WHAT IS A BRAND?
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “A name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.
But actually, it’s more fundamental than that. Your brand is your business and your business is your brand.
A brand is what a business does – how it behaves and how it is seen by the outside world… and those within the organisation too.
Let’s imagine a guy, let’s call him Tom, who starts making house signs. They are nice and a bit special and he sells quite a few. Soon, people who’ve seen them will start telling their friends; “Hey, Tom’s signs are great.”
Tom has a brand! But the important thing is, he’s done nothing more than make great signs! – no logos or brand names, no expensive consultants or designers. He’s just gone about his business and done it well.
Remember this one thing as we work through this course:
The bottom line is that the brand is the business – the most important thing to get right is what your do and how you do it.
In fact no brands exist… not even the most famous ones.
Let’s look more closely at what that means. A brand is just what’s called a social construct. That means it’s a concept that we, as a society, invent to help us make sense of things. Social constructs are ideas, stories if you like – but just inventions. Until we start buildeng them in our minds, the brand doesn’t exist.
Think about probably the most famous brand at the moment – Apple. Where does the brand exist? Not in the product – if we destroyed all the Apple products on the planet, the brand would still be there. Similarly, it’s not in the people or the property. Take all those away – and the brand would remain and could employ new people, build new premises and do something completely different.
Even if we consider the brand as a legal entity – as ‘intellectual property’ – the ‘idea’ of an IP is also just a social construct. Even the concept of the ‘law’ itself is just a construct too… but whoa! – now we’re getting into mind-confusing, philosophical challenges. Let’s step back into the simple world.
Does this matter for your brand?
It does, because it reminds us that bands exist solely as stories in people’s minds. They are tremendously powerful ideas that help consumers make choices.
Keep in mind the importance of brand stories. Those stories are already out there in the brandscape – for better or for worse. People build them – we all write our own – they are based upon how we experience and perceive a brand and how it behaves.
If we understand this we can concentrate upon the important things. We can improve customers’ interactions with the brand. Brands have the opportunity to build emotional engagement and attachment. We can help create those brand stories that people love and enjoy. But we don’t create them by writing stories down. It’s people – consumers, suppliers, employees, and the world at large who build their own.
It’s important to be aware of the intangible benefits of the brand and not get too engrossed in the physical product or service. If we take, for example, household appliances – perhaps washing machines. Products with similar specifications have little to distinguish them. In fact, many brands are produced in the same factories. But we imbue our brand choices with characteristics based upon perceptions, history and ideas.
Our brand choices depend as much on what we ‘believe’ they can and will deliver – to satisfy our needs and wants.
Now, that’s pretty powerful stuff for something that doesn’t exist.
This may all seem a bit esoteric, so it’s useful to start by considering what a brand is ‘not’.
The first thing to be clear about is that a brand is not the logo, brand name or colour scheme. This is what people often get confused about. Those things are part of what we call‘brand communication’, or sometimes the ‘brand identity’. They are the symbols by which we know the brand.
If we go back to the ‘Apple’ logo. The logo is not ‘Apple’ – it’s a symbol which stands for the brand. It stands for all the things the business is – including its values, its history, and the way it does business.
In semiotics it’s known as the signifier, while the brand is called the signified – what the symbol stands for.
Let’s think of another powerful brand symbol – the golden ‘M’ of McDonalds. Wherever we see it across the world, we know what it stands for. A certain type and quality of product. Not haute cuisine and not a greasy spoon. But an understood set of qualities and values in terms of product and service. Those are the brand values – the ‘golden arches’ are just a symbol that we associate with them.
The same can be said of the brand name. Think of your best friend, and think of their name.
The name is just another signifier – when you hear their name you conjure up, not just a picture of them, but all their qualities, good and bad. You subconsciously recall your history with them, but also your feelings and your emotional attachment to them. A simple name triggers a mass of ideas and perceptions. Their name stands for their personal brand.
So, there may be many components to a brand identity.
- Brand name
- Colour scheme
- Product names
- Strap lines – slogans
These are important elements in communicating the brand, raising its visibility and uniting customers and brand stakeholders. We will discuss these in more detail in ‘Introduction to Brand Communications’.
