What is a Brand?

Cow Photo by Joe Leahy on Unsplash

There’s a lot of talk about a company and its “brand” these days, and lots of money being spent trying to do what people call “branding.” One recent article pointed out that all marketing, especially advertising, works to enhance or modify brand image.

But, what is “brand” in the case of a manufacturer? Is the manufacturer’s brand what drives sales and specifications, or do other factors like the power of the specification itself drive the image?

While quality manufacturer brands are the basis of every architect’s portfolio, some have attained a higher preference over others. How does this preference happen? What causes one brand to be preferred over another in the mind of an architect?

A Brand is Intangible

A brand is intangible, just like your essence (who you are) is intangible. Sure, you have a body that does things. But you, your essence, where is that?

Who are you? Are you your work? Are you what you eat? Are you what you do? Are you the love you feel for your family?

Just as the definition of “you” includes all of these things, brand is everything around a company.

The American West is as good as any place to explain the concept of brand.

A rancher branded his cattle with his mark (brand image). Along with being a means of finding cattle that strayed from the herd, that mark was assurance to people who bought his cattle of a specific degree of quality. Some buyers paid more money for specific brands of cattle.

So while all cattle ranchers sold cattle, some ranchers obtained a premium for their beef, and it was the brand that identified one head of cattle from another. The “Lazy Y” might bring a better price per head than the “Circle W.”

In other words, “cattle” was a commodity product. A “brand” differentiated one group of cattle from another.

All the buyer knew is that it wasn’t just beef anymore if he bought the Lazy Y — it was “the Lazy Y cattle” — confidence in the quality of the beef, assured delivery, and the commitment of the rancher himself of that quality.

The cattle became more than cattle: they became an extension of the rancher.

While you could argue about how “complex” the issue of brand is, what the buyer was really buying was the brand — not the beef. And that, essentially, is what the architect is specifying: the brand, not the faucet, or the window, or the furnace.

Steve Bryant writes a nice piece on brand called, “You don’t get it. You aren’t the point,” that argues that a brand does not begin with the audience in mind. Rather, it begins as an idea about itself (the product) and then tries to sell that idea to an audience (the market). This is why it’s called “product-market fit.” And this usually works when there is an audience that knows it needs that product. But when the market is flooded with commodity products (and what market isn’t), then such a strategy simply doesn’t work. Bryant points out: “A brand wants people to aspire to its product. To a brand, their product is the customer’s goal. But people don’t aspire to products. People aspire to feelings that products give them. This is true for everything from candy bars to sports cars to cloud-based document storage solutions.”

And it’s true of what the architect specifies: the brand, not the product.

Brand is Everything

Architects are like ranchers when it comes to managing  brands that they specify. While the architect may specify a variety of different manufacturers’ brands (beef), it’s the firm’s name on the door that owner hires — not the manufacturer(s). The architectural firm itself becomes the “brand” and the assurance that the products in that specification offer quality and reliability.

You can see how complex the specification process is.

As much as a manufacturer does to support his brand in a marketplace, the bulk of brand building lies in the specifications of the architect — something the major brands have realized for many years (and why they aim at influencing the architect).

Any of the well-known brands have always begun their path to specification by building brand strength through the  architects, the engineers, the contractors and the building owners. Those were the audiences. And what drove those specifications was the brand image of the manufacturer’s products — something that was intangible.

Fortunately or unfortunately, no matter what a manufacturer does to enhance or harm his brand, it’s the architect who determines to a large extent its eventual success (or one of those other audiences). Ignoring the installed base for a moment, one might argue that there is no product that can enter the construction marketplace without first entering the specification.

A Brand Generates Energy

A brand is the emotional source of an organization — its very soul. People are guided and inspired by it, and that makes defining it extremely difficult if not impossible. The only rule in figuring out brand is this: Beware of concise definitions. There are none because brands, like people, are complex.

In your company, it’s all of your company’s actions — answering the phones, fulfilling orders, communications, customer service calls, operations practices and employee interactions. Your brand is all that you do and do not do. You help define your brand by “opting out” of specific behaviors.

When you decide to do or not do something a specific way, you send a message. That message contributes to the formulation of your brand in a person’s minds.

Energy is the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity. Merriam Webster says energy is “a fundamental entity of nature that is transferred between parts of a system in the production of physical change within the system and usually regarded as the capacity for doing work.”

Energy excites. And so do certain brands.

Who are You?

