What is a brand?By Burkey Belser
January 1, 1999
When Aubrey Beardsley said, "Beauty is difficult," he may just as well have been speaking of branding. The marketplace seems befuddled. No two definitions are the same. A brand is not a logo alone. Nor is it the slogan alone. Nor is it even the package we have come to identify as the brand. That's why it is so difficult to answer the simple question, "What is a brand?" Let's circle the wagons to see if the individual characteristics of a brand equal the sum and answer that simple question.
A brand is the reputation of the firm. Brands (except Internet brands) are built on prior performance; that is, on reputation. For example, an accounting firm's reputation in audits makes it the brand name in audits. But this is not "branding." While reputation passively accepts market perception, branding actively seeks to create an image that guides and controls perception.
A brand is a logo. Oh, if it were only that easy. About logos, Paul Rand, who has created symbols for some of the strongest brands of the century (IBM, UPS, Westinghouse), said a logo has "no meaning except that which the company and consumers invest in it." And while the logo commonly acts as shorthand for the brand itself, it is not the brand any more than the word "tree" is a tree. Because the etymology of "brand" leads directly to our impression of a hot impression in Mama Borden's hide, we can be forgiven for thinking that a brand is a logo. But it ain't so. There's more.
A brand is consistency. From letterhead to billboards, branded products and services zealously maintain a consistent image. So much so that even professional designers come to associate "branding" with "consistency." But consistency alone does not a brand make. A critical tactic to recognition and mindshare? You bet. But is this branding? Nope.
A brand is personality. Consistency must be transformed into personality to become a brand. A brand is what you come to depend on, what you can relate to. Though brands may be updated to fit the times (Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker), they are still their same familiar selves. Brands that are inconsistent or confused crumble. To be successful, a brand must not just have a personality (Laura Ashley), it must have a strong personality (Marlboro, Disney). "Who," the Caterpillar asks Alice, "are you?" Tough question for products and services that want to be all things to all people.
A brand is a promise. The theory of positioning drives branding. A position is hard to define and achieve but, when the smoke and mirrors clear, a position can be said to be simply a promise. Some (including us) call it the "brand promise." Example: What is the brand promise of Avis? Yes, that's correct: "We try harder." Do we know that the employees of Avis try harder than those at Hertz? No, but it doesn't matter. They own that position in our mind. Howrey & Simon, a law firm, claims to be "in court everyday." Are other firms in court everyday? Of course. But it doesn't matter. Howrey owns that position in the minds of buyers of legal services. Only so many valuable positions are available. Own one.
A brand is a shortcut for intellectual proof. Branding works because buying decisions are more emotional than rational. In the finding stage, buyers diligently gather all the information they can and subject it to rigorous intellectual scrutiny. However, competing claims are confusing and, worse, equal in emotional value (quality, experience, location of offices, chemistry, etc). At the moment of decision, the brand provides comfort that the intellect does not. Buyers can make a wise list, but they always choose based on some aspect of brand identification.
A brand is a relationship. A brand develops a personal relationship between the client or consumer and the seller. The ultimate goal is to create an identification between you, the client or the consumer, and the brand. Of course, no single brand can possibly represent all of you. A brand usually represents a piece of you—a slice of yourself, a shard of your ego. When identification is successful, the brand builds a deeply loyal relationship between you and the firm. Why do people feel so passionately about Coke or Pepsi when blind taste tests prove consumers cannot tell the difference? Because they identify with something the brand represents. Do you believe your product or service is exempt? Brands shape our world and, in many ways, articulate how we feel about ourselves. Thus the process of branding is the development of a personal relationship between client, consumer and firm. Loyalty is the goal. Repeat business. Come back to Avis. Come back to Yahoo! Come back to me. It costs so much more to develop a new client than retain one. And current clients are so much more profitable than new ones.
A brand is. . . all of these things.