For now the important takeaway is that these are vital symbols for the brand but not the brand itself.
Tangible and intangible brand values
You can view brands by the products and services they deliver. That’s pretty straightforward, but it’s obvious that there is a lot more. If products and services are tangible, touchable dimensions there are also intangible dimensions that are equally important.
Brands are about values and personality. In a similar way to how we choose our friends, we also tend to choose brands that we feel comfortable with – that have personalities and principles that reflect our own.
You may often hear people talk about the ‘Brand as person model‘. This is a simple exercise to consider, if your brand were a person, what would they be like? – serious, fun, like a wise uncle you might ask for advice, a trusted confidant or someone you might want to party with?
You can try it as an interesting exercise. Take one of your favourite brands and think, what sort of people do they share characteristics with? Try it with one or two different brands. The next step is to take your own brand and ask the same question – from your viewpoint and from a customer’s.
It’s quite a superficial view, but one that can be useful in focusing attention on the brand personality rather than products and services. For example if employing a law firm, you would expect different characteristics and personality than you’d seek in selecting interior design consultant.
On a more serious level, people’s brand choices operate in deeper subconscious ways. Consumers may choose to purchase brands which support their own self-image or sense of identity.
Brand choices can important in reflecting peoples’ community and feeling of belonging. Just as brand choice may reinforce our self-image, it may also reflect preferences of social groups to which we belong or identify with.
It’s important to emphasise that for most people this is operating at a subconscious level. They may choose to shop in a particular store because they feel more comfortable and ‘at home’ there, rather than the shop next door.
Similarly brands are about trust, and we’ll talk about that in the next section.
A brand means reliability
One of the key factors in brand-choice is reliability – we get to know and rely upon a brand because it preforms reliably. Many of the products and services we select are chosen on the basis of providing a guaranteed consistent experience.
Let’s say you buy a particular brand of breakfast cereal – you love the taste, so you buy it again. It becomes your regular breakfast choice. Every time you open a pack and pour it into a bowl, it looks the same, smells the same and tastes the same. The experience is consistent. It has reached a high platform of reliability and so becomes your natural choice. Let’s say it has reached a notional reliability score of 100%.
Then, one day you open a pack, fill a bowl and taste it… and it no longer tastes the same… you are disappointed. It’s not the expected experience. The important point is not that one bowl has disappointed you – that might just drop the brand score by say 4%. But reliability is so important to a brand, that it may plummet by 90% in your estimation – it has failed. You can no longer rely on that brand to deliver consistently. You can’t trust the brand as once you did.
One of the most valuable dimensions a brand posesses is its reputation. Reliability as we’ve discussed in Section 4, is part of the reputation, but it obviously goes far wider.
In Section 3, we talked about brand values, and some of these we call critical values. These are the ones by which really key to reputations – in other words, they are pillars of the brand, and if they are damaged it could mean collapse of the brand.
If you remember the case of Anderson Consulting in the Enron scandal. A critical brand value for accountacy and consulting companies is probity. Where this was seen to fail in Anderson’s case, the reputational damage was so severe that the brand now no longer exiists.
Brand reputation can have multiple facets. A brand can be recognised for values such as price (low and high), efficiency, customer service, accessibilty and honesty – all at the same time. though in its sector perhaps only two or three are seen as critical.
Reputation builds brand advocates
Another important asset for brands are the brand advocates, these are people who will recommend the brand to friends, relatives and colleagues.
In advertising circles, you may have come across the acronym AIDA. This can equally be applied to brands. A consumer becomes Aware of the brand, hopefully, generates Interest and seeks more information. This leads to Desire and ultimately, Action – the consumer makes a purchase. However, this isn’t the end of the story. Hopefully the buyer becomes a loyal customer, but more importantly they become an advocate. They recommend the brand to others, bringing them to the ‘A‘ – Awareness step in the cycle, and this grows the brand.
Brand reputation is critical in this process. Without it, the advocacy process has difficulty even beginning. And unless the reputation is protected and supported, it is unlikely good brand advocates will be recruited.