Defining What a Brand Is: Why Is It So Hard?

defining brand

The History of Brand

A lot of people – even those in branding – struggle with answering the question: So what’s a brand, anyway?

The term “brand” first emerged more than half a century ago as a way for cattle ranchers to identify their animals. In the late 1880s, packaged goods like Coca-Cola started taking off. Brands were used to differentiate them from the generic competition.

But as branding progressed, marketers realized there was more to the brand of Coca-Cola than just a non-generic name.

David Ogilvy, the “Father of Advertising,” defined brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”

The Dictionary of Brand defines brand as “a person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization.”

Marty Neumeier, author and speaker on all things brand, defines brand by first laying out what a brand is not: “A brand is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product.” Neumeier goes on to say that “a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”

As branding has evolved, brands have become more subjective – more about perception and accumulated meaning. Our conception of what a brand is has become more and more complicated, difficult to define, and hard to pin down with a single definition.

Defining Brand as Undefinable?

So, why is defining what a brand is so difficult? What insights can we gather from this difficulty?

1. Brands mean different things to different people at different times.

A single brand means something unique to each person – be it a current consumer, potential consumer, employee, recruit, or just within the world at large. Brands are dynamic. They can play a different role depending on who they interact with and when. Some people connect with certain aspects of a brand, while others connect meaningfully with another. And often times, a person’s relationship with a brand can really develop – increasing trust, loyalty, meaning, and engagement. Smart and successful brands work on reaching all the different audiences who matter to their business and aim to further their brand relationships with each individual.

2. Brands are amorphous.

At Emotive Brand, we often think of brands as nebulous and infinite. A brand can be the sum of brand experiences or interactions, but those experiences and interactions have infinite possibilities. Every touchpoint matters. Each moment counts. Although we work on creating structure for brands in the form of brand architecture, that architecture always accommodates for growth and change – so the brand can develop, expand, respond, and shift with the times.

3. Brands are about feelings, and feelings are complicated.

When you ask people why they love certain brands, it’s often hard for them to pin down. They might provide a list of rational and logical reasons, but in the end, it often comes down to a feeling. How does that brand really make them feel? And why do they come back for more of that feeling? Why does that feeling mean something to them? Successful brands today are always emotionally infused. They hold great emotional meaning for people and that’s what makes that brand loved and respected.

4. Highly recognizable, well-known brands are often used to define what a brand is.

More often than not, the question of defining what a brand is is answered with a list of popular, well-known, established brands. Think Nike, Apple, Google, etc. Although these examples can reveal a lot about what a brand is, just thinking of the definition in terms of these big names isn’t enough. Consider all types of brands – big and small, global and local, new and old. Maybe even consider what businesses lack a brand and what makes them different from businesses who have built a brand they rely on. There’s a lot to learn from all the brands we interact with every day. Each brand is meaningful because of something different, and this is often what differentiates a brand and makes it powerful to the people who matter to it.

5. Defining the impact a brand can have is often easier than defining what a brand is.

When we talk about defining what a brand is, we often talk about what makes a brand impactful for a business: stronger ROI, an aligned leadership, a more engaged workplace, etc. And when we discuss impact – whether it’s from a brand refresh, a new positioning, a great campaign, or just further brand engagement – that’s where we see the brand really working. That’s where we see it living and doing its job. Take the impact of an engaged workplace. Here, we see the brand in action – creating specific meaning and value tailored for employees and recruits of the right fit that increases innovation, productivity, creativity, loyalty.

Finding a Shared Understanding of Brand

Even though it’s a difficult exercise, establishing a shared understanding about how you define your brand and what it means to your business can help guide both your brand and business forward. With alignment around what makes your brand unique, you can build a marketing strategy around it and allow your brand to reach its full potential. Talking about your brand, how you define it, what it means, and the impact it has can do great things for your business.

So, how would you define what a brand is? Share your comments below!

Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and design agency in Oakland, California.

Comments (24)

  1. Dear:

    Indeed defining a brand is difficult but I believe the best and most scientific way to define it is:

    “An associative memory in the brain of the consumer, who connects –or associate– the brand with a set of brand attributes, benefits, impressions or emotions.”

