A brand is a bond between people.

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I have always had trouble with the word "brand". It sticks in my throat. It feels too cold, too commercial, too manipulative. "Brand" smells of meetings, powerpoint presentations and sales targets. It is a word that feels too smarmy for the nuanced concept that I have come to understand it to mean.

The oft cited origin story rubbed me the wrong way too: burning a brand in to the hide of one's live property, the cattle — there is nothing to be nostalgic about there. Who wants to invoke a top down, one-way communication model of yester-year that treats the consumer like cattle to be milked, owned, and targeted?

The dominant party in that relationship, the brand wielding cowboy, comes at the cow (who was fenced in with its herd) with searing hot metal and imposed his mark, blistering said cow's we-don't-have-any-other-options hide. That is not a metaphor I want to mirror in my relationship with brands I align myself with.

The word "brand" is too loaded. Many of us bristle at the use of it because branding and marketing seems to necessarily imply that manipulation, persuasion and even deception is at work. Probably because in many circumstances it is. For example, I think much of marketing to children is basically unethical (There, I said it). However, we lack a better term, so the branding strategies of sugary cereals to five year olds get lumped in with the brand strategies of companies who are taking the concepts of branding in a new authentic, nuanced, and progressive directions. But they are saddled with the same old term: brand.

I would like a term that can catch the nuances that are meant when we say brand, brand values, brand experience and mean the nurturing of real relationships, the creation of real value, the manifestation of real delight. When I have led clients through brand development processes, the intention is never to strategize about how we can get target audience A to buy a shady, approximate version of the truth B (insert sugary cereal here). It was to reveal real intentions, convey their actual core values, and foster real relationships with people they actually want to help to reach their goals.

The meaning of "brand" has evolved to refer to the feeling your audience has about you when they think of you. It is the goodwill they give you (or not) when you make a mistake. It is what drives a true fan to go out of their way to recommend your company to their friends. It is personality, it is reputation, it is consistent actions — but it is more than that. It is like the indescribable sense that you can't put your finger on about why you like and trust someone, but you do. You do trust them, and you feel generous towards them.

When a company elicits this feeling, we call it their brand. When a person elicits this feeling we call them a friend. A brand is a bond between people.

I think of branding as a delicate, subtle, nuanced understanding of how groups of people can communicate their values and intentions to other groups of people. We need to be able to feel like these groups of people we call companies can be our friends. A brighter future depends on it.

I have been struggling for a while with how we I can articulate this in a succinct and accurate way, and it came to me in a flash a couple days ago:

Your heart is your brand.