What is a brand?

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There’s so much confusion surrounding what is meant by the term ‘brand’ so I thought it was about time to set the record straight by clearly defining what a brand is and what a brand isn’t.

The definition of brand

According to Wikipedia the practice of branding is thought to have begun with the ancient Egyptians, who were known to have engaged in livestock branding as early as 2,700 BCE. Branding was used to differentiate one person's cattle from another's by means of a distinctive symbol burned into the animal's skin with a hot branding iron.

Fast forward to today and the basic meaning of how branding differentiates one thing from another hasn’t changed all that much. It’s now expanded to include marketing and communication methods that help to distinguish a company or products from competitors, aiming to create a lasting impression in the minds of customers.

Branding is intangible, it’s not something you can reach out and touch. It’s purely a perception surrounding a company, product or service.

Branding expert Marty Neumeier says it better than anyone else:

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.”

It’s a gut feeling because we’re emotional, intuitive beings despite our best efforts to be rational.

It’s also a gut feeling because brands are defined by individuals, not companies, markets or the so called general public.

Each person creates his or her own version of it. While companies can’t control this process, they can influence it by communicating the qualities that make one service different from another.

When enough people arrive at the same gut feeling, a company can be said to have a brand.

What a brand isn’t

First, a brand is not a logo.

The term logo is short for logotype, which is design-speak for a trademark name from a custom-lettered word, symbol, monogram, emblem or other graphic device. For example IBM use a monogram, Nike uses symbol and Coca-Cola use a custom-lettered word.

What really matters here is that a logo, or any other kind of trademark, is not the brand itself. It’s just one visual expression of the brand and merely a symbol for it. This is why so many people get it wrong and mistake it for the brand itself.

Second, a brand is not a corporate identity system.

An identity system is a tool to control how trademarks are used in company publications, advertisements, stationery, vehicles, signage and so on.

They first appeared 50 years ago to bring visual consistency, but this alone does not create a brand.


A brand is not a product.

Marketing people often talk about managing their brands, but what they usually mean is managing their products. Managing a brand is actually something much less tangible, it’s an invisible layer of meaning that surrounds the product or service.

The fundamental elements that make up a brand include; company culture, brand personality, brand name and tagline, brand architecture, brand voice and messaging, brand identity and brand website. Each of these is a touch point where someone experiences the brand and is how brand awareness is formed.

Company culture

When a company has a great culture it’s usually because it’s founded on the brand’s clearly defined and articulated core values. The core values define why the company exists, who they are, what they stand for and who they champion. When everyone in the company understands this at the deepest level they’re more likely to be become brand ambassadors, engaging with the world and driving the company forwards.

Brand personality

Brand personality is a set of human characteristics that are attributed to a brand name. It’s also what makes one brand different from another and when communicated consistently increases the brand equity along with value of the firm. A strong and clear brand personality allows a brand to stand out from competing brands.

Brand name and tagline

A lot of effort and thought goes into creating a brand’s name and tagline. This usually involves in-depth market research, brainstorming, refinement and testing. When you have a strong name for your practice it differentiates you from your competitors and sets the tone for everything else that follows. The tagline should be rich in meaning and clearly convey the unique strengths of your practice.

Brand architecture

Brand architecture is a system that organises your brand and architectural services to help your clients relate to your brand more easily. A successful brand architecture makes it easier for your clients to form opinions and preferences for one service against another.

You might think that your firm is too small to have a brand architecture. But the truth is by better organising your offerings an effective brand architecture can enable you to;

  • Target the needs of specific clients

  • Reduce marketing costs

  • Clarify your brand positioning

  • Streamline naming and messaging

  • Increase stakeholder confidence

  • Improve client awareness of your offers

  • Build and protect brand equity

Brand voice and messaging

Brand voice and messaging convey purpose, promise and personality giving your brand an easy to identify uniqueness. Consistency is everything in all areas of branding making it stronger and more memorable in the minds of your client. This means keeping to a single narrative that communicates clearly what you stand for in a way your clients recognise.

Brand identity

Building a brand identity is a multi-disciplinary strategic effort, and every elements needs to align with the brands personality, supporting the overall message and business objectives.

Your logo forms just one part of your firms brand identity, which also includes other visible elements such as colour, typography, iconography, photography, design and language. Above all it should convey your brands authenticity and defining characteristics that make it unique and memorable in your clients minds.

Brand website

The importance of a well considered and thoughtfully branded website can never be understated. It’s the single most important point of contact you’ll have with potential new clients, so it must be in complete alignment with your brand at every single level. It should convey your brands personality through the way you talk and the way you look, both in way that’s consistent and impactful.

What is branding?

Now we have a clearer understanding of what a brand is it’s time to dig a little deeper and define exactly what ‘branding’ is.

The way a brand is emotionally and visually expressed is through branding which in turn creates brand awareness. This alone gives branding the power to control perceptions and perceptions can be shaped. Psychology has shown that even perceptions we’re completely unaware of can profoundly influence and bias us towards how we act and behave. It’s this perception of your brand that ultimately determines how successful it is.

I hope by now I’ve begun to convince of one simple fact, branding has the ability to shape reality. As far fetched as this might sound right now, it’s a simple truth made evident by the vast sums of money Apple and other large corporations spend on branding every year.

Why should you invest in branding?

Beyond a strong brands ability to make marketing budgets work harder for you, it can be one of your firms most valuable assets.

It’s the asset that dictates the perception of your clients, your prospects and your employees. It’s also an asset you can mould to influence client behaviour that can ultimately make or break your business.

The biggest mistake any practice owner could make is looking at branding as another cost against a marketing budget, when it should be treated as an investment. When carefully curated and nurtured it has the potential to yield exponential returns throughout the life of your business.

A well-positioned brand grows your brand equity, and solidifies your authority as preeminent architects. It’s a long-term investment with exponential returns that include:

  • Attracting more high paying clients and working on fun and fulfilling projects

  • Being seen by your clients as the preeminent experts

  • Rendering your competition irrelevant

Closing thoughts

“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”

– Seth Godin

Is it time for a rebrand?

The answer to this isn’t always obvious, so we’ve put together a list of symptoms that are common to architectural firms who need a rebrand. Go through this simple checklist now and check off all of those that apply, then on the next page discover the answer.

Which of these apply to you?

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brandingBrian Terry