A definition of brand that’s actually useful

Brand is a highly irritating topic. The term means something different to everyone and it seems almost a pre-requisite of brand experts to be wooly and vague. They have an impressive vocabulary of meaningless words (“essence” being a particular favourite) and as such tend to only appeal to their own kind

This is really unfortunate as there is nothing wooly or vague about brand. It is as fundamental to business as sales and cash flow, and yet because it’s dominated by those with a penchant for the abstract it has a tendency to alienate those who lean toward the specific and tangible (in other words, business people).

This is a depressing state of affairs so in an attempt to set things right I’ve been on the hunt for a definition of brand that’s actually useful. One simple explanation that captures its true meaning in a comprehensive, succinct and actionable way.

I failed.

After hours of trawling through the web looking for the perfect definition, I finally understood why brand experts so often revert to their marketing thesauruses. Brand is so complex and so all-encompassing that the moment you simplify it you inevitably sacrifice something. Nevertheless, I did find a small number that I think, when combined, tell you everything you need to know about brand and in a way that doesn’t leave you confused and irritated.

Let’s begin:

1. “Your brand is whatever your customers say it is…” – Charlene Li and Josh Bernie

I thought we should ease in with a simple one. Your brand isn’t defined by you or what your out of date mission statement says, it is defined by your customers. Think about that; if I asked 10 of your customers at random to define your brand, what would the common themes be? Would the common themes be positive and compelling? Would there even be any common themes??
2. “Successful branding is what you do, not what you say or show.” Jim Siegel.

Another simple one, this time making the point that brand is not a superficial afterthought, which is how 95% of people view it. Brand is not an advertisement or logo or website; it’s the things you actually do. The superficial stuff is merely the icing on the cake, and one thing you notice about icing is that the cake always comes first!!
3. “A brand is 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. If the consumer doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer.” Seth Godin.

A slightly more wordy one this time, but as usual Seth pretty much nails it. Brand is everything that stops you from being just another commodity. If you find yourself relying on price as a differentiator then chances are you have no brand.
4. “Basically, if everyone else out there is producing X and X+1 and X+2, you’ve either got to be producing X times 10, or you’ve got to be producing Y.” Rand Fishkin.

My favourite comes from an unlikely source, the SEO and digital marketing wizard Rand Fishkin. In fact this quote wasn’t even in a piece specifically about brand, but in a video talking about SEO and I think that’s why it’s so good. SEO’s are the least wooly kind of marketer so when Rand talks about about creating unique value so that your website is ranked as a trusted brand, he does so in the black and white way that SEO’s will understand. Unique value (brand) cannot come from offering slightly more of the same thing. You either need to be offering that thing on steroids or you need to be doing something else entirely. Otherwise, once again, you have no brand.
Okay, so things may not have gone entirely to plan but if nothing else this failed exercise should have demonstrated:
a) Just how difficult branding really is.
b) How few (as in probably less than 5%) of companies ever really master it.
c) Why the small number that do are able to charge whatever they want and still keep the customers coming.

In other words, it’s tough as hell and that’s precisely why it’s so important.