You Think You Know What Branding Is. Do You Really?

We’ve been in this business for a long time, and we’ve worked with thousands of experienced marketers. And we’re always taken aback when we run into brand managers or creative directors or business owners who have only a hazy understanding of what branding is all about.

Brand and branding are confusing, somewhat vague, and often misused terms that live in the business buzzword stew. They’re slippery words that managers and leaders use interchangeably to mean a range of different things, from the size of the logo on a building to retail POP displays to the organization’s greater mission in the world. Brand and branding are two different, yet connected, things.

So let’s get to the bottom of it.

The Difference Between Brand and Branding

A brand is a tangible business asset, a foundational strategy that makes you different from other. When well defined and executed, your brand makes competition irrelevant. People don’t buy products; they buy brands.

What’s more, the brand is not the sole property of the marketing team. It belongs to the entire organization. Sales reps, product managers, interns, front-line employees — they all need to walk, talk, and live the brand.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon said it best when he said, brand is what they say about you when you are not in the room.

At Retail Voodoo, we believe that a brand is 1) a promise and 2) the way in which your company keeps it.

Your brand promise is the reason why your brand exists, the need it meets, the problem it solves. The brand promise is largely functional. It can be as simple as, “This chia-enhanced tortilla chip is better for you than a Dorito.” Consider outdoor outfitter REI; its functional promise is that its gear will keep you warm, dry, and protected on your camping or hiking trip.

Different companies may espouse similar brand promises. But the way in which they keep those promises is the differentiation. REI embraces a platform of outdoor stewardship; not only does the brand’s offering supply gear, but REI helps you pursue an active outdoor lifestyle with the encouragement, training, and expertise you need to ​​pursue your adventures.

The way you keep your promise brings to life your organization’s larger vision, mission, purpose, and ideology. The way you keep your promise wins customers and converts buyers to fans. It beats the traditional Four Ps of marketing: product, price, place, and promotion.

Branding is the execution of your brand strategy. Note the word ‘strategy’ here. Compelling brand strategy outlines the roadmap for the entire company — not just marketing but operations, HR, product development, and sales.

Branding is the verbal and visual translation of the brand, a whole ecosystem. It’s your logo and your packaging and your social media presence, yes, but it’s also the way you treat your retail partners, the way you respond to customer problems, the way you source materials and manufacture your products. It drives the types of new products you develop and identifies business opportunity.

To recap: Brand is a thing — your promise and the way you keep it. Branding is an activity — the way you bring your strategy to life.

Why Marketers Are Confused About Branding

We’ve written about brand and brand strategy countless times (see our Insights library for more of our thinking), but we’ve never addressed it in such a basic way. Even the most sophisticated marketers we work with still misuse the word; they talk about branding as the application of the logo to a billboard. Thinking about why there’s such a misperception about brand, we’ve landed on a couple of reasons.

First, the concept of a brand has evolved over more than two centuries. In the 19th century, brand was literal — a mark that identified the owner of livestock. Ranchers branded cattle so they wouldn’t be stolen. In the 20th century, with the rise of the industrial economy and mass production, a brand became a mark attached to a product. Companies branded their products to set them apart, and consumers embraced those brands as status symbols and signifiers of quality. Today, brand is closer to Bezos’ definition. Brands transcend products, and consumers make choices based on which brands align with their values.

Second, higher education teaches branding incorrectly. Marketers usually come into the food and beverage industry through two doors, either business school or design school. Educators in both of those systems have a 20th century, not a 21st century, definition of brand and branding. Thus, there is a cohort of managers and executives who think the brand is the logo.

So why does this matter? Because brands matter more to consumers than ever before. In a world of cheap goods and endless choices, knockoffs and store labels, crowded retail shelves and overwhelming online shopping experiences, brand is the beacon that guides consumers. You’d better get it right.

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Chief Sales & Marketing Officer
For Diana, a fierce determination to pursue what’s right is rooted in her DNA. The daughter of parents who endured unimaginable hardship before emigrating from Eastern Europe to the U.S., she is built for a higher purpose. Starting with an experience working with Jane Goodall to source sustainably made paper, she went on to a career helping Corporate America normalize the use of environmentally responsible products and materials before coming to Retail Voodoo.

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