I’ll let you in on a secret: there’s no such thing as branding. I’m sorry to say you’ve been led to believe a lie. Unless you’re referring to a literal mark on a steer’s hindquarters. That’s definitely a brand.

So, if it’s not real, why have we gotten ourselves all worked up about it? Why are there entire blogs dedicated to critiquing new branding? (if you haven’t seen the Chobani work yet it’s delightful). A quick google search populates your browser with an abundance of articles and imagery screaming BRAND. But it’s really just a distraction.

Branding is a handshake

It’s a promise that what you see is what you will get. When you’re flying down the highway and you see the glow of the golden arches, you have confidence there will be hot, cheap, palatable coffee and perhaps something that will keep your stomach from growling for a while if you use the drive-through. A little Apple on your computer means it was rather expensive, but it works well and is great at protecting your operating system from viruses. Hopefully, the extra expense is worth it, and you knew that before purchasing because it was an Apple product. You’ll be reminded Apple is responsible for all of the good and bad things that happen while you’re using your Mac, and your brain will collect this information and store it for a later time: when you’re considering buying another Apple product. You’re not just buying the computer, you’re buying the experience you had with it and everything that Apple logo represents to you.

Branding is also a signal.

You may be able to recall a time when not absolutely everyone you knew had a small device that could pump their personal music selections. Only the cool kids had iPods. I know I didn’t, and was jealous of my iPod-wielding cousins. There was something else unique about iPods—they came with these slick, bright white “earbuds.” You knew someone was cool just because they had white strings hanging down from their ears, and you wanted to look like that, too. To do so, you needed a specific product. Buy the product, and you too would be cool. Same thing