed that the blacksmiths who made swords in the Roman Empire were thought of as being the first users of trademarks. A way of signing their work and letting customers know who made (and intrinsically what that meant with regards to quality, sword philosophy, craftsmanship, etc) the sword.

The first legislative act concerning trademarks was passed in 1266 under the reign of Henry III, requiring all bakers to use a distinctive mark for the bread they sold.

Slices of bread
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk from Pexels

Turns out, even back then, customers wanted to know who made what bread products because certain bakers had a certain distinctive style that made them different AND by placing a distinctive mark the bakers took ownership of the product they sold.  So this is starting to sound a little like our brands and beliefs of today.

Beer, being the nectar of life for centuries has apparently been at the forefront of trademark and branding throughout history.  Stella Artois, which claims use of its mark since 1366, and Löwenbräu, which claims use of its lion mark since 1383 are some of the earliest examples.  Probably the most famous is that of Bass & Co’s Pale Ale who in 1876 registered for a trademark for the name and their distinctive red triangle mark. Bass wanted to protect their mark so it was theirs and no one else's because buying and drinking Bass & Co Pale Ale was distinctive to them and worth protecting. When thirsty customers, after a long day toiling at work ordered a Bass Pale Ale they wanted that unique perspective that was demonstrated in the ways that Bass chose to brew their product.

In the early 1900’s branding existed but was still unnamed. People of that time saw some of the first slogans like Coca-Cola’s “Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains”, the introduction of public relations (PR), and P&G invents the concept of “brand managers”.

During the Post-war, consumer boom a new profession emerged - that of the graphic designer. Graphic design and design systems begin to take off and proliferate the corporate landscape.  The idea of a “corporate identity” is born but for years it is focused solely on logo marks and their application.

The meteoric rise of television created an advertising platform that revolutionizes brands and how brands interact with our lives.  Famous agencies like Wolff Olins were founded in 1965. While they didn’t call themselves a “branding agency” at the time, at their core that’s what they were.

In 1972 Al Reis and Jack Trout wrote an article “Positioning: The Battle for your mind” which was published in Advertising Age. The radical and mind blowing concept of “Positioning” is born.

In 1984 Apple released their iconic “1984” TV ad representing a post-apocalyptic break from the masses. It was a commercial with a story, directed by a famous Hollywood director, and was a turning point for a brand built on beliefs, not products.

The 1990s dramatically changed the world and how we interact with brands.  During this time we experience the development of the internet, mobile phones and major global brands. We start to see branding mature as a discipline and some refer to the “science” of branding.  

The late 1990s brings us retailers whose stores become a brand experience.  Mega stores from Apple and Nike open in major cities across the globe.  In 1997 Apple launches their “Think Different” campaign.  It’s a call to action reminiscent of their 1984 campaign. The “Think Different” campaign is thinking differently itself (whoa… meta!) as it taps into both the Apple and the customer “why” or purpose.  By thinking different, I am an Apple person.  Customers all over the world see themselves as Albert Einstein, Frida Kahlolo, and John Lennon not as computer buyers.

Think different.
Image via Wikipedia

In 1998 and 1999 we as consumers start to “wake up” and experience a heightened awareness of how we are being marketed to.  Movies like The Truman Show and The Matrix are released and explore our realization that we are existing in a constructed reality.  Consumers start asking, “Is this real?” and questioning the authenticity of brands.

The 2000s become the time of the customer. Control of brands starts to shift from a one way conversation -- with the brands doing all the talking -- to a multi-channel conversation with customers controlling much of the brand conversation.  Customers have a loud voice on social media, review sites, and other content creation channels.  The power dynamic has shifted. Branding begins to take over from advertising. It’s no longer effective to tell the customer what they want.

Todays World: The Customer Tells The Brand What They Want And Need

How’s that for a power shift?!

This is the era of technology democratization and the start-up.  Blue oceans don’t last for long as new competitors flood the market. We are living in the age of commoditization or at the very least ubiquity.  Is there really any difference between your Patagonia Gore-Tex coat and your Arc’Teryx Gore-Tex coat?

What is the difference between an Apple computer and a Microsoft or Dell computer? They do the same job don’t they? Does one really perform better on Google Docs, Microsoft Word, Excel, email, or whatever tool you use to do your job on a daily basis?  

What about cars?  I would bet that if I lined up 100 cars in the same category - say luxury SUV - and debadged them you would probably have a hard time telling them apart or at the very least have trouble telling me who made the poor debadged vehicle.

Anyone can create almost any business model - did anyone think an eccentric billionaire, with no auto experience could create a new automobile segment based on alternative energy that would become one of the most recognizable and admired brands in the world? What about the same eccentric entrepreneur building his own rocket ships that take normal (albeit wealthy) people to space?

This illustrates that just about any business model, regardless of the barriers of entry, will have new entrants and competitors.  As competitors increase it creates infinite choices for customers.

How do we choose between Red Bull, Monster, NOs, Rockstar, Starbucks Energy, ZipFizz, 5 Hour Energy, etc?  Aren’t they all really the same?

If there really is no difference between products (and there really isn’t), the only difference is how companies connect with customers on an emotional level.

How about brand yourself as an action sports brand? Right, Red Bull? That’s way more emotional for a customer to look at your product and transform into Travis Rice or the next great BMX star than try and have them resonate with a syrupy, funky looking and tasting liquid isn’t it?

People are falling in love with brands, trust them, and believe in them.

Today, businesses are looking in the mirror and asking themselves the timeless questions: “What do we stand for? What do we value? Who are our customers, really? And what do they think of us?”

CEOs and Marketers are looking beyond the spreadsheet and searching for a common nomenclature to discuss why someone should choose their product or service, how do people feel about us after they buy, and could they even control and define the “why” and “how” of a business?