    Note that in neuroscience or psychology an associative memory is something very specific and that indeed it may vary between 2 different consumers.

  2. I like to think of the definition of Brand simply as “a promise”. When you see the identifying icon or symbol of the brand, to you, there is an implied or overt promise – probably based on the brand’s advertising or your experiences. Though most brands have probably identified “the promise” they wish to impart, it can still be subjective to the consumer.

    “A promise” as I describe, may be a promise of Quality, Dependability, Good Health, Excellence, Feeling Good, etc.

    This perspective relates back to the emotions or feelings aspect as written above… I taught “The promise” as the definition of Brand to many employees in sales, marketing and customer service over the years. Helps those in a position to deliver “the promise” understand how their actions can impact how the brand is viewed.

  3. 3. Brands are about feelings, and feelings are complicated.

    I love this.

    I have this continual struggle with trying to explain to my clients that a brand is so much more than just a logo and a social media account — that it’s a personality for their business, an outward expression of not only their goods and services, but their ethics, reasons, and core values.

    As I was looking for some good articles to share with a particular client, I found this one and had to share it. Great work Tracy Lloyd and the Emotive Brand team!

  4. Amazing post. Thanks for sharing this informative and useful post about the brand. I really appreciate your effort sharing this post with us. Good job.

  5. A brand for me is something which a person can relate themselves with their personality and emotions, which make them feel comfortable and confident as their are many brands in the market but people who love branding will search that connection with the brand as brand should connect with the personality of a person otherwise it will not match and doesn’t give you confident on your personality.

  6. I would say a brand is the mental and emotional perception people have of a given company, product, service, organization, etc.
    It’s how they picture it in their minds, and how they react to that picture. What they think and how they feel about it.

    Like Kayla Immel, I was looking for helpful articles to share with a client and found this excellent post. (Thank you!) My client is struggling through the process of trying to define certain aspects of his brand (and I’m so grateful that he is!) so that he can provide me with the core ideas necessary to write his onhold messages. Even though I have his website and some Google Docs, videos, and other material to work with, I’m so glad he didn’t just dump all that stuff on me and expect me to work miracles.

    As a voice actor and copy writer, I am often called upon to polish, and sometimes write, my clients’ scripts. Before I can do so, however, I need them to “help me help them” by spelling out what it is they’re trying to say. The onus is on the client to, at the very least, be involved in figuring that out. Unfortunately, it can be like pulling teeth to get some clients to take the time and make the effort.

    “Few things concentrate the mind more efficiently than the necessity of saying what you mean. It brings you face to face with what you are talking about, what you are actually proposing. It gets you away from the catch phrases that not merely substitute for thought but preclude it.” – Edwin Newman

  7. In my experience bringing marketing to a field that hasn’t really been exposed to it until recently, I tell units asking to get branded that a brand is like a dating profile to the consumer. So, write up your dating profile, and that’s where we start for your brand.

  8. A logo does not make a Brand.

  9. Thank you for sharing these valuable pieces of information. Great website.

  10. Yes, difficult to explain brand. Funny, everyone talks about “brand” but it seems most of my clients don’t understand the essence of it. And after I explain it, they may even start to “get it” but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. What lies below is “branding” or “how do you establish your brand”?

  11. A brand is what the consumer thinks and feels when they hear your name.

  12. Found this really interesting, thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for reading Alan! You might also find our blog post on “Igniting Growth and Pushing the Envelope for SaaS Brands” insightful. Here’s the link

  13. A brand is expectations!

  14. A brand to me is much more than just a name. For example your driving in a town you never been at before and you see the Marriott sign. To me that ensures me great customer service, clean rooms, and safe location.

  15. I liked the comment where she said a brand is a promise/ There are certain brands that I trust for many reasons. Because they have gained my trust and have a reputation to promise the same result every time. I will continue to use them despite other factors like price or convenience.

  16. I like the comment about a brand being a “promise” When a product gains my trust, I will tend to not sway from another choice despite convenience or price because I know I can count on them to follow through everytime

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