What is a Brand?

A brand is a combination of many aspects of a business. Just like you are more than a pretty face, the branding for your venture is more than just a logo. Your brand is what you do, how you do it, and how you and your product fit into the world.

Put simply: Your brand is the strategic packaging of your reputation.

A strong brand creates:

  • High name recognition
  • Awareness of product offerings and differentiators
  • A reputable service/product with a vision
  • Strong messaging
  • Relevance in the world at large

A weak brand has:

  • No story or vision
  • Low and/or no understanding of product differentiators
  • Unknown and/or unclear values and mission
  • Standards that gauge success solely on the amount of money it takes in
  • No role in the world at large

Why Branding is No Longer Optional

For several years now “branding” has been a buzz word in nearly every industry. Why? Because your brand creates a reputation that lets customers know how much they can trust you to deliver on your promise.

A helpful way to think about brand is to say that your brand is what people say about your product or service when you’re not in the room.

  • Have people even heard of your brand?
  • Are people familiar with messaging or values that allows them to concisely and accurately describe your brand in one sentence?
  • Do people know what makes you different and why your differentiator is important to a buying decision?

In the pre-internet world, branding was typically a game big boys played. If you were small and local, you didn’t need to brand yourself. Word of mouth did that for you. A small local business could hang out a shingle, package all its products in a generic bag, and still have customers know where and how to find them because everyone knew every business in town.

Things have changed in the 21st century. We now have an entire rising generation who has never lived without the internet. This emerging market often deems brick-and-mortar shopping as option-limiting and time-expensive. With the internet, we’re seeing huge changes in how products are brought to market and how services are delivered.

For example, before the days of the internet, most businesses didn’t ship purchases to customers. If you wanted Ghirardelli chocolate, then you literally had to go to San Francisco. Up until just a few decades ago, small businesses and local specialists took care of the niche needs of local markets with little fanfare or competition.

Those days are officially gone.

Small businesses not only compete with the big boys now, but a small local business also competes with similar small businesses in other cities. Unless you provide a hands-on service like massage, your next door neighbor may end up buying a product you sell from a competitor 1,000 miles away.  And they’ll base that purchasing decision on price, perceived quality, and whether or not they think the online brand is reputable.

The Current Market

In the current online market, the importance of reputation cannot be overstated.

Let’s say you’re in the market to buy a protective case for your new cell phone. You go to your local mall to check out cases and see that the cases you like are between $40-60. Curious if that’s the best price, you pull out your phone while you’re still in the store and look up the same phone cases on Amazon. Your search shows that Amazon has more colors available of the cases you like with prices between $20-25.

More options at half the price? You politely leave the store and finish your shopping online.

As you dig into Amazon’s phone case offerings, you notice that the case you liked most at the mall has an average rating of 3.1 out of 5 stars based on 2,132 reviews. Curious as to why it’s not rated higher, you click on the reviews and start seeing headlines like: Looks Good But Didn’t Save My Phone and Don’t Expect a Miracle.

As you read about the experiences others have had with your current favorite phone case, you see a trend emerge. Like you, others were attracted to the case for its sleek look, but were disappointed that it didn’t protect their phone as they’d hoped.

How likely are you to buy this case?

You do some more browsing and find another case you like. Its product description claims it’s the best, but there are only five reviews and they all sound like they came from employees, not actual customers.

How likely are you to buy this second case?

You keep looking and see a third case. This same case had been at the store in the mall as well, but it’s not your favorite-looking option. Yet, when you look at the reviews, you see this case has an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars with 5,817 reviews. When you check out what other customers are saying about the case, you end up reading tale after tale of people who thought they’d destroyed their phone only to find it in pristine condition, thanks to the case.

How likely are you to buy this third case?

If form is more important to you than function, you may buy case #1. If you’re a habitual risk taker who likes to be in on new things, you may choose case #2. But if you are in the market for a case to protect an expensive investment from harm, buying case #3—or a case made by the same company—for $20 becomes a no brainer. With over 5,000 people giving it a thumbs up, you now trust it to be a wise investment.

And where there is a clear customer understanding that a company or individual will consistently deliver as promised, a brand (i.e., reputation) is born.

It’s All About Trust

Amazon knows the importance of product and seller trustworthiness, as does every other online retailer. Increasingly, websites that facilitate third-party sales are requiring customers to leave reviews of their experience so the host can weed out weak sellers and fraudulent accounts.

If you’re eBay and you have a bunch of fake sellers ripping people off, your eBay brand will depreciate quickly. For this reason, companies like eBay must make huge efforts to identify and disassociate from sellers who don’t support their standards for quality. Repairing trust after it has been violated is an uphill battle that is very easily lost. To avoid this as much as possible, sites like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon use customer reviews to turn their sellers into mini-brands that support their larger brand.

Reviews: A Snapshot of Your Brand

Reviews breed trust online. Just like in the phone case example above, the more reviews you have with a common narrative, the greater the sense of perceived trust. This is why an online seller with no customer feedback is approached with more caution than a seller who has been delivering as promised for seven years. No one coaches prospective customers to trust one seller over the other. Customers do this instinctively.

If your brand has no documented track history and the competition has a strong reputation, then you have some catching up to do. Even if you offer identical items at the same price, most people will choose to buy from the reputable brand. And if you drop your price 10% or even 20%, customers will still likely go with the reputable seller—assuming your product is lower quality. Why else would your item be so cheap?

Value and Brand Go Hand-in-Hand

Many marketers will tell you that brands that create a strong value proposition don’t have to worry about competing with their prices, and this is largely true. Every day consumers buy a brand name item for more money when a generically packaged version of the same product sits next to it for a fraction of the price. The two items are literally made in the same factory with the same equipment by the same people, but one has a label that is trusted more so it gets the sale.

