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What is the meaning of brand?
“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room”
I’ve seen this statement from Jeff Bezos being used in presentations and articles several times. There’s something in it that seems to resonate with marketing and branding professionals. It shifts your perception and makes you think that maybe you were wrong all the way. Because to some extent it speaks the truth. A logo does not make a brand. But is Brand really just about perception?
Right or wrong, Jeff Bezos is not alone in his opinion. Several brand experts have expressed a similar understanding of Brand as a set of associations in the customer mind.
"A Brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another" - David Aaker, author of Aaker on Branding
"A brand is a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect" - Al Ries, author of Positioning
"A person's perception of a product, Service, experience or organization; a commercial reputation" - Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap
These opinions assume that the concept of Brand exists primarily as a reaction to an action, a response from customers to a stimulus from an organization.
But in the daily business of agencies, in the world of designers and organizations, brands are often discussed in dimensions that go beyond the way they are perceived. Inside agencies, the term brand is thrown around to describe various topics that span from core ideology to the way a brand expresses itself.
Then what does brand really mean?
The definition of brand is not easy to agree on. Because, although universally used, its meaning and its use have changed drastically throughout history.
What was initially a term mainly related to a mark of ownership, origin or a claim of property (“to brand”) evolved during the industrial revolution to become a symbol of added value, differentiating one factory goods from competing ones.
But it was not until the “Mad Men” era that brand started to be understood as perception, when Marketeers realized that advertising was useful not just to create needs or raise awareness, but also to influence the reputation a certain brand or product has. A brand started to be understood not as what organizations claim it is but as what their customers perceive it is.
But perception is subjective
The acknowledgment of brand as perception is set on the idea that there's one generalized perception of a given brand. One idea that one organization owns inside the consumer’s mind.
But take for example a complex brand such as Microsoft. For some users Microsoft is the company that makes Windows, Word, Excel and PowerPoint. For others it might be the company who’s unsuccessfully trying to challenge Apple in the premium computers segment. For some it might be the the best employer or the most reliable business partner. But for others it is just guaranteed fun with the Xbox.
All these different stakeholders perceive the brand differently. Some think of Microsoft as dynamic, others as dull.
Don’t take me wrong. Perception is one of the key measures of the effectiveness of a brand. And the desired perception can be one of the most important drivers in defining a brand strategy. But although extremely important, perception can also be equally subjective. It can change based on individual, context and other factors such as tribalism.
Brands are multidimensional
Today brand is a fluid concept. Part verb, part noun. It means everything but anything. It’s the verbal identity and the logo. It’s the promises and the reason whys. The purpose, the vision and the mission. It is all of it but none of it. It is instead, as we’ve seen before, the other side of the equation. The communications, the products and the experience. It is the expectations, the perception and the reputation. It is the position it occupies inside the consumers’ mind.
Different branding experts and marketing teams take all of this, and create different styles of brand platforms, populating graphics that resemble onions and pyramids with the terms and components that they find to be the most relevant.
But maybe there’s some truth to all of it.
Brand has evolved to be a complex framework that comprises many dimensions. That’s the reason why trying to reduce the discussion to what brand is, and what it is not, just adds confusion. It makes processes unclear and it dilutes meaningful conversations about the topic.
Brand is all of it
Brand is not just the response to a stimulus.
Brand is also the stimulus itself.
What consumers think about a brand, how they perceive it, is decisive. But that perception is always defined by the experiences they’ve shared with the brand. And defining the rules, guidelines and principles that allow us to create on-brand experiences, is only possible with a clear understanding of what a brand is and what it stands for - the brand identity.
Brand is the identity, experience and perception of a commercial, corporate or cultural entity.
I like to think of brand as this cycle of Identity, Experience and Perception. A cycle that goes from the definition and creation of the brand identity to the way it is experienced and understood by the public. A cycle that can help creating and managing brands effectively and holistically.
Jeff Bezos is somehow right. It’s true that Brands live in people’s minds.
But they are created and experienced somewhere else.