What is a brand and why you shouldn’t do business without one
Despite the word being out there and on just about every business leader’s lips, I am continually impressed by the near-universal lack of understanding of a) what a brand is and b) just how important brands are. It is an absolutely essential core element to the functioning of a business, yet it is not only misunderstood but sometimes whole-heartedly disregarded.
Perhaps the problem comes from marketing wonks and academics who insist on using the proper terminology for things. Part of the confusion probably goes back to the original meaning of a brand – literally a mark that was burned into crates of goods (or cattle hides). That’s usually the first level of confusion we face. People think the brand is the logo. But I’m actually seeing less and less of that from people who have anything to do with business functions. The misconception still exists, for sure, but I think for the most part, it is not a hurdle you have to face with anyone with a little bit of business acumen.
It is becoming more and more common for business leaders to actually understand that brand equals identity (though the word brand still seems to send CEOs running for the hills for some reason – maybe they’re afraid of the potential cost?). But although clients are making the connection between brand and identity, they still seem to lack a deep understanding of what brand and identity encompass and that their importance goes far beyond logos and pretty pictures and fluffy words.
So let’s start with a definition. What is a brand? As I already said, your brand is your identity. But just like your own personal identity, the identity of your company is complicated. This is about communication, so we want to think about this in terms of signal and reception. There are active and passive signals, or if it is easier conscious and unconscious. And there are interpretations of those signals (reception). So your brand is how us marketing folks consolidate the sum total of all of those signals and interpretations.
When we talk about “branding” we are talking about taking active control of the communication process. You have a brand whether you like it or not. You’re sending signals and your audience is receiving them whether they are intentional or not. What we brand strategists try to do is control the signals you’re sending so that they are consistent and are telling the story of your identity that you want them to be telling.
Branding is another function of the company – like accounting. No one would let accounting just free flow and hope for the best, but for some reason, companies do just that with their brands. We’ll talk more about why CEOs and business leaders ignore and undermine their brands and marketing efforts in another article, but for now suffice it to say that it stems largely from the misunderstanding I just talked about.
To explain why it is so critical to a smoothly functioning company, I have to explain a little bit about how we do it. There are two parts to it – the strategy and the execution.
The strategy is about definitions. Before you can project your crafted identity into the marketplace, you need to design what you want it to look like. You have to craft it. So we go through a process of defining your company’s reason for being (mission), what you stand for (values), and where you are going (vision). We also define where you stand within the marketplace and how you relate to and differ from other similar companies out there (positioning). That’s the strategy part, in a nutshell (I’ll go into more detail about mission/vision/values and positioning in separate blogs).
The execution part is how we bring the strategy to life. How do we tell the story of the brand? What are the words we use? What’s our tone of voice? How we are perceived is as much about how we talk as it is about what we talk about. We’re also a vain species, humans, and we’re judged by how we look, so we need to consider the visual execution as well. What does the brand look like? What are the colors that express your identity? And yes, what is your logo mark?
There is an art and a science to both the strategy and the execution, but it is a careful and iterative “two-steps forward, one step back” process that we go through to arrive at the end result. When we’re one, we know who we are and how to show and tell that identity.
That’s of course great (and necessary) for marketing efforts and allows you to have consistency. Your advertising/media plan provides repetition. So that covers your bases for marketing. But knowing who you are solves other problems you maybe didn’t even know you had. See, your brand, your identity, runs through all aspects of your business. Since this is describing who you are, it should inform your decision making process – everything should be passed through the brand filter with the question, “Does this decision fit with our brand identity?” In other words, does it help fulfill our mission, does it move us closer to our vision, and does it adhere to the values we’ve established. If not, maybe it’s not the right decision.
Think about where that kind of clarity can help you:
Hiring: Knowing who you are and what you stand for helps you define the kinds of employees you want to hire. It helps ensure that the people you are hiring are like-minded. And it helps potential employees know what they are getting into. Cultural fit is so important in successful hiring, but if you haven’t defined your company culture, you can’t measure for a fit.
Business Strategy: Every day, strategic decisions are made. Without the guidance system provided by your mission and vision, how do you evaluate these decisions? Some business decisions may make sense per se, but don’t fit with your brand or help you achieve your vision.
Expansions: Where to expand, how quickly, and in what capacity can be clearer if you know where you stand in relation to your competition. And if you’ve defined that you’re focused on a certain population target, you can go where the people are – expand in their direction.
M&A: Like expansions, mergers and acquisitions can (and should) be guided by your brand. You can avoid or pre-emptively address cultural differences more easily and save significant time and money by letting your brand provide guidance for M&A efforts.
Associations (partners and suppliers): Associations can be powerful reinforcements of your brand. They can be extensions of your values in the marketplace and connect your company in a real way to the things that are important. Selecting the right partners and suppliers keep you aligned, avoid problems and misunderstandings, and ultimately saves you money.
Corporate Responsibility: Similar to associations, knowing who you are as a company helps drive the type of corporate responsibility you get involved in. That makes your assistance more effective because you’re involved with things you truly care about. It also helps this become a win-win, because you can focus on corporate responsibility programs that reinforce your brand identity.
To recap: Your brand is your company identity (not just your logo). Every company has a brand. Every company is sending messages about their identity all the time. The key is to take control of those messages and send the ones you want to send, with conscious understanding of how those messages are received and interpreted. And the way to do that is to go through a specific process that helps define the brand, the messages you want to send, and the audience who is receiving them. Finally, defining your brand not only helps make your marketing more efficient (better ROI) but also helps improve ROI across most if not all of your other business functions and processes.
So the question I will leave you with is this: can you afford NOT to invest in a cohesive brand strategy?