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What Does a “Brand” Actually Mean?

by Kathryn Piasta

Branding. Rebranding. Even brand refreshes and brand equity. These words are thrown around a lot in the marketing industry. At Wallace360, we say we make brands. But what does “brand” actually mean? And how does one go about refreshing one, let alone making one? 

The important thing to remember is that a brand is a holistic summing up of who you are and what you’re all about: 

  • How you look – your logo, color pallet, typography and graphics/illustrative elements that together make up what your business or organization looks like 
  • How you sound – your brand narrative, messaging, and even the tone you use to communicate whether it’s on your corporate website, emails or product descriptions 
  • What you do or make – the product or service you offer and what that’s like
  • How you do it – the customer service and user experience you offer whether it be an e-commerce operation or a restaurant, as well as your human resources practices and how you operate internally
  • Why you do it – the values you abide by, your vision for the future and the underlying purpose behind what you do 

A brand is far more than just a logo. And re-branding is more than just a logo update and a new look and feel on your creative. It’s exploring what you are on the inside and reflecting that outwardly. A brand is the sum of all parts, how they work together and what that communicates. And all those parts must be considered. 

What’s in a Name? 

Miriam-Websters defines “brand” as “a class of goods identified by name as the product of a single firm or manufacturer,” “a characteristic or distinctive kind” and even “a public image, reputation, or identity conceived of as something to be marketed or promoted.” 

And that’s not to mention the other kind of brand: “a mark made by burning with a hot iron.” In the old days, cattle were branded literally for the purpose of identifying who they belonged to should they wander away from their herd. Brands of today – Nike, Apple, Hershey or even local brands like Bread Craft, Crystal Spring Grocery, Walkabout Outfitters – aren’t all that different. They all use a mark, or a logo, to identify themselves and their products. But beyond just a means of identification, their branding helps convey what the organization or business is all about.

Hidden Storytelling    

When you see a bottle of hand soap from Walmart’s generic brand Equate you might think “value.” Earbuds from Apple in their sleek white case might signify “top-notch tech.” And a Subaru Forester might make you think “safety.” There is a lot of meaning packed into brands. And not all of it comes from a logo. 

What creates this? Well, everything. Take Chick-fil-A for instance. The quick-service restaurant that used to be relegated to mall food courts is now one of the most popular nationwide. Why? It not only built a better chicken sandwich, but a better brand that resonates with those it serves. It’s doing something unique with its core product, but also in how it does things and in what it stands for. It’s closed on Sundays. It runs its drive-thru operation with insane efficiency. Its mascot is not a chicken, but renegade cows. It has mastered customer service and become synonymous with “my pleasure.” 

It does what it does with consistency, despite operating under a franchise model, because it’s held together by a strong brand that’s aligned with its values, mission and vision, all backed by its founders, its leaders and its employees. Everyone is onboard. 

The Business of Branding – Looking Inward

When building or refreshing a brand, the best place to start is from the inside out. Or in the case of the list of identity considerations above, from the bottom up. The most successful outward displays of branding are always the ones that most consistently and authentically reflect the business or organization at its core. That’s why we at Wallace360 start there.

Our first steps in any branding exercise is to dig deep into the organization. We talk to founders, current leaders, board members, employees, you name it. Sometimes face-to-face, sometimes through surveys. We ask questions like these:

  • Why did XYZ business open in the first place?
  • What value do you bring to your stakeholders? 
  • What problem or challenge are you trying to solve for your customers? 
  • Flash forward 15 years… what does the future look like? 
  • Throwing taglines and existing marketing language out the window, how do you sum up what you do?
  • Why do you do it? 

We also look to what outsiders say. When you’re immersed in your organization – “drinking the Kool-Aid” so to speak – it’s sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees so this outside perspective is especially helpful. We also look at how the business operates internally: How it makes decisions, how it communicates with and engages its stakeholders and the practices of its leadership. 

Truth lies in action but also in perception, and how employees and “outsiders” view you often speaks volumes. That’s not to say we’re digging for dirt. Quite the contrary. We’re seeking to unearth the truth behind a brand in the missions, vision and values that guide its actions. Often that is where the heart of a brand really lies.   

For instance, we recently completed a rebrand for Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA). Since its inception, the organization has set to work laying miles of fiber-optic cable across the Valley. At first blush, anyone would tell you that RVBA was all about providing quality internet access. But just like Chick-fil-A’s not just about chicken, RVBA isn’t just about internet access. We dug deeper and found that at its core, RVBA really exists to make the Roanoke Valley a better place to live and do business.  

Reflecting the Inside Out

What follows as you build or refresh a brand is just working your way up, letting the core of who you are influence those outward manifestations of your identity from the napkins you use in your restaurant and the ambiance of your store to your messaging, logo and user experience on your website. Brands that want a “refresh” are often eager to save money and jump right into new design and a new logo. This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. 

A brand’s logo and what it looks like all convey something. And it’s key this be rooted in something more substantive than nice-looking design alone. When this substance is identified, it becomes the glue that holds everything together. Everything ladders up and makes sense. How a brand looks, how it sounds, what it does and the purpose behind that are all aligned. When they aren’t, you’ve got a larger problem, but that’s a subject for another article.

When you arrive at the heart of your business, it doesn’t just inform your “branding” and marketing in the traditional sense. It can become an effective filter through which you make major decisions. It will help you ask yourself, is XYZ thing I’m deciding about on target with what my organization seeks to achieve? Is it “on brand”?

Don’t fall victim to instant gratification and the need for a nicer, newer logo. Take time to step back and do some introspection and discovery work first. This ultimately gets you to a better place faster. And just like Chick-fil-A, it all becomes a piece of who you are – your brand.

Kathryn Piasta
Kathryn is an award-winning communicator and account lead with proven experience building brands, advancing reputations and driving business results via strategic communications and integrated marketing for clients across a variety of industry sectors from consumer-packaged goods to travel to healthcare.

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