What is a Brand?

April 1, 2021
Cassidy Mayberry

What is a brand? Breaking down the nuances of Brand Identity and the Branding Process

Coca-Cola, Apple, Nike, Tesla. 

These are all widely known brands, and chances are, the act of simply reading those words invoked in you some sort of feeling. In addition to bringing about an emotion, those words likely invoked other sensations. For instance, you might hear the refreshing “aaahh..” that’s associated with the Coke brand. Your mouth might even start watering at the thought of tasting it. You probably envisioned the bright red can or the iconic glass bottle. 

These brands elicit associations to certain colors, products, and behaviors. But what really is a brand? A brand is difficult to define, because it means something different to every individual consumer. 

Marty Neumeier is a giant in the branding industry, and in his book Zag he defines a brand as, “a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.” That gut feeling is the initial reaction you have to a brand, and because everyone’s gut feels differently, a brand can mean something unique to everyone who encounters it. 

A writer for Ignyte Brands shares a similar idea of what a brand is. Brian Lischer writes, “A brand is the way a company, organization, or individual is perceived by those who experience it...Brands, then, live in the mind. They live in the minds of everyone who experiences them...Simply put, brands are perceptions” (Lischer, n.d.).

This seems contradictory, right? Especially since I just told you--an ambiguous, unknown person whose cultural context, ethnicity, age, occupation, hopes, dreams, fears, personality, etc. are completely unknown to me--a couple of things that you would immediately feel when reading the words “Coca-Cola.” How? 

Well, there are aspects of a brand that are specifically and distinctively designed for each brand that work to influence that gut feeling and perception. 

First, there's the brand archetype. An archetype, at its simplest, is a very typical, recognizable example of a person or thing. As it relates to brands, an archetype is a character. A brand’s archetype is essentially it’s personality, which encompasses humanistic qualities that make it relatable to the consumer. 

Brand archetypes fall into the same 12 distinct categories that were first outlined by psychologist Carl Jung. They are: The Innocent, Everyman, Hero, Outlaw, Explorer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Lover, Caregiver, Jester, and Sage. 

Coca-Cola embodies The Innocent archetype, which exhibits “happiness, goodness, optimism, safety, romance, and youth” (OVO, 2018). This is obvious in all of Coke’s brand touchpoints and marketing efforts. What says innocence like sweet, pure, baby polar bears playing carefree during the holiday season? 

Another aspect of a brand that works to control the perception by the audience is creative identity. 

The creative identity of a brand is often misunderstood as the brand itself, because one feature of creative identity is the logo. 

Investopedia defines a logo as “a graphic mark, emblem, symbol, or stylized name used to identify a company, organization, product, or brand” (Kenton, 2021). So, in keeping with our Coke example, we see the stylized name: cursive white letters stark against the red backdrop, and we immediately know, without even reading the words, what brand and product we’ve encountered.

Coco-Cola Logo PNG via 1000logos.net

Brand colors are another part of brand identity that make the brand unique and recognizable. Coca-Cola is bright red and white. And even if we invert the colors on the logo, the brand is discernible. Brand colors being consistent across all touchpoints is important to give your brand a sense of consistency, clarity and identity. 

But colors alone can make a brand. Think about what other brands you can associate with these colors? One was mentioned in the opening. Another is Target. 

Using a unique typeface, as Coke very obviously does, helps us recognize that this circle logo is Coke, not Target, despite the shape and color similarities. So typefaces is another crucial part of the creative identity of a brand. 

The last part of creative identity that we will discuss here is the website. The website will of course utilize all of the previously mentioned components of creative identity, but it will also convey the brand voice, tone and message by using on brand supporting graphics, copy the demonstrative of the band philosophy, and utilizing functionalities that support the brand goals. 

Now that we have a better understanding of the tangible and philosophical parts of a brand, we can discuss the process of branding. How do we arrive at the decisions for each of the pieces of a brand?

We’ve established that a brand is a gut feeling or perception of a company, organization, product or service. So branding then, is the process of shaping how that particular entity is perceived. Target market research and positioning, development of strategy, and creative identity design are the main, large scale steps of the process.

Image by kenishirotie via Envato Elements

But let’s get a little more detailed. 

Before you can build a brand, you need to identify the target audience. Because the brand is really defined by this audience’s perception, this is the beginning of a very crucial step. Once you identify who you are targeting, you need to perform research on that person. Sometimes it’s useful to build an avatar to be representative of your target consumer. Determine these factors for the avatar:

Demographic info

  • Name
  • Age 
  • Location of living
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Occupation 
  • Relationship status

Personality traits

  • How do they interact with others?
  • Are the intro or extroverted?
  • What are their communication styles?
  • What are their hopes and dreams?
  • What are their worries and fears?
  • What are some things they are looking for in life? 

Online activity

  • How do they consume information?
  • What devices do they use most often for internet activity?
  • What social media platforms do they use and for what purposes primarily?

Purchasing behaviors

  • Where do they spend their money?
  • How do they shop?
  • What influences their purchasing decisions? 

Customer reviews, peer recommendations, packaging, etc. 

Once your target audience is completely fleshed out. You can move into positioning. How will your brand position itself to be an authority or trusted figure in its particular area? 

This is the development of the strategy phase. Strategy is where you get into the nitty gritty of what your brand is and will represent and convey. Strategy is important internally because it will inform company core values and business decisions. It is important externally because it will inform your brand voice, message, purpose, and touchpoints. 

In the strategy development process you will generate: Brand DNA, Mission & Vision Statements, Value Proposition and Positioning Statements, Brand Voice, and Marketing Messages as well as determine the brand’s archetype. These should all encompass the brand origin and values while clearly communicating the brand purpose and usefulness to the consumer within a particular market (which we previously identified in the initial phase). 

The decisions made in the development of strategy phase will also inform the design phase. A brand’s personality and values should be visible in the creative identity of the brand. The bright colors of the Coca-Cola brand invoke happiness and youth while the cursive script invokes the romance--all three are aspects of The Innocent archetype. The creative identity of a brand will be seen across all marketing channels, in product and package design, social media, and website, so it is crucial that it is conveying a message that is in line with strategy. 

It’s important to note that branding is a dynamic process. The decisions you make at the inception of your brand, might not accurately reflect how your brand has grown or changed over time, so it’s important to continue to do research on the market and repeat the process as necessary. 

Perceptions are personal and ever changing. But the decisions made by a brand in the creative identity and branding process have great influence on those perceptions. The stronger you are in these two areas, the more impactful your brand will be and the more effective it will be in invoke the right gut feeling in your audience. 

“Branding has the power to shape reality” (Lischer, n.d.). 

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