building a brand

what exactly is a brand?

The word ‘Brand’ has its origins in Old English where it meant two things: 1. A burning piece of wood, or torch, hence ‘Firebrand’; 2. A sword. Both these original meanings hold resonance for how a brand works today, but as time went by, branding came to mean ‘to mark by burning’ as a proof of ownership, usually the branding of cattle with a hot iron.

So up until this day branding at its most basic is the simplest way to differentiate your cow from your neighbour’s. It’s all about identification. Likewise, in a crowded marketplace with many similar products clamouring for your customer’s attention, branding at its most basic is about making your product or your company stand out from the rest.


However, branding a product or a company has to achieve a lot more than simply making it stand out, and herein lies some common misconceptions. While a cattle brand is burned into the hide and is no more than a name tag, a consumer brand has to be etched in the mind, and has to trigger a sale.

Consumer brands really began in the 19th century, in Europe and America, mostly to promote health potions and cure-alls, and other consumables like tea and soap. One of the earliest health tonics to be promoted as a brand is now the world’s most famous and third most valuable brand, Coca Cola, invented in 1886 by a pharmacist called John Pemberton.

In those days and really up until the mid-70s, branding was about communicating product performance. At a time of dubious product quality from quack competitors, the brand stood for consistent high quality and standard pricing. Advertising focused on product performance and benefits only. Branding merely required designing the name and pack to be distinctive, and featuring it regularly in advertising with a catchy slogan.

But today, this performance-based approach to selling doesn’t work any more. In an environment where there is an explosion of choice, and the functional differences between competing products have been narrowed to the point of invisibility, brands provide the only way to create meaningful differentiation.

Think of Apple – they don’t make the best mobile phone, or the best tablet, but people buy their products over competitors because of the brand. Because competitiveness now depends on being able to satisfy not just the functional requirements of customers, but also their more intangible needs. Which means you have to understand not only what your product can DO for your customers, but also what it can MEAN to them.

So nowadays therefore, branding has grown up. Today we mostly take a product’s functional characteristics for granted, and focus more on its intangible benefits. But while branding is still mostly about image building, it is no longer just a product’s image it‘s concerned with – it is OUR image, as well.


The late branding guru Wally Olins said, “Branding these days is mostly about involvement and association – the outward and visible demonstration of private and personal affiliation”. Branding enables us to define ourselves in a kind of shorthand that can be ‘read’ by people around us. Diesel, Adidas, and W Hotels is one lifestyle. Hermes, Ralph Lauren and the Shangri-La is another. We mix and match our brands to enhance and emphasize to the world our own self-perception. Branding is a statement about who we are. In a very real sense therefore, “Brands R Us”.

Because a brand is not the name or the packaging you wrap a product in, or even the product itself. Neither is it the logo and colours a company uses to dress itself up. A brand is a single thought that a product or company evokes in the mind. It’s an enduring image burned into the memory of the consumer. It is the perceived value a product or company represents in the imagination. For Volvo, it is ‘safety’. For Rolex it is ‘status’. For Virgin it is ‘the rebel’.

But now we know more about what a brand is and how it developed, how do they work and what is the psychology behind them? Find out in our next blog post, ‘How do brands work?’.