From Brand to Branding

Out of the frying pan and into the fire. I posted my final Business Week column on the meaning of brand–I’ll post a link here when it goes live–wrapping up my argument for a concrete definition, while unavoidably opening another can of worms. If a Brand is a tangible symbol that distinguishes one company’s products from all competitors, what is Branding?

A couple of years back, when The Industry Standard was still a 150-page print magazine (remember that?), I had an animated discussion with one of the editors about "branding". They had done a special section on the topic, and every single one of the articles was on advertising. At the time, my company was heavily engaged in interactive development, and I was making the argument that the creation of an online experience was every bit as important a branding activity as advertising–in fact, for some companies, it’s the most important activity. Yahoo, eBay and Google all became household names because of the experience they delivered, not their snappy ads–which didn’t even begin until after they had made their mark.

I’ll still make the same argument today–although I no longer try to claim that the experience you create *is* your brand. Your brand is still the symbol, but the experience enhances the value of the symbol, both for you and your customer. In fact, all of the activities that a company engages in to maximize the value of the company/customer relationship, in my mind, fall in some way under the category of branding. Take Customer Service as an example. To some degree, Customer Service is just Customer Service–it’s providing accountability for a product according to the service contract. But to the extent the company realizes Customer Service is a critical touchpoint with valued customers, and invests in going beyond basic accountability to try and influence the customer’s perception of the company–by having intelligent operators answer the phone, by offering a replacement product, whatever–any returns on that investment accrue to the brand.

So, what is the definition of "branding"? No help from the AMA here, they don’t have it in their dictionary. If you use Google’s helpful "define:" command, you come up with a reasonable grabbag of definitions –many of which simply revert to "brand". But building on the original cowboy definition of brand as the symbol, and branding as the act of applying the symbol, we could follow the same approach in business:

Branding is the set of activities that serve to create or build the brand.

As most companies know today, the relationship with the customer permeates far more of the company’s operations than just marketing, sales and service. For some companies, the way you answer the phone is key, for others, it’s the way you drive your trucks. For some companies it’s your Web site experience that influences customers most, for others it’s the fact that you invest some of your profits in charity. While some activities are pure acts of branding–like advertising–others may be more subtle but equally important. Whatever the activity is, to the extent you go beyond the function of the activity itself to try and improve your relationship with customers and prospects, it is, I would propose, branding–the activity is designed to add value to your brand.

I can already hear the mail coming. If you know of a solid and authoritative definition of branding, please let me know and I’ll post it. If you have a good argument for why branding should be more limited, or more expansive, likewise. There’s a lot of ground to cover…

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