What is a brand?

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The concept of “brand” has evolved a long way from when it was simply a symbol burned into the hide of a cow. A brand marked ownership. Now, we are surrounded with a different type of brand altogether: IBM, Starbucks, Jones Soda, MEC, Nike, Manulife, The David Suzuki Foundation, Apple — these are recognized brands that represent organizations, products or services.

But what exactly is a brand?

Some people think that a brand is a name, a logo and a cutline (Nike, the "swoosh", “Just do it”) but that is inaccurate. The name, logo and cutline are only some of the elements that represent the brand. Others think a brand is part of a manipulation tactic to get consumers to part with their hard-earned dollars. While this is sometimes true, it does not help define the concept of ”brand”.

A brand is the personification of the product, service or organization. At its core, a brand is an idea.

A brand is the personification of the product, service or organization. At its core, a brand is an idea. A brand is an idea that lives in the minds of the audience. A brand is made up of the audience’s gut feelings about, and expectations of, the product, service or organization.

In essence a brand is like a person’s reputation: its personality and reputation is built with each decision and action taken. That bad joke you told at your sister’s wedding? It’s part of your reputation. Your degree in finance? Part of your reputation. Great sense of humour? The frequency of stains on your shirt? Always on time? These aspects are all part of your reputation too. Reputations and brands are living entities because they can change and grow over time. As the audience comes into contact with the brand their impression can become more positive … or negative.

A brand is how the reputation of the product, service or organization is conveyed: it sets expectations, communicates benefits, and makes promises to the audience about what they will experience. A brand is manifested in all representative visuals (e.g. logos, colours, design motifs), all associated communication materials (e.g. anything written or said, all promotional items, business communications, web sites), and all interactions with the audience (e.g. what it is like to use the product, the level of customer service, even your email signature).

A brand is a powerful idea that can attract or repel, but a brand is still only an idea — and that idea gets formed not only by the promoters of the brand, but by the audience too. Brand promoters make decisions about how they direct their brand. Audiences decide whether they accept the promoter’s ideas or form their own.

So, if you are involved with a product, service or organization, should you care about the concept of a brand? Yes, because somewhere along the line your audience has to make up its mind. If you do not make proactive decisions to cultivate your brand, an idea about your product, service or organization will still form in your audience’s mind — but it might not be the idea you want. The important question is: do you want to cultivate your brand deliberately and achieve the greatest potential or let it evolve randomly with unpredictable results?

The act of crafting a brand is to deliberately and thoughtfully communicate with audiences about what matters to you and what matters to them.

Audiences make their decisions based on their thoughts, feelings and expectations. If you want your project to achieve its highest level of success (yes!), then it makes sense to do your best to represent it on purpose — not by accident or neglect. You, ideally, want your audience’s thoughts, feelings and expectations to be the aligned with ones that you intend. A strong brand reflects the core values, true purpose and real benefits of your product, service or organization — it is a straight-up, genuine representation. The brands that resonate most with audiences are the ones that fulfill the promise that they make.

The contemporary concept of "brand" does not presume ownership of its audience, it asks for allegiance. The act of crafting a brand is to deliberately and thoughtfully communicate with audiences about what matters to you and what matters to them. Your brand is successful when it is rewarded with their allegiance. A brand is no longer a symbol of ownership burned into the skin, it’s an idea burned into the minds of the audience.