What is Branding, Really?

The Best Definition is the Most Useful One.

“Branding is a waste of time for small businesses.”

…was the essence of the podcast my Twitter friend Brennen had sent my way, curious to hear my weigh-in. Ooh, was I ready to dig into this one! I was perplexed that anybody would even try to argue this, until I listened in for a while and realized that this marketing consultant had a very narrow definition of the word “branding”.

And that’s not rare. One of the biggest conversations I have on a regular basis is “what the heck is a brand, really?” so I figured it was a worthwhile topic to dig into and discuss on the blog.

Brand definition2We should start by recognizing that it’s just one of those words. Like the word “home”, for example, it has a spectrum of definitions and most of them are generally true (or not really wrong, per se), but they’re not all equally helpful or relevant to small business owners wanting to make a mark today.

Branding, at its highest level, is an incredibly rich and powerful concept. It’s not simply about awareness or personality or logo design, though each of those things has a role to play. It’s the big picture that explains how all of these things fit together.

It’s a big deal. And I would argue that, if you’re operating under one of the smaller, outdated definitions of the word, you’re missing out on an opportunity to get so much more out of everything you do as a business.

These Guys Got it Right.

Let’s have a look at what some of the great business minds have to say:

Marty Neumeier in his must-read branding book, Zag says “a brand is a customer’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company.” He defines branding as “a company’s effort to build lasting value by delighting customers.”

That’s not small.

Seth Godin defines brand on his blog as “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

Mark Batey in his book Brand Meaning defines brand more scientifically as “the consumer perception and interpretation of a cluster of associated attributes, benefits and values.” And he sums that up further as “A brand is a cluster of meanings.”

In a Fast Company interview, Steve Jobs said that branding answers the question “What are we here to do?” and shared the answer from Apple’s perspective: “Apple, at the core, its core value, is we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.” He added that “a brand is not so much about rational arguments, but the way that the company resonates with people emotionally.”

Finally, I want to introduce you to Roy Spence and his concept of purpose-based branding. He defines purpose as “a definitive statement about the difference you are trying to make in the world.” In this approach, companies let their purpose drive every single piece of their business. Things that don’t serve the purpose shouldn’t be pursued — this is how focused, impactful brands form.

Giant, lofty ideas here, and they are so powerful! This is how every business — big and small — needs to be thinking and talking about brand.

Let’s summarize some of the key ideas here:

(Because that’s what us branding people do.)

  • It’s a gut feeling, how you resonate emotionally with your customers.
  • It’s the expectations, stories and meanings they associate with you.
  • It’s their perceived value of what you offer, and why they choose you over somebody else.
  • It’s what you stand for. It comes from answering: “Why are we here?” and “What’s the difference we’re trying to make?”
  • It’s why they believe your product is worth buying, talking about, and paying more for.

The common denominator here? Making a deep emotional connection with your customers that lasts and grows over time, until they ultimately see you as so much more than what you offer on the surface. This matters because our emotions ultimately drive what we buy (even when we think we are rationalizing).

Or it might resonate better this way: next time you witness one person convincing another person to buy one product or service over another, pay close attention to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. You are seeing a brand in action.

A Proposed Definition.

I like to get things as concise as possible, so here’s a simple statement I often use that I feel ties all of this together:

Your brand is the complete, deep-rooted idea of you.

When you’re branding, identifying what you want that idea to be is the first step. Then you intentionally create experiences for your customer that reinforce it — adding more meaning and significance to what you provide until you’ve built a connection with them emotionally, beyond rational benefits.

Here’s what it boils down to.

People don’t go to Starbucks to buy a coffee, they go there to buy a Starbucks.

The idea of Starbucks is an experience, a culture of creatives, sophisticated beverages, a third location for living and working.

What’s it going to mean when somebody buys from you? What are they really buying? What’s the idea of you that goes beyond the functional benefits of your products and services?

Identify that first, and religiously follow it up with the actions that make it a reality, and you will be well on your way to reaching notable brand status.

Jump into the conversation in the comments below and let me know how this stacks up with your perception of branding.

If you found this explanation of branding useful, I’d love for you to help spread the word with a click to tweetBecause your friends can’t take full advantage of the branding process until they fully grasp how powerful it is!