Brand: What It Is, Why You Need One and How It Works

Brand is probably one of the most misunderstood and yet one of the most familiar tools in the entrepreneur’s tool kit. We all seem to know a brand when we see one, but we are often at a loss to define what it is, why you need one and how it works. This article will endeavour to answer these questions.

What is a brand

Branding is an exercise in perception management. It’s about managing the gap between how you are perceived and how you want to be perceived. Whether you are chasing investors or customers, the image people have of you is either a door opener or a barrier, no matter how true it may actually be. So you need to consciously create and manage it.

But image is not all there is to it. You must live up to the image you wish to project. Anyone who has had a negative experience with a brand they once believed and trusted, or with a new brand that promised one thing and delivered another, knows that actions always speak louder than words. So a brand is also about managing the gap between what it says (the brand image) and what it does (the brand experience). Or, said another way, it’s about managing the gap between perception and reality—how you manage the reality drives the perception.

Another common definition is that a brand is a promise. This is only half-true. Brand lives in the gap between promise and fulfillment. The promise (what it says) needs to be mirrored by the experience (what it does). In other words, say what you do and do what you say.

Sounds like common sense, no? The fact is that most companies, big and small, mismanage the gap. Maybe that’s why a recent study by Havas Media found that if most of today’s brands disappeared tomorrow, most people wouldn’t miss them.

Why you need a brand

It was not until the 19th century, when industrialization was beginning to produce a surplus of goods that needed to be sold if their makers wanted to stay in business, that we began to use the word “brands.”

The flood of innovation unleashed by the acceleration of technological change in the 21st century has produced an exponentially greater surplus of ideas, services, apps, products and brands than the Industrial Revolution ever did. To give you an idea of the sheer number of brands competing for our attention in a typical emerging category, let’s look at the marketing automation space.

The Schumpeterian world of creative destruction we operate in these days guarantees that of a group of unknowns, maybe one will survive long enough to reach Fortune 500 status, several will be acquired and many will go out of business. Of those that are acquired, almost all will lose their brands as their new owners absorb them. This cycle of fragmentation and consolidation explains why only 12% of the Fortune 500s that existed in 1955 remain in business today.

Here’s the good news: most of those unknowns probably stopped at brand image. They got a name and a logo, and said, “Voila! We have a brand! Check that box!” Then they forgot about it and went back to product development.

Big mistake. Product is going to be your bread and butter, but unless you consciously ask yourself a few key strategic questions about how you will manage the gaps mentioned above, you can throw that product on the scrap heap. Because guess what? There are a whole lot of other ones out there claiming to do what yours does.

How a brand works

Brands do not just happen. They are built. And they are built on a strategic foundation.

The kinds of strategic questions you ask yourself when defining your brand are very similar to the kinds of questions you would ask in any other form of strategy making. Why are you in business? What business are you in? Who are your customers? What problems are you solving for them that haven’t yet been solved? What emotional and rational needs are you fulfilling for them? What is your value proposition? Why should they believe you? What makes you different?

If you have already asked these questions as part of your business plan, then you are off to a great start.

But no matter how you answered them, or how well those answers are articulated, a brand strategy is a valuable framework for codifying them. It acts as a guide for managing the gaps between perception and reality, messaging and experience, and the business strategy and its execution. If you haven’t asked these questions, the process of strategic branding is a perfect place to start.

The remaining articles in this series will provide you with the tools you need to develop a brand strategy of your own. Anyone who has been introduced to the principles of business strategy and its more well-known frameworks will be very comfortable with the process. And if you haven’t been exposed to the principles of strategy making, the questions asked are, as mentioned above, just common sense.