What is branding?

Get an overview of branding to create engaging customer experience

My favorite way to describe branding: It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it. 

Branding is often misunderstood. Many see it as colors, fonts, and logos, but that is only the visual expression and communication of a product or company. Branding goes much deeper; it represents the soul of a company—its essence. It is the foundation from which many business decisions are made, and it plays a significant role in mergers and acquisitions, corporate cultures, and determining company value. If you observe companies and their deals, many decisions are driven by their corporate vision and brand values.

Although branding is an intangible asset, according to Jan Lindermann in The Economy of Brands, it accounts for 30–80 percent of shareholder value, generates expectations of future financial performance, and positively impacts share price performance.1 Lindermann further explains that “A powerful brand is more likely to attract and retain consumers/customers in the future, and can be leveraged into new channels, geographies, and businesses.”2 Strong brands contribute to consumer quality perception, allowing for organic growth with a lower risk. 

How someone experiences your company is how they are experiencing your brand. Your company’s processes are the brand. How you work is the brand. It’s all part of the company organism. This is why it’s not enough to have an efficient process. You need to have the emotional pull.

Branding and brand personality can be difficult to discuss because they are intangible. To make branding more accessible, we can compare an individual’s personality with a company’s brand personality. 

Before we compare the two, we must shift word usage from calling a business a company to calling it an organization. This way, we are using words that describe organic structures, focused more on the people component rather than the legal entity. The word company does officially include “organization” in its formal definition, so they are equivalent words in that respect as well. 

Then we need to consider the definition of personality to provide a baseline for the analysis: 

Personality: the complex of all the attributes—behavioral (the actions or reactions of a person or animal in response to external or internal stimuli3), temperamental, emotional and mental—that characterize a unique individual.

Using this definition, we could say that if people express their personality (intangible) through their behaviors and actions or action plan (tangible), then you can get to know someone’s personality through your more tangible experience of their behaviors and actions. If we impose that idea on an organization, we could say that an organization expresses its brand personality through its action plan (with the tangible components being operations, products, marketing, and procedures). This leads to a customer experiencing and understanding a company’s personality, or brand, through the customer experience, which includes transactions, activities, and communication through activities.

As we know, everyone has a personality, although they express it differently. Some are gregarious, others shy and withdrawn. And we experience this through their being, words, and actions. The same is true for organizations. All organizations have a brand or personality. A brand may not be emotional or clearly defined and communicated, but every company has one. To say that a company doesn’t have a brand or has a weak brand would be like saying that someone doesn’t have a personality or has a weak personality, which isn’t true and, frankly, is insulting. All customers experience a company’s brand in some way through its activities and communications, just as someone experiences an individual’s personality through their speech and actions. 

How someone experiences a brand in an organization (internal or external) is based on the person’s relationship with the organization. Many communications professionals will separate external and internal brand communication functions. The challenge with that approach is that there isn’t an external and internal brand. It’s all the same brand communicated to different audiences. Typically, external brand communication focuses on customers and outside stakeholders, whereas internal brands often communicate a company’s culture to employees. Some argue that an internal brand communication should be different from an external brand communication. But if employees and customers are part of the same community, as proposed earlier, and the brand reflects the company’s culture (internally or externally), doesn’t it follow that they should share a similar communication approach? 

If an internal brand communicates a different culture than the external brand, then the customer will experience the discrepancy in its interactions with employees. Brands are successful when they are consistently communicated to all audiences. This doesn’t mean that a brand needs to use the same approach speaking to the audiences and stakeholders; in fact, that would be disastrous.

The same values and personality need to exist in the communications to everyone, just expressed differently. If a brand has a separate value system and personality externally than its brand expression internally, that demonstrates a brand conflict. Such a conflict will emerge in all company communications, including phone calls, emails, and more. 

Here’s an example. Let’s say a company communicates internally that it has the best talent and hires the best employees. The company isn’t just lucky to have them; they are making a company that everyone wants to work for and be a part of, and customers are eager to be part of that ecosystem. Then let’s say externally, the company communicates to customers that the company is there to provide them with the best service possible. 

