Everything You Should Know About Branding (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Branding is perhaps the most misunderstood concept in all of marketing. It seems that everywhere you turn, someone is tossing about words like “brand” and “branding.” It must be super important (if so many people are talking about it, right?), but what the heck does it really mean? Among marketers, there is little agreement.

Ask any two people about their organization’s brand, and you’ll probably get two wildly divergent answers. One will think “brand” is their company’s name and logo, perhaps the slogan too. Another will be talking about their company’s ad campaigns. Some folks might even say “we don’t really have a brand.”

Let’s be clear: Every organization everywhere has a brand. In the simplest terms, a “brand” is how people view a company (or product) today. Whether good or bad, consumers have opinions. The sum total of these opinions forms the company’s reputation — i.e., its brand. When people’s positive opinions outweigh the negative ones, a company is said to have “positive brand equity.” In concrete terms, a company with positive brand equity can charge relatively more than competitors with less brand equity.

Did You Know?

The origin of the word “brand” comes from the marking of livestock. Firebrands have been used to indicate ownership of cattle for around 2,000 years. The concept of “branding” however dates back to 3,000 B.C., when potters (and eventually metal smiths) added markings to their works as a symbol of craftsmanship and quality. Sophisticated, modern-day marketers use their “brand” to signify more than just ownership; they use it to convey a promise.

The problem is that — while every company has a brand today — very few really know what it is. They may think they know, but they aren’t really sure. Most organizations have no formal process or mechanism to gauge what people think of them today. In the place of real research, there is a lot of guesswork and wishful thinking.

Reality Check: Your existing brand is not what you hope or want people to believe about your organization. Your brand is what people actually believe.

This is the difference between a “brand” and “branding.” A brand is what people really think — whether you agree with them or not, whether you like it or not. “Branding” on the other hand is what you want people to think. (For a related discussion, please read this article, “You Don’t Control Your Brand (Actually, You Never Did.”)

Key Question: How can you get where you want to go (with a branding strategy) if you don’t know where you stand today (your existing brand)?

While every company has a brand, very few actually have brand strategies.

Branding — having a brand strategy — is about using all the tools at your disposal to influence people’s perceptions, opinions and attitudes. And it isn’t something centered around marketing. A true brand strategy should drive decisions in all departments, all divisions — all staff, front and back office.

Don’t Worry, Even the Big Boys Struggle With Branding

What is your brand strategy about?

It’s a tough question. When the head of marketing strategy at Citi was recently asked about the bank’s brand promise, he said:

“An articulation of Citi’s brand promise centers around how we’ve been associated with progress throughout our 200 years and the ingenuity in the ways in which we’ve done it. It is the experience that our people and our businesses bring to various challenges – what we call a restless passion to figure out how to help people through those challenges, whether they are businesses or consumers.”


What does the Citi brand stand for? Is it about a legacy of ingenuity? Passionate service? The level of experience the bank’s representatives possess? Wading through this mishmash of corporate clichés about “challenges” and “progress,” where is the company’s actual promise? What should customers to expect from Citi? What kind of experience is Citi specifically saying it will deliver? What are the tangible outcomes and benefits to customers?

Here’s what’s really going on, and why Citi’s answer is confused. You see, Citigroup is currently in the middle of a massive global bicentennial celebration. They have ads, videos and a huge section on their website trumpeting their 200th anniversary. It’s a big deal to them. The campaign dwells on innovation, perseverance and “helping ideas move from ambition to achievement.”

But folks at Citi have this year’s central ad theme confused with the bank’s brand. That’s why Citi’s marketing chief talks about “ingenuity” and “progress” and “relentless passion” when asked about the brand’s promise. Those are this year’s PR talking points as dictated by Citi’s ad agency and their current campaign, not commentary on the bank’s long-term brand strategy.

What about next year? What will Citi’s “brand” be then? Honestly? Probably whatever their ad agency comes up with next.

Reality Check: Brands are built over time, not in 12 months. Your brand strategy needs to survive past this year’s ad campaign. Consumer perceptions simply don’t change that quickly.

Can I Have Some Branding With a Side Order of Confusion?

There are countless people in the U.S. claiming to be some sort of authority on the subject of branding — everyone from ad agencies to core data processors. You can find examples everywhere — from VPs of marketing and even CMOs — at companies of all sizes possessing a flawed, ill-informed understanding of branding. Even the guy who sells pens for your branches is trying to tie his schwag with “branding.” Everyone wants to claim branding expertise, even if few have really studied the subject much, if at all.

Key Question: For as often as you personally have talked about “brands” and “branding,” how many books have you read specifically on the subject? Why should members of your management team look to you as a credible expert on branding?

Ad agencies are among the worst abusers of branding nomenclature. They’ve misled many marketers into believing that branding is largely a marketing function — that you can shift and influence people’s perceptions simply through ads. That brands are a function of style, design, copy and colors. That there is essentially no distinction between “branding” and a multi-year, multi-media marketing campaign. In their eyes, they are effectively both the same. (Related story: Read why BofA is making a colossal mistake hiring an ad agency to “define its brand.”)

Reality Check: Everyone can get into a lot of trouble talking about brands and branding if both parties don’t share a common understanding, the same definitions.

When people talk about branding, they are usually referring only to the tactical execution and application of their brand. They might have a 20-page book outlining brand identity standards, but they lack a comprehensive, underlying, enduring strategy spelling out how consumers should perceive the brand. They might be able to tell you how to position the logo within a layout, but they don’t say how the company should be positioned against its competitors.

Bottom Line: Brands are built by what you do, what you say, what you sell, what you believe, how you look, how you act, what you promise and what you deliver. Branding is managing all these variables with deliberate intent to shape people’s perceptions in ways that achieve long-term business objectives. It is — quite literally — the strategic, pan-organizational management of your company’s reputation. All companies have a brand, but the smart ones play a direct, conscious, active role in its creation — way beyond just marketing and advertising.

Read a dozen books on the subject of branding or talk to marketing professors from any college around the country. Not only will you probably be the smartest person you know about the subject of branding, you’d also find a very narrow and consistent set of definitions. Among academics and true practitioners of branding, there is widespread agreement: Your brand is what people think actually think about you, and branding is how you want people to think about you.

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