The etymology of the word “Brand” traces its meaning to “an identifying mark made by a hot iron”. This is consistent with its usage in the 1550s when ranchers started ‘branding’ cattle to indicate their ownership. During the late 19th century, with the evolution of consumerism, the literal meaning of the word was tweaked, and brand came to mean “a tangible identifier of a commodity that indicates its source and differentiates it”.
Over the last century, the definition of a brand has evolved from being centered on tangibles like name and logo to including intangibles- perceptions and experiences. David Ogilvy, widely regarded as the pioneer of advertising, gave a definition that comes closest to the 21st-century meaning of Brand. He defined brand as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised”.
Of course, with media democratization, rapid shifts in consumer behaviour and frequent category disruptions- the attributes in this definition have expanded to include many more aspects like people, processes, beliefs and practices associated with the brand. In summary, a brand is simply a “sum total of consumer perceptions”.
Carrying a multilayered and multidimensional construct, “Brand” is a loaded word today. This has some interesting implications on what brands mean in today’s world.
#1 Brands drive choices
The world is getting increasingly cluttered and complicated; the choices are proliferating and attention spans are reducing. Brands have become a shorthand to ease choice-making across all spheres of life- personal, professional and social. In other words, brand is a filter that helps consumers cut through the clutter and make a choice.
#2 Brands shape behaviors
Given that consumers are relying on brands to help them make choices, brands can be a powerful influencer. There are many examples where brands have built new consumption habits or brought a paradigm shift in consumer behavior. Strong brands can nudge exploration and experimentation, challenging well-entrenched notions. The sphere of influence of each brand can vary widely though, depending on its strength.
#3 Brands should appeal to both heart and mind
Since brands are a sum total of ‘perceptions’, some marketers tend to over-play the emotional card. However, this can be a wrong move. Functional experience is the ultimate moment of truth for any brand. Before anything else, brands are quintessential problem solvers- and they need to do so with ease and elegance. To stand out, brands need to appeal to both mind and heart.
#4 Brand is a living entity
And like with any other living entity, for any brand its perceptions are constantly evolving. Hence, creating a good brand image is just the starting point. Brands cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Brand building is a continuous pursuit that should ensure that a brand lives up to and fortifies its reputation every day, with every transaction and at every touchpoint.
#5 Everyone is a brand
Perceptions aren’t limited to commercial products. With the advent of social media and search engines, people are forming their own perceptions about everyone and everything. And perceptions matter in all spheres of life- be it professional or personal. Hence any entity- be it a person, place or a thing- is potentially a brand today. Like it or not, today each one of us is a custodian of our own personal brand!
Implications for brand builders
Given the way the meaning of brand has evolved, there are interesting takeaways for people and organizations that want to build winning brands:
#1 Brand needs to stand for something
Given that brands are shorthand for choice-making, brands need to make it easy for consumers by sharply owning an attribute that is relevant and resonates with them. This is a fundamental aspect of brand building as it helps brand break through the clutter and capture consumer attention. Standing for something today is more important, and it is no longer merely about something that brand says or communicates; rather, it is something that it does and demonstrates.
#2 Brand building cannot be left to marketers alone
Probably two decades ago, product and communication were key to brand building. But that was also the time when media weights were the sole determinants of brand perceptions. This isn’t the case today. Everything a brand does- from the way it treats its employees to the environment- matters to consumers and hence contributes to perceptions of a brand. This also means that brand building isn’t solely the job of brand team anymore. Brand building is a mindset that needs to percolate across all functions in the organization.
#3 You only control a part of your brand narrative
As Jeff Bezos succinctly put it, “your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”. Today than ever, what consumers speak about the brand is a core determinant of how your brand is perceived. With the power to share at their fingertips and numerous ways of expressing their views- including reels, memes, reviews, comments or blogs- consumers can craft brands perceptions in many different ways. Thus, a potential consumer might already have formed strong brand perceptions even before the brand has had a chance to reach them.
#4 Brands are expected to be good citizens
The broad expansion of digital literacy, rising power of vox populi and decreasing power distances between brands and consumers have put brands under a microscopic scrutiny. Today everything about a brand- from its operations to its antecedents and from its internal culture to vendor relationships- are all fair game for inspection and commenting. None of the attributes related to a brand can be divested from its products/services, and they all combine to form brand perceptions. Transparency, integrity and a responsibility towards environment & society are expected and demanded from brands. In other words, brands today are expected to play the role of a good citizen.
#5 Brand building is a responsibility
Brand builders need to appreciate that they operate in a very anxious and polarized world. In this uncertain world, trust is a very important currency because it gives consumers a much-needed sense of control and comfort. And brands are nothing but symbols of trust. The holy grail for every marketer is to ensure that their brand is trusted by its consumers. As a brand builder, you are the custodian of this trust, and you need to be cognizant of the fact that it’s a momentous responsibility.
We hope this piece helps you see your job as a brand builder in a new light.
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