If employees believe, due to the internal messaging, that everyone wants to be customers of that company and is dying to work with them, why would they think that servicing customers matters? It’s not a culture of service. It’s a culture in which employees believe that they are in high demand, so one result may be that their behavior doesn’t matter. They believe that they will achieve the numbers required for the bottom line whether they are customer-focused or not because customers desperately want their solutions. 

However, based on the external marketing messages, the customers believe that the company will serve them and expect the employees to do so. That highlights a conflict in expectations. This conflict will appear in the employees’ attitudes toward the customers and in the communications between the employees and customers.

You could also consider the relationship between brand and internal culture using radical transparency as David Mattin has suggested. In the article, “In 2017, Your Culture Is Your Brand,” Mattin wrote: 

Back when your business was a black box, the brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. You had control over that…Now, thanks to the radical transparency made possible by a connected world, your business is a glass box. People can see all the way inside. And that means that now the brand is everything they see. Every person. Every process. Every value…There’s a single word that sums up what a person sees when they look deep inside your business: they see your culture.5

In many ways, Mattin and I are saying something similar from a slightly different perspective. There is only one brand. It includes what’s inside and outside your company. From his perspective, transparency through the connected world caused your company to become a glass box. From my perspective, automation created a community between employees and customers, in which customers are now an integral part of your company. I disagree with Mattin in that I don’t believe that there is a transparent box around your company, only a thin membrane where customers enter and exit. I’m more aligned with Phil Terry and Mark Hurst in their book, Customers Included, who believe customers need to be at the center of a company’s thinking to serve them and embrace them more fully in their business. I see customers in the middle of that company membrane with your employees, creating an ecosystem.

A company’s brand is intertwined with every process, expressing values that provoke an emotional response by customers. It’s through these processes that a company allows customers to experience a company. As previously stated, although many companies are working on creating corporate customer experiences that reflect the brand and its values, another way for a company to communicate its brand is in how employees communicate with its customers. Although customers and employees are in the same organization community, the customers always maintain their personal brand (personalities) outside of the company. The employees are challenged to maintain their own personal brand and internalize aspects of the organization’s brand to reflect that personality while at work as well. The employees are part of the company community with the customers; however, because the employees are members of and represent the organization, they need to be closely aligned with how the brand is communicated and experienced.

We often underestimate the value of a company’s brand, falsely believing that it is just a company’s look and feel, but the look and feel represent more about what the company is, how it works, and how it engages with customers, employees and other stakeholders. A company is a living thing, mainly because of its employees. And as such, it has a personality, a way of being just a like a person. I guess you could say from that perspective, Mitt Romney was right in that a company is like a person. However, it’s unlike a person because it’s more than a single celled organism. It’s many people who together create an entity. And it’s in that creation that a brand is made, maintained, and evolves. A company is truly its people. And that is especially true of a company’s brand. It’s a reflection of how all stakeholders experience each other based on the values expressed through a company’s mission and vision. A company’s brand and its experiences are really its essence. It’s through this essence, this identity, its intangible asset, that a company maintains its value monetarily.

1 Lindermann, Jan. The Economy of Brands. Palgrave McMillian. 2010. p. 127 

2 Ibid., pp. 125–150. 

3 Definition of behavior (n): Dictionary.com (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/behavioral

4 Definition of personality: Oxford English Dictionary (1989 Edition: https://www.oed.com/oed2/00176234) (Current edition: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/141486?redirec tedFrom=personality&

5 Mattin, David. “In 2017, Your Internal Culture Is Your Brand.” Trendwatching Quarterly. September 2017. (https://trendwatching.com/quarterly/2017-09/ internal-culture-is-your-brand/)  

“Consumers’ quality perception of a brand provides information about a firm’s stock returns quantifies the direct and indirect brand influence on all the factors that determine the share price, such as cash flow, earnings, and share price growth, at around 70 percent.”

—Jan Lindermann, The Economy of Brands, Palgrave McMillian. 2010. p. 151