Blog: What is brand? Exploring the meaning of ‘brand’

28th February 2023

Blog: What is brand? Exploring the meaning of ‘brand’

By Steve Walsh

Brand, branding, brand positioning, brand equity…

Brand is one of those words that’s thrown around in marketing, without anyone quite having an agreed definition as to what it means.

Marketing can get a bad rep at times – and it’s easy to see why, when even marketers struggle to explain to people exactly what ‘working on your brand’ means, and how it will actually move the needle.

What brand is

My favourite definition of brand is: ‘Brand is what people say about you, when you’re not in the room’.

I understand that’s not particularly tangible, but it does capture the vast array of everything that goes into branding.

Brand is what people feel, say, and do when asked about your organisation.

Or you, if we’re talking about on-trend ‘personal branding’.

It’s your reputation, your personality, your traits… your brand is the result of every interaction people have with you, and the narrative or story they’ve created because of that.

It’s how people position you within their world.

What brand isn’t

Brand isn’t simply your logo and colour palette – that may be the start of the journey for some, and how many CEOs view the brand of their organisation, but this is the 1% to the other 99%.

There are two sides to the branding coin: Internal and external.

Internal activity, such as strategy, leadership and culture have a huge influence on how your brand will be perceived but they’re not what I would count as branding.

These are core, internal organisational factors that may amplify an organisation’s brand, but shouldn’t necessarily create it.

Branding for me is everything customer facing, which is where some of the crossover comes in.

Internal v external

There’s no doubt that internal factors have a significant influence on a company’s brand.

Culture and management are more transparent than ever with review sites such as Glassdoor opening our eyes to how organisations operate and making these aspects more consumer facing, while influencing potential recruits.

Equally, how people are treated is often reflected in how they treat others in the same environment – treat your staff well and they will do the same for the customer, a key external brand touchpoint.

A key difference for me, however, is that effective branding is created and strategically aimed at a key target audience.

The way a brand speaks and acts externally is essentially an intentional action to engage a target market – who may be very different in make-up to your internal people.

You wouldn’t expect a toy maker to speak to its staff as if they are children, for example.

There are key separations between internal and external brand factors, based on the different motivations and characteristics of two very different audiences.

Missed opportunities

One of the biggest areas I see brands fail to invest in, is tone of voice.

Every word you take in from an organisation, whether it’s a headline on an advert, an actress in a video or a product description on a website, should be written using specific words and tone to amplify and bring to life that organisation’s personality and brand.

However, so many companies get hung up on everything visual at the expense of spending time on what we hear and read.

The best brands become part of our daily rituals and shape how we view ourselves and the world around us – consider what you think it means to work at one of your favourite companies, or to wear outfits designed by one of the clothing brands you look up to.

Just thinking of those things makes you feel differently.

And a huge part of that feeling comes from the words and tone that you’ve read and heard.

Too many organisations neglect this, resulting most of the time in the bland – the absolute opposite to brand.

They make you feel like you’re stuck talking to someone at a networking event that you have nothing in common with, while praying someone comes to save you.

Ironically, in an age where we have more opportunities than ever to stand out, so many companies would rather fit in.

And nobody likes beige.

Wrapping up – the best brands

Although branding doesn’t initially appear particularly tangible, the best brands have distinct personalities – they feel like a friend who has got our back when it comes to their product or services.

They’re distinct in their approach, consistent, and interesting. They make us construct a story in our heads about what having their product, or working with them, would make us feel like.

This is all carefully created over interaction after interaction, through language, tone, imagery, experience, service… the list goes on.

If you want to harness the power of your brand, start thinking: What do I want people to say about us, when we’re not in the room?

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