The Definition of Brand Has Evolved, Has Your Company Kept Up?

What is a brand? This question persists even within the walls of our agency. I have enjoyed the various perspectives and truth bombs my colleagues and clients have shared with me. If we boil it down, there are typically two schools of thought: the 19th century definition and the 20th century definition. However, at Retail Voodoo, we have a 21st century definition that challenges everything said about brand up until this point in time.

19th Century: Brand was First a Trademark for Corporate Property

Way back when, branding referred to the searing of cattle with a permanent, prominent scar that claimed said cow for life and helped keep it out of the hands of thieves. Then, as a by-product of the Industrial Age, it became a legal term that helped protect breweries in Great Britain from counterfeiters selling inferior knock-offs.

From its inception, branding was used to identify and differentiate based on ownership.

20th Century: Brand was the Appearance of the Company (Logo and Visual Identity)

Two fundamental shifts in business culture occurred during the 20th century that evolved the definition of branding. Post-war prosperity gave rise to the ubiquity of manufacturing. This resulted in the business philosophy that “he who has the factory gets the gold.” It was no longer about innovation but about controlling the manufacturing process.

So, in a world of parity products, something needed to change in order to help companies differentiate their offerings. Enter the graphic designer as a cultural influencer. Think Mad Men.

From 1950-1999, if you had the factory, sharp logo, cool packaging, and clever slogans, your business won – and in turn, likely won business. Everything was based on features and attributes. During that time, everyone with capital built factories and product proliferation became the new normal.

21st Century: Brand is the Feeling or Meaning (Values and Purpose)

In response to hyperchoice, the Experience Economy was born.

Now we buy as a form of self-actualization. Consumer culture has moved beyond purchasing merely on the basis of need or utility. Consumption has become meaningful, and brands are often used as building blocks for the construction and maintenance of our personal identity.

Most brand owners have spent all of the 21st century striving to bring human attributes to their offerings in order to create, define, and evolve the relationship they have with customers. As such, brands have now become distinct markers of human identity. Complex symbols no longer simply represent ownership, features, and attributes – they now also represent complex ideas, values, and company mission.

What’s Next: The Purpose-Driven Economy

In response to people using brands as building blocks of their own personal identity, contribution is the name of the game. This makes it more important than ever before to understand why your organization exists beyond what you make and how you generate profit.

So, it comes down to this: In the 21st century, your brand is what they say about you when you are not in the room. To put it another way, your brand is the gut feeling people get by the manner in which you and your company keep the promises you make. Your identity is the graphical elements (logo, type color, etc.) that people will use to identify your brand’s offering in the marketplace, but your brand is a feeling.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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