Brand and Branding Defined

Ed Burghard“Losers make promises they often break.  Winners make commitments they always keep.”

Denis Waitley

I have noticed that there has been a lot of discussion on the definition of brand and branding lately in the LinkedIn Groups I frequent. In part, I am not surprised. The advent of tools to help communicate directly with people has resulted in a revisit of the classic four P’s definition. The tools have shifted the focus from product to consumer. And with that shift comes an important change of perspective. It moves from product performance to consumer experience. To be clear, this is not a new concept. It is more like a pendulum shift in emphasis.

My Working Definition

Over the years, I have shifted my language to defining a brand as a promise. It sets an expectation of an experience. This shift makes it easier to explain the fundamentals to business people not schooled in branding terminology. They readily understand that when you make a promise it is good business practice to keep it, and that breaking promises is a certain path to business disaster.

The response to this definition has been overwhelmingly positive from business managers wanting to better understand how to use branding as a key strategy for accelerated success. It has received a mixed reaction from academics that prefer to stick with the traditional product focused approach discussed in innumerable textbooks used by MBA programs.

How To Define Your Promise

With small and medium businesses I find articulating the brand promise is often a challenge. It typically isn’t something that has had sufficient thought. Most of the focus has been on start-up challenges and branding has been a second priority.

Kevin Keller’s points of parity and points of difference model is a helpful tool to identify the unique value proposition of a product or service. I encourage you to read Kevin’s work. I think he is one of the brightest brand strategists of our time. His model encourages a comparative assessment to determine what he calls points of parity and points of difference. I describe points of parity as the ” ticket to entry” to compete in a category. These are attributes you need to ensure your product or service delivers to a degree similar to the competition. Points of difference are where a competitive advantage exists. My twist on Kevin’s model is that I call out both positive and negative points of difference. My rule of thumb for a point of difference is a statistically significant positive delta between the perceptual score for your product/service versus the scores of a relevant competitive set. Positive points of difference need to be maintained and the advantage expanded. Negative points of difference should be evaluated closely and you should invest in eliminating the competitive disadvantage of the most important. Neutralizing a disadvantage makes it a point of parity.

Market Research Can Help

How do you know what your points of parity and points of difference are? How do you know if you’ve expanded the advantage you have with your positive points of difference and closed the gap on your negative?

The answer is to execute a quantitative market research study that asks respondents two important questions with respect to a list of defined attributes.

The first question is – “How important is this attribute to your capital investment decision (or purchase decision)?”.

The second is – “How well does the location (or product/service) perform on the attribute?”. The second question is asked for your location ( or product/service) and typically a set of 3-4 direct competitors so you can compare relative scores.

The market research firm will then calculate the statistical significance of the scores. Typically, it is calculated based on a 95% confidence interval (only 5% probability of being wrong). I like to have an 80% confidence interval because my experience suggests 95% is too restrictive, and frankly in business better than 50:50 odds is generally a blessing. Using an 80% level will result in more data points meeting the statistical significance test giving you more insight into relative differences.

Listen Hardest To Those With Experience

Armed with the quantitative assessment of the perception of your location (or product/service) relative to the competition you are now in a position to better determine what your promise is. My strong recommendation I to pay the most attention to the perception of respondents already doing business in your location, or who already have. Experience with your product/service. They have the most realistic view of your location’s (or product/service’s) relative strengths and weaknesses. Plus your goal, generally speaking, is to find more capital investors or consumer/customers who match the profile of those that have an experience with your location/product/service. Make the right promise and you should attract people with similar wants, needs and desires.

At a minimum, you know not to try and promise something the data argues is a negative point of difference for your community/product/service versus the competition.

Hopefully the above help up better understand what a brand is and how you can go about identifying a brand promise.


Think about the definition of a brand as a promise.  What are the implications on your current approach?  Does it bring up any new thoughts or considerations?  Are you keeping or breaking your promise?  Is your promise relevant, competitive and authentic?  Could your promise be even stronger?  Let me know your thoughts.

Leave a comment with your thoughts.

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