What is Branding? (Updated: May 2019)

What is branding? Because branding is such a misused and misunderstood term, “what is branding?” has become a common question that we answer at Canny.

Alongside “how much is logo design?” and “how much is a website?” – I’d actually say it’s one of our most frequently asked questions, in some form or other at least.

For example, people ask us:

  • What is branding?
  • What does branding mean?
  • How do you define branding?
  • Branding – that’s just your identity isn’t it?
  • Does my business need branding?

There’s a whole range of ways people ask about branding. And it all stems from not understanding what branding is.

We often receive emails and enquiries that say things like “I need a logo, a business card, and a letterhead designed. Guess you could say I need branding!”

Those elements form your brand identity, which is indeed part of your branding. But branding is much deeper than that.

And that’s why we thought writing this post is important.

BusinessDictionary.com explains branding as:

The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers’ mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers.

To me, that branding definition seems a little fluffy. It doesn’t clear a whole lot up, so I’m going to dig into it further.

For a better definition of branding, I much prefer this quote from Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos:

Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

For me, that sums branding up perfectly.

Branding is almost intangible.

You just know it. You can feel it.

To help answer the question “what is branding?” we’re going to look at:

  • What is Branding?
  • Why Do Brands Hire Agencies?
  • An Example of Perfect Branding
  • How Important is Branding?
  • What to do if you can’t afford professional branding

Let’s dive in to the wonderful world of branding, and take a look.

What is Branding?

Branding is not just a logo design. You can’t just design a logo and say “that’s our branding.” It’s factually incorrect.

In fact, even if you combine your logo design, business card, letterhead, and other business stationery design, you still haven’t touched on your company branding.

Your logo design is part of your brand identity – which is a different thing altogether. Your brand identity is the visual representation of your company’s branding.

And that’s only one tiny part of the branding puzzle! We’ll talk more about branding design and brand identity later in the post.

Branding is how people view and perceive your company. It’s also how you as the owner, and your workforce view and perceive the company. It’s your what, your how, and your why.

It’s not the design of your logo, business cards, or website. Again, that’s your brand identity.

It’s about how an audience connects with your company on multiple levels, and through different brand touch points.

A brand can be described as a company, service, product, or person, that has a voice and personality of their own.

A designer can’t “make” a brand. Or design a brand. Designers design a brand identity that reflects a brand.

The branding itself has to come from the company. From their brand strategy.

  • What are some of their core values?
  • What do they stand for?
  • What makes their product unique?
  • What is their unique selling point?
  • Who are their target customers?

Questions like this form the basis of a brand strategy and should be established within the company as early as possible.

A designer or design agency that offer branding services builds the foundation of a brand, or is brought in to enhance the brand’s visual and corporate identity.

A lot of people, including some designers, think that branding a company simply involves designing a handful of visual elements, such as:

  • Logo design
  • Stationery design
  • Colour palette
  • Typography

The sort of things you’d see when looking at or creating a brand guideline.

In reality, branding is a lot more involved than that.

A design or brand agency knits together brand strategy and brand identity. We don’t just produce a variety of pretty designs and call it a branding project.

Professional branding agencies take concepts and ideas from a company’s brand strategy. They then bring them to life in the most appropriate format, sometimes suggesting improvements or refining the original strategy along the way.

A professional design or branding agency creates visual elements that make up the corporate or brand identity of a company, showing what it stands for and highlighting their beliefs.

It’s not just purely a logo design and some colours put together and made to look pretty.

There are some great articles and books available about branding. I’d highly recommend reading Jacob Cass’s article Branding, Identity and Logo Design Explained; in which Jacob does a great job of explaining the difference between the three practices.

If you’re looking for new reading material, check out our list of the best marketing books available today.

The following video is also a great overview of the definition of branding and what branding is all about.

Why do Brands Hire Agencies?

Brands hire agencies that provide branding services to establish or enhance their visual identity and/or brand strategy.

Building a great relationship with a branding agency can help grow your business and brand!

If a company is completely rebranding, the brand handbook can often go out of the window.

However, if you’re working with an established company, design agencies are often expected to work within a set of guidelines. These tend to be based around the company’s brand strategy or existing brand identity.

Good brand identity guidelines describe how a brand’s identity should or shouldn’t be used across a variety of mediums.

Logos are normally shown sitting on appropriate backgrounds, in appropriate colours. Colour palettes are explained in detail, typographical hierarchy is also outlined.

There are a lot of easily accessible brand guidelines, Google is your friend but the Skype brand guidelines are a particularly great example.

Brand guidelines ensure that the identity of a company is preserved and kept coherent no matter which visual device it’s applied to. Depending on the company the brand identity can be made up of multiple devices.

