Rethinking Branding: What it Means to Mean Something.

In the marketing field, a world of intangible services, terminology can be misused, interpreted differently, and at times just plain confusing. Here are some standards to follow.

There are no regulations in our marketing, branding, and design. There isn’t a license or certification required to provide marketing or branding services like there is to practice law or to practice within the architecture and engineering field. That means anyone can start a marketing firm or jump into the marketing field overnight. This is also a field of intangible services. For this reason, the terminology can be misused, interpreted differently, and sometimes just plain confusing. When you search the internet for a definition of the term “brand essence” or “brand strategy,” you’ll find a number of different definitions. You may find some common themes, but this field of work has a lot of subjectivity.

It gets even more convoluted as you drill down to the finer aspects of what makes a brand or marketing campaign. Creative professionals drone on about missions, visions, and values and “telling your story,” while listeners hide that they have no clue what this means. In all honesty, sometimes, these terms don’t have a concrete meaning. Brand “storytelling” seems to differ based on the specific deliverable the creative type is selling--video production professionals would say that telling your story is done with the video, while brand designers may be referring to a collection of brand touchpoints as a whole.

Branding and Marketing Firms Should Be User Friendly

It’s true. Marketing, PR, communications, brand strategy, and other practices like these are intangible. Maybe even the most practical solution can be hard to understand. Perhaps that is why it’s rare to see a brand mission or vision that a company actually lives by, and often the leadership doesn’t even know what it is. We believe marketing and branding should be simple. At the end of the day, companies should hire people to help them solve important problems, and they should know what they are getting.

First, let’s define some key terms in the branding and marketing landscape. Most of us know where the term “brand” came from. Livestock owners often burned an identifying mark in the hide of their livestock to indicate what was theirs. It was their “brand.” Today in the discipline of marketing and corporate communications, we think of a brand as the consistent identifier of a company.

A logo is only a small part of how people recognize your organization and derive their expectations.

Customers have a set of expectations based on consistent characteristics. These characteristics may include the textures, sounds, and aromas in a coffee shop, and it also includes the verbiage and visual elements in prepared corporate communications such as websites, press releases, and printed collateral. Most people think of the latter more than the former. Often people think of the logo alone as the brand. While this aligns with the history of the term, a logo is only a small part of how people recognize your organization and derive their expectations. Let’s get into the definitions of the key terms.


Those identifying characteristics that determine how people feel about your company, organization, or cause.


The proactive effort to influence that feeling through design, marketing, and other communications.

Brand Identity

The identifying artifacts such as names, marks, colors, typography, and consistent design features.

Brand Goals

An important outcome, preferably a measurable outcome for the organization’s brand.


A task or activity executed as part of a strategy.

Brand Strategy

A plan of action, usually communications intended to achieve a key goal for your brand or organization.

Brand Essence

The simplest word or phrase to encompass the character, personality, and purpose of your organization.

Brand Voice

The verbiage, style, and tone that branded or owned content follows.

Brand Positioning

Where you fit in the marketplace or in the consumer’s mind.

Strategy and Cocktail Napkins

A strategy is another one of those words that everyone seems to define a little differently. Based on years of experience in marketing, branding, and work in change management, we’ve seen strategies of all lengths, including enormous binders formatted in more ways than one can count. We believe the most effective strategy is the one that can be communicated on a cocktail napkin. If you can’t communicate it in a simple summary that anyone within your company can understand and process, you most likely won’t be able to get your full team behind it. When it comes to brand strategy, it should be this simple. Communicate the goal, communicate the path you will take, and note the most important top-level tactics. I’ll illustrate it this way: We have the Red Line, a rapid transit bus line in Indianapolis. To get from our office in Fountain Square to Broad Ripple on the north side, this is what my strategy would look like.

  • GOAL: Go to Broad Ripple
  • STRATEGY: Take the Red Line
  • TACTIC: Buy a pass
  • TACTIC: Wait at the bus stop
  • TACTIC: Ride the bus to the Broad Ripple stop.

For your brand, it can be nearly as simple. Let’s say you have an auto repair shop.

  • GOAL: Increase preventative maintenance business
  • STRATEGY: Deliver a “Never break down” message
  • TACTIC: Market the NBD advantage
  • TACTIC: Provide NBD savings opportunity after service
  • TACTIC: Brand all materials “the NBD guys”

A lot of activity needs to take place, but the strategy provides that direction. A large binder with a detailed strategy (if someone reads it) may not be as helpful as a simple and clear strategy. If a team knows the goals of the brand and the strategy that has been decided upon, most of the tasks are intuitive and really just a matter of execution.

There are a few points of view that can inform you as you develop a brand strategy. We’ll call them brand inputs. First, it’s important to have a consensus internally on the brand’s goals and also to understand the assumptions about your brand that you or your team is operating on when communicating to your customers. On that note, it is even more critical to clearly understand where you fit in the marketplace and perhaps who you are being compared to or competing with. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to understand the customer or potential customer’s point of view about your company or your product category. That means to do this right; you must research each of these brand inputs.

Brand Inputs


Basically, this is you. These are the people that are responsible for the protection and success of the brand. This may include executives of a business, board members, and key members of your team. In a way, any employee is an ambassador of the brand, making them a stakeholder. They have a vested interest in the success of the company. Stakeholders often know the brand better than anyone, and they often believe they know the customer better than anyone, but in all cases, stakeholders are close to the forest and may not see the trees as well as they would like.


The audience refers to the company, group, or individual to whom your marketing or brand communications are intended to reach. This includes but is not limited to, customers and influencers, and often, there are internal audiences as well. Understanding the audience's motivations (especially the customer that will buy your product) helps you find a connection between your goals and theirs. For example, a fast food restaurant wants to provide quick service at a high volume. A mother, on her way to drop the kids off at soccer practice, wants to get an affordable meal for her children and be on time for practice. While their goals sound very different, they are in alignment. This informs the fast food company how they should structure their service and what they should communicate within their brand marketing to help their consumers get what they want while also achieving their own goals as a business.


The marketplace consists of opportunities, risks, common themes, and competition. Every company says they are innovative; many claim to have great quality, great people, and good customer service. These are not differentiators. To develop a successful message, you’ll need to be distinctive within the marketplace to be noticeable. You can identify the commonalities and differences by observing market trends, noting competitors, and taking note of common themes. We note things like common language, voice, marketing approach, and colors.

Using these brand inputs, you can form a message that targets an outcome that drives toward the stakeholders' goal, in the audience's voice, and is distinctive within the marketplace.

Branding is Action Oriented

Remember, your brand is a feeling. It refers to something that people believe about you. The whole of all those things that identify you and create expectations with your audience. Branding is the proactive effort to influence that feeling. That means you need to take action. That means you must proactively communicate your brand’s message, positioning, and promise to the marketplace. You might say that means marketing. Marketing is a tool to communicate your brand to the world, so they can grasp and act upon it.

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