What is a brand, anyway?

Our Social Media Manager, Sarah A. Parker, likes to opine on all things social media from time to time, so we’ve given her space to do just that here on our blog. She’ll cover everything from the new and unusual to the outdated and annoying. Got something she missed our something you’d like her to cover? Find her on Twitter @SparkerWorks


I may have mentioned before that I read, a lot. So this month I thought it would be fun to share some thoughts around a book, in this case one on branding. What is a brand, anyway?

For such a simple question, you can get a lot of very different answers. Definitely enough of them to fill a book like Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (find it on Amazon here if you’re so inclined). Millman interviewed notables from the world of branding and design, ranging from those well known in popular culture like Malcolm Gladwell to those only well known inside of their specific industries.

While the interviews were more like informal conversations that expanded from- but always circled back to- branding, they kept coming back to a few key points about branding and brands: That whether we like it or not, brands are part of our lives and they help us define who we are. Certain themes came up again and again from different interview subjects when asked what, exactly, a brand is:

  • That brands are stories and humans are storytellers; pattern-seeking is one of our main drives and that extends to telling stories about the things that make up our lives
  • That brands are like tribes and even religion; they signal to others what we value about ourselves and society and whether others should therefore engage with or ignore us
  • That brands aren’t really a tangible thing; they’re a set of ideas we all agree exist. They are defined by those who interact with them, not by the brand itself (despite all of its intentions)

So brands help us define who we are, using some or all of these parameters. Not only as consumers, but also and maybe particularly as brand creators. How much thought do we owe that process? How wholly sincere can we be about the cult of a brand when we know, at the end of the day, that everything is done in the service of selling more products?

Especially as consumers become more inclined to buy from and do business with brands who share similar values to their own and reject overt, inauthentic attempts at connection, this becomes more and more important to those shaping and sharing these brands. You cannot fake it. You the creator do have to buy into the cult of the brand, whole-heartedly. And if you’re trying to revive a brand, you have to dig through its history to find a real story about it and then find a way to present that story anew in a modern context. No small feat in a busy, crowded marketplace of stuff.

None of these are new concepts, but Brand Thinking does run through them all in a way that throws some interesting (and sometimes contrasting) ideas together. The best one, I think, is the one about responsibility and this quote from Seth Godin captures it well:

“So as a brand marketer, the essential questions are, What kind of work do you want to do? How do you scale it? What is the thing you’re trying to deliver? I think that a Hershey’s bar a month might give someone joy—  a Hershey’s bar every three hours might make someone sick. If the only way that you’re going to succeed as a brand is to make your best customers sick, then I think you need to wonder about weather that’s a good long-term strategy.”

There are perhaps some unintended consequences from good branding, and that’s something anyone in the branding business should think long and hard about.

Please do let me know your thoughts, and what you’re reading!


Featured image via Unsplash