Quick… define “Brand.”

Hard, no? Yet unlike other words they have trouble defining, people seem to use the word “brand” constantly in the course of the business day. I hear it all the time from people who obviously don’t know what it means, which frankly drives me pazzo.

An understanding of brands starts with a description of what they’re not, well said by the good folks at Presentation Zen:

“Brand” is one of the most overused and misunderstood terms in use today. “Branding” is perhaps even more misunderstood. Many people confuse the myriad elements of brand identity with brand or branding. PowerPoint critic Edward Tufte, for example, has referred to the simple (and admittedly annoying) act of placing logos on every PowerPoint slide as “branding,” implying that branding doesn’t go much deeper than catchphrases and identity symbols. A logo, though, is but one visual symbol of a brand.


Having spent a lot of time thinking about this, both on behalf of some of the world’s better known consumer brands and in branding several of the companies of which I’ve been a part, here’s my definition:

A brand is a collective emotional response to anything people can benefit through their active participation.

Let’s break it down.

Right off the bat, if you take nothing else away from this post, remember that a brand is a response. It is not something you dictate, not something that becomes real by virtue of your 12 gig slide deck. It is something inside them, out there, to whatever it is you spend your time on. This seems like a subtle distinction, but it is in fact profound.

In my experience the best communicators maintain what is sometimes called a “listener based model of success.” That is, they focus neither on communicating in such a way as to confer the most praise upon themselves (tragically common,) nor on the intrinsic quality of their particular method of communication (the clear speaking voice, the iron-clad logic, the eloquent prose…) Instead, they try to understand what the listener thinks/feels/does before, and what they want the listener to think/feel/do after. They focus on saying whatever needs to be said however it needs to be said in order to effect exactly that change in knowledge, perception or action. This is a very good discipline, and I strongly encourage it for people at every level of an organization.

In the context of branding, marketers are often guilty of subscribing to one of the first two success models. In the first case a brand becomes an avatar of its brand manager. Like children burdened with their parent’s disappointments in life, these brands are most often much “cooler” than they need to be to deliver the business result.

In the second case, just the reverse is true. Marketers obsessed with intrinsic quality create communication that reflects great skill and no talent, brilliant advertising that nobody really sees, artful design for its own self-indulgent sake.

So what kind of response are we talking about here? A collective, emotional response.

Building a brand is the process of adding emotional value to your product. A lot of people think this is ad guy hooey, but it’s as real as Coca-Cola’s market cap. Is sugar water in a red and white can really worth more than 99.9% similar sugar water in a black and white can? Whatever you think, the market decides. And every day the market says, “yes.”

If people are rational, you have to ask why. It’s either the brainwashing of repetition (nonsense), or people are actually getting something more from that red and white can.

I worked on the Taco Bell brand back in the day, and we used to say 69 cents was a good deal for a taco, but it was a great deal for a taco and the feeling that you’re not like everybody else. That’s what a brand is, and that’s why people invest billions to create them.

Collective just means that a brand requires n people to deliver this emotional response, where n > 1. It’s also meant to imply that brands are built one person at a time, something which has become more true as media has become more fragmented.

So is anything that elicits a collective emotional response a brand? No. Brands are defined by intent; they create emotional value as a means to an end, rather than as an end unto itself (we call something whose primary intention is to elicit an emotional response for its own sake “art.”)

That said… Are products the only things that can benefit from such a collective emotional response? Of course not. “Brand” connotes a commercial purpose, but just about anything creating emotional value to increase the odds of you doing something can rightly be called a brand. The Boston Pops are a brand, as is Atheism, as is Mel Gibson (or Barack Obama.)

For some practical advice on what to do if you embrace this definition, you can’t beat Guy Kawasaki’s seminal post on the topic. Quoting from a recent internal matchmine doc on the subject:

  • “Our brand is not a deliverable from the marketing department. It is not our logo, which is just a trigger for our brand.
  • Our brand is a set of perceptions, feelings, people out there have about us. It must influence every interaction with every external constituency. It must be who we are.
  • We expect our brand to resonate through everything we do for our employees, our customers, our shareholders and our community
  • We expect our employees and partners to believe in and exemplify the values of our brand.”

The message here is that if you want to create the perception, in the long run, you have to deliver the reality. People – individually, anyway – are smart. They are particularly smart these days in assessing which things will overcome the cynicism necessary to navigate the modern world, and establish a genuine emotional connection.

That’s what it takes to elicit a collective emotional response, dear reader. Everything else is just an ad.


One Response to Brands

  1. […] elevates and connects us to something fundamentally human. As discussed in my (too long) post on Brands, this kind of advertising adds emotional value to products that already have practical value. It […]

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