an analysis of “a brand is”

The folks at BLACKCOFFEE have been inviting folks to complete the thought, “A Brand Is…” question markI was so fascinated to read the range of responses that I decided to take a closer look.  I wanted to see what common themes emerged among people’s definitions of “Brand” and what we could learn from them.
Here’s what I did:

  • I collected all of the responses that were on the site as of this past weekend – there were over 170 of them.
  • I culled out the ones that I didn’t understand (e.g., “A brand can be anything, just not ‘like that.’”) and ones that didn’t provide a helpful answer (e.g., “A brand is an elusive concept that many brand professionals can’t define.”)
  • I sorted the remaining answers into groups/themes.  (I had difficulty classifying some of the answers because I wasn’t sure exactly what some people meant, so I apologize in advance if I mis-grouped yours.)

Here’s what I found:

1.    Some used the historical definition of a brand when branding was used on cattle, or suggested a brand is something which functions like a brand on cattle.

A brand is a label created by a company.—lix
A brand is a mark made by burning with a hot iron to attest manufacture or quality or to designate ownership—Bill
A brand is a different name for the same product—yo
A brand is a mark made by burning or otherwise, to indicate kind, grade, make, ownership—@SIGEPJEDI
A brand is a logo, a font, a long-standing celebrity spokesperson. It’s a memorable commercial. It’s a quality product with quality ingredients. It’s consistency.—Jocelyn Geboy
A brand is an iron tool heated in the fire and used to indicate ownership of cattle.—Stephen

2.    Some chose simply to say what a brand is not.

A brand is not merely “something that’s nice to have” any more than air is something good to inhale once in a while.—David Brier, Chief Gravity Defyer
A brand is more than a logo.—Brad C
A brand is not a logo, unless it is on a cow.—Misc
A brand is much more than a logo.—Erick Straghalis

3.    Some responses were negative towards brands.

A brand is a fake image—anon
A brand is unfortunately bullshit a lot of times.—unknown
A brand is a set of lies we convince ourselves to believe in and hope the public will to.—HMMM
A brand can be fake—http://sidere.wordpress.com
A brand is a terrible lie.—Craig Elimeliah
A brand is a relic of an illiterate culture.—Bud Caddell
A brand is gay—Nicole

4.    Some people spoke of the financial value of a brand.

A brand is something you pay extra for—Mark
A brand is the difference between a 99¢ cup of coffee $4 venti, foamy, ristretto, doppio expresso con panna cappuccino.—Ken Peters
A brand is your most important asset if you own it or rely on it for income.—Kendall Langston

5.    Many people suggested a brand is “in the eyes of the beholder,” not under the control of the companies or marketers who promote it.

A brand is something companies try to control but often can’t—Jordan
A brand is perception—accidentalthinking
A brand isn’t what you say it is, it’s what consumers say it is – and you’d better listen, because they’re vocal.—Ken Peters
A brand is a set of associations the audience has and how they see your business activities—@alexisvandam
A brand is a user generated meaning—Luis Miranda
A brand is the sound of your voice coming out of someone else’s mouth—Bill Gathen
A brand is what people outside a company perceive it to be based on everything they hear, read and see about that company.—Lewis Green
A brand is a recipient built by marketers but filled with people’s thoughts, frustrations, use, likes, dislikes… experience.—Rafael Lizárraga
A brand is perception—@kandacehudspeth
A brand is a collective perception in the minds of consumers—@faris
A brand is whatever I perceive it to be—Arvind
A brand is perception—Kandace
A brand is the sum of audience associations and expectations, both tangible and intangible, that surround your offerings.—@ericbrody
A brand is what everyone else sees—vera
A brand is how you are perceived by others and you get the opportunity to build your brand up – or tear it down with every customer interaction.—Stephen Lynch
A brand is the perception of a product.—David Mitchel
A brand is what they say about you after you have left the room…—Rob Levinson
A brand is everything people believe about your product, real or imagined, true or false.—Roger Dooley – Neuromarketing
A brand is the collective views of the people who care.—David Meerman Scott
A brand is the idea held in the minds of the customers of the experience they’ll have, and in some case what they will become, by purchasing your product.—Steve Farnsworth (@TheRealPRMan)
A brand is your reputation, your legacy. It is how you are perceived by an audience that must find you relevant.—Lida Citroen, LIDA360.com
A brand is how you are perceived by others—Stephen Lynch
A brand is useless without consumers.—Bryant Florez
A brand is what the public believes it is, not what companies say it is.—Jonathan Moore
A brand is what customers buy, not what businesses sell.—David Brier
A brand is all that stuff in the head of people ‘out there’ that you often have very little control over—Jon Howard
A brand is about people’s reactions to an organization’s actions.—Mark Gallagher—Brand Expressionist®, BLACKCOFFEE
A brand is a perception in the minds of others. It’s what they think you are, not what you think you are. It can be an image, a voice, a personality or a product/category, but it boils down to whatever people think when they hear the name.—Janice Dottin
A brand is [mine]—Kevin Gatta

