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What Is Branding? It’s Part of Your Organizational DNA

Drew Letendre

Having recently swallowed a brimming tablespoon of our own medicine—that is, having both authored and accomplished the rebranding of our own firm (RiechesBaird is now BrandingBusiness)—I’m inspired to use the occasion to wax philosophical about ‘The Discipline.’

Reflecting even for a moment on the professional practice of “branding,” one is struck first and foremost by the abiding problem of definition. In spite of the central importance to our profession of language that is precise, simple, and consistent, we don’t seem to have landed ourselves on anything like an agreed-upon industry standard definition for “The” term for what we do.

Definitions appear, rather, to vary and proliferate in proportion to the variety and number of definers. This is sort of an ironic scenario, given that a core part of our job is crisply communicating critical matters for our clients like identity and essence: “Who are we?” and “What do we stand for?” We hear it said, from the rank and file all the way up to the acknowledged industry gurus, that a brand is: a product, a promise, a logo, is design, is packaging and— “most ephemerally”—is an experience. Then there are the compound constructs, assembled out of these elements. Definitions abound, diverge, collide, and confuse.

A colleague of mine is fond of quoting Joseph Campbell’s remark that “…to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” My ambitions—you’ll be relieved to know—are far more humble than changing the world. I only mean to change the world of branding (and just a little). Hopefully, it won’t be seen as extravagant or ‘exotic’ to call Etymology to our aid, for I think it will expose the problem at the roots, the root of words. Etymonline.com gives us this:

‘Brand (noun) Old English brand, brond "fire, flame; firebrand, piece of burning wood, torch," and (poetic) "sword," from Proto-Germanic *brandaz (cognates: Old Norse brandr, Old High German brant, Old Frisian brond "firebrand, blade of a sword," German brand "fire"), from root *bran-/*bren- (see burn (verb)). Meaning "identifying mark made by a hot iron" (1550s) broadened by 1827 to "a particular make of goods." Brand name is from 1922.

Brand (verb) c.1400, "to brand, cauterize; stigmatize," originally of criminal marks or cauterized wounds, from brand (noun) As a means of marking property, 1580s; figuratively from c.1600, often in a bad sense, with the criminal marking in mind. Related: Branded; branding.

Setting aside the associations with “stigma,” what the original, literal meanings of verb and noun have in common is the notion of an identifying physical mark (of ownership)—that literally goes just skin deep. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem. Equating brand with logo or with packaging—of something that goes no deeper than surfaces—is a consequence of taking the older, original meaning of “brand” too literally. Note that it was not until the early 19th century that the definition evolved to mean “a particular make of goods” and not until the early 20th, that the expression “brand name,” came into common currency. Brand is still about ownership and provenance, but it has moved on too.

The other strong gravitational pull that the old meanings exert is the virtually exclusive association with physical product. That said, this is still a conceptual advance beyond singeing ‘hides’ (by analogy, packaging and design) and one which may have served to extend the meaning of the term further to more abstract, relevant notions of performance and customer experience (which, in turn may have opened the way to associating “brand” with “entities”—corporations and businesses).

But, as the notion of “brand” passes like a well-traveled, fast-moving vehicle through the landscape of use and misuse, meanings splatter across it like insects on grillwork. The question for the branding world is: should we simply permit a loose and desultory cluster of meanings to orbit the core term in our lexicon? Or should we get our conceptual house in order, either by narrowing the definition down to a pinpoint, exercising merciless exclusion or by resolving the different definitions into a harmonious whole?

My preference is for the latter course, organizing the accrued materials into a clear, if slightly complex concept. And here is my own (humble) contribution to that grand project, to be altered and I hope improved upon by minds superior to my own. When talking about “brand” (or a brand) what we are really referring to is neither an ad, nor a logo, nor a tag line, nor packaging, per se. A brand is:

“A complex system of assets, extending from the tangible and quantifiable (product, service, performance) to the intangible (imagery, language, impressions of value), shaped by one, underlying, compelling idea, that delivers a coherent, unique experience. The branding professional’s job is to create and manage the intangible half of this system in a highly disciplined and coordinated way, to ensure that the resulting experience is consistent, pervasive, and impactful, bolstering the competitive advantage of the client—and, ideally, communicating value to their customers.“

Coming full circle, the rationale behind the transformation of RiechesBaird into BrandingBusiness becomes clear. Brand—the verb—is closer to the modern sense than brand, the noun. And, taking it a grammatical step further, the transitive verb is closer than the intransitive form, to the modern sense as well. We’re not “just branding, full stop” (come up with a name, create a logo, slap a tag line near it, send an invoice). The verb has an object: We’re branding business. In other words, we’re building a dynamic concept with the capacity to permeate, not only sales and marketing approaches, but strategic plans, Human Resources, the decision protocols around acquisitions, and other operational dimensions of a business. Brands can—and should—have real and profound business consequences.

Though I doubt it would (or should) be publically adopted, perhaps the better metaphor for what we do when we do branding—and do it right—is to be found in the field of genetic engineering. We aren’t branding hides, but carefully altering a business’ DNA, thus creating profound, systemic change, rather than the superficial alterations with which branding is all too often wrongly associated.

Dedicated to Wally Olins, 19 December 1930 – 14 April 2014. Rest gentle, Founding Father.

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