Sifting Through Marketing Communications Terminology: Understanding Branding in the Real World

by | Oct 21, 2016

Branding – one of the most important considerations for any business or organization. Yet, brands are misunderstood, undervalued and often under-budgeted, especially by small to mid-sized companies and non-profits. After 27 years in business, I’ve tried a variety of ways and examples to help clients understand. Below are a few that seem to help.

First of all, a brand is not just a logo.
Yet, many of those within the marketing communications industry use the terms logo and brand interchangeably.

The American Marketing Association Dictionary defines a brand as:

a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or services as distinct from those of other sellers

Unfortunately, branding has become a term with many definitions, similar to “marketing.” For some, marketing means sales. For others it means advertising. For others, communications. In reality, marketing is all of those things: an umbrella term, yet also used to define the subcategories beneath it.

The same goes for branding. The term is used to describe its own elements: the representations of the brand and the brand itself. A logo, usually combined with some basic usages like stationery, is often called a brand. However it is only the mark of the brand – the most basic visual representation, which continues to evolve and builds brand equity through careful, planned usage. A brand, however, is still so much more.

I like to describe a brand as the strategically defined and creatively articulated embodiment of a company, product or service that distinguishes it and defines its essence.

But that doesn’t help the average business person. So here are a couple real-world examples.

Just Think of a Softdrink
Pepsi is a well-known brand. The odds are, when you just read the word Pepsi, you visualized its logo, and/or you thought of at least one Pepsi product. Almost everyone (even those who have never tried a Pepsi) will have an immediate emotional reaction to the Pepsi brand as soon as it is mentioned because of the amount of equity the brand has built through the years. Sometimes that reaction is obvious to you but often it happens subconsciously. The reaction, in the case of a popular brand like Pepsi, is likely polarized – either highly positive or highly negative. Your interpretation of the brand is based on many factors – from your reaction to the logo, exposure to and/or experience with the brand, to your opinion on past advertisements and publicity.

Perhaps you are an avid Coca Cola drinker. If so, you likely have an inherent negative response to the Pepsi brand. If that’s the case, you also are likely to have a negative perception of other Pepsi products. You are less likely to try them. That behavior is based on the brand – you have no experience with the new product but you have experience with the brand. Likewise, if you are an avid Pepsi drinker, you have expectations for the brand that any product it creates will meet its standards. You are more likely to try a Pepsi product because it falls under the Pepsi brand. But brand beware, you have an expectation that it must live up to or risk losing a dedicated consumer!

The brand is Pepsi – not its logo. It’s the way you feel about and see Pepsi. The logo is an embodiment of the brand. In your subconscious they are basically the same thing. And because Pepsi has spent many years and mucho dinero on consistent, integrated, strategic marketing communications, thorough brand strategies, and consistent brand experiences, you see the logo, you think Pepsi, you have a consistent reaction.

Setting Expectations: The Promise (of a hot date)
Imagine you’re a guy being set up on a blind date (I hate to use this example but it works). Your friend tells you she is beautiful, slender, sophisticated, smart, with a great sense of humor. Your friend just created an expectation and defined her brand (and you like it)! An immediate visual comes to mind. A promise has been made to you. When she walks into the restaurant, she is small stature, average looking and laughs like a donkey. While we women will tell you she is intelligent and kind so you really should get over your disappointment, you can’t. The bar had been set by the distinct brand your friend represented. Worse than having no expectations, you had clear expectations, which were not met. A brand must not only distinguish, it must clearly and honestly represent the company, organization or product. That’s called keeping the promise.

What on earth does that mean in terms of a company? In its simplest terms, the promise is basically my sales pitch – this is what you’ll get when you work with Imaj Associates. A very important part of branding is defining the promise, being consistent with it and delivering on it. Then the visual and verbal representations of the brand (logo, elevator, signs, website, ads, brochures, public relations, etc) will be based on that promise. And the devil is in the details. Logos must be easily remembered by the subconscious, different colors convey subliminal messages to different groups, and words are important! Note that the friend in the example above used the term “beautiful.” That term set an expectation that was based on your definition of beauty., which he had no control or understanding of whatsoever.

The next step in the process is to create guidelines for usage of images and words so everything is communicated consistently. Everything communicates the promise and the essence. And the company or organization must deliver what they promised. That’s a solid brand from which to build your marketing, sales, communications, fundraising, etc. and get to the ultimate goal of being successful.

What if I don’t have a Brand?
Since Imaj Associates deals with a lot of small- to mid-sized companies and non-profits, we hear this often. “We don’t have a brand.” Wanna bet? That’s like saying, “We don’t have an essence and we don’t make any promises to anyone.” Good luck with that business model.

You may not be aware of your brand and you may not be able to define or have controlled visual and verbal representations of it – but it’s still there. It’s based on every experience a person has with you or your business, including every interaction with others made by any representative of your business. You may have the best product in the world, but face a detrimental branding issue based on the tone of the person who answers the phone, the amount of time someone is put on hold when they call, or the number of steps a caller goes through to get to the right person. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can’t stand that company,” and then continue with a story about their awful phone experience. It is doubtful that person will bother to get to the next step, and that person’s influence on others can be powerful.

So it’s critical to define that brand promise and then come up with strategies to follow through on it – from how you visually and verbally communicate it, to how your staff articulates it, to the impression a person gets when they walk through your door or visit your website or Twitter feed. And remember, social networks now give companies more tangible personalities and allow for two-way conversations (more on that another time).

The fact that we communications professionals – of all people – use such confusing terms confounds me. But our industry is flawed by graphic design programs that ignore strategy and companies that focus solely on tactics. That being said, the brand is indeed one of the most important aspects of a business, if not the most important. And, without a doubt, if it was not approached strategically in the first place and/or not carefully managed, the structure above it will most definitely crumble. Unfortunately, by the time that happens, few have the insight to realize that the problems stem back to a poorly created, defined or managed brand.

By Jami A Ouellette, president and founder, Imaj Associates