What is this brand thing anyway?

by Nigel Hollis | October 21, 2019

I realise that the idea of a ‘brand’ is one of those ill-defined concepts that causes endless confusion. We all use the same word and yet can assign it very different meanings. Given that a blog post is meant to stimulate discussion, I am going to propose a definition and we can see where things go from there.

Most marketers use the word without ever defining what they mean. The word ‘brand’ is taken at face value without anyone bothering to agree on a definition. That makes life really difficult, it leads to differing views on what it takes to develop a strong brand and, as a result, makes it more difficult to measure the benefits of creating a strong brand.

For the sake of brevity, let’s assume that there is agreement that a brand is more than a name and a logo. To that degree I agree with Dan Pallotta that a brand is everything, from strategy to customer service, your people and facilities, the way you speak and how you communicate (and not forgetting what everyone else does with and says about your brand).

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However, what is implicit but not stated in his post is that it is how people interpret your actions that matter. By this I do not mean active consideration of how well your product works or what is said in your ads. Rather people build up a cumulative sense or impression of the brand over time. The art and science of brand building therefore is to shape all your actions in order to build up a positive and motivating impression of the brand. One that encourages positive behaviours that add more perceived value to a product or service than when judged objectively (should such a thing actually be possible).

Given all this my definition of a brand is as follows,

The set of ideas, feelings and impressions accumulated over time in people’s heads that influence their behaviour in ways that produce a greater financial gain to the brand owner than would be realised otherwise.

Of course, the classic definition of ‘brand value’ is the additional financial gain to the brand owner compared to selling a generic product or service. However, given that “everything you do builds your brand”, it is pretty unlikely that you can find a generic benchmark, and most times we have to settle for a comparison to a lesser-known brand. For instance, when I checked earlier this year (before the latest batch of iPhones were announced), the iPhone XS Max sold for 60 percent more than the comparable OnePlus 6T, in spite of the two being rated almost identically by the editors at ZDNet.

So, there you go, that is your starter for ten (to be read in the voice of Jeremy Paxman). What do you think? Any thoughts, builds or rebuttals?

7 comments

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  1. Nigel, November 11, 2019

    OK, shame on me for not checking in on the blog while traveling, because I seemed to have missed some good discussion!

    First, Paul and Jeremy, totally take your point about financial, but I do think we need to keep the behavioral point in there, otherwise what is the point? Not-for-profits still need donations, anti-smoking campaigns want people to quit, etc.

    Stina and Irene, not sure why your builds are not captured by "ideas, feelings and impressions?" I do believe there needs to be some shared connection to make brands into a social currency and as Jeremy says, anticipation is key. 

  2. Jeremy Diamond, October 22, 2019
    The other thing I would add is that brand's evoke an emotional response, both the anticipation and the experience, as opposed to products or services which merely fulfill functional needs.  Every brand is a product, service or concept, but not every product, service or concept is a brand.  
  3. Jeremy Diamond, October 22, 2019

    Very interesting.  I very much like your definition.  However I wonder if "the set of ideas, feelings and impressions accumulated over time in people’s heads" is a little nebulous.  I find the idea of the brand being a promise (of a certain experience) to be a consistently useful and precise definition.  It is worth bearing in the brand origin story (maybe apocryphal, but useful) of the Bass barrel branded (literally with a hot iron) so people knew it was good beer.  I would disagree that the gain has to be financial however.  A political party is a brand.  Christianity is a brand.  Arguably individuals can be brands.  Maybe your definition is more about how brands are created, rather than what they actually are.  It is very consistent with the wonderful Jeremy Bullmore quote, ""People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon."  Let me know what you think!  

  4. Ndeye, October 22, 2019

    Nice one Nigel! I like yourdefinition. I tried to think about something shorter but nothing came to mind... I thout about the word 'capital' like capital value.

    And putting it into context: Nike is my preferred brand. Nike's products can be of course outrageously expensive but the way I feel in Nike or the way Nike makes me feel is really talks to your definition: Ideas, feelings & impressions over time but also current experience. So over time, yes also in present and future as dreamt about?

  5. Stina, October 22, 2019
    Hi Nigel. What happened to "shared" impressions? I quite liked your idea of creating shared impressions in order for a brand to have social meaning. Does that still apply?
  6. Irene , October 22, 2019

    Hi Nigel, this is far from a text book definition, but for me - a brand is a fantastic (operating in the realm of imagination) construct that embodies an identity, structure, function, values and emotions that promises an experience at a physical and emotional level.

    We relate to it at a multi-sensorial level and it becomes, both in our conscious as well as unconscious mind, a part of our memories and triggers emotions (a.k.a the squeaky clean lemony fragrance of Sunlight on the dishes to the fragrance of Old Spice aftershave that my generation connected with a bear hug from Daddy before leaving for school)   

  7. Paul Isakson, October 21, 2019

    Thanks for sharing your take, Nigel.

    I always smile when I see definitions of the word brand show up. The very nature of trying to build a personal brand in the world of brand building as a service means everyone has their own brand of defining a brand. How's that for using the word brand! Ha!

    Sarah Hermalyn did a project five years ago around brand/branding definitions that demonstrates this well. http://branding.sva.edu/what-is-branding/

    A couple comments regarding your definition... From my perspective, the "in people's heads" piece is true, but it is only part of the picture. The narrative that is in people's heads is one part, but there are also narratives outside of their heads, being told in various ways/mediums by various people and entities that must be accounted for. 

    Secondly, if you define brand as only being applicable to organizations, products or services that produce a financial gain, then not all organizations, products or services can have a brand. Only those that produce a greater financial gain can. This simply isn't the case. Not only do poor performing or flat-performing organizations, products or services have a brand, but so do people, groups and organizations which exist for some purpose other than a business one.

    If I were to use your definition, I would alter it as follows:

    "A behavior influencing set of ideas, feelings and impressions accumulated over time in people’s heads about an organization, product or service."

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