“A brand shapes their brand through their brand.”

Ok, I hold my hands up, I’m being disingenuous – of course no-one has actually said this (to my knowledge). However, this simple, yet utterly ridiculous, sentence is intended to highlight how those who work with brand professionally may use the term ‘brand’ to refer to various different entities. As a brand strategist, part of my role is to create clarity, so by reflecting on our uses of the term, might we remove some confusion and complexity?

Let’s start by expanding on that opening sentence; a brand (business/organisation/person) shapes their brand (meaning/experience) through their brand (communication/assets). In different instances we refer to ‘brand’ as: the business itself; the people within the business; the meaning, associations, and experiences people have that are related to that business; the various communicative elements and assets of that business. (When I say business I refer to any organisation, even though it isn’t necessarily always a business).

As brand practitioners, we decipher the particular intended meaning of ‘brand’ by understanding the context in which the term is used – even when it is used to mean different things within the same phrase or sentence. But by using the term to represent the business/people, the meaning/experience, and the communication/assets, it is simultaneously the communicator, the communication, and the communicated (or more accurately what is understood by the communication). We are referring to ‘brand’ as the entity that decides and creates direction, and the meaning created in the minds of the audience, and also what is used to communicate to the audience. Is it any wonder that people who don’t work with brand on a daily basis are utterly baffled.

Let’s interrogate this a little further – essentially the main issue here is that the term ‘brand’ is being used both for the creator and the created.

Brand – the creator

This version of ‘brand’ is often really shorthand for business. We regularly see statements like: 'Brands need to care a lot more about customer service'; 'All brands think customers care way more about them than they do'. There are two problems here: the first is brand being used, when what is really being referred to is the business. The second, and possibly greater, problem is that we are affording the brand (or business) the power of thought and of having agency. Businesses don’t ‘think’ or ‘care’ – what is actually being referred to here is the people within the business. By this use of brand we are really referring to the people (often employees, management, or partners) who are working to shape the experience people have of a business.

Brand – the created

This version of ‘brand’ is really describing either the outputs and/or the outcomes – the assets created or the meanings encouraged. Even within brand as the created, there is a paradox. On the one hand there’s ‘brand’ as a controllable communication device structured around a suite of ownable, protectable, and (ideally) distinctive assets. On the other, we have ‘brand’ that’s shaped in people’s minds and is a product of multiple interactions and associations. The brand assets are created by branding professionals, and the shared meaning of the brand is continually created and recreated through an ongoing negotiation between sender and receiver. Whether it is the identity or the meaning, both are created, and neither have agency.

Clarity avoids confusion

In my professional experience, the biggest issue when working with others is the times there is a lack of agreed definitions. Words such as brand, strategy and identity have a multitude of meanings and definitions; so when they are used in conversation with others there is always the chance that their definition differs to ours. I’ve learnt the hard way that many hours (and days) can be lost on a project simply by there being a lack of clarity on what everyone in the room means or understands by a key term, such as brand.

This issue can be relatively easily resolved by agreeing in advance with others what is meant by key terms. The bigger problem is that we don’t seem to be able to agree with ourselves as to what we mean by ‘brand’. By using the term to simultaneously be the communicator, the communication, and the communicated – to be both the creator and the created – we are making a complex area indecipherable to most, when we should be creating clarity.

So where do we go from here?

We will never reach one agreed industry definition of the term brand, and I’ve come to take the view that we shouldn’t. But, even though there might be multiple definitions, we should each strive to ensure that we’re clear on what the word means when we are using it. For myself, I try to avoid using brand to reference what is essentially the business, or the people within or working for it. The brand is not the business; the two are inextricably linked yes, but the brand is not the creator, it's the created (or more accurately the continually co-created, as your brand is what people agree it is).

We perpetually work to shape a brand. A brand is shaped through the accumulation of a series of moments that people remember and associate with one another (maybe more on Associated Memorable Moments another time), and by which we aim to encourage desired reactions and actions. A brand is a dynamic object that continually develops through time from the relations of multiple agents, ideas and things. A brand is created (and recreated), it isn’t creator.

But this is just my view. You will have yours and I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. But, however you define and use the term ‘brand’, we must ensure we always keep it clear and be consistent.