How you and your organization define the word brand is a subtle but significant indicator of your potential as a brand.
Think about it. Some companies have narrow, limiting definitions, while others consider their brand in expansive, almost limitless terms.
Most companies in the business-to-business space have mixed opinions, mistaken assumptions and mental baggage about the word brand. This weighs down their ability to build brand equity.
You may be eager to start a game-changing internal discussion about brand equity, brand strategy and brand activation, but you may as well be speaking a foreign language to some of the decision makers in your organization. You need people to understand what you’re saying if you want to get your organization aligned for maximum positive impact on your position in the marketplace.
It starts with defining what you mean by brand. Not everyone in a leadership role may immediately recognize how a broader understanding of brand can influence your success as a business.
But here’s one of the secrets of healthy B2B brands: the more robust the brand definition, the healthier the brand can be.
Mapping Brand Definitions
When you bring up the word brand to unsuspecting colleagues in your company, think about how that word can be interpreted, where it lives in the listener’s universe, which aspect of brand may be foremost in their minds.
For example, brand may mean something very tangible to one person, very intangible to another. Some see brand as an asset the organization owns, while others see it as an impression in the minds of others. All these perspectives have merits and all capture part of the picture, but they're incomplete on their own.
For the sake of discussion, let’s take these different components and plot them on a two-dimensional grid. On the left we can put what’s internally owned. On the right we’ll put what’s owned externally. On the bottom go the intangibles. On top, the tangibles.
The resulting matrix gives us four categories of meaning, which we’ll examine separately before bringing together in one comprehensive brand definition.
We’ll start with what most people think of when they hear the word brand.
Brand as Identity
The most tangible aspect of brand is the system of identity elements designed to distinguish a company, a product or a service from everything else.
Identity is the realm of names, logos, symbols, slogans, style, colors, typefaces, visuals and sounds. It’s intellectual property that the organization owns, controls and protects.
When people talk about brand in this sense, they’re talking about the aesthetic surface level. Branding means literally putting your mark on something. It’s branded if it has your stamp on it. Your brand is the visible sign that it’s yours.
If your internal brand discussions focus only on the surface level, you can only go so far. Identity elements are important, but they’re not the most substantial aspect of the brand. To gain market power that helps grow the business, the identity needs to be rooted in something deeper.
Brand as Character
A deeper understanding of brand gets to the concept of character.
It’s what’s special about your company, product or service.
Beneath the surface, brand is the unique interplay of all your qualities and quirks, the sum of all your distinguishing characteristics and choices. Character is credibility. It’s what you do, why you do it, how you do it and how you talk about it. It’s what you might call your platform.
When people talk about brand in this sense, they’re talking about the substantive level. In the equation for building brand equity, character counts. All the characteristics you embed into your company, your products and your services count.
Your character traits are just as important as your identity elements, if not more so. But identity and character together are only half the picture.
Brand as Experience
A brand isn't fully a brand until someone experiences it.
The visceral sensation of interacting with your branded company, product or service takes the full meaning of brand out of your hands and into the world of the beholder. Your brand is not just your identity and your character, but also the experience of these things in real situations.
What is it like on a given day to walk through your building, browse your website, use your product, work through a service issue, attend your event? These kinds of things express, exhibit and exemplify your brand. Every experience — the customer experience, the user experience, the employee experience — is your perennial proving ground, where your brand is built, unbuilt and rebuilt.
The experience of brand is about where, when and how well you demonstrate the best aspects of your character. It's your physical presence, your social presence, the context and channels where you're active. It's also your content choices: what you focus on, what you say, how clear and helpful you are, how you communicate.
It's the thousands of observable details that add to the mosaic of your brand.
So at this point in our discussion, we’re talking about a living, breathing, interacting brand, but we have not yet reached the end of our brand definition journey. The last component of brand is really the whole point.
Brand as Perception
It's not just what you think is relevant, different, credible and compelling about you, but what they think.
The brains of the people you serve (and intend to serve) will bundle everything else together — your identity elements, your characteristics and the experiences they’ve had with you — and put that whole package into their own mental construct. This is the cranial component of brand, and it's crucial.
Ask any brand guru today and you’re likely to hear some variation on this idea of brand as something happening inside the mind of the participant-observer.
Brand in this sense is your position in your target’s mind relative to alternatives. It’s how you fit into their view, how you rank and rate, what’s different about you versus your competitors and versus the status quo. And it’s based not on your terms but on theirs. Does your platform resonate with their wants and needs? Do you have the right characteristics for them?
How choices are framed, how mental maps are arranged, how a brand plugs into evolving decision processes, these are the penultimate interests of brand strategists. But beyond the conscious and unconscious machinations of one target customer making one brand decision, our ultimate interest tends toward understanding the collective mind of a market full of prospects whose interests, influences and loyalties continue to shift.
This is the realm of public perception, of individual experiences extrapolated, of reputation. It’s the public life of brand that tests its character, shines a light on its identity and gives it the stage on which to perform for a crowd.
How does the crowd that’s relevant to your business view your company, product or service? What could you learn from continuously listening to the way your market perceives you?
Perception is not the only reality, but it’s a reality nonetheless, and it’s the bottom line for brand.
All four components of a comprehensive brand definition — identity, character, experience and perception — build on one another. Companies that understand that fact have a better shot at success than companies that don’t.
The secret to building a healthy B2B brand is to realize the power of each of these components, the resonance between them and the pivotal way they can determine the future trajectory of the business.
The greater your character, the more cohesive your identity, the better you serve people and the more they recommend you, the greater your brand will grow.
Integrated Brand Definition
To pull all the threads together into one cohesive whole, we’d suggest the following integrated brand definition:
Brand is the aggregation of all characteristics, identifiers and experiences that shape market perceptions of the relevance and distinctiveness of a company, product or service.
No matter how you define it, it’s fair to say that brand is a loaded term. It’s loaded with connotations. It’s loaded with implications. It’s loaded with potential.
Your job is to harness as much of that potential as you can and make it work for your business.
Now the next time someone in your office talks about brand with only a fractional understanding, perhaps the following advice is in order:
Let’s expand our brand definition to expand our potential.