What is branding?

Branding is what people say abut you when you are not in the room.

Quote attributed to Jeff Bezos, CEO & Founder Amazon

“What is branding?” is a question I get from clients all the time.  The literature doesn’t really offer a practical answer.  In the quote by Jeff Bezos, he provides guidance on figuring out what your brand is.  But, he doesn’t define branding so you are left with a derived or esoteric understanding.  Since it is such a common question and the answers are often less than satisfactory, I thought I would share the simple answer I give my clients.

A brand is a promise.  It sets and expectation of an experience.

Branding is the process of ensuring the promise is authentic, relevant and competitive over time.

Marketing is the process of communicating the brand promise through channels intended to reach many people.  Success is measured in awareness of and desire for the promise.

Sales is the process of communicating the brand promise to individuals. Success is measured in conversions (moving people from awareness and desire to an experience.

Research and Development are processes focused on ensuring the promise remains authentic, relevant and competitive over time.

Don’t overthink it

I find the source of confusion is often the way Agencies pitch their service.  It is important they differentiate from the competition so Agencies often use academic terminology to make the subject sound more mysterious and complicated than it actually is.  In doing so, they want you to believe their Agency is delivering value for the fee they plan to charge.  Here are a few examples:

“Our digital strategy compares you to your key competitors and offers a digital roadmap of the journey toward becoming a category captain and market leader.”

“We use market research, data science, strategy, change management, customer journey mapping, UX, IA, design, marketing, advertising to grow the brand.”

“We discover you by walking in your target audience’s shoes. It’s exciting to find out what makes your company, service or product special – because our imagination starts to take over once we do.”

All of these examples (and many more) are basically telling you the Agency will help you figure out what your brand promise is and whether it is authentic, relevant and competitive.  Of course, you should know your brand promise already.  If you need confirmation then by all means invest in this kind of work.  But, 9 times out of 10 what you really need is for them to tell you how to best communicate your brand promise.

Should my brand promise be differentiating?

Most Agencies will tell you yes.  But, that could be a dangerously misleading response.  Most brands actually deliver a category benefit.  For example, the category benefit of soap is cleanliness.  Differentiation typically is based on how your brand uniquely delivers the category benefit.  Ivory bar soap delivers cleanliness without reliance on added ingredients.  Lava bar soap adds pumice to deliver cleanliness for hard to clean hands.  Consequently, the better answer is that unless your brand promises a new to the world benefit it is more likely the differentiation will be based on how your brand uniquely delivers the category benefit.

In the world of U.S. place branding, the category benefit is enabling achievement of the American Dream.  To successfully brand a location, you need to figure out how that location uniquely enables achievement of the American Dream.  The differentiation will be based on the location’s set of distinct assets, infrastructure elements, public policies and public programs.  My advice to U.S. based place branders is to stop paying Agencies to figure out your location promise and start investing in figuring out how your location uniquely enables residents to better achieve their American Dream.  If you determine your location does not have anything that helps uniquely enable achievement of the American Dream, don’t waste money on marketing.  Instead, first focus on addressing the real issue and invest in creating an authentic, relevant and competitive point of difference.  Then your location promise will be obvious and the money spent to communicate it has a fighting chance to attract both new capital and talent.

My guidance is actually the same for product and service brands.  If you cannot identify how your product or service uniquely delivers the category benefit.  Fix your product or service before wasting money on branding.  If you don’t, you will never create a meaningful level of brand loyalty.

Should I ever hire an Agency?

Yes, if you need help to:

  1. Confirm if your brand promise is authentic, relevant and competitive.  Agencies have a number of qualitative and quantitative methods to help.  They can also help tweak the statement of your brand promise to be more single minded and easy to understand.
  2. Determine who the right people are to tell your brand promise to.
  3. Figure out the best way to communicate your brand promise to the right people.

It has been my experience if you provide an Agency a clear objective, you can get outstanding service and actionable results. But, it starts with knowing why you are hiring an Agency in the first place.

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Category Place Brand Building, Strategy

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8 Comments so far

  1. Lucilla Lewis

    December 4, 2017

    Couldn’t agree with you more
    Excellent article- branding made simple !!

  2. Edward

    December 6, 2017

    Lucilla – Thanks!

  3. Rolando Alagde

    December 6, 2017

    Branding is a way of maintaining your product’s economic value. In simple terms its a way of circumventing commoditization.

  4. Edward

    December 6, 2017

    That is a definite benefit of maintaining a strong brand.

  5. Oscar RWASA

    December 7, 2017

    Good input ideas for the definition of branding.

    Would you think that as a promise, branding is something dynamic ie relatively to strategy, somethink contextual or target scoring information?

  6. Edward

    December 7, 2017

    Dynamic in the sense you need to be constantly vigilant to ensure the brand promise remains authentic, relevant and competitive. Brand equity research can provide insight to help.

  7. James Glover

    December 8, 2017

    Ed, spot on. Regarding your comments on place branding, I love the equation you share that place branding = place making + place marketing. We spend a lot of our time with our community clients to work on place making. Every place making enhancement improves quality of life and community experience, which helps improve America Dream opportunities for residents and visitors.

  8. Edward

    December 8, 2017

    Thanks Jim! Place making is critical for ensuring the place promise is and remains authentic, relevant and competitive over time. Of course, you know I believe every US community place promise is to “better” enable residents to achieve their American Dream and that communities differentiate based on HOW they do that (the unique set of assets, infrastructure, public policies, and public programs). It follows then that place making needs to be focused on helping residents better achieve their American Dream. To your point, an end result is improved quality of life and community experience. But, it also helps 1) deepen resident and company loyalty to a place so it is easier to retain jobs and top talent and 2) it improves community competitiveness for capital attraction. I just wish more economic development professionals would connect the dots in this way. You “get it”, and that is one reason I recommend economic development professionals check out your company whenever they are looking for an effective consultant.

8 Responses to “What is branding?”




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