Before we start on the fun stuff, it is important that we first answer the most basic question: What is a brand?
Surprisingly, many people (businessmen/women and otherwise) do not clearly understand what a brand is and how it differs from things like a brand name, branding, or corporate identity. The word brand does not have a single, universal definition; the various explanations exist on a continuum. At one extreme are very narrow explanations. For example, The American Heritage Dictionary defines a brand as “a trademark or distinctive name identifying a project, service, or organization”. At the opposite end, explanations are too broad. For example, “A brand is everything”. The weaknesses of these explanations are clear. A brand is not merely an identifier, as The American Heritage Dictionary says it is, and the ambiguity of “everything” leaves the original question “What is a brand?” unanswered.
Simply put, a brand is a set of factual and emotional associates related to your company by the public. It is psychological: the result of customers’ perceptions, experiences, and emotional responses. It is subjective: each individual’s perceptions, experiences, and emotional responses will vary, affecting their recognition and appreciation of your brand.
A brand is different than a brand name. A brand name is a denotation; it has an explicit meaning: the name of your company or product. A brand is a connotation; it is the associated, secondary meaning of a word (in this case, a brand name) that supplements the explicit meaning. To put it another way, a brand name is tangible. It exists printed on a product, constructed on the face of a building, or incorporated into a website. A brand is intangible. It exists in the mind of the public.
Because a brand is a psychological construction, a company does not have direct control over it. A company cannot say “this is what our brand means” and sustain that ideal without additional work. A foundation must be established for the brand to grow in the mind of the public, through things like mission statements, personality, logos, and marketing efforts. The application of a brand ideal to all other aspects of your company is called branding. By creating an internal “reality” through branding, a company can influence the public’s perception of the brand.
Think of Starbucks (a frequented establishment here at Marstudio) and the Starbucks brand. You may associate phrases like convenient and quick, expensive, giving (in terms of charities), more than the product, and customer loyalty with the company. The majority of the associations are positive, and Starbucks has created a strong foundation for each one to grow. The company has over 11,000 stores in the US, some of which are located down the street from one another. Starbucks has a standard level of service. Look at Starbucks.com and you will see a content-heavy Responsibilities page dedicated to the company’s humanitarian and philanthropic efforts. Starbucks stores have transcended their physical function of selling coffee and have become meeting places, study spaces, even sanctuaries.
What if you found out that Starbucks UK has been exposed by the media for tax avoidance? Would that change your perception of the Starbucks brand? The answer, at least for the British public, is yes. Starbucks has been labeled as “immoral” and “unfair”, words that have become part of the public’s emotional reaction to the company. The public’s negative experience with Starbucks has damaged the company’s brand.
To summarize: A brand is the public’s perception of your company. It is psychological and subjective, created from customers’ various associations, experiences, and emotional responses. It exists in a feedback loop with all the other aspects of your company, including personality, mission statement, marketing efforts, logos, and as the example above shows, financial ethics.
This is the first article in the Marstudio Info Series: All About Brands. Read the next article here.