Bonus content: What is a brand?

The rose, a wonderful example of something with a brand, a strong brand and a healthy brand in most people’s minds.

Brands are fundamentally misunderstood.

The more that the brand concept has become popular and part of everyday conversation, the less clarity there is about it. Even in the world of marketing people don’t really understand what a brand is.

So, in this bonus content for the Strategy with Heart series, I am going to try and create a litttle clarity around the topic.

No doubt many of you will find this simplistic in the extreme. But let’s face it, a load of old nonsense is talked about brands, especially by people that should know better. So in this post we are really going to get to grips with the topic and especially what a brand is and is not. Let’s start with some of the ‘is nots’.

A brand is not a name.

A brand is not a logo or identity.

A brand is not a company’s communications though they will help contribute to it.

A brand is not the customer’s experience of using a service or product though this has a massive impact in building the brand.

A brand doesn’t rest in any of its tangible assets.

Because the reality is that a brand isn’t tangible at all.

In fact, it is the intangibility of a brand that makes it so powerful, it’s where its value comes from.

So what on earth is a brand?

A brand is simply the set of associations that sit inside people’s minds about a product or service, company or organisation. That’s it.

This is a really tricky idea and worth dwelling upon. When you see a logo, when you use a banking app, when you walk past a store, when you unbox a delivery, none of these are the brand. They are experiences that help create the brand in peoples’ minds.

But this is where practitioners get confused, conflating the indicators or contributors to a brand with the brand itself. And it’s also where the language of brand gets mangled and unhelpful.

For example I don’t understand the idea of something being ‘well branded’.

When people ask whether something well branded they usually really mean whether the activity they are mentioning is clearly attributed to the brand in question. This is important as it ensures that the money being spent on that activity actually benefits the business. And that anything good people think about the brand as a result of that activity is added to the positive associations about it that already exist in their minds.

And I hate the word ‘branding’.

‘Branding’ the least precise of any language that includes the letters b, r, a, n and d in that order. To this day I still don’t understand or appreciate what ‘branding’ actually is and regard its use as a tell, a way of identifying charlatans changing their hand in our business, with no real understanding of brands at all. Avoid it and them, at all costs.

But I digress.

The simplest way to think about a brand is to imagine asking someone to list everything they think or believe about your company or what it sells, to put it all down on a piece of paper. Whatever they write or draw, that is your brand as far as they are concerned. That list may be non-existent, a few words or reams and reams of paper. And what’s in that list may make you feel proud or upset, or usually a bit of both.

Everything that you do and say will help contribute to that list and some of the things that you do and say will be useful in helping people recall the stuff on their list when it matters, like ahead of a purchase.

But this is critical, brands live inside peoples’ minds.

That’s why it’s ridiculous to suggest that companies own brands, they can’t in a traditional sense. In fact people own brands, or at least all those experiences swimming around in their minds, good and bad about something.

Whether a business, organisation, cause or person is truly a brand is defined by the quantity of those associations. If lots and lots of ideas, thoughts, experiences and interactions come to mind when you think about something then you have a brand on your hand.

If, by and large, those associations are positive then you have a healthy brand, or at least in that person’s mind your brand is strong. And if what that person thinks is pretty representative of many other people then you have a healthy brand.

It’s not much more complicated than that. Brands, strong brands and healthy brands. But its essential to get your head around the intangibility of brands and their fundamental separation from the business and the symbols and artefacts of that business.

Anything can be a brand

And anything can be or have a brand, a strong brand and a healthy brand, anything. Obviously products can have brands, that’s where the whole concept as started. And so too can services, companies and organisations. Movie franchises have brands. Books have brands. TV shows have brands. And people can also have brands, especially celebrities or people with public lives. Places have brands too, of course they do. You just need to think of a city or country or part of the countryside and think of what comes to mind when you do. If there is a whole load of stuff then that place has a brand.

However, just because anything can have or be a brand, it doesn’t mean that it is. This is the problem with conflating brands with logos and identities or in using the word brand interchangeably with product or company.

In fact many businesses have brand strategies, brand identities and brand guidelines but no actual brand. Since as we have said a brand only exists if all those nice things they have written about in their brand book actually live in people’s minds. Think about it, all that energy and expense spent in design and ad agencies producing stuff for things that aren’t and have no brand.

In every category there are brands and non-brands. Non-brands being simply companies that operate with no particular resonanace or real estate inside people’s minds. In the UK there are any number of companies operating trains but arguably only two brands, Eurostar and British Rail and that doesn’t even exist anymore.

