The essentials of branding


It is incredibly rare for a product or organization to be without a brand. There are museum brands (Guggenheim, Smithsonian), people brands (Martha Stewart, David Beckham), political brands (Obama versus McCain, Labour versus Conservatives), destination brands (Australia, Hong Kong), sport brands (Manchester United, New York Yankees, Super Bowl), nonprofit brands (Red Cross, Oxfam, RED), branded associations (YMCA, PGA, Association of Zoos and Aquariums), along with the product, service, and corporate brands with which we are all familiar. Many old marketing textbooks talk about brands versus commodities (no-name products), but in today’s world very few true commodities are left. Even basic foodstuffs have some sort of identifier on them, whether it is a private-label store brand such as Walmart’s Great Value salt or a major brand such as Morton Salt.

Figure 1: Brand affects business performance


Brands help people make a choice, a choice among salts, financial institutions, political parties, and so on, and the choices are increasing. The number of brands on grocery store shelves, for example, tripled in the 1990s from 15,000 to 45,000.1 The purpose of branding is to ensure that your product or service is the preferred choice in the minds of your key audiences (whether customers, consumers, employees, prospective employees, fans, donors, or voters). The way in which the brand affects business performance is illustrated in figure 1.

Business performance is based on the behavior of customers, whether they choose to buy a particular product or service. And that behavior is based a great deal on the perception customers have of the brand: how relevant it is to them and how differentiated it is from the other brands in the same category. In turn, customers derive their perceptions of a brand from the interactions they have with it. Finally, that customer experience, ideally, is informed by a brand idea–what the brand stands for: the promise it is willing to make and keep in the marketplace. If the first part of this chain of cause and effect is indistinct or irrelevant to customers, there is little chance the rest of the chain will work, and the brand will not affect the business’ bottom line. Yet, despite the proliferation of brands and their inextricable link to business performance, it is not easy to define what a brand is, along with how to create, manage, and value it.

The difference between a brand and branding

Most experts define what a brand is in one of two ways. The first set of definitions focuses on some of the elements that make up a brand:

  • “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”2
  • “A name, sign, or symbol used to identify items or services of the seller(s) and to differentiate them from goods of competitors.”3

The second set of definitions describes the associations that come to mind when people think about a brand:

  • “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”4
  • “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or company…It’s a person’s gut feeling, because in the end the brand is defined by individuals, not by companies, markets, or the so-called general public. Each person creates his or her own version of it.5

What do we mean by “created in the mind”? When we think of Coke, we may think of the time we went to Disney World years ago. It was an incredibly hot day, and we drank an ice-cold Coke from the iconic glass Coke bottle and there was nothing more refreshing. When we think about the can, we might think red. Today perhaps we think of American Idol (and wonder whether they are really drinking Coke in those plastic cups). We think of how that Christmas polar bear ad made us smile. Those of us who are old enough may remember the “I’d like to teach the world to sing” commercial. These personal Coke brand associations are neither positive nor negative, they just come to mind. Coke has worked incredibly hard at implanting some of these brand associations in our minds: The idea and delivery of refreshment (and the supply management and distribution that are behind this), product placement, the color red, the association with a popular TV program, and the advertising all make us feel good about the brand. Coke has not controlled the buildup of these associations, but it has tried, at every stage of our experience with the brand, to positively influence them.

It can take more than a year for a well-managed brand like Citroën to implement a refreshed brand across all customer touchpoints.

Accepting the second set of definitions poses more of a challenge. The first definition suggests that the brand is the purview of the marketing department–just get the name, logo, design, and advertising right and you have your brand. The second shows how the brand is inextricably linked to the business. The creation of the brand may begin in the marketing department, but the experience of the brand has to be driven through all parts of the organization. Every interaction, or touchpoint, in a customer’s experience of a brand makes a difference.

If you consider Apple, the quintessential brand success story, the most powerful parts of the customers’ experience of the brand are not confined to traditional brand elements, such as the logo, the name, or the advertising. It is the environment of the Apple stores that encourages you to stay and explore (and upgrade) and interact with its products and its genius bar. It is iTunes as much as the iPod, the applications as much as the iPhone. It is Apple’s customer service and tone of voice that are seamless, from the instruction manuals to the real-time chat in the support section of the online store. The brand is driven throughout this whole experience, throughout every interaction.

Good Co. Coffee’s brand voice uses clever, lighthearted parody to brighten the day of the overstressed corporate coffee drinker.

But if a brand exists in an individual’s mind, and if it is delivered by the business, what is the role of branding? Branding cannot control what people think of a brand, it can only influence. A brand can put some of the elements in place that will help people understand why they should choose or prefer a particular good, service, organization, or idea over another. Branding, and the related marketing disciplines can help influence and explain how many of these associations in our minds have been built, and whether they were built through advertising, PR, employee behavior, supply chain management, and so on.

“Branding is about signals–the signals people use to determine what you stand for as a brand. Signals create associations.”

–Allen Adamson, BrandSimple 6

The bulk of this chapter will explain the process that determines the foundational signals of a brand: what a brand stands for (the brand idea); the attitude it projects (the brand personality); its name and how it talks (the verbal identity); what it looks like (the visual identity); and what it feels and sounds like (the sensory identity). Creating these foundational signals is the core business of a branding agency.

Adopting a female-focused strategy, Preem’s petrol and convenience stores added more relevant merchandise and turned its toilet facilities into a genuine point of differentiation, giving women something to tell their friends about.

Before foundational signals are created, however, a certain amount of groundwork needs to be done to ensure that the best conditions for success are in place. The first two sections explain this essential preparation. The third describes the creation of the foundational signals. The final sections focus on what to do next with these foundational signals once they have been created, looking at delivery of the brand experience, managing the brand, and measuring the performance and value of brands.


To read more, please download the entire chapter; table of contents is shown below.



  • The difference between a brand and branding

Starting a branding project

  • Start with the right reason
  • Start with the right commitment
  • Start with the right business strategy
  • Start with the right focus-customers
  • Analyze the brand’s equity
  • Uncover insights and identify opportunities

The brand strategy

  • Defining the brand idea
  • Defining the brand architecture
  • Defining the brand personality
  • Producing the creative brief

Creating the brand experience

  • Crafting the verbal identity
  • Designing the visual and sensory identities
  • Testing verbal and visual identities

Delivering the brand experience

Managing a brand

Measuring the performance of a brand

  • Tracking brand strength
  • Measuring brand value

Case study: BP
Delivering the brand promise

Sarah Wealleans, author of Chapter 4 of The Big Book of Marketing, is consultant and former senior client director with Landor. Additional input provided by Trevor Wade, Hayes Roth, Susan Nelson, Mich Bergesen, and Charlie Wrench.

  1. McKinsey & Company, “Strike Up the Brands” (2003).
  2. David Ogilvy, (accessed 12 May 2009).
  3. Dictionary of Business and Management (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  4. Walter Landor, founder of Landor.
  5. Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance between Business Strategy and Design (AIGA New Riders, 2006).
  6. Allen Adamson, “BrandSimple: How the Best Brands Keep It Simple and Succeed” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

This article was first published as Chapter 4 in The Big Book of Marketing: Lessons and Best Practices from the World’s Greatest Companies, edited by Anthony G. Bennett (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

© 2010 The McGraw-Hill Companies. All rights reserved.