A company such as Nike could commission an agency to create the following elements within their brand identity guidelines;

  • A logo design (the main symbol behind the entire identity and brand)
  • Stationery design (letterheads, business cards, compliment slips etc)
  • Marketing Collateral (Flyers, brochures, books, websites, etc)
  • Products & Packaging (Products sold and the packaging in which they come in)
  • Apparel Design (Tangible clothing items that are worn by employees or sold as part of the brand’s strategy)
  • Retail Design (interior and exterior signage as well as interior design of outlet stores)
  • Email Design (email template design for newsletters, in-house memos etc)
  • TV Advertising (visual style and elements of TV productions and advertising)
  • Other Communication

The items listed above and many more make up your brand identity. But not your brand strategy.

Your logo design is the embodiment of the brand wrapped up into one easily identifiable mark, but always remember, a logo design alone is not a brand. It only represents a brand.

We’ve already written a fair bit of other stuff about logo design. Put simply, a logo design identifies a brand or product in it’s simplest form.

An Example of Perfect Branding

The easiest way to answer the question “What is Branding?” is to give an example of perfect branding.

There are plenty of great examples of branding to choose from. But let’s look at Apple. They’ve nailed everything to do with their branding.

Everything Apple do forms part of their brand, and they do a lot of different things.

For those that don’t know, Apple are one of the world’s biggest technology companies that designs, develops and sells consumer electronics, ranging from laptops to phones to televisions. Apple was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in April 1976.

They are now one of the most famous corporations in the world.

Everything Apple do, is calculated and adds value to their brand communication and identity.

The way they name their products, typeset the names (iPhone, iPod, iMac) through to the clean, functional style of their website adds to the Apple brand.

The Apple brand in simple terms is “brilliant design that works.”

The way Apple deliver their keynote speeches and the accompanying videos on their website shortly before a product launch, are all crystal clear in communication with an air of wonder and excitement built around them.

If somebody blindfolded you and drove you to a mystery location and when you opened your eyes and you saw bright white displays, perfectly shaped computers and gadgetry and shiny work surfaces, you would know that you were in an Apple store.

That’s branding.

Apple’s customers go to them for several reasons, they want the best in modern technology, they want it to look fantastic, and function perfectly.

Even their product boxes open and smell a certain way!

Apple have perfected branding. They’ve taken their branding and expanded it into absolutely everything they do, building their whole company around it.

And that’s absolutely the correct way to handle your branding. It should be ever present. And you should build on top of it.

People have a certain level of expectation from Apple because of their branding, and part of their brand strategy is to over deliver on expectations, each and every time.
How Important is Branding?
If you look at some of the biggest brands in the world, you’ll notice that their branding is well thought out and considered.

Just look at:

  • Amazon
  • Google
  • McDonalds
  • Facebook
  • Walmart

It’s no coincidence that they’re the successful ones. Their business is alive with their branding.

Branding is an important feature of any business and all businesses should consider it as a vital part of their marketing strategy.

In the design industry a lot of people tell clients that they should “look at design as an investment, not an expenditure” and that’s exactly right.

When starting up, a lot of people will think “I’m not spending a huge amount on branding my company, it’s not worth it. I can do it myself for nothing.”

And that is what costs a lot of start-up businesses money.

Ask yourself this:

“Would I fix my own plumbing?” or would you hire a professional to do it for you?

Branding is a professional service, and should be treated as such.

Your brand strategy and brand identity are vital to your company’s success. Why chance it yourself, when you could hire a professional to execute it properly?

What tends to happen is that the companies that have branded professionally from an early stage in their life, go on to realise that their initial investment into their brand has paid dividends in the long run.

We have an article about the cost of branding, just incase you’re not sure if it can work with your budget.

Here’s something else to ask yourself:

If you had a choice of two companies to use, and one had clearly used a professional to develop their brand identity, and the other had used Microsoft Paint to design their brand identity, who would you use?

At the end of the day you don’t want your brand to end up on “Logo Designs Gone Wrong” like the Instituto de Estudos Orientais logo:

One of my favourite things to do on my lunch break is scroll through one of Twitter’s networking hours such as #NorthEastHour and look at user avatars and company websites.

In about 5-10 seconds it’s apparent which companies have used a professional design agency to develop their brand identity, and which have relied on Paint and their “design knowledge” to deliver results.

In an instant, I make a decision about whether I would buy something from the said company.

If their branding looks professional, and their site works, I decide yes.

If the work looks like it’s done by an amateur on a design trip, and their website doesn’t function properly, then I decide against it.

Do you really want to take that chance?

The above is just one example of people making a snap decision based on the way a company brands and presents itself.

There are many instances in which people will make a decision on whether or not use your brand for their particular need.

People choose this based on a number of factors, but branding your business yourself will certainly hurt your chances of success.

But, I Can’t Afford Professional Branding

Can you afford not to have professional branding?