Up until now there really wasn’t a word or even idea that combined all these ideas: business strategy, identity (verbal and visual), culture, beliefs, values, the why, the emotional connection, the underlying connective tissue, and the how. The fascinating combination of the magical and the logical.

And today the word “brand” and “branding” is used to encapsulate all these ideas.  Businesses the world over are seeking out brand strategists and branding agencies to help them with real business problems.

Today, businesses are looking in the mirror and asking themselves the timeless questions: “What do we stand for? What do we value? Who are our customers, really? And what do they think of us?”
- Marc Gutman

Today, businesses are looking in the mirror and asking themselves the timeless questions: “What do we stand for? What do we value? Who are our customers, really? And what do they think of us?”
Marc Gutman
At the very least, a slight branding change in a brewer’s product packaging can result in increased sales.  Fortune 1000 companies can fight off competitors, copy cats, and price devaluation, think Patagonia, by positioning themselves in a particular way in the minds of their customers.

And at the very best, branding and brand strategy causes customers to have a strong sense of brand ownership and crazy loyalty. The kind of loyalty where customers tattoo logo marks on their bodies and a brand makes customers experience what Chip Conely, founder of Joie De Vivre hotels and advisor to AirBnB, refers to as “identity refreshment.”

Association with the brand allows the customer to see themselves how they want to be seen. Become the person they want to be. And say things like, “I am a Tesla person.” or “I am a Vans shoes person (which I am).”

Tesla card
Photo by Andres Jasson on Unsplash

A Necessity, Not A Luxury

Businesses the world over are realizing that only one competitor in their market can be the cheapest… for everyone else there’s branding.

But if we look at a company, pick any of your favorites: Apple, Patagonia, Tesla, Ford, Qdoba, The Whitney, The NFL, ESPN, Google....and ask:

What is their brand?

  • Is it a logo?
  • Is it the colors?
  • Is it the physical workspace or storefront?
  • Is it a logo’d out hat or shirt?
  • Is it the color palette or or typography?
  • Is it the videos you put up on Instagram and Facebook?
  • Is it the customer experience?
  • Is it the website?

Or maybe…

  • It’s visual identity?
  • It’s all the tangible and intangible?
  • It’s customer perceptions?
  • It’s a design system?
  • It’s our origin story?
  • It’s the promise we make?
  • It’s a company’s strategy?
  • It’s a company’s beliefs?
  • It’s our vision, values and their execution?
  • It’s building a community or tribe?

And this is where it gets a little tricky because it’s all of those things somehow combined and distilled into much simpler parts - like a logo mark, when done well, that represents many of the above concepts.

Using this as our baseline, a brand can then be defined as the shared story that we all believe in.  In Sapiens, one of my all time favorite books, the author Yuval Noah Harari spends a lot of time asking the question, “What is a company?” and uses the European car brand, Peugeot as the example. He repeatedly asks, “Is it the building? Is it the cars? Is it the people? Is it the logo?”  The answer, is it’s the shared story we’ve all agreed to be true.  

(Side note: this book is awesome and will most likely blow your mind. If you’re not ready to realize that the world around us is largely manufactured around our unique human ability to imagine and verbalize those thoughts then don’t read it. It’s a fun listen even if the narrator is a little slow.)

I like to think a brand is a lot like the films I saw produced in the early part of my career. Taking big ideas and distilling them into the key essence and then bringing a large team and elements together to make the vision a reality.  A film that makes the audience feel a certain way. A true collaboration of storytellers and the audience co-creating something bigger than the original.

But like a lot of films, just because you have the dream executive team doesn’t mean you’re going to have a box office smash or a great brand.  There have been a lot of Hollywood stinkers headlined by great talent.  Just as there have been some big company branding efforts with highly paid executives that fall flat.

The Power Of Authenticity

A lot goes into branding, but the biggest mistake is that even though many companies are perfectly branded, there is little to no belief. And employees and customers can smell authenticity, or in this case inauthenticity, from a mile away.

One of my favorite quotes is from Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos who says, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”

This definition is simple and mirrors the definition provided by Marty Neumeier, in his book The Brand Gap, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, company.”

It’s a GUT FEELING (get it!) because we’re all emotional, intuitive beings, despite our best efforts to be rational. - brand gap.

So, if we distill everything discussed to this point, the point of a brand is to add an emotional element to a decision - to buy or not to buy - that most of us like to believe is purely functional and rational.

A lot goes into branding, but the biggest mistake is that even though many companies are perfectly branded, there is little to no belief. And employees and customers can smell authenticity, or in this case inauthenticity, from a mile away.
- Marc Gutman

Going Beyond Need

Most consumers have a need. Whether it be shampoo for dirty hair or a car to get them from point A to point B.

And while you think you’re buying to solve that problem -- I need to clean my hair -- when there are many choices consumers pick the product that allows them to be who they want to be. Remember our shampoo example from earlier?   Are you the type of person who will pay more for shampoo that comes in a zero waste package? Does this support your belief that single-use plastic is evil and wrong?  Does buying this particular brand of shampoo say to the world and yourself “This company and I care about the planet.  This makes me feel like I am doing my part to create a better planet. A better world. I’m a better person.” So are we really buying shampoo or choosing who we are?

A brand helps companies to stand out in a crowded marketplace and connect with customers on an emotional level. Branding is about building awareness, attracting new customers, and creating customer loyalty that when done right, delights and differentiates your brand.

So, yes, a brand is not a logo. It is so much more. And now you know what that "much more" is.

But most importantly, brand is a strategy (which I’ll cover in my next article). It’s the driver of your business and how you connect with your customers.

And just as George Naddaff, founder of Boston Market, says: “No business, no customers. No customers, no business.”

I’d like to take my own spin on that: No brand, no customers. No customers, no brand.

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