Defining "Brand" in the Experiential Age

We all know what a brand is, right? Real quick, before you read below—what’s your definition?

It’s a little harder to define than you think. We all have an inkling, an instinctual understanding. But actually defining it is a bit of a challenge.

Oxford Dictionary defines brand in the following manner:

A type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name: 'a new brand of detergent’

This seems limiting and doesn’t really reflect the power and potential of the word.

According to Wikipedia,

“A brand is a name, term, design or other feature that distinguishes one seller's product from those of others.”

This still seems to miss the mark and is way too narrow as well.

Seth Godin came up with a better, more evolved definition back in 2009:

"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. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer."

That feels a lot better. However, that was nearly six years ago. Does it still stand up?

On one hand, yes. He implicitly states the case that a brand is what consumers think and believe, not what the brand believes it is—or wants to believe it is.

But, within this definition, a brand is strictly viewed commercially without any acknowledgement of our multi-device, multi-touch, post-social, Internet-of-things, multi-way-conversation world. It doesn’t address the fact that brands are held to a higher standard than the expectations that originally gave rise to their existence.

That leads to an important question: Is a brand a real, tangible entity that exists outside of the mind of consumers?

Brands are expected to have beliefs, values and stances on important issues. They’re expected to have conversations, promote social good and augment the products or services they offer. And they’re still expected to imply their costs and services, all while conveying trust. Brands are arguably far more than our perceptions.

If that’s the case, then, what is a brand?

Much like a living and breathing organism:

I think that a brand is a set of real and perceived experiences for a product, service, organization and/or combination thereof.

These experiences are intrinsic to the brand itself and give outward meaning to the consumer. They’re a combination of values, beliefs, actions, communications, attributes (physical, digital and mental), shared histories and stories. Each brand has unique limits as well as seen and unseen potential.

As Marty Neumeier puts it in The Brand Gap: “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.” 

And, like us, brands are mortal. A product or service is just a simple, tangible manifestation of the brand and its attributes.

In short: brands have made the jump from the Matrix to the hovercraft, and expectations have changed forever.

As such, brands need to understand their roles and limits. In the world at large. In their product category. In the mental universe they inhabit. It’s not enough to be a logo with a catchphrase. It’s not enough to be a symbol of trust or reliability. Brands are fully integrated into our respective mental universes with implied DNA, meaning and purpose.

This sounds amazing—at least for marketers and corporations—right?

Maybe not. With new powers come new responsibilities and expectations. It’ll be interesting to see if brands and brand marketers can meet the challenges ahead and take advantage of the ultimate brand promise and potential before them.

In a converged physical, digital and mental world, a brand has something that is both amazing and completely terrifying: a chance to have meaning and make a difference—not just a logo.

Written by Brian Easter on April 14, 2015


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Brian Easter