Sure, if you hire an agency that provides branding services, things can get very expensive very quickly.

However, it’s all about your return on investment.

If you invest £10,000 but make £100,000 as a result of branding or rebranding, then the initial expenditure has been worth it.

Surely you would agree?

There are however some simple and low cost ways of making a difference to your brand strategy.

Here are five questions to get you thinking about improving your brand strategy and identity:

1. What Does Your Brand Stand For?

Ask yourself what your brand is all about.

  • What does your brand believe in?
  • What do you want people to think about your brand when they hear your brand name?

The supermarket brand Aldi is all about being a low cost supermarket. Whereas Marks and Spencers’ branding positions them as a supermarket for high end luxury food products, and their food packaging design reflect that.

“Make a list of the differences and the extremes and start with that. A brand that stands for what all brands stand for stands for nothing much.” – Seth Godin

2. What Branded Collateral Already Exists?

Get all of your branded material out, and start to conduct your own brand audit.

Spread your branded collateral around your kitchen table, desk, or floor, and take a good look at it.

  • Do you have a logo that builds on your brand strategy and messaging?
  • Is your brand identity consistent across all of your printed material?
  • Is your contact information up to date on all of your collateral?
  • Are you using the same colours and typefaces across all of your media?

By exploring your brand identity and relating it back to your brand strategy, you can make snap decisions about your brand.

Maybe you’ve missed the mark, or maybe you’re dead on!

Either way, it pays to audit your brand now and again.

3. Are You Using Social Media Correctly?

There are a lot of social media options available to businesses right now. At Canny Creative, we use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Is your brand represented on social networking sites?

Does the visual identity of your brand flow into your web presence too?

It’s best to keep your social media sites similar in style to your printed collateral and your website design.

You also need to think about the language you use, what you talk about and what you share on social media.

Should you really be talking to your friends about the latest football results using your business Twitter profile?

Probably not. We’d advise saving that for your personal Twitter account.

4. Is Your Website Getting Results?

If your website doesn’t look similar to the rest of your branded materials, then it’s time to bring it in line.

You want to make sure your brand identity is featured prominently on your website, this will aid in raising brand awareness.

Think about the way you present your service or product online. Ask your best customers for feedback! Perhaps offer a discount code in exchange for their feedback.

Ask them:

  • How do you perceive our brand based on our website?
  • What would you change about our website?
  • Do you understand our branding and messaging?
  • Is it easy enough to make a purchase?
  • Can you contact us easily?

If the answers don’t sit right with you, it’s probably time to make a few adjustments.

There are lots of questions you can ask your users, but even fixing the most basic of problems will help you along your way.

Take a look at our top website design tips to help grow your business.

5. What Can You Do To Change It?

If you’re unsure about any of the things we’ve talked about above, then I’d advise getting in touch with a professional branding agency to see how they can help you.

A lot agencies will offer a design consultation before starting work on a project.

If you’d rather go at it alone then remember:

  1. Take care of your brand strategy first – don’t dive headfirst into designing things
  2. Simple is better – don’t try and over complicate your identity!
  3. More colours = more cost (when it comes to printing)
  4. Don’t spend all of your time looking at your logo, there’s more to it than that
  5. Make sure it’s flexible enough to be used in multiple places.

Remember, branding is a professional service. You shouldn’t really attempt it on your own.

If you’re unsure on how to proceed, then pick up the phone or drop us an email!

Conclusion: What is Branding?

Branding is the life and soul of your company. Your what, how, and why. It’s what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.

Combine these elements together with your brand identity design, and that’s branding.
I think one of the best definitions of brand I’ve seen is from the Tronvig Group;

“Branding is What sticks in your mind associated with a product, service, or organization — whether or not, at that particular moment, you bought or did not buy.”

Combine that with Jeff Bezos’ quote from earlier, and that’s branding summed up perfectly.

It’s the way your brand sticks in people’s minds, and, in that instance, convinces them to buy or not to buy what you’re selling.

However, branding isn’t always about convincing people to buy, it all comes back to your brand’s strategy and goals.

Sometimes it’s about creating brand loyalty, raising money for charity, convincing them to use your service, read your books, hire you for a job, and so on. Branding can be used for many different things.

Many people work on building personal branding too.

Look at Gary Vaynerchuk – one of the world’s first celebrity entrepreneurs.

He made his money through entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship alone. Rather than making it through sports or media and then transitioning into a business leader.

To summarise; branding is not logo design. It’s not just about the visual elements of your brand.

It’s what your brand believes in and how you represent that.

It’s all about invoking an emotional response from your customers or clients. Making them think what you want them to think as soon as they hear your brand name.

Branding is how you and your company are perceived.

What does branding mean to you? Share your thoughts, success stories, and even failures in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you.

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