And in some categories, like energy, you will have to search long and hard to find any brands whatsoever. Again in the UK the troubled energy market is populated with businesses that have virtually no associations in peoples’ minds good or bad. I’m sure SSE, EDF, EON and the like all have endless brand bibles and guidelines but do they really have brands? I rather doubt it.

In category after category and market after market there tend to be many many companies but very few brands.

That’s why, for all the military metaphors in brand strategy and marketing, like the word strategy for starters, building a brand is not really like a military campaign with a leader out front leading the charge. And why concepts like ‘brand management’ are some what silly.

Building and nurturing a brand is more like a shepherd herding a flock of sheep than anyone managing anything.

The sheep are all those associations that live in people’s minds. Left to their own devices those sheep will wander all over the place and they usually do. Brand strategy is really about how you encourage the sheep to go in the direction that you want them to, with you as a shepherd and the things that you create for the brand acting as sheepdogs, moving all those lovely associations in the right direction and ultimately into the destination you want.

Understanding brand strength

Lots of people make lots of money measuring the strength of brands with proprietary methodologies and trademarked metrics.

There are those that try and take all the intangible value that a brand has built and try and give it a monetary figure. Quite apart from the fact that this exercise is a bit bizarre given all those intangible associations don’t actually belong to the companies being valued, the brand valuation companies never agree on the value they place on any one brand, rendering the whole exercise rather useless.

And there are those that try and give the strength of a brand a single metric that indicates its power out there in the real world using a number of dimensions that they think are important. This is helpful to a point. But because these approaches all rest on wildly different methodologies they don’t really give us a single sense of the truth. And once again one approach will often deliver wildly different results to another.

It’s far simpler to follow the rule of thumb I mentioned above. As far as I am concerned is if some people think, believe, feel a bunch of things when they recall a product, service, business or organisation you have a brand. If they recall a lot of stuff, good and bad you have a strong brand. And if the good outweighs the bad then you have a healthy brand.

What we also need to remember and perhaps what these measurement philosophies don’t really recognise is that we are talking about individual people here. So, to understand the true power and nature of your brand you really need to understand this of everyone, since everyone will have different experiences of your brand and a subtly different set of associations. You can see that on display on any review site or trust rating. I know this is a difficult concept but its absolutely vital – everyone’s perception of a business, organisation, cause or person will be different.

Of course, building a picture of what everyone believes is a ridiculous endeavour – although not beyond the wit of mankind. So we do need to find ways to understand, on average, how people think and feel and what the nature of those associations are in the round. So let’s give the the brand valuation and evaluation companies some slack, their’s is a sysephean task.

But it’s important from the start to recognise that brands are not uniform or monolithic and if they exist and only exist inside peoples’ minds then any attempt to treat them as single entities is rather flawed. Any brand has a whole molecular structure of associations in someone’s minds and one person’s molecular structure will be slightly different to another’s.

In a way that’s what make brands dynamic and not static. Those structures are constantly subject to change or reinforcement every time someone has a new thought or experience of your business.

What’s the point of brand strategy?

You could ask whether there is any point in brand strategy if you can never control or direct a brand since it only exists in peoples’ minds. Isn’t all that planning and all those attempts to articulate visions and purposes and values pointless? Corporate wishful thinking designed for the boardroom but hardly useful in the real world.

Well like it or not, the reality is that people are going to think things about your brand regardless of your actions. So, it is your obligation to exert some influence over this, otherwise you will leave your brand and the business it represents to the mercy of a free for all. A situation in which there is no sense of your brand summing to anything coherent and therefore useful.

I’m put in mind of a quote from advertising legend, Jeremy Bullmore. He suggested that “people build brands, as birds build nests, from the scraps and straws they chance upon”. It could be a big nest or a small one, it could be elegant or messy, it could be strong or vulnerable, made of many materials or just a few. All of that will depend on the scraps and straws the bird finds.

This still seems to me to be one of the best descriptions of brand building imaginable. If you are lucky people care enough to build the ‘nest’, however what it resembles is down to the environment and experiences of that customer. And therefore our job in creating brand strategy is to influence the scraps and straws that people come across. To try and ensure that they offer value to the customer and organisation alike.

And that is the art of brand strategy, making sure that what people chance upon are the right kind of straws.

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2 Replies to “Bonus content: What is a brand?”

  1. We definitely use “brand” rather willy nilly. It’s not interchangeable with visual identity or “messages we want to give people”.
    Loved this one – dedicated to the twigs and straws.

  2. Your shepherding analogy and Bulmore’s nest reference have genuinely made my day. Thank you.

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