Brand [New] Definition

Branding is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented marketing functions — so much so that its immense value to individuals and firms is diminished each time it is bastardized by students, faculty, professionals and the press. For example, every time a firm redesigns its logo, the popular press celebrates (or denigrates) the act as a rebrand, insinuating that the logo is the brand hence a logo refresh (as logic would follow) must naturally be a rebrand.

The fault of this decades-long lack of industry-wide acceptance as to what a brand is — and what it means to be branding (or rebranding) isn’t necessarily the fault of those who bastardize the terms. Indeed, the fault lies with those charged with the task of understanding and teaching business, marketing and design to professionals such that a worldwide bastardization of these terms as we have witnessed them ceases to exist.

In that spirit, below please find a coherent definition of what a brand is and what it means to be branding:

While the origins of the term brand may have most recently evolved from practices such as cattle branding whereby livestock were marked with hot branding irons in order to label them as belonging to one rancher versus another, branding in a marketing context is an intricate practice with roots in marketing strategy.

The goal of marketing strategy is to identify a target audience for whom the marketer must develop a positioning strategy that differentiates a product or service offering by focusing on a value proposition and competitive advantage that are not only different but also superior to competing offers. In so defining a coherent positioning strategy, the marketer’s positioning statement emerges to represent what is commonly referred to as a brand promise: If you choose me, this is what you get.

A brand promise, however, does not make a brand because a brand — from a marketing perspective — is that which results from the brand promise being fulfilled such that an experience (hopefully a memorable one) emerges from the fulfillment.

Therefore, in the clearest terms that make the most sense using the least number of words:

A brand is a symbolic reputation.

In more explicit terms, a brand is nothing more than a symbolic reputation system that is based on perceived associations that are shaped by experiences.

More specifically, brands (symbolic reputations) are formed when people or firms position themselves as having something unique to offer and come into contact with those who — after having experienced the performance of the offering(s) — symbolically associate their reactions to the experiences afforded by the offering(s) with the brand.

One means of representing the way in which brands emerge is through the aid of the following conceptual model:

Positioning + Performance + Experience + Perception = Symbolic Reputation = Brand

Over time, as more individuals come into contact with the brand and form similar opinions, they help to reinforce the symbolic reputation through conversations and other means. If — over time — more individuals come into contact with the brand and form differing opinions based on their experiences (relative to the original brand promise), the symbolic reputation may degrade, resulting in the brand undergoing a moment of crisis.

Therefore, based on the above understanding of brand:

Branding is the development of symbolic reputation.

This is why a logo is not a brand and a logo refresh is not rebranding. However, it is important to note that elements like a logo are of critical importance as shorthand identification markers of symbolic reputation. In other words, a logo helps to visually identify with and — to a large extent — symbolize the abstract notion of reputation:

You want more of what you liked yesterday? look for the symbol that represents those good feelings today.

Ultimately, signposts of experience such as logos definitely assist in the overall branding effort but are not branding in and of themselves.