What is Brand?

Mike Taylor | 31 July 2016

Not the kind of mark you see on cows in old westerns – modern farmers don’t go in for branding so much these days, at least not on their cattle – but the thing we’re told every product or service needs in order to function. A brand: a way of differentiating yourself from your competition even if, functionally, you’re absolutely the same.

So what is it?

Most people would answer that a brand is a logo, colours, fonts, and imagery which makes you appear visually different to your competitors. But that’s not your brand – that’s your brand collateral. Brand itself is a lot more nebulous.

David Ogilvy described brand as “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” And it’s the word ‘intangible’ which truly sums brand up.

Brand always starts by looking inward. Who are you, what do you stand for, what are your values? What do your staff think about who you are? What is your company culture like? It’s only once you get the internal core right that you can start to build up the external. Your staff should understand your brand intimately, because they should be part of selling it.

Brand is the experience. Too often companies spend millions of dollars on marketing, logos, shop fronts, websites – only to then completely fall down on customer experience and service.

Every touch point, communication, and experience with a customer is a way to reinforce your brand to them. Whether that’s sending out thank-you notes or emails, offering exclusives, or simply making sure the packaging for your product is as well-crafted as the product itself. It all goes into the experience of your brand.

Then there’s the part of your brand that you can’t directly manage – each customer’s feelings about your product influences your brand. Brand is not just about how you talk to the people; it’s how the people talk about you when you’re not listening.

So, let’s take that airy-fairy description about culture and communications and feelings and apply it to something a bit more tangible. Something which, judging by recent box-office records, most people love and everyone knows about.

Superheroes.

Seriously. Everything that’s summed up in the word brand goes into making an individual superhero into a distinct entity.

For instance, if we are to look at a pair of superheroes, Batman and Iron Man, they could be considered pretty similar. They’re both rich men with no supernatural powers who fight evil. But they have totally different brands. Not just different colours and symbols, but their intangibles are very different. Their stories shape who they are, like their origins – Batman saw his parents killed by a criminal, Iron Man was a weapons manufacturer who saw the light.

From those origins they fight different kinds of evil: where Batman concentrates on criminals, Iron Man fights super-villains. They have different philosophies – Batman eschews guns in favour of martial arts, and prides himself on not killing unless absolutely necessary; Iron Man essentially is a weapon and operates under a looser moral code.

The two superheroes tell different stories in-universe and their consumers (comic book readers and movie viewers) have different stories for superhero brands from their experiences with those brands – someone whose primary exposure to Batman came from the campy 1060’s TV show will have a very different understanding of the Batman ‘brand’ than someone who only knows the character from the Christopher Nolan movies.

There’s advice floating around that when creating a brand, a business should think of the brand as a person. That’s crap. Brands need to stop trying to be people. You’re not a person, you’re a company – bricks, mortar, office space. You produce a product or provide a service for money. And your customers know that, they know a brand does not have feelings, memories, emotions, or existential angst. It does not know what mortality is, it cannot fear or crave the sweet taste of oblivion.

So when creating a brand, don’t create a person. Create a superhero. It’s certainly more fun that way.