I believe most businesses take a limited view of branding and it is seriously shortchanging their potential. More than just a marketing discipline, branding is foundational strategy for business. Clearly defining a brand’s identity provides an enterprise with a sharp lens through which all other strategic decisions can be viewed, not just the marketing ones. This approach gives a business its best chance to attract and retain beneficial relationships not only with customers, but also with employees, partners, suppliers and others.
To get my point across, I have to lead with a definition straight out of BusinessDictionary.com. I typically roll my eyes when others do this, so I’ll totally understand if you do too.
Branding: The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.
To all those other authors and speakers, my apologies for all of my prior eye rolls—I now totally get why you did that.
This definition, I believe, accurately reflects the prevailing perception of the marketing discipline known as branding. I don’t believe it is incorrect as much as it is superficial. I’d like to offer up what I believe to be a deeper understanding of branding. To best define branding, I’d like to first define what is a brand:
Brand: An identity or reputation imbued upon an enterprise as perceived through the collective experience of the public, customers, employees and others who are exposed to or interact with the enterprise.
In a sense, the brand is really owned by the public, not the enterprise. It is the public’s perception of the brand that is reality. That being said, the following is what I believe to be the deeper meaning of branding:
Branding: The practice of defining an enterprise’s identity and nurturing the constituents’ experience in such a way to achieve alignment between their collective perceptions and the enterprise’s desired identity.
I’ve collapsed these two definitions for a more succinct explanation of both brand and branding.
A brand is the desired identity of the enterprise and branding is the act of intentionally living true to that identity in the marketplace and across the entire enterprise.
This definition rightly characterizes branding, as it truly is—foundational strategy for business.
A name, a logo or an ad campaign is simply the outward, creative expression of the brand—its exterior. This exterior is a very important part of nurturing the constituents’ experience. Think of it as the “curb appeal” that gets someone to enter into the brand. Though once inside, it is the entire experience as had by all (not just consumers) that truly defines the brand. And if the inside doesn’t live up to the outside, the enterprise will lose control of its brand and subsequently suffer from identity crisis.
At the core of branding is defining the enterprise’s identity. As strategic endeavors go, there is no more foundational effort than this. Defining an identity is a very thoughtful process that goes deeper than determining an organization’s mission, vision and values. It is about understanding why it exists and discovering the core belief that underpins it all, because, just like with humans, brands flourish when rooted in belief and purpose.
You will know you have a clearly defined identity when you can use it to guide and filter decisions like how to best motivate and evaluate employees, which vendors to use or how to arrange the new office space. Believe it or not, these are branding decisions, and they are just as important as picking logo colors. A brand reflects the cumulative decisions made by an organization.
By holistically living true to its identity, an enterprise can achieve brand mastery—that point when the constituents’ perception aligns with the enterprise’s desired identity. So many good things happen at this point, I couldn’t even possibly cover them all in this article. I’ll save that for the next one.