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The Definition of Branding & What Branding Means (The Right and the Oh, So, Wrong)

The Definition of Branding What Branding MeansThe first place I start with any small business looking to grow is to cover what branding means. Branding can be a confusing concept. I run across small business owners often who are either 1) unsure what branding actually is or 2) think they have a handle on branding but are on the wrong path.

It’s not their fault. It’s not as if branding has always been a mainstream concept. Also, there is a ton of misleading (and downright incorrect) information out there.

Branding has been around, technically, for centuries. Back in the day, cattle owners would invest in creating their own symbols to brand their cattle and ensure their herd was easily identifiable. While it was definitely about business, it truly predates all of our modern business strategy concepts. However, using branding as a business strategy - that used to be the process for advertising agencies creating elaborate marketing campaigns but was not used deliberately in small business.

Today, the world is a different place and branding is where a company should begin.

The First Step for Any Business is Branding

Even in modern marketing, companies were creating brands before ‘branding’ was technically a concept. BUT… it was mostly the large advertising agencies creating the brand, not the business owners. Modern business puts the control of a brand where it should be - in the hands of the founder or owner.

Part of the challenge with branding is that many new companies skip the most important part - creating the brand foundation. It’s simply too tempting to skip ahead to the fun design stuff or to go out into the world and start building an audience. Other entrepreneurs are too busy juggling the Everything CEO stuff that they may not even realize they jumped ahead.

Companies that don’t take the time to work on their brand foundation lack the clarity to make business choices that align with who they are and what they want to be. They leave a lot up to the imagination for folks and that's a bad strategy.

What Branding Is Not

Before we can explore what branding truly is, it’s important to discuss what it is NOT.

A Brand Is Not:

  • A logo (or design) - This is a strong visual representation of your brand but is only an element of your brand identity, NOT your brand.
  • A product or service - Your product, offer or service is what you do, not who you are or what you want to be.
  • A promise - A brand promise can be a powerful business strategy, but it is not necessary to have and is not your brand.
  • A reputation - Your reputation (online and offline) is a combination of logic, emotion, and experience. In many ways, your reputation is built on being reactive and taking action. But that isn't your brand. A brand strategy is proactive.
  • A website - Like a logo, your website is not your brand. It's simply one of the many tools you can use to influence your audience to think about your brand in the way you want them to experience it.
  • An identity - Your brand identity is comprised of colors and fonts and symbols and all those important elements of visual representation that will make you instantly recognizable to your audience. However, an identity is tactical and not strategic. It's practical and not conceptual. It's how you implement your branding but is not your brand.

Whoa! That eliminated a lot of standard definitions for branding. I bet at least one of those made you pause and go, “What?” That’s because there are many misconceptions about branding. This tends to happen when you are trying to explain a concept. It’s also a byproduct of a bunch of people preaching branding in order to sell design. Branding is SO MUCH more than design.

It also eliminates some of the standard definitions of branding offered by textbooks and marketing organizations. In fact, the American Marketing Association describes branding as "A name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers. The legal term for brand is trademark." While this absolutely is the definition of a trademark, it no longer encompasses the essence of branding. It's a dated description and keeps business owners from really doing the work when it comes to building their brand.

Brand Definition

Now that we know what a brand is not, let's get into the actual meaning behind branding. Like many marketing strategies, there are multiple definitions for branding. Some are different trains of thoughts and some are downright wrong.

My favorite go-to brand definition is from branding expert and author of The Brand Gap and The Brand Flip, Marty Neumeier:

A brand is a person's gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.

Take a moment to wrap your head around this concept.

how your brand is viewed

Breaking down what branding means:

  1. Under this definition, who controls your brand? (Hint: Not You)
  2. This means you cannot force people to think or feel about your brand the way you would like. You can only influence.
  3. Branding is all about an emotional response. Logic has its place but a gut feeling isn't always logical.
  4. Consistency is a power player in brand strategy. If you aren't being consistent, you create confusion and lower the impact of your influence.
  5. Even if you spend ZERO time on your own branding, your brand exists. It simply grows, engages people, and changes without your influence.

Here are some additional insights from thought leaders on branding:

"A brand is an entity that engenders an emotional connection with a consumer."
Stanley Hainsworth, Tether

"An authentic brand comes from within. It is the exposure of what a company really is."
Idris Mootee, Idea Couture

"Brands are about feelings, and feelings are complicated."
Tracy Lloyd, Emotive Brand

"Branding is the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company. And vice-versa."
Jay Baer, Convince & Convert

Building Your Brand

Now that you know your audience is in control of your brand, I challenge you to spend time thinking about each area of your business and how your clients, potential clients, and audience interact and engage with your company. You are not in control of how these people feel, but you can influence it. This is how you build your brand.

To do that you have to know who you are and what you want to be when you grow up (as a business). This is about more than goals and strategy, this is your company's purpose, identity, and strategy rolled into one. Your brand is the standard you set for everything else you do. Your marketing strategy will change but your brand is who you are. This is WAY bigger than a mission statement or a quarterly strategic plan - it's the foundation of everything.

Businesses that build their foundation and become the champions of their own brands will find that they make sound business choices, attract their target audience easily, and create memorable marketing campaigns. They can go back to their branding roadmap at any time to be certain that each choice still lines up with the ‘higher vision’ of their work.

Don't skip ahead and go straight to your brand identity (logo and website) without doing the brand clarity and brand foundation work first.

Now that you know what branding means, and how important it is to your business, it's time to do the work. Branding is the one thing you can't outsource - because it's about you and what you want to be/do as a company. Need help developing your brand strategy? Contact me here and let's chat about how you can get started building your brand foundation.


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