This is the power of branding.

Whether you’re a business owner selling widgets, a local coffee shop selling premium brews, or a creative person trying to become a power player in your industry, your branding matters.

If your branding is weak, you will be perceived as less-than even if you are technically the best. If you are unable or unwilling to effectively communicate your brand value to the marketplace, you will struggle on an otherwise thriving vine.

So consider the sixteen branding elements outlined in Part Two of this book as sixteen would-be employees who are willing to work for free. You can:

  1. Put them to work by clarifying what each branding element should say when you’re not in the room
  2. Leave your branding elements unemployed by giving them nothing to do
  3. Let your competition create messaging that puts your branding elements to work for them

Completing your branding pyramid and implementing it every day is like hiring sixteen free employees who appear anywhere in the world and advocate for you whenever you are mentioned. And what business doesn’t need that?

Forbes Top 10

Forbes magazine put out its 2014 list of the world’s Top 100 Most Valuable Brands.

  • What do you think the chances are that you have heard of all 100 companies?
  • What are the chances you recognize their logos?
  • What are the chances you know their taglines?
  • What are the chances that if you easily match their logo with their tagline that you have also purchased something from them?

Let’s see how well the Top 10 companies are doing at creating messaging that sticks. Can you correctly match the tagline and logo of each company?

Did you get 100%?
(1=F, 2=C, 3=A, 4=E, 5=B, 6=D, 7=J, 8=G, 9=H, 10=I)

I can promise you that each of these companies hopes you can spot their messaging at a glance, since they each spend millions every year to ensure that you have instant recall of their existence.

As much as these companies seem like behemoths today, they didn’t start out that way. Like any company, they started small and had their fair share of growing pains.

In the beginning, they were a simple seed of an idea that sprouted into a fledgling business and grew from there. How they dealt with both their challenges and successes gradually built the brands, reputations, and products you recognize today.

Building Brand Power

The makers of Pepsi have always been of the opinion that Pepsi tastes better than Coca-Cola. Back in 1975, they decided to put their money where their mouth was and hold the Pepsi Challenge. They put Pepsi and Coke in plain cups, asked shoppers to take a sip of each, then asked them to choose the best-tasting cola.

The results were exactly what Pepsi wanted them to be: Pepsi won!

So the good news for Pepsi? Over 50% of blind taste testers preferred the taste of Pepsi.

The bad news for Pepsi? Over 50% of shoppers who were not blindfolded still preferred to buy Coke.


Pepsi has repeated this same “we taste better!” campaign several times since 1975 with largely the same results. In fact, a recent taste test showed that 50% of participants preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke, and yet 75% of the same participants said they would still buy Coke before Pepsi.

So when 25% of the people buying Coke prefer the taste of Pepsi, what are they buying when they choose Coca-Cola?

Are they buying function? Values? Style? Image? A feeling? An identity? All of the above?

If you said all of the above (and then some), you are on the right track. Because as much as people will tell you that a brand is nothing more than your logo, a brand is decidedly more than that. Brand loyalty can result in the exact phenomenon that has baffled Pepsi executives for decades: Customers can try a competing product, admit it’s better, but then still walk away loyal to the brand they’ve just claimed is second best.

One reason for this is that the sixteen free employees in your brand pyramid do a lot of work. They connect people to:

  • The foundation and benefits of your brand
  • Your brand emotions and personality
  • Your branded style and image
  • A face they know and can trust

As Coke has learned, defining and maintaining these identifiers will help you create a brand identity that retains customers even in the face of a taste test that doesn’t swing your way. Coke will stay away from the taste tests. Those clearly aren’t Coke’s thing. But that’s okay! Over time, Coca-Cola has found what works for them, and they’re sticking with it.

So should you.

Simple ≠ Unessential

If you own a business, you know that the little things add up. Money adds up. Actions add up. Attitudes definitely add up.

 How many simple things do you or your employees do every day that have far-reaching consequences?

Turning on an oven is simple, but if a baker doesn’t turn the oven on every day there will be no baked goods to sell. Wiping water spots off of silverware at a 5-star restaurant may be simple, but if workers start putting out spotted silverware day-after-day, how long will the restaurant keep its 5-star rating?

Sometimes we spend so much time aiming high that we become blind to the stepping stones beneath our feet that take us to that higher ground. This is what brand is all about: a platform obsessed with the basic stepping stones.

When viewed holistically from afar the pieces disappear into a whole. The larger and stronger the company, the smaller the seams between each branding building block appear. And when the company gets big enough, strong branding appears to be unassailable, seamless, and “too big to fail.”

Simple Steps, Stacked High

The brand pyramid you are about to complete has universal application across industries. It doesn’t matter if you work with services or products, this pyramid applies to you and is a firm foundation for building your brand. The four tiers of your branding pyramid will explore the function and purpose of your business, your values and personality, your visual style, and your logo.

Some people believe that just the top tier—your logo—is your brand. That’s because jargon can easily be confused.

When a rancher brands cattle, for example, their “brand” is literally the mark burned into the animal. So, yes, a physical mark can be a brand, but if you’re branding correctly then that mark means something. Do you think, even centuries ago, that thieves regarded each branded steer equally? Do you think some brands were known for being higher-quality livestock, or that some of the ranchers had reputation of seeking out stolen livestock and getting even?

Even centuries ago, a brand on livestock was not simply a mark. The mark was a signifier of what you were getting (or getting into) when interacting with that brand.

The same story today and hinges on many of the same principles. And it all starts with the function and purpose of your business. Within these four tiers are sixteen components of your brand.

Each of these blocks play a role in communicating what you do, why you do it, and the value you bring to the marketplace.