Think for a moment about who you are, and how people perceive you as a person. You have a certain image (a wild, crazy guy, perhaps, or a no-nonsense workaholic). Your personality is your brand; people who know you count on you to act in a certain way and to do certain things.

Some people call certain people because they get a “lift” from talking to them. Other people avoid calling certain people because their energy is, well, negative. In all these cases you’re talking about feelings, the intangible.

But those feelings are always about the person experiencing the brand, what the brand brings out of that person, and not the brand itself.

The brand — any brand — is simply a catalyst for a feeling.

Just as you either know a person or you don’t, either you know a brand, or you don’t. And just as you can never know another person, you can never really know a brand.

A brand isn’t about the brand…it’s about your “feelings” for that brand.

One of the consistent findings in our research is how much of a gap exists between what manufacturers think about their products and what the marketplace thinks about those same products. There is rarely a one-to-one match in these perceptions, because it’s not about the products: it’s about the brand ultimately, and for some reason, manufacturers can’t get beyond the product.

But when they do come close to matching, the manufacturer has poured millions of dollars into shaping those perceptions into a single “brand image” by weaving stories about the brand. Think of any of the brands in any category. Those brands are in the specification as brands of products, not just products. When there are no brands in the specification for a product that’s needed, it’s called a generic specification. Anyone’s cattle will do.

Perception is the Key

Everything we think we know about a brand was created through our five senses. In fact, everything we think we know about anything comes through these senses.

Therefore, perceptions of things and people are also formed through these channels.

Perceptions drive actions, and people define themselves through their actions.

Therefore, by studying  actions, you can define the person, the company, the brand.

Brand image and reputation are created through the action of specification.

Specifications come from perceptions of the brand, which came through the five senses.

What does that mean?

It means representatives calling on those audiences you want to influence. It means pouring out content (advertising or other tactics) into those audiences. It means telling stories about how products perform. It means everything about a company and how it projects itself through its actions into those audiences.

The dirty little secret about a brand is that the audience creates the brand, not the manufacturer. It’s always been about the audience, not the brand. Just as people gave the “Lazy Y” more meaning as a preferred brand by buying it, audiences like architects give meaning to brands by specifying them. Or not.

Behavior is Brand

Customers who know you expect certain behaviors from you, and that becomes your “brand.” Others you don’t do business with are unfamiliar with your behavior and, therefore, your “brand.” They must learn about you.

Learning about you used to be easier. Companies would run advertising and communicate to their audiences to build their brand.

Today, there are websites. Social Media. Word of Mouth. Networking. Rumor and truth often get mixed up.

But, within this complexity lies the power of a brand: The more people understand what to expect from your business or product, the easier it is to do business or specify a product.

Expectation of a behavior is really what branding is all about.

When you deliver what is expected, you contribute to building a “good” brand. When you do not, you contribute to building a “bad” brand.

Brands can be good or bad, and they change all the time.

A brand isn’t a logo or a letterhead; those are representations of something more than themselves.

Take the word “Marlboro.” It used to conjure up a vision of a cowboy instead of a cigarette — it’s a representation of something other than the product. Today, it fades alongside the shiny new things. There was a time when the word “Marlboro” meant “Cowboy.” “Rugged.”

That’s not true anymore.

Because the real secret about your brand is this: it’s not what you think it is. It’s what your customer thinks it is. You can believe anything you want about you and your company, but unless your customers believe it, it’s simply not true.

Perception becomes reality.

That’s why “basis of design” becomes so important, something that shapes such perceptions and, therefore, reality.

For a manufacturer, remember your markets are changing almost daily. To compete successfully, you must create a brand that is recognized, trusted and means quality to your architectural specifiers. Your architects remain loyal to you and your products because you behave the way they want, expect and count on.

For the architect who operates in those changing markets, his or her perceptions are shaped by the products they specify, by the owners they serve, by everything around them. As “managers” of brands, your own brand goes “on the line” with every specification you write.

To compete successfully, remember that it’s not about you: it’s about them, and what they think about you. And that’s why there is a whole industry that emerged around “crisis management.” When something happens to a brand, there’s a crisis. The crisis is about the faith in the brand, and any incident can harms the brand’s image.

Our sister company’s blog — Brands in Crisis — is a discussion about how a brand gains its power from people who embrace it – and from its brand proposition. It supplements this discussion and might interest you.

Please let us know what you think! Thanks for reading our analysis.