What is branding?

- posted March 10, 2021

Branding is widely debated among marketers and organizational leaders. Who drives the brand building function? What department is responsible? Who in an organization champions the brand? Who provides input into the process? Is it the logo? Is it purely visual? Is it the culture of an organization? Does it run deep within the company? These are just some of the questions that come up when an organization decides to take an active approach to creating or managing their brand(s).

Branding has many definitions and even those definitions have variations. Depending on who you talk to or what you read, the term “branding” can refer to almost any aspect of an organization. For example, we have had clients refer to their logo as their brand. We have had a client refer to the pattern on their board room table as part of their brand. And on the other side of the spectrum, we’ve had clients who have engaged us to do a thorough audit of their organizational structure as part of their strategy (although the table pattern is a bit of a stretch). To some degree, they are all correct. Like water, your brand runs deep but it is the surface that is most visible to those watching from the shore. 

A HISTORY OF BRANDING

Before we wade to far into the pool, it might first be helpful to understand a bit of a history on how branding came to be. The exact origins of the practice are difficult to pinpoint. There is evidence to suggest that early man may have marked their livestock with paint or tar to help them identify their property from others in their area. There is further evidence of Egyptians marking their cattle by burning them with identifiable markers. At roughly the same time, brands could be seen to mark goods across the world, from pottery to furniture. In the western hemisphere, cattle farmers in South America have been branding their livestock since the 1500s. For a deeper dive into the history of branding you can visit skyword.com.

In more recent history, we can see brands used to differentiate modern packaged goods and products like Coca-Cola and company brands like The Bay, Shell Oil or Levi’s. Originally, “branding” could be distilled down to the creation of a non-generic name to differentiate it from other similar products being sold. As time went on, people started to understand the value of differentiating their products, goods, services and companies from their competitors in other ways to help stand out in the eyes of their customers. Coca-Cola’s signature logotype and unique bottle shape were just a couple of ways the company moved from being just a business to a brand. 

A DEFINITION OF BRANDING

Now that we have a brief history of branding, we can talk about its definition with a bit more context. As menitoned earlier, branding (and more specifically, the term “brand”) can be defined in a number of different ways depending on a person’s perspective, background and environment. Google “brand” or “branding” and a never-ending list of links will appear all leading to different definitions.

At Honest, we believe these terms can be defined as the following:

A “brand” can be defined as “a noun that describes how people percieve your product, service, or organization. It is the reputation you build in your audiences’ minds based on the cumulative experiences they have with your product, service or organization. It is who you are, what you say and how you act.” 

The term “brand” is also often used as shorthand to refer to a specific product or organization ie. “The only brand I wear is Nike.” (for further brand-related definitions, download the Honest Brandictionary)

“Branding” is the practice of developing and communicating your organization’s brand. This could be taken a step further by saying that “strategic branding” is the act of branding with intention. Every organization, product and service has an inherent brand. These brands are formed by the actions taken by their managers or owners and are received by consumers, customers, or audience members differently depending on their experiences and world-views. When the brand is built passively (ie nobody takes ownership of the brand and instead focuses on short term business objectives), it tends to lack focus, clarity, consistency and impact. When built with intent, the brand can be an organization’s not-so-secret weapon.

WHY IS BRAND BUILDING IMPORTANT?

Simply put, your brand is your most important asset. Not only does a strong brand build awareness, it builds trust between your customers and your products, services and/or business. Between two identical choices, a consumer will choose the brand with which they most closely identify. For example, one could argue that Coke and Pepsi are virtually identical products with a slight different taste profiles. Essentially, they are both sweet, carbonated, darkly coloured sugar-water. So why is it that some will choose one over the other, even though in blind taste tests, their choices might be reversed?

Not only does strong branding make it easier to attract customers, it makes it easier to attract the right customers.

Not only does strong branding make it easier to attract customers, it makes it easier to attract the right customers. Any business that has worked hard to land a client only to realize that the relationship isn’t a good fit can attest to this. The time and expense required to attract and land a new client can be considerable and if that client doesn’t work out, that’s an expense that can’t be recovered.

Similarly, a strong brand makes it easier to build the right team. In much the same way, finding the right employee is as much reliant on your brand as finding the right customer.

Regardless of whether we’re talking about customers or employees, the most important goal of a brand is to move consumers through a funnel from being prospects to loyal customers to raving fans – people who love the brand in an almost fanatical (in the most flatering sense of the word) way. This is a person who loves it so much, they would permenantly tattoo the logo on their body. But raising a tribe of raving fans can not be achieved by accident.

A business must approach their brand strategically in order for consumers to move through the process from being unaware of the brand’s existence to be willing to vehemently defend the brand against disparaging remarks from those less enlightened (internet trolls, anyone?). So how does a company convert average consumers to this level of fanatical customer loyalty? By following a thorough and well-designed process for developing branding strategies, of course.

