What is a brand?

Although brands and branding have a literature all their own (see, inter alia, Clifton 2009; Design Council 2013; Gieske, undated), it will be helpful to start with a basic definition: A brand is a set of assumptions and expectations associated with a (brand) name. Thus consumers will make assumptions about what will be provided (a product or a set of products or services) and what the product or service will be like (taste, consistency, quality, efficacy of a product, quality, nature, extent, accessibility of services, etc.). Equally, they can expect that consumers can expect a particular set of behaviours from the people behind the brand (customer service, research into product quality, care for reputation and so on). There are also expectations about how the brand will look (its “visual identity”) and, increasingly, of how it communicates - for example, the language that it would and would not use in all the “consumer touch points” it controls, which could encompass everything from poster advertising to text messages sent to customers. The visual and verbal identity is often described in a “brand book”, which contains all the rules about language and design, and often a statement of the brand’s values.

The impression that a brand makes with its communications combines with factors beyond its control, such as the consumer’s personal experience, word of mouth, and social and news media, to create a level of esteem for the brand among existing and potential audiences. This quality of esteem is what brands and their owners are seeking, and where the brand’s economic value lies. As Kotler and Keller (2005: 276) suggest, this brand equity constitutes “an important intangible asset that has psychological and financial value to the firm”.

For example, Unilever, while a well-known name in business, is more famous among consumers for the brands it controls, which include Dove, Hellman’s, and Persil. It is entirely possible that other products are as good as the leading brands, but, in the UK where this author is based, none is held in as high esteem by as many. That is because a brand carries specific connotations such as quality, performance, and reliability (but not, for example, extravagant luxury or “green” credentials, which other brands may be pursuing). It stands to reason, then, that new or unknown brands will be “empty vessels” as far as esteem goes, and it is the job of the brand owners to provide a product or service, together with a specific style of communication, that will result in positive associations being developed among consumers (see, for example, De Chernatony 2010 on brand building).

Brands, of course, are of many different kinds, from “friendly” consumer brands (IKEA, Heinz, Starbucks, Amazon) to serious industrial and technology heavyweights (General Electric, HP), elite, from luxury brands (Prada, Tiffany and co, Burberry) to niche brands for aficionados (Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniels).[1] The kinds of brand position that brand owners will want to adopt depends on the market they wish to appeal to, the nature of their business, the price of their product or service, and the values they can expect the consuming public to plausibly associate with their brand. Each brand’s personality (also termed brand essence, DNA, values, identity) will reflect how its owners want it to be perceived. So, for example, Heinz’ intended values are quality, integrity, consumer first, ownership/meritocracy, and innovation (heinz.com), while Burberry’s are the much more abstract “protect, explore, and inspire” (burberry.co.uk). Each brand will have a strategy to create the market share it is aiming at, and will seek to plan how it acts, and how it communicates, in line with its brand values.

  • [1] The brands mentioned here are taken from Interbrand’s list of 100 top world brands in terms ofvalue for 2013: http://www.interbrand.com/en/best-global-brands/2013/top-100-list-view.aspx.
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