6.    Yet, others responses spoke about a brand as a company’s values and/or corporate culture.

A brand is vision-led culture.—Steve Barnett
A brand is much more than a logo. It should represent the core values of your company, product, or service. A good brand should lead your organization internally, and clearly represent what you stand for to consumers.—D.K. Smith
A brand is your company’s DNA.—Nicho Valadez
A brand is a set of values you agree with.—Michael Ancevic

7.  A lot of people’s responses were about feelings – either saying a brand evokes feelings or that a brand is a feeling itself.

A brand is the feeling I get when I think about a company.—Jon
A brand is my connection to the product.—Missy
A brand is a gut feeling—luke
A brand are the hopes and expectations you have of a product and the company that makes it.—edward boches
A brand is the emotion invoked by a product—Mansi
A brand is a feeling evoked by simply thinking of the brand name.—Greenwala
A brand is an evocation—http://sidere.wordpress.com
A brand is how it makes you feel—Ld
A brand is butterflies or knives in your stomach—David Armano
A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.—Marty Neumeier, Neutron
A brand is a perception and lingering feeling that lives in the minds of your market. It’s based on emotion and defined by the experience people have with your brand.—Carol Chapman
A brand is an emotional short-cut to feeling good.—Anthony
A brand is what captures a consumer’s heart, not just a mind—Heidi Foreman
A brand is a collective emotional response.—Michael Troiano
A brand is something that evokes everything from DESIRE … to HATE.—Stephen Cocca
A brand is an expectation of receiving a feeling by way of an experience.—Tom Asacker

8.    Many people offered up answers describing what a brand does – e.g., generate demand.

A brand is what my teenage son is always talking about when he wants my money.—Eric
A brand begets preference, sometimes without actually being better.—@RJ_in_SF

9.  Some explained a  brand functions like a memory tool.

A brand is something people remember.—EV
A brand is what you would want another person to remember first thing in the morning and think of just before he or she goes to bed.—Strategic Growth Advisors
A brand is the scar left behind on a person’s brain.—Zach K.
A brand is a concept seared into the mind.—Mark
A brand is like knowing exactly what to reach for when you cut your finger.—Jordan Julien
A brand is a product idea/vision that gets burned into consumers’ minds.—RcSim

10.    Others described the differentiating function of a brand.

A brand is what you have when everything else is equal.—Michael
A brand is unmistakable and unique.—@bradleyphoto
A brand is a developed and distinctive concept—-unknown
A brand is all you put on something that is equal to everything else in order to make it different—sg
A brand is a how people identify and differentiate goods and services.—Bobby
A brand is a token of difference.—Minko Dimov, creative director at protobrand
A brand is your face in this world to differentiates you from others—Karl Varley
A brand is a unique and deliverable claim of distinction supported by evidence of performance.—Ro Breehl

