Field Notes

When We Talk About Brand, What Are We Talking About?

Illustration of 20 different styles of eye glasses, illustrated by Infantree

In too many brand-focused meetings and presentations, there’s little agreement on what a “brand” is. The woman on your left thinks it means a logo. The guy on your right understands it to be something more intangible and emotional.

Not a great starting point for discussing the brand in question.

At the end of this article is a list of 32 definitions for brand. We’ve pulled them from academic papers, tweets, books, blogs, and anywhere else we could find them. But you only need to read a few to see there’s little consensus.

There are, however, two main camps:

  1. “A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature…” – The American Marketing Association
  2. “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.” – Marty Neumeier

These two definitions get to the heart of the disconnect. So, is a brand a feature or a feeling?

We can all agree the goal is to make the customer feel something. Coke, for example, hopes to evoke a sense of refreshment.

But can we say that brands are the feelings they evoke? Imagine half of soda drinkers associate Coke with refreshment, and the other half don’t. If we define brand as a gut feeling, would we now have two Coke brands?

On the other hand, is Coke’s brand nothing more than a collection of colors, images, messages, objects, and shapes? This fails to account for the brand’s true value—the value all those features have come to hold in people’s minds.

Brand Versus Branding

This is why we, as an agency, distinguish between brand and branding. Branding is easy to define: it’s your intentional efforts—using features like logo, color, and voice—to set your offering apart.

The nice thing about branding is that it’s entirely in your control.

The not-so-nice thing about branding is that, on its own, it’s worthless. An odd thing for a branding agency to say, but hear us out.

Because the true magic happens when branding gives rise to a proper brand. When all those words and shapes come to mean something to real, live people.

What is a brand? Well, it’s not one thing. It’s the collective opinions, associations, and emotions people have about a business or product. Hard as these impressions may be to quantify, they’re where the real value of any brand lies.

Is all of this just splitting hairs? Not when you’re trying to iron out issues as important as what a company stands for, who it wants to reach, and how it can beat out the competition. In these cases, clarity matters.

Back to the meeting room we started in. Now that we understand what we’re talking about when we talk about brand—and how it’s influenced by branding—we’re set up for a deeper, more constructive discussion.

Which is the first step to building a strong brand.

Easier Defined Than Done

Of the many definitions below, there’s something particularly interesting about Interbrand’s: “A mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, symbolized in a trademark, which, if managed properly, creates value and influence.”

That’s right: the value of any brand depends entirely on how you manage it.

Often, business leaders seem to think that with the perfect new logo, value and influence will happen automatically. Apparently even agencies as big as Interbrand come up against this misperception.

So we’ll leave you with a little definition of our own: a brand is hard work. It requires constant vigilance, creativity, and adaptation.

Without that follow-through, even the best definition won’t get you very far.

Brand: 32 More Definitions

  1. “A brand “helps people identify a particular company, product, or individual.” Investopedia
  2. “A brand is the face of a business strategy.” – Scott Galloway
  3. “A brand is a contract between a company and consumers.” – Simon Clift
  4. “A brand is a general term that tells you a product is not like anyone else’s; it has its own identity.” – Pete Barry
  5. “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.” – Seth Godin
  6. “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person.” – Jeff Bezos
  7. “Brands are belief systems.” – Patrick Hanlon
  8. “Your brand is the promise that your business makes to its target audiences, and that promise has to be delivered accurately if you are to build long-term relationships with your customers, suppliers, and employees.” – Mark Shaw
  9. “A brand isn’t just the name on the box. It isn’t the thing inside the box, either. A brand is the sum total of all the emotions, thoughts, images, history, possibilities, and gossip that exist in the marketplace about a certain company.” – Luke Sullivan
  10. “Brands give us a shorthand. In a distracted and confusing world, these shortcuts help consumers make sense of all the options.” – Sally Hogshead
  11. “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.” – Leo Burnett
  12. “A brand is a collection of associations that the customer has with a brand and that determine the value of a product or service.” – Kevin Lane Keller
  13. “Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product.” Elon Musk
  14. “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” David Ogilvy
  15. “I believe brands have utility not just as communication organizers but as alternative CEOs. Brands can supply vision—a compass to guide a business, a living expression of the contract between company and consumer, a tool to shape the experience of the whole business…” – Nick Kendall
  16. “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.” Marty Neumeier
  17. “Brands are essentially patterns of familiarity, meaning, fondness, and reassurance that exist in the minds of people.” – Tom Goodwin
  18. “Brand is the living, breathing driver of the entire consumer experience.” – Emily Heyward
  19. “I believe ‘brands’ and ‘branding’ are words that have outlived their usefulness, deriving as they do from a time when they referred to static badges and didactic communications. I believe that their roots are now a cause for confusion, and that the terms ‘morph’ and ‘shaping’ do a more intuitive job of explaining the things that we all do in our roles as marketing professionals.” – Nick Docherty
  20. “A public image, reputation, or identity conceived of as something to be marketed or promoted.” – Merriam Webster
  21. “Brands are verbs. Nike exhorts. IBM solves. Sony dreams.” – Dan Wieden
  22. “A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s goods or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” – The American Marketing Association
  23. “Brands come in all shapes and sizes; they may be specific or general, palpable or impalpable, global or national, expensive or cheap but in most cases, it’s not just what they are, but also what they represent that makes them powerful.” – Wally Olins
  24. “My friend, who lives in Surrey, tells me he sees neighbours shopping in Lidl and then putting what they’ve bought into Waitrose bags to carry home. That’s brand.” – Dave Trott
  25. “A brand name is nothing more or less than sum of all the mental connections people have around it.” – Gordon Brown
  26. “I believe brands originated as a means of categorizing—a way of distinguishing different products from one another, and then developed into tools of tribalism—a way of defining one group vs another. In the future, as new means of engagement allow people to interact and modify brands for themselves, I believe brands will increasingly become means of differentiating by personal identity—a way to define my personal difference against another’s.” – Ian Edwards
  27. “The idea(s) behind, identity of, and experience(s) created by an organization, product, service, or other entity.” HowBrandsAreBuilt
  28. “A brand is something that lives in your head. It’s a promise that links a product or service to a consumer.” – Allen Adamson
  29. “A brand is a complex, interrelated system of management decisions and consumer reactions that identifies a product (goods, services, or ideas), builds awareness of it, and creates meaning for it.” – Giep Franzen and Sandra Moriarty
  30. “A brand is the collection of associations that people have about a product or business. People have personalities. Businesses have brands.” – Facebook
  31. “Today, the brand is a repository, not merely of functional characteristics, but of meaning and value.” – Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson
  32. “A mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, symbolized in a trademark, which, if managed properly, creates value and influence.” – Interbrand

32 definitions of the word “brand,” plus one of our own. Which do you agree with?