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Say brand again, say brand one more time!

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I’ve had thousands of emails from people, all asking the same thing. What is the difference between a brand, branding, and brand strategy?

Errr. well, not thousands. Actually none. But still, I see countless commentaries on social media channels revealing glaring misconceptions about what those terms actually mean.

Unless you work in the industry, I think it would be safe to say that you probably use those terms interchangeably. More alarming than that though, even some industry experts confuse or frankenstein those terms together.

This was partially why both myself, Stef Hamerlinck, Rob Meyerson, and Reagan McKrill have formed the Big Brand Debate. So that we can discuss topics such as these live on air, with other people able to contribute their voices.

Why? So that we can try to establish some consistency both in the industry internally, as well as externally for clients that might be looking for a service related to branding. If you want a TLDR version, watch the replay of our discussion on the topic here (feel free to amp up the video playback speed).

What is a brand?

A ‘brand’ was a mark that was burnt into livestock. Something practiced many millennia ago.

Essentially it was a way for makers to identify what they produced or endorsed in some way. Here’s an interesting tidbit for those who geek out on languages — the word ‘burn’ translates in Old Norse to ‘brandr’. It was a way to convey vital information to the customers — quality and origin.

So given the origin of the word and its history, we can see why places like Wikipedia and other quick google searches reveal a definition along these lines:

A brand is an identifying symbol, mark, logo, name, word, and/or sentence that companies use to distinguish their product from others.

Surprise, surprise though — what happened millennia ago isn’t the way things are done today. And therefore the above definition is incomplete.

Brands are all around us, and we are spoilt for choice of services and products available. With so many options for customers out there and no shortage of offerings, a brand now has to convey a lot more information to the customer than just origin and quality.

Brands have to connect emotionally with us, on a wholesome level, with relatable messages, images, and values — just like we connect with another human being.

Ultimately, a brand is the sum of all of its parts and it’s defined by the way customers perceive the company overall. The components that constitute a ‘brand’ today go way beyond a name, a logo, or a mark.

Here’s another way I define a brand:

A Brand is the combination of the intangible beliefs individuals form about a commercial entity and the tangible assets that entity continues to influence.

So what is branding?

So, as we learned, originally, branding was nothing more than identifying and ‘marking’ livestock with a branding iron. It was an active process — and it remains to be an active verb to this day.

The underlying concept of putting your reputation behind your product or service is still a large part of branding, but it has evolved a great deal beyond just stamping your mark on something, as we discussed above.

So how might we look at defining the word branding, given the many facets that go into creating and managing a brand today?

Branding is the continuous effort to influence beliefs and perceptions through internal and external touchpoints.

It is an active practice, and it’s a continuous effort. Branding should never stop — if you want to influence what perceptions those customers are forming about your service, product, and business, that is.

And how does brand strategy fit into all of this?

I have spoken about the significance of brand positioning and the fundamental benefits and process of brand strategy before. But even today, after almost 19 years in the design industry and more than 6 years deep-diving into more strategic brand work, I realize that we are still evolving as an industry.

Yes, many marketing fundamentals are still at play today, that we actively implement in our branding processes. But what I have observed in the last couple of years is that there is a great lean on making branding more actionable business-wise, more customer-focused, and also more human and relatable.

And oftentimes, brand strategy is a process that helps establish a clear pathway to make that happen. It’s a roadmap, a plan, a set of opinions and recommendations. Recommendations that may help a brand gain an advantage, capture the hearts and minds of their customers, innovate or achieve any number of other goals and objectives.

I define brand strategy as follows:

Brand Strategy is a set of calculated short term and long term recommendations for those branding efforts.

What are some key takeaways?

The longer I work in the industry, and the longer I try to define these terms for myself, I understand that there is plenty of overlap between them.

As I mentioned at the top of this article, even experts sometimes refer to an activity as branding, where another expert might call that brand strategy.

So what I have learned (and what we have established in the Big Brand Debate) is that context really is everything.

In many cases, small to medium businesses that are engaging a branding expert for the brand strategy service may really just need a brand identity design. In other cases, the expectation is that the process of brand strategy will provide clear and actionable ways for a business to increase its profits, gain a larger market share or find a way to target a new customer segment.

It is often a spectrum between branding and brand strategy, and we are likely to see these definitions blur and merge more and more together OR see them separate and become more defined in their own right.

In the meantime, I will leave you with some of the most common definitions of the word brand, so that you can see, just how much variation there is.

As George E. P. Box was quoted as saying, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ — we can replace the word ‘models’ with the word ‘definitions’.

Brand definition evolution

A name, term, sign symbol (or a combination of these) that identifies the maker or seller of the product. — Philip Kotler/Gary Amstrong

Products are made in the factory, brands are created in the mind. — Walter Landor

The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised. — David Ogilvy

Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room. — Jeff Bezos

A person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization. — Marty Neumeier

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer (and create a brand). — Peter Drucker

Now Over To You

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Say brand again, say brand one more time! was originally published in Muzli – Design Inspiration on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.