11.    A brand is an image or personality to some folks.

A brand is PERSONALITY!—Trish
A brand is the face you put on when you go out in public—Doug Besser
A brand quite simply is your voice, your vibe, your essence. It’s how you’d like to be perceived you in your ideal reality. There are three views: How you see yourself, how others see you and how you really appear. In many instances, companies use the equivalent of plastic surgery, attractive lighting and couture to craft their personae. Standards and guidelines aside, Few rarely “live” the brand, which in itself is a somewhat overused term.—David Weinstein
A brand is like a purpose-led person’s personality.—Harasha Bafana
A Brand is Attitude. It’s what you stand for, illustrate in visuals, sound like, how you act, what you stand for and how you communicate. It’s the sum of all impressions perceived in every brand channels.—Karsten Kjems
Very simple…an IMAGE of what your product/service is conveying to the masses.—Judy
A brand is your first impression—Joel Beukelman
A brand is what people see when they look at you and your product—Aaron Irizarry
A brand is more than a logo or a website. It’s a complete personality. One that drives the focus of the audience and engages them on a personal level.—Troy

12.    It’s an identity to others.

A brand is who you are.—John Turmelle
A brand is…expressing your own identity.—Kim Brown Irvis
A brand is establishing your sense of identity—MIke B
A brand is a part of someone’s identity—Mark Begin

13.  And a story or drama to still others.

A brand is a fairy tale.—@issamheddad
A brand is a story in which the author and the audience are both in control.—@mattquint
A brand is story or association in the mind of consumer.—Ritu Sinha
A brand is performance art.—Mike Wagner, CEO White Rabbit Group
A brand is part theater, part magic, part inspiration and whole-hearted passion. The stage is the mind of your audience. Let the production begin.—David Brier, Chief Gravity Defyer
A brand is a story told in the marketplace. Customers are telling your story with or without your help. Align the right brand message to the right channel of the consumer’s social grid to provide a multi-touch experience.—Matthew Kruchko, Applied Storytelling

14.    Some responses spoke of a brand as a promise.

A brand is a promise—@brennahanly
A brand is why I keep coming back, when that brand keeps its’ promise.—Dave Bradley
A brand is a promise, not something that happens when you spend mountains of money advertising.—Restaurant Marketing
A brand is delivering on a promise – perhaps inspired and initiated by a Company – but driven & actualized by the customer.—Robert Collins
A brand is a promise which when kept creates preference—Justin Basini (although not my defnition but I love it)
A brand is promise delivered to your customers.—Jeffrey Hayzlett, CMO, Kodak
A brand is a promise fulfilled—Lauren Hughes
A brand is a promise of performance in the mind of the consumer.—Jack Birch
A brand is the equilibrium between people’s emotion and a company’s product, service; in short, a brand is the value a company promises to its clients—Colin
Some thought a brand is more of a relationship.
A brand is meaning & relationships—Juanjo
A brand is a mutual friend.—farfariya
A brand is a relationship driven by the customer experience—Fred Page
A brand is a relationship.—Dave Bradley
A brand is a long term profitable bond between an offering and a customer. This relationship must be based on economic, experiential & emotional value. Backed up by operational excellence & consistently monitored, measured and improved.—Marcus Osborne, Malaysia
A brand is a connection between the company and it’s customers—Stephan Lenting
A brand is a proxy for a relationship.—Ben Kunz
A brand is an experience to be shared with others or kept to ourselves. A brand is the personal interaction we have with a product, service or person. A brand is as fragile or as strong as friendship. If it breaks its promise, the relationship may be in jeopardy.—Kneale Mann