THE STRATEGIC BRANDING PROCESS

Now that we know what branding is and why it’s important, how exactly is it done? Different organizations approach the brand process differently which should come as no surprise. At Honest Agency, we follow a simple 5-step strategic branding framework. 

 

Step 1: Generate Insights

It’s easier to know where you’re going if you know where you’re starting from. Qualitative and quantitative research provides critical information that will point you in the right direction. Research could include, but is not limited to, stakeholder interviews, online surveys, anthropological methods or workshops/facilitated sessions.

Step 2: Define a Strategy

Defining and articulating what your brand stands for, who it’s for and how you’re positioned is critical for long term success. A clear strategy will make decision making easier and stress free. While it is easy to think of a brand strategy as a specific stand-alone approach, it can, and usually does, encompass aspects of other organizational strategies such as strategic planning, organizational strategies, marketing strategies and more. 

Step 3: Build your Identity

Your brand identity consists of all of the sensory elements that make up your brand. Logos, typography/fonts, iconography, colours, sounds, music, textures and even smells and tastes blend together to create a tool kit of elements that are used to build your brand experience. Many people associate the brand identity with the logo without considering the other aspects mentioned above. It’s important to remember that these sensory queues work together (beyond just the logo design as a solitary symbol) to build the foundation for the customer experience in step 4.

Step 4: Create the Experience

Equipped with a comprehensive tool kit, an immersive brand experience will provide your target audience with a meaningful and memorable interaction that will move them from customer to advocate. The brand experience can be won or lost at every touchpoint. It’s reliant on the promise a brand makes to it’s customers and its ability to deliver on that promise. Everything from the brand’s customer service, to the price and quality of the offering, to how it tells its messaging, story, packaging, collateral materials and more. The brand experience, represented through the brand identity, influences how a person forms the brand’s image in their minds.

Step 5: Align and Manage

Consistency is essential in maintaining and growing a brand. Communicating your brand in a way that aligns with your core purpose and values will ensure you also align with your core customers’ world views and provides them with consistently meaningful brand experiences. Unless a company or organization proactively manages the brand, it will be at risk of becoming diluted and misrepresented. It is extremely common for aspects of the brand identity to be misused by people both within the organization as well as third parties. A detailed brand management process will help to ensure the integrity of the brand identity and reinforce overall brand alignment. 

(For further details as to the specific elements of each step, visit our capabilities page.)

WHAT BRANDING ISN'T

An article on what branding is wouldn’t seem complete without a section on what branding isn’t. And while strong branding encompases all of the elements listed below, none of these elements should be used in the place of “branding”.

Marketing – Branding is as much a function of marketing as marketing is a function of branding. The two are tightly intertwined but think of branding as encompassing the entire organization and everything it does. Marketing is a mechansim by which to build awareness and express the brand to different audiences.

Advertising – See above. Unlike branding, advertising is a function of marketing and should be closely aligned with the brand’s attributes.

Competition – Obviously a brand has very little to do with it’s competitors. It’s surprising then, that so many organizations focus on their competitors when they should be focusing on building their own brands. A strong branding strategy should effectively render competitors irrelevant.  

START BUILDING YOUR BRAND

Even for established organizations, it’s never too late to start building your brand. In our experience, there is always room for improvement, whether that means clarifying your brand message, defining your purpose, cleaning up your identity or any number of other things. Branding is truly a game of inches, where every incremental improvement you make to your brand helps to improve awareness, recognition, loyalty and advocacy among your target audiences. It also helps to build brand alignment and equity. If your approach to branding is unfocussed and/or passive, you will risk losing potential customers and sales to your comptetion. And while making money should never be the focus of branding, it is the lifeblood of your business and can’t be completely ignored.   

So, where do you go from here? 

Start with your purpose. Define why your brand exists and the values by which you will live out your purpose. This is possibly the most important and oft overlooked aspect of building a brand. 

Build your brand from the inside out. Your brand will live and die by the culture you create in your organization.

Stake your position. Understand what makes you different and find your best-fit customers.

Clarify your message. If you confuse, you lose. There’s no better way to lose someone’s attention than by making them think to hard.

Tell a compelling story. People have been communicating with stories since day one. Stories are how people relate to each other and it’s the most effective way for your customers to relate to your brand.

And if after reading this, you’re still scratching your head, try taking our brand clarity quiz to get a quick idea of how clearly you are communicating your brand. Alternatively, you can take your brand’s temperature with our brand health quiz. It will give you an idea whether your brand is in need of some TLC.

For examples of branding projects, please visit our case studies and portfolio sections. 

Interested in finding out more about how you can transform your business with a purpose-driven brand? Let's chat.

Download the Brandictionary

Download this helpful guide and "Wow!" them at your next dinner party with your keen knowledge of brand terminology.

Honest asterisk icon - red on transparent

The time to transform your brand is now.

We've helped almost 100 organizations build authentic brands by helping them define their purpose and clarify their messaging. We can help you too.

“GAH, SO EXCITED. SO BEAUTIFUL”

Jenna Boholi, The Icelandic Festival of Manitoba