The word ‘branding’ no longer properly describes what practitioners of branding mean today. Nor does it describe what they want the word to stand for.
It’s the etymology of the word branding that gives the wrong impression. It comes from the language of my ancestors, the Vikings in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. The Old Norse word ‘brandr’ (meaning ‘to burn’) referred to the practice of using a hot iron rod to impress the owner’s markings or symbols (brands) on cattle, slaves, timber, crockery and more. This practice goes back as far as at least ancient Egypt.
What started as symbol of cattle ownership, warning potential thieves to keep their hands off, evolved over time into a sign of social, political and commercial inclusion. It became a marker of relationships, not just with the owner or producers, but also between people. Depending on context, brands can indicate practices, status, reputation and experiences. They can show relationships between producers, customers, consumers and opinion makers. They can describe quality, availability, price and service, as well as policies, personas, values, beliefs and the general allure of any political, social, commercial or cultural enterprise.
In addition, branding can be activated by a mix of production, service management, media choice, content creation, public relations, logistics and information technology, including social media.
In 2000 I founded the Medinge Group, a think-tank, with some of the world’s leading new thinkers in branding. One of the first things we did was challenge the word branding, only to conclude, a few sessions later, that we could not actually find a better word to describe what branding stands for in our modern minds, despite all the wrong connotations. The good thing is that our brains recognize the word branding through pattern recognition. The history of a word is less important than what you make it into. In this sense, it’s just the same as any brand that gets its value from what you make of it.
Managing Brand Perceptions In People’s Minds
During all the years of my practice, by far the best definition of branding I have used is ‘managing perceptions in people’s minds’. It tells us where the effect of branding takes place – in people’s minds – and it tells us what that effect is – managing perceptions.
A good way to understand what branding does is to consider the opposite: what happens if you do not use branding at all? The amazing thing is that branding takes place anyway. But instead of the brand owner or manager intentionally guiding people, people use their imagination to fill the empty space, this vacuum of information, with their own ideas and fantasies.
This is always the case in situations when there is no available information; the empty space is filled with speculations, and the ideas based on them. People start to speculate, and share their speculations with others. Sometimes, outside commentators try to help by producing statements and comments, still without access to precise facts or real insight into the thinking of the decision makers.
I have never met, or heard of, any brand builders who found the right branding by launching their products with no planned branding effort. I have met their opposites, though, who complain that their brand is not perceived the way it should be, or that their brand is not in the forefront of people’s minds as it is supposed to be.
Managing is a key word in explaining what branding is all about. In most companies, there are many different management processes: human resources management, finance management, production management, procurement management, etc. Since branding is one of the most important processes in creating value, both in terms of equity and of the business’s result (profit), it should definitely be considered an important core management process. Unfortunately, in many companies, it is not.
Sometimes this is the result of a traditional point of view. Branding is considered part of the marketing process, and yes, of course, it is an essential part of marketing. But there is much more to branding than just marketing; it is traditionally the basis of the company culture. Branding is usually where the company’s vision, mission and values are stated. It is, simply, a sub-set Branding of management strategy in any kind of enterprise, not just commercial. Favorite alternative phrases for branding include ‘company DNA’, ‘company soul’ or brand essence.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Thomas Gad, excerpted from his book Customer Experience Branding, with permission from Kogan Page publishing.
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