16.    And some offered that a brand is an experience.

A brand is what i experience when i get in touch with its products and with it communications efforts—maria
A brand is something you trust because it gives you lifestyle experience—http://scratchvertise.blogspot.com/
A brand is a customer experience — including perceptions, like, dislike or apathy — of a product or service.—jeff
A brand is the reaction one has to a company, product or service based on the sum total of experiences, directly or indirectly, said person has had with company, product or service.—Joel Mier
A brand is the entire experience a consumer has with every touch-point of your brand, the emotional connection they have with it and the interaction itself represents the opportunity for a brand to transact an experience with the consumer that will not only deliver the delight they expect but also provide them with unexpected value and satisfaction that is unique unto your brand alone.—John Walsh – FlyLite
A brand is a summary of thousands of touchpoints.—Tyrale
A brand is the aggregate of all the tangible and intangible interactions one can have with it.—John Schneider
A brand is the emotions, feelings, and thoughts generated from the experience of a place, idea, or product.—Seth Hosko
A brand is an experience that is shared between customers.—Kneale Mann

17.    Some responses didn’t fall into one of the above groupings – either because they spanned multiple themes, or because they introduced a different thought.

A brand is the vision behind a logo—Digdamao
A brand simplifies the complex.—Dava Brada’lei
A brand is where an object or a service meets culture—Carito K
A brand is our imagination.—@maharis
A brand is a reflection of how effectively we are communicating our passion.—@mpack7
A brand is simply what we apply to things to make them more human.—Dom Rodwell
A brand is simply a mental construct. What you DO with that mental construct, after it has been created, is up to you.—Tom Asacker, author of A Clear Eye for Branding
A brand is a miracle with a name.—Mr. Markenlexikon
A brand is…the truth about you, well told.—Michael DiFrisco
A Brand is a journey of a product/service which starts at any company and ends in consumer mind.—Gaurav Nadgouda
A brand is living entity, always changing and open to individual interpretation.—Paul Coles
A brand is like a human being. It has emotions and evolves with changing environment.—Ashish Shah
A B.R.A.N.D. is Being Recognized And Never Doubted—Derrick Hayes
A Brand is about continuity not consistency.—Ed Walter
A brand is my constant puzzle because no matter how much I work on all the support elements, it’s completely in the hands of our front-line employees.—Julia Carcamo
A brand is the shadow of your profile—Gianni Tolu
A brand is like a human being. It has emotions and evolves with changing environment. A corporate identity is a reflection of what company thinks about itself; a brand is what target audience thinks about the company.—Ashish Shah
A brand is a company’s most valuable asset.—Robert A. Miller
A brand is a marriage between the rational (your positioning) and the irrational (the emotional response to you).—Karen Kang Consulting @ Kang.com
A brand is shorthand for a winning company & products. Losers don’t have brands…—Bill Hawe
A brand give a sense of belonging—Mark Cameron
A brand shouldn’t need to be explained.—Erick Straghalis
A brand is a manifestation of the hopes, expectations and aspirations between consumer and provider.—Jason C. Otero
A brand is a blank canvas with guidelines—Andrew Wendling
A brand delivered is the result of the steady iteration of a message over time. A brand received is another story. “National health care” vs. “ObamaCare”.—John Burnham
A brand is, and should be timeless.—Hee Chung
A brand is a collection of experiences, stories, and associations that create a perception about a product, service, or company.—Steve Jones – brandlikearockstar.com
A brand is a living, breathing representation of the lifestyles, emotions and values of the audience it serves.—Gennefer Snowfield
A brand is [true to self]—Kevin Gatta
A brand is [familiar]—Kevin Gatta
A brand is consistent.—Heidi

A brand is co-created by the brand owner and its audience.—Laura Savard—Brand Expressionist®, BLACKCOFFEE

A brand is a company’s most valuable asset!—Laura Savard—Brand Expressionist®, BLACKCOFFEE

A brand is everything you can control about how it looks and acts and nothing about how people feel about it and react to how it acts and looks.—erich nolan bertussi

18.    And some offered up definitions similar to mine:

A brand is what a brand does or doesn’t do.—Martha
A brand is a desirable and exclusive idea integrated in products, places, services, people and experiences.—@designdamage
A brand is not what you say, it’s what you do.—The Australian Centre for Branding
A brand is everything you do and don’t do.—Jason
A brand is what a brand does.—Edward Boches

My response:
A Brand Is… a bundle of values and attributes that define:
•  a product or service’s value which is delivered to its customers, and
•  the way of doing business which is the basis of a company’s relationships with its stakeholders

What can we learn from all of this?

