What is a brand? Simple question, not so simple answer. Many people struggle to define what ‘brand’ means, yet it is used so frequently that one would assume everyone knows what it means.
The reality is that defining a brand is a lot harder than it may seem. Brands change meaning over time and are interpreted differently by different people. For this reason, multiple definitions are possible.
We’re now going to explore what some of these definitions are and how they operate.
Brand as a Trademark
This definition takes us back to the 1800s when cattle ranchers used branding irons to label their stock as a measure of differentiation. Companies eventually started to brand their products in the same way to make their products stand out against the other ‘generic’ products. While the meaning of brand has evolved since then, it is still important to consider how a brand can operate in this way. A critical point to remember is that when companies create this trademark, a lot more than just a name stamp goes with it, which brings us to our next definition.
Brand as a Personality
A brand is no longer a simple stamp or visual marker of ownership. A brand can also be an embodiment of a company’s personality. This personality determines how customers view and interact with the company based on the unique characteristics they associate with them. For example, one company could be seen as fun and quirky, another as socially progressive, another as nostalgic and retro- the list goes on. Once these associations accumulate in the mind of the customer, they work together to form an understanding of how the customer should feel and act in response. Some of these associations may initially come from a company’s visual identity, such as the typography used, the colour of the logo, and the look of a store. Together with ambience, these markers communicate the style or ‘flavour’ of a company, which in turn communicate a small piece of a company’s brand.
Brand as an Image
A brand can move beyond expressing a particular personality to expressing a particular image or lifestyle. A brand can therefore be seen as a company’s reflection in terms of its values. For example, a company that prides itself in selling all-natural products with recyclable packaging will project an image of environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Once a customer buys into this image, this simplifies the buying process exponentially. If a customer resonates with your brand image, they will choose to purchase from you without even having to think about it. This occurs similarly when people choose to purchase products from a luxury brand because of the lifestyle that their brand image promises. Although this image can be a powerful and effective tool, with great power comes great responsibility. If a company takes actions that don’t align with their image, this will disintegrate the emotional connections customers have forged based on their original perception of the company.
Brand as an Experience
A brand can also be understood as an experience. This definition is particularly relevant at present as more and more businesses are choosing to focus on customer experience. This customer experience in effect becomes the brand through the feeling this experience offers the customer. A customer could have a list of 20 logical reasons why they shop with a certain company, but it all comes down to a feeling that they keep coming back for. Harvard Business review refers to the brand as a ‘system’ – that being a network of interactions and experiences a company ‘sells’ with the product. Customers take an active role in this exchange of value, and in the process become part of the brand through the way in which they engage with touchpoints made available to them.
What we can take away from this exploration of the word ‘brand’ is that there are many definitions- and there’s nothing wrong with that. While we have only discussed a small handful in this article, the potential interpretations of brand are limitless. The one constant in this sea of subjectivity is that above all else, a brand is about how you make people feel. It is no longer just something you can stamp onto a product. Whether you think it is a personality, image, experience, all or none of the above, one certainty is that is must have meaning. Without meaning, a brand is simply a name that looks and sounds familiar.