Raise your hand if you’ve ever said any of the following:
“That’s not on brand.”
“We’re really investing in our brand right now.”
“Social is a big part of our brand.”
Great. Now sit down, because we need to have a conversation about the word brand.
In my previous life as a software product consultant, I worked closely with CTOs and CIOs. They talked about brand casually, in the context of an overall vision that everything needed to serve. Sometimes it was a synonym for identity, other times it meant strategy, but most of the time our biggest concern was the product itself.
These days I’m a marketing strategist, and I collaborate with CMOs and innovation leads. We go deep on brand strategy, expanding the conversation to cover every touchpoint people might have with a business. The word brand pops up about five times per hour, and for good reason: a strong brand is the foundation of effective marketing.
But what I’ve come to realize is that in any aspect of business, we need to be precise with the language that shapes our frameworks and mental models. The problem with brand is that it can easily become shorthand for, well, everything. That’s not just annoying and distracting (although it is those things, too). It’s downright dangerous, because you run the risk of creating confusion where clarity is needed most.
Here’s a candid guide to using the most overused word in business.
Strategy isn’t an abstract concept. It’s a roadmap to meeting your goals. It involves making decisions, taking action, and adjusting the plan as you discover what works and what doesn’t. Brand strategy is how you determine people’s perception of your brand. This means defining your positioning, voice, vision, mission, and purpose. Together, these definitions provide guardrails for the rest of your marketing decisions. That’s what “on brand” and “off brand” really mean: Either “this aligns with our brand strategy” or “this doesn’t align with our brand strategy.”
Brand identity is the creative expression of your brand: Think logo marks, color palettes, fonts and typefaces, taglines, and so on. These are the things that embody your brand in the real world, build emotional resonance, and allow you to validate different aspects of brand strategy. Working with a graphic designer to come up with a new look and feel for your website isn’t “growing your brand.” It’s defining your brand identity, which is an important thing to do.
The purpose of brand marketing is to create lasting awareness of your brand in the marketplace. For example, Nike’s brand marketing promotes the “Just Do It” concept. As you move down the funnel, focus shifts to promoting actual products: it’s less high-level and more granular. At that point, it’s no longer brand marketing, it’s simply marketing.
Brand marketing is a craft. It requires understanding how to connect with people in complex ways, and how to sustain that connection. It’s a lot more than telling customers that you’re running a 30% off sale.
Brand can be a synonym for business—but not always, so proceed with caution. Many brands are businesses. Not every business is a brand. What’s the difference? A business is an organization that operates within the parameters of a given industry. It has a transactional purpose: The bodega on my block is a business that provides snacks and household essentials to people in my neighborhood. That doesn’t make it a brand.
A brand exists beyond transactions. It may even transcend its industry or customer base. You can engage with a brand without buying anything; to return to Nike’s example, 117 million people have watched the "Never Too Far Down” ad on YouTube, and not all of them are Nike customers. The distinction between Nike’s brand and Nike’s business may be a fine one, but for marketers, it’s critical to understand.
So, before you use the word brand, ask yourself what you really mean, and then… say that. And if you aren’t using “brand” in one of the above contexts, pick another word. Don’t tell me you want to “build the brand” when what you mean is you want to increase your revenues. Don’t tell me that “brand is so important to invest in,” because I will nod and smile but truly have no idea what you’re talking about. Don’t tell me that you’re hosting a meeting to discuss “brand challenges.” And if you want to pitch a “brand activation,” I’m going to need a lot more details.
What can I say? Strong opinions are kind of my brand.