What Is A Brand? We Really Should Know By Now

Darren ColemanMarch 30, 20114 min

It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t know how to define brand. This applies to people that don’t work in marketing, those that work in marketing and even worse those that work in brand. I think a brand is:

A construct that delivers marketing promises to facilitate the formation of a mutually beneficial and evolving bond between the seller (or corporation) and its stakeholders based on functional and emotional values.

Sure, it’s a bit complicated and involved. But brands are complicated and involved. It fits. This is how I arrived at this definition….

When defining something it’s important to be clear on what it is and is not. A brand is not a logo. If you take away the logo there is nothing there. You have no brand. This is a shockingly simple statement yet if I had received £1 for every time I have used that sentence I would be typing this blog from my villa in the Seychelles (as opposed to from a train leaving London!).  Lovely thought….

So what is a brand? It’s lots of things. Branding Prof Leslie de Chernatony (and colleagues) have developed a helpful model where a brand can be considered from an input, output or evolutionary perspective.

From an input perspective i.e. something the marketer ‘creates’, a brand is:

–      A legal instrument e.g. ‘™’ or ‘®’)

–      A logo e.g. ISO standard etc.

–      A company e.g. British Airways

–      An identity system (how the organization wants to be perceived by stakeholders) e.g. Body Shop and being ethical.

–      A shorthand device that facilitates the recall of brand benefits e.g. McDonald’s golden ‘m’

–      A risk reducer due to brand familiarity e.g. Wells Fargo insurance

–      A value system where the brand is a cluster of functional and emotional values.

–      A vision which provides brand direction, focus and purpose.

Definitions developed by the American Marketing Association (in the 1960’s and more recently in 2009) tend to focus on the first two areas – trademark and logo. This approach oversimplifies brand. Brand name, term, symbol etc., play an important role in brand. They’re not a brand per se. They’re physical manifestations of the emotional bond brands look to develop – the key to branding. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

The concept of “values” is important. Values inform behavior and act as an emotional ‘common denominator’ for the bond or connection a brand develops with its stakeholders. Aligned values are crucial if brands plan to make an emotional connection.

From an output perspective i.e. a brand exists in the consumers’ minds, brands can be considered as:

–      The image in the consumers’ minds e.g. Singapore Airlines and an exceptional flying experience.

–      A way of adding value to the purchase e.g. AMEX and airport services

–      A personality e.g. Nike and competitive sport / winning.

–      A relationship between the brand and its stakeholders e.g. HSBC your local bank.

The notion of a relationship between an organization and its stakeholders gives rise to mutual expectations being formed between the brand / organization and its stakeholders. I think it’s better to consider this as a ‘connection’ or ‘bond’. Brands, by nature are not human so cannot reciprocate as part of a relationship as people do.

The evolutionary perspective regards brands as evolving from an input to an output perspective. Brands are a fluid and dynamic. They ‘evolve’ and ‘develop’ from a brand owner to consumer focus.  The brand moves from being something the brand owner does to the consumer to something the consumer does with the brand to express their ‘self’ as part of an iterative dialogue.  Witness the rise of social media.

These three perspectives don’t consider brands as promises. I think this is useful. With most brands, especially services, a promise is being bought with a brand. You don’t know if you’re going to be happy until you’ve paid your money.  If you’re buying a car you can test drive it. Service brands don’t have this luxury.  This makes service branding especially challenging so the promise has to be right and delivered against.

So, how can I define brand as I do? Well, I consider brands as: a construct i.e. something that is perceived, which helps with the delivery of brand-related promises made by the seller / corporation to its stakeholders; facilitating the formation of a mutually beneficial and evolving bond between the seller / corporation its stakeholders; being guided by functional and an emotional element.  Combining these points leads to my definition of brand where a brand is a construct that delivers marketing promises to facilitate the formation of a mutually beneficial and evolving bond between the seller (or corporation) and its stakeholders based on functional and emotional values.

It’s kind of complicated. But so is branding.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Dr. Darren Coleman, Managing Consultant,Wavelength Marketing®

Here’s another view on what a brand is by Brad VanAuken.

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Darren Coleman


  • Thierry de Baillon

    March 30, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Thanks for this article, Darren.

    It gives me food for thought in building my next post. This one will be about… brands. I don’t follow the same logic as you, but agree to most of your sentences, with one exception: “based on functional and emotional values”.

    In my opinion, brands only carry on the emotional part of values. The functional part is embedded into the products / services you buy and use (value in use being even more important than value in transaction, far beyond simple test driving), the brand being nurtured by the emotion induced by the way the product / service “fits” the customer’s job-to-be-done.


  • AshishDeodhar

    March 31, 2011 at 5:11 am

    Hello Darren,

    I agree with you that most of us still don’t know how to define a brand. But I also couldn’t agree with the definition you’ve offered.

    I see brand as a differentiator. Nothing more, nothing less. Customers are bombarded with choices today and they use brands to filter our options. The stronger the differentiation, the easier the process of elimination.

    Inspired by your post, I have written a detailed reply on my blog. You can find it here [deleted]


    Ashish Deodhar

  • KirklandR

    March 31, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Hello Darren,

    Nice post indeed, … On an academic level your definition is spot on. I kinda simplify things to help groups focus in more.

    It’s funny, I find myself reiterating your key points every other day with clients. It’s stunning how many Presidents and CEOs simply don’t understand the fundamentals of branding.

    The gap is in the touchy feely stuff. A logo is tangible, hence that becomes understood as the brand by leaders. However, getting them to consider how they might create a “feeling” behind the brand, they get lost somewhat. It’s too much of a departure from operations and analytics.

    The “feeling” is really 90% in my view when it comes to “what is brand”. A brand is what the consumer thinks the brand is, based on the feelings they have when interacting with it. Brands aren’t human of course, but we place visual constructs, product and people behind them to solicit specific interactions that cause consumers to respond emotionally.

    Successful brands are able to create a consistent experience, allowing the consumer to have (hopefully) a consistent emotional response. Brand guys like myself are always focused on appealing to the senses.


    Kirk Robinson

  • David Schoenecker

    March 31, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    It baffles my mind how something we as consumers interact with on a daily basis (brands) is so commonly misunderstood. It’s helpful to continue the dialogue as you have done to further its understanding.

  • Luis London G.

    April 6, 2011 at 10:19 am

    A brand is also about belonging, being able make a connection between the product, service or image that you are promoting is really important.

    Emotions are a big part of branding.

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