What Does Branding Mean Today?

The evolution—and unchanging truth—of occupying the hearts and minds of your audiences

Ask 10 people what they think branding is and you may get 10 different answers. The meaning of “branding” has continuously evolved throughout its history, and while it’s more ubiquitous than ever, it’s still perceived in a wide variety of ways and not well-understood by many.

There may never be a conclusive and universally held definition of branding. But what we can do is shine some light on its origins, how it became an idea carrying considerable value to marketers, what it isn’t, as well as facets through which you can understand and apply it nowadays.

In the beginning

The original purpose behind the concept of “branding” is found literally in the word itself. The word “brand” has its roots in the ancient Norse word “brandr,” which means “fire.” When farmers and herders needed a way to distinguish their livestock from those of others, each created a unique symbol that was burned or “branded” into the hides of their animals to convey separate ownership (possibly the very first logos). Naturally, this highly practical idea of using a graphic mark to communicate differentiation soon spread to goods and products, and their packaging.

A social statement

As manufacturing processes became more efficient and sophisticated in the late 1800s, with similar products competing for the attention of consumers, smart tradesmen differentiated themselves from competitors by appealing to the social aspirations of audiences rather than focusing on the practical aspects of their goods. A growing middle class with disposable income increasingly wanted to project a lifestyle of comfort and discriminating taste so companies began to incorporate imagery and messaging in their advertising and packaging that spoke to these desires. If you weren’t a member of the leisure class, then you could at least emulate or share a part of that lifestyle with products that brought you that emotional experience through branding.

Projecting your persona

Throughout the 20thcentury, the concept of branding as simply a signifier of differentiation or social aspirations became increasingly fragmented into statements of other personal values and principles. Now there were “smart” brands, “cool” brands, “rugged” brands, “fun” brands, and so on. They became messengers for your persona and world view. In fact, in recent years, the concept of branding has now extended to persons themselves. Celebrities, political figures, and entertainers often have their own brand platform that is independent of any physical product. Younger millennials and Gen Z often refer to their “personal brand” in much the same way as Gen X and baby boomers refer to their beliefs and values.

Authenticity rules

Until the early 2000s, marketers generally had complete control over how their brands were presented to and perceived by audiences. However, with the explosive growth and widespread reach and influence of the web and especially social media, consumers realized that they had a major voice in shaping a brand. Today, any claim by a marketer can be quickly put to the test to see if it holds true in actual user experiences, with the verdict then shared instantly with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of prospects. Consumers demand authenticity and expect to have the opportunity to support or call out brands. 

Sophisticated marketers accept this paradigm shift—in fact, they welcome customer input and see value in incorporating customer content into their brand communications (perhaps no one does this better than GoPro). They understand the role their customers can have in growing their brand and not only provide channels for feedback and content sharing but also celebrate and support the causes they and their customers believe in. 

What branding isn’t

While the scope of branding has clearly evolved since its early days, there is one thing about it that hasn’t changed. While it may seem counterintuitive, the one thing that branding is not defined by is the function of the actual product it is tied to. A car is a product that gets you from point A to point B; a car brand is a statement about the driver. A Jeep and a Land Rover perform the same function, but the person behind the wheel of each will have very different personas. And the values of each of those individuals will probably also be reflected in brand preferences in clothing, home furnishings, health and beauty items, dining options, etc. Above all, a brand is about the purchaser—not the product.

Finding the meaning of your brand

So what should your brand stand for? It takes work—talking directly to customers, prospects, employees, organizational stakeholders—to get to the essential truths and most meaningful perceptions of your product that will form the foundation for your brand. And it will take additional work with creative and communications professionals to find the best way to express it so that your audiences can see how it naturally fits into their value system or lifestyle. 

However, establishing a fertile brand relationship doesn’t have to be within an all-or-nothing platform. A successful brand can resonate deeply with people in different ways. Some people find themselves in certain aspects of a brand while some have an emotional connection from other perspectives. The most successful brands today increase their trust and depth of engagement on whatever terms customers have shown to be most meaningful to them. Rather than worrying about setting rigid rules and parameters around brand engagement, you can find greater success if you allow your customers to help define them for you—and then build your brand strategy around that.