What is Branding?


Let me first state, that I love brands.

Perhaps it was a fascination with the packages I saw during trips to the grocery store as a youngster, or the rise of the graphic t-shirt as an advertising medium for a local pizzeria or an avid interest in Barker’s Beauties and the Showcase Showdown on the Price is Right. Whatever drove my initial interest in brands and branding, I have continued to promote the idea that brands make emotive connections—driving awareness, relevancy and value for companies, products and people.

Brands help tell a story.

Much of what has been described as advertising and branding has roots in the early public relations work of Edward Bernays, as well as political propaganda.1 From the introduction of Bass Ale—the earliest registered trademark in the United Kingdom, to Hitler’s wartime manipulation of the masses, and even Barrack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign—branding is recognized as a powerful tool to persuade.

Nevertheless, the practice of identifying products and property has a much longer history. According to Mark Ritson, “the word ‘brand’ is derived from the Old Norse brandr meaning ‘to burn.’ It refers to the practice of producers burning their mark (or brand) onto their products.”2 Early Roman pottery, including artifacts found at the ruins of Pompeii and ancient Gaul, “often included large, easily legible name-stamps incorporated into the decoration, clearly acting as brand-names or advertisements.”3 The more recent past brings to mind a romantic vision of the campfires and cowboys of the American Wild West, as well as snake-oil salesmen peddling tonics, cure-all elixirs and soap—don’t forget the soap.

According to McKinsey, the consumer-packaged-goods industry was the birthplace of modern brand management (most notably, Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble).4

P&G’s early work to understand the consumer and market products—based upon consumer usage—laid the groundwork for much of how branding and brand management are utilized today. The company has also been recognized as a leader in leveraging design and design thinking. Nevertheless, why is Procter & Gamble interested in design? Former Procter & Gamble CEO, AG Lafley believes, “design schools emphasize abductive thinking—imagining what could be possible. This new thinking approach helps us challenge assumed constraints and add to ideas, versus discouraging them.”5

Design and brand consultancy Landor Associates defines brand as, “the sum of all the characteristics, tangible and intangible, that make the offer unique.“6 The Interbrand Brand Glossary states, “A brand is a mixture of attributes, tangible and intangible, symbolized in a trademark, which, if managed properly, creates value and influence.”7

Simply put, a brand is a promise.

1. BBC, “The Century of Self
2. Ritson, Mark. Marketing Magazine UK
3. Johns, Catherine, Arretine and Samian Pottery.
4. McKinsey Quarterly. Crawford, Gordon, and Mulder. How Consumer Goods Companies Are Coping with Complexity
5. Lafley, A. G., and Ram Charan. The Game Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation.
6. Landor Associates
7. Interbrand