Here are a few of my observations and thoughts:

•    There’s a lot of passion for brands.  The BLACKCOFFEE site got over 170 responses in what I believe was less than a week — and there are already so many more responses that have been entered than when I started this analysis only a few days ago.  And I love the many thoughtful, interesting responses.  Thanks to BLACKCOFFEE for starting what I hope will be an ongoing conversation about this thing, Brand!

•    Two of the groupings that include the most responses are the one that explains a brand is not something companies/marketers can control and the one that speaks only of feelings.  This concerns me.

Although some of the responses in these groupings came from folks I have a lot of respect for, I have to disagree with them.  I believe a brand is something that a company creates and actively nurtures and builds – certainly a brand’s success is dependent upon customers’ reaction to it, but there must be strategic intent and active leadership to determine which customers the company wants and why and how they want them to react.  Likewise, a great brand certainly sparks emotions – but feelings alone do not a business make.  The point is to translate feelings into actions (buy, make, change, do…).

I expect people to disagree with me on this, so please do share your comments.

•    There are a lot of definitions and interpretations of what a brand is.  This makes brand-building ripe for confusion – which is a barrier when we talk about it with business leaders and try to make the case for investing in it.  I’d like to see more clarity and alignment within the business community about what a brand is – I’m not sure how to get there, but I believe doing so is important to the future effectiveness of brands and brand-builders.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we might go about addressing this.

Comments open!

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  • Denise, Thanks for an insightful and thought-provoking post.

    A true definition of “brand” may need to encompass a few of these thoughts, including memorable, perceivable, valuable, experiential, differentiating, etc. Perhaps those are criteria instead.

    It is a concern that there is no agreement on the definition within our profession. Terms such as “marketing” have been well defined by professional associations (such as the AMA) as well as textbooks. I’m not aware of an equivalent and respected body to serve as the final authority on branding.

    To make matters worse, many consultants create their own nomenclature. I wrote about the semantics problem in a post at http://www.brandstoke.com/index.php/2009/07/15/brand-essence-by-every-other-name/

    Also, there is clearly a branding backlash going on, apparently from advocates of social media who wish to portray branding as one-way only communication. They declare branding is dead and their characterization of it confuses the definition further. (I’ve always believed brands are involved in two-way experiential relationships with consumers, which fits nicely with social media.)

    Thanks for taking on the task of classifying the definitions and starting the conversation.

  • Denise,

    Thank you for the kind words and thoughtful analysis. We created “A Brand Is…” for precisely the reason you mentioned last: “brand” means different things to different audiences. Your post was the type of reaction we were hoping to elicit. While we have our own definition of what a brand is (“A brand is an experience living at the intersection of promise and expectation.”), we specifically chose not to create a blog post that displayed our viewpoint, but rather to create an open forum where anyone can share their opinion.

    We launched this about two weeks ago. Since that time we have received a wealth of responses. We’ve enjoyed them all, from the enlightening to the indecipherable. We hope that “A Brand Is…” will continue to engage and inspire.

    Laura Savard
    Brand Expressionist®

  • Okay Denise, I’ll “bite.” 🙂

    I’m one of those who included the word “feeling” in his definition:

    “A brand is an expectation of receiving a feeling by way of an experience.”

    However, I never implied that companies have little influence on that expectation. To the contrary, the creation of a unique and compelling expectation, as well as the delivery of the experience that reinforces that “feeling,” is what brand creation is all about.

