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 the term “brand” actually means. The woman on your left thinks it means a logo. The guy on your right might define it as something more intangible and emotional.

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

At the end of this article, you’ll find a list of 32 definitions of the word “brand” pulled from a mix of academic papers, tweets, books, and blogs. Most fall into one of two camps:

  1. “A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature…” – The American Marketing Association
  2. “Brand is just a perception…” – Elon Musk

These two definitions get to the heart of the disconnect. How can a brand be both features and people’s perceptions of those features?

No one would argue that brands are designed to spark certain feelings. Coke, for example, hopes their ads evoke a sense of refreshment.

But can we really say that brands are the feelings and perceptions they evoke? Say half of soda drinkers associate Coke with refreshment, and the other half don’t. If we define brand as perception, wouldn’t we have to start talking about two Coke brands?

To make matters more confusing, there wouldn’t just be two camps of soda drinkers (and two Coke brands). There would be hundreds of groups with their own emotional reactions and perceptions of Coke. How would we determine which had Coke’s brand right? Would it be the average of them all?

If we’d clearly distinguish “brand” from “brand perception,” things wouldn’t be so complicated.

So let’s try this for a simple definition:

A brand is the efforts a company makes to build a distinct identity.

If we want to talk about how people respond to those efforts (logos, ads, etc.), we need to talk about brand perception.

It might sound like a difference that makes no difference. But when discussing topics as important and complex as what a company stands for, who it wants to attract, and how it can beat out the competition, clarity matters.

This clarity also allows us and our clients to work in reverse. We can pinpoint how we want a brand to be perceived and trace those feelings back to actions the company can take.

Back to the meeting room we started in. With a clearer understanding of what we’re talking about when we talk about brand—and how it influences perception—we’re set up for a deeper, more constructive discussion.

Which is the first step to building a stronger brand.

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 … 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?