It seems like every ad agency, consultancy, PR firm and design studio—and get this, even sign painter—is claiming to be a branding expert these days. The more I listen, read and talk to other folks in the field, the more I come to realize that many of those claiming expertise don’t fully understand the difference between brand development and branding, although there are several critical distinctions. Let me explain what I mean.
For starters, brand development is the discovery of a brand’s unique distinction and the development of communications about that distinction. But branding is the tactical application of that positioning or distinction in marketing materials. One is strategic, one is tactical. Both are very important, but they are inherently different.
To keep it all very simple, a company’s brand is its promise to its customers.
It clearly tells them what to expect from the company’s products and services and what differentiates their offering or offerings from that of competitors. In a nutshell, a company’s brand is derived from who they are, who they want to be and just as importantly, who people perceive them to be.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, a brand is defined as “a claim of distinction.” But I would suggest that a powerful brand is perhaps better defined as “evidence of distinction,” because it provides proof of a company’s positioning and justifies its distinction. Without distinction, a brand is merely generic or even worse, a commodity. When this is the case, it’s your brand’s price which must serve as your only evidence of value.
So where does that evidence of distinction come from? And better yet, how can you create it?
In the old days, most advertisers would “look out” at their audiences, collect information and through research, try to discover what their users wanted in a brand. Today, we call this approach Account Planning. But the more effective approach is to start by looking inside the company, and really digging in internally. By looking within, a brand can determine what it does differently, why it does what it does and what it’s capable of becoming. This is simply another way of describing how we can arrive at the evidence of distinction and then build crucial communications around it.
The brand, therefore, becomes a foundational piece of the organization’s business decision making process—guiding the organization from a business perspective and, perhaps more importantly, building its relationship with the consumer. Which allows the brand to fulfill its role by providing a clear and strategic platform from which the business can operate, build a sense of pride among employees who champion the organization’s position and ultimately create and add value to the bottom line. In the end, this approach to brand becomes a c-suite initiative by positively affecting the bottom line versus a marketing function, often viewed as an expense or liability.
From here, using the brand as the compass, branding becomes the set of tactics used to deliver the brand’s evidence of distinction across all marketing and communications material, both internally and externally. It’s important to note that brands who spend the time, energy and money to discover who they are, what they do differently and what they are capable of becoming, are more often than not, the ones that prosper. And this is the case for all businesses, not just the ones frequently put on a pedestal as examples for success like Nike, Apple and BMW. These principles hold true for all organizations— regardless of size, budgets and bottom lines.
How a company manages its business is telling of how it manages its brand. That’s because it cuts across product, distribution, pricing and communications. It’s a vital piece of identity, and yet, many business people (myself included), received our brand training through a practice of visual identity, a.k.a branding. In other words, we created logos, campaigns and other tactical applications to provide brand distinction. But this is backwards, and now we know better. Marketing and advertising don’t create the brand, they’re simply tools of communication. True brand building is much more than a logo.