    In addition, in my definition I am in no way referring to “emotional branding.” Puh-lease. The feeling I refer to is a “feeling of knowing;” a primarily subconscious, complex and rapid processing and evaluation of sensory input. One, by the way, that becomes fine-tuned through experience. Thus, brand strength (or not).

    I hope that this has cleared up any misconception. And thanks for a great summary and analysis.

  • wow.. It is really amazing… thanks a lot.

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  • A comment on my blog here http://www.gilyehuda.com/2009/09/07/developing-relevance/#comment-2056 provides the best answer I have seen:

    A brand is a way to individualize products, and to productize individuals.
    (credit Dan Spira)

    My less elegant answer is probably in your 5th category: A brand is an emotional impression that one associates with a product, vendor, or person. I’m reminded of the word origin regarding cattle branding – that implies it is challenging to create a brand, but it is more challenging to change an impression once made.

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  • Excellent post. For 8 years I have been asking this question to marketers when I speak on the subject. I also ask “What is marketing?”. There is a never a concenssus – even between people in the same company. It begs the questions: If marketers can’t agree on what a brand is or what marketing is, what are the chances they will succeed with either one? As for my definition of a brand, I think Christopher Kenton nailed it in his Business Week article “What, exactly, is a brand?” See http://tinyurl.com/l8enpc

    Thanks for a great post. Sean Duffy (http://www.brandranter.com)

  • Thanks for this enlightening exercise Denise. My response fell into the “Feel’ category, but in many ways, it’s the same as your own definition. You mentioned the word relationship there, and I think that’s often the key to a brand. We don’t really have relationships to brands the way we do with people, but nonetheless, we relate to them. We may trust them, admire them, define ourselves by them, or feel oblivious to them.

    These are all feelings created over time, based on our experience with a brand. And a company can do many things to influence that experience.

    But all the values, attributes, processes and experiences pretty much boil down to a feeling I have when that brand is evoked—I don’t consciously review all of that history and process (except when I have my marketing hat on). The great brands are able to codify all of that experience into one distinctive feeling in the pit of my stomach.


  • minko dimov

    Thank you Denise,

    I am not very good at frequenting the blogosphere but every now-and-then I peak and today I found your compilation. This is very helpful! It demonstrates how the latest buzz-word “brand” reveals mostly confusion. It is a good indication of how branding resists a clear-cut definition — and hence stereotyping into the next how-to immutability, very much to the chagrin of the imagologues.

    I think brands are nomads migrating through minds on a quest to mark a glimpse of ever so evasive and changing identities. The challenge is to address difference but from the flip side of similarity and sameness; branding then becomes more a problem of art than “strategic” business mumbo-jumbo. Culture is the habit of marking exceptional moments in life and artifacts are the material traces of this bliss. I think brands are more and more being utilized to mark exception in an ever changing communion.

  • minko dimov

    Here is a question that I’ve been discussing with my students lately: Why is there still a prevalent belief among both clients and brand professionals that a brand strategy is something that considers design (creative) as an after thought, as a dressing to some great idea? Strategy is design! Spitting the approach to branding into strategy first creative second is, I think, simply not professionally responsible. I am aware of the fact that creative focus on mere appearance during the “image era” and even sensationalism today, tarnished the reputation of agencies and visual expression. CEOs, some openly most in private, consider investing in visual ID a unnecessary expenditure! Still we should recognize the fact that all the strategies, ROI, statistics, how-to manuals etc. analytical tools trying to read into consumer needs and patterns come only after the fact of an outburst of unorthodox creativity most of the times completely superficial and disconnected. Apple is a good example of a brand that from the very start based their strategy heavily on design. The iPod did not come to being as a response to some need, It created a need.

    Simply relying on the status quo is driven by the fear of the unknown, of lack of control. Then another question pops up inevitably: What is there to control in brand dynamics today especially in the context of a global market? What is that consistent “thing’ in a brand that requires care and is it a thing at all or more a relationship determined by the user every time?