Wait! Don’t answer!

It’s a trick question.

Turns out there really is no universally accepted definition of the word: brand. Perhaps this is why the whole concept of branding is confusing to so many business people and consumers. People who are otherwise supremely confident and capable often get tripped up when describing what their brand is or what it is for. But they are to be forgiven this lack of understanding because, after all, none of us so-called experts seem to agree either.

When an intellectual property attorney refers to brand, he’s usually talking about registering and protecting a trademark. When a publicist talks about brand, she is almost always referring to reputation. When a graphic designer mentions brand, you can be sure he means logos and packaging and visual identity.

When these three professionals go out and talk about branding, they bring their own, individual experiences of brand with them. And so their language varies in subtle but important ways. Their audiences pick up on these differences and come to the erroneous but unsurprising conclusion that one or all of the speakers have no idea what they’re talking about. Multiply that by all the rest of us “experts” and you can see what a Tower of Babel we present. As a result, many business people are skeptical, even suspicious, of branding, thinking it’s a fad or a buzzword with no real benefit or any hope of ROI. But then there are the true believers.

There are some business people who put their brand building efforts at the top of every morning’s agenda. They know that sales are dependent on effective marketing, and no marketing effort ever lands on target unless it’s launched from a sturdy brand platform. So they focus a great deal of time building and maintaining that platform. Funny how many of these true believers end up building market leaders like Apple and Nike and Virgin.

But that still leaves us without a definition of “brand”. And that deficiency has been a tremendous ball and chain for those of us in the branding business. So, a few years ago, some colleagues and I set out to rectify the situation. We spent a couple of hours, hammered out the “authoritative” definition of brand and rewarded ourselves with a round of beers. What we had, or so we thought, was the owner’s definition of brand. We knew what what an IP attorney thought of brand, we knew what publicists and graphic designers thought. But now we had come up with a definition that we though was useful – profitable – to the owners and managers of brand assets. And, for a couple of weeks, we were pretty proud of ourselves.

 But, before even a month was out, something unexpected happened. We came across a brand that didn’t fit within our definition. Clearly, we had failed to consider at least one aspect of branding. So we shrugged and amended our definition. Over the next few years the definition had to be edited three or four more times. I lost touch with my colleagues, each of us having followed our careers in different directions. But, I soldiered on, still obsessed with finding the perfect definition of brand. One day, after a year or so of no further amendments to our definition, I figured it must finally be completly accurate. So I dusted it off and gave it a fresh read:

A brand is the making and keeping of
a unique, differentiating promise,
or set of promises,
consistently, over time,
thus establishing a covenant
with important constituencies,
forming a bond
that is both rational and emotional.

You know what? It really is a good definition, maybe the best I’ve ever come across. But it’s utterly worthless in the real world. No one is ever going to commit this to memory. It’s too pedantic and boring. It turns people off. There had to be a simpler way to say the same thing. So I spent the next year paring away everything that wasn’t absolutely essential to the definition and got it down to just six words:

A brand is a promise kept.

If you get nothing else from reading this, at least memorize those six words. That is the way owner’s and managers of brand assets should define brand. Thinking this way leads to profitable strategies in brand management. You can see how it works by looking at the illustration on this page.

The company or product or service – whatever it is – makes and keeps its brand promise to the market and, slowly, over time, the market rewards it with brand loyalty. The brand takes seed and grows in the strengthening relationship between the business entity and the market. That’s why it’s often said, these days, 

Brand Circle.jpg

that your customers own your brand, not you. At Boardwalk, we prefer to think that you share the brand with them. They get tremendous emotional value from interacting with your brand, you get all the monetary value. They fall in love with your product or service. Your business grows. Seems simple doesn’t it?

You’ve often heard “brand” described as a promise. But any idiot can make a promise. A promise, on its own, has no value. That’s why, in any definition, it’s vital to include the part about keeping the promise. Even if it appears to be so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, keeping the promise is, perhaps, the most important part of the definition. It’s only after keeping the brand promise, consistently, over time, that the market begins to reward the relationship with brand loyalty. That is the true birth of the brand. So the brand promise has to be one that can be sustained over time.

When the promise is kept, the brand grows in strength. When the promise is broken, the brand is weakened. We see this in the business news every day when companies grow and stock values soar. They’re delivering for their markets and are reaping the rewards. We also see it when scandals occur, as when United Airlines promises “friendly skies” and then breaks that promise by allowing a passenger to be unwillingly dragged off its aircraft. So the wise owner or manager of a brand asset will be ever vigilant that the brand promise is kept at every customer touchpoint, without fail.

There are two keys to doing this successfully. First, the market must be fully defined. The market, for the sake of branding, is more than just customers or clients. It is also employees, vendors, financiers, competitors, the press, regulatory agencies, etc. Every market is made up of constituencies like these. Constituencies are groups whose perception of the brand are important to its future. And a constituency can be segmented. For instance, employees can have sub-groups like C-suite, middle management, and factory workers. Financiers can include angels, venture capitalists, bankers and rich uncles. Once the market is defined, fully, it’s time to look at the second key.

And that is, the brand promise itself must be defined. This requires researching the market to gain knowledge about existing perceptions and current brand experience, then analyzing that information and drawing important insights from it. Finally, a business case has to be made for positioning the brand – or repositioning it – in a way that will differentiate it from, and give it competitive advantage over, the competition. The brand promise is expressed through a positioning statement that describes how the market, as defined above, should perceive the brand. It outlines how the owner or manager of the brand asset wants the market to feel about the brand. It should be equally relevant to all market constituencies. It should be simple and unique. Brands waste time and money when they mix their messages, with one communication effort targeting customers and another one targeting employees, prospective employees, etc.

Once the brand promise, as expressed through the positioning statement, is decided, the owner or manager of the brand asset should use that as a guiding light to make subsequent business decisions and to  engage and delight the market. All communciation, starting with the brand name and logo, should be crafted to support the brand strategy.

There are more insights about brands and branding throughout this website. Feel free to explore. And, for even more on how owners and managers of brand assets should think about branding, please download our free ebook: “A Brand Is A Promise Kept – Branding essentials for the busy CEO”.  Click below to begin your free download. •