Wednesday, March 05, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Brand

One of the challenges of working in brand consultancy are the many overlapping meanings of the word ‘brand’ itself. 

Each client brings along slightly different interpretations of ‘brand’ when they engage with branding services. Some are better informed and have a more fully-rounded understanding of the scope of branding. Often different people within the same organisation use the word to refer to different ideas. To complicate matters further, different brand consultancies then offer their own interpretations of ‘brand’ depending on their particular mix of competencies and services.

To get a sense of the variety of meaning you can start with a dictionary definition of brand and the Wikipedia entry. Neither provides much clarity. Brand is an expansive category term (like ‘design’ and ‘technology’) which includes many sub-meanings within itself.

It irks me when commentators, journalists, academics, and particularly brand consultants (who should know better) decide to use the single word ‘brand’ in reference to many of these alternate interpretations within one article, or even within one paragraph. While this often suits their own rhetorical ends, it confuses their readers.

This variation of interpretation is an important factor to bear in mind when discussing brand with clients. Obviously it is essential that both parties in a conversation about brand are referring to the same idea. Particularly in a group discussion when contributors may bring many interpretations.

Rather than retreat into the academic literature to scope out the complete gamut of meanings, what I want to do in this post is record the actual usage I encounter. These are the common interpretations which I find that I have to engage with in my day-to-day conversations with Irish organisations. This is not yet an exhaustive list. I may add to it later.

The Minimalist Interpretation
Brand is limited to meaning only a logo or a symbol.
“We are commissioning the design of a new brand for application onto our website, literature, vehicles and stationery.”
(Also notably used in the evergreen scandalous rebranding news story: “Outrage At €20k Spent On New Logo for NameCo!”)

The Maximalist Interpretation
Brand is intrinsic and encompasses almost all of an organisation’s activities.
“If marketing is the talk, then branding is the walk.”

The Corporate-Identity Interpretation 
Brand as a set of assets which includes a brand mark, colour palettes, typefaces, imagery style, and graphic patterns, etc. It defines a structure upon which to build a coherent visual expression for an organisation.
“Refer to our Brand Usage Standards for guidance on how to use our brand.”

The Purpose-Based Interpretation
Brand is an emergent property arising from an organisation’s Mission, Vision and Values.
“The Board of Directors held an all-day workshop to define the new brand strategy.”

The Reputation-Based Interpretation
Brand as a synonym for the organisation’s reputation.
“The expenses scandal has dramatically weakened the NameCo brand.”

The Relationship-Based Interpretation
Brand exists in the mind of customers and informs their relationship with the organisation.
“Our brand is our promise to you.”

The Internal-Cultural Interpretation
An organisation’s brand resides in its people: in their culture, processes and practises.
“Our HR team is our greatest asset in building our brand. Everyone one of us must live the brand.”

The Experiential Interpretation
Brand is every experience that every customer has with every touchpoint of an organisation.
“Our app always brings you that authentic NameCo experience wherever you are.”

The Narrative Interpretation 
Brand is the story that an organisation tells to its customers, to its own people, and to all other interested parties.

The Exclusive Interpretation 
Brand used as a noun referring to luxury goods, or to the premium product sector in general.
“Consumer spending on brands has decreased in the last twelve months.”

The Personal Interpretation
Every one of us has our own personal brand, which we must steward to maximise our personal success and happiness.
“You are the full-time CEO of BrandYou.”

The conundrum is that the concept of ‘brand’ can indeed include all those interpretations, each being facets of the whole. Indeed that complexity is part of the fascination of devoting precious time and attention to the topic.

Some of these interpretations are more inclusive and others more restrictive. Given that interpretation is subjective, then none is necessarily more correct than any other. More importantly they are not mutually exclusive either.

Different client organisations will focus on particular facets when parsing their specific challenges. Different brand advisors specialise in addressing sub-sets of the gamut of branding activities. The ideal is in best matching the client’s requirements with the appropriate brand consultant’s area of expertise. But as a profession we do not always make that as easy as is should be.