Language is supposed to illuminate meaning, but it doesn’t always work that way. As usage evolves, definitions become unmoored, and different people start using the same word to mean entirely different things.
I think “brand” is one of those words that is widely used but unevenly understood. What does “brand” mean, and how has the word’s application changed over time?
The first definition of “brand” is the name given to a product or service from a specific source. Used in this sense, “brand” is similar to the current meaning of the word “trademark.”
More than a century ago, cattle ranchers used branding irons to indicate which animals were theirs. As the cattle moved across the plains on their way to Chicago slaughter houses, it was easy to determine which ranches they were from because each head of cattle was branded.
With the rise of packaged goods in the 19th century, producers put their mark on a widening array of products—cough drops, flour, sugar, beer—to indicate their source. In the late 1880s, for example, as the Coca-Cola Company was getting started, there were many soda producers in every market. Before Coca-Cola could get a customer to reach for a Coke, it needed to be sure the customer could distinguish a Coke from all the other fizzy caramel-colored beverages out there.
In the first sense of the word, then, a brand is simply the non-generic name for a product that tells us the source of the product. A Coke is a fizzy caramel-colored soda concocted by those folks in Atlanta.
In earlier times, we referred to these non-generic names as “brand names.” When Baby Boomers like me were growing up, marketers might have said that Proctor & Gamble sold a laundry detergent under the brand name Tide. Nowadays, people would simply say P&G sells the Tide brand of laundry detergent. Problem is, the shorthand suggests there’s no difference between a brand name and a brand. But, in contemporary marketing, there is.
Beginning in the later part of the 20th century, marketers began to grasp there was more to the perception of distinctive products and services than their names—something David Ogilvy described as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.” Marketers realized that they could create a specific perception in customers’ minds concerning the qualities and attributes of each non-generic product or service. They took to calling this perception “the brand.”
Put simply, your “brand” is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name. It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic). Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it. It’s fixed. But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.
In fact, one of the ways we sometimes see that a brand is growing stronger is when its customers start referring to it by something different from its brand name. Think “FedEx” or “Tar-jé.” This only happens when customers feel enough of a relationship with a product to bestow it with a nickname—which, in the cases I just mentioned, happily reinforce the brand attributes Federal Express and Target seek to promote: speed and efficiency for the former and affordable chic for the latter. But sometimes, customer perceptions can be a headache for brand managers. Natural and organic food retailer Whole Foods Market has been struggling for years to shed the moniker “Whole Paycheck,” which captures public perceptions of what it costs to shop in the store.
From now on, I’ll use “brand name” to refer to the name signifying the source of a product or service, and “brand” to refer to the perception customers have about that product or service.