What exactly is a brand?

We talk a lot about the “brand” in the marketing world. More often than not, we use the term brand to refer to the company, product or service we’re working with. We use terms like “on-brand” and “off-brand.” But we don’t often step back and think about that those mean in relation to the brand we’re working with.

What is branding?

To me, branding is the complete set of experiences (visual, aural, physical, interactional, emotional, intellectual) a person has when interacting with a company or product. Brand management is a company’s attempt to manipulate or control this experience.

From choosing the right logo to color scheme to verbiage in messages to size and shape of the product, store, experience with sales staff, etc., the brand manager attempts to build an experience that makes the potential customer think consistent, positive things about the product or company.

When you think of Ford, what comes to mind? Most likely quality. Quality has been a consistently reinforced message from the company through decades of communications. The Ford logo is designed to express quality, the color blue is emotionally associated with quality (blue suits, blue seas, blue skies … higher quality experiences) and every event or promotion the company is involved in is run through a filter of whether or not it’s a quality experience. Where Ford has some drop-off is in the customer experience, but that is controlled by dealerships, not the brand.

Saturn turned this problem on its head by forcing dealers to only build and present the Saturn sales experience in a certain way. The consistency in experience-from-marketing was key in Saturn’s exponential sales from launch. Mini Cooper is the one vehicle brand most closely mimicking this today. Go to a Mini Cooper dealership and see how different the experience is from other car dealerships. If you have the opportunity, do the same with Mercedes Benz. Most Benz dealers deliver a superior experience because Benz is perceived as a superior brand of car.

Many people say that the critical question to answer when thinking of what a brand is would be, “How does the brand make you feel?” That’s part of it, certainly. But it’s more correct to answer, “What do consumers perceive you to be as a company or product?”

I perceive Sony to be about superior electronics, so I prefer to buy Sony. I perceive Apple to be about superior, and well designed, computer equipment, so I prefer to buy Apple. I perceive Louisville’s Republic Bank to be family-oriented and locally focused, so I prefer to bank with them. Other people may want electronics that are cheap, but effective; computers that are practical or banks that have more global coverage or bigger assets. So when you’re defining your brand, you’re actually defining the type of customer you want to serve.

Elements of a Well-Constructed Brand

Each well-defined brand is going to have a few essential elements:

  1. A Brand promise
  2. Brand perceptions
  3. Brand expectations
  4. Brand persona
  5. Brand elements


To wrap all that up in a neat statement to guide thinking, some strategists try to express a brand with a Brand Statement. You could make this No. 6 on the list above, but brand statements are not always developed by strategists. I find them helpful.

A tightly constructed brand statement concisely answers the following questions:

  • Who is the audience?
  • What category of product does the brand serve?
  • What does the brand do uniquely (Unique Selling Proposition)?
  • Why is that unique to the brand?
  • And what does that mean to the audience?



How do you express your brand in a single sentence that gets the point across? If you can’t, then maybe you should use the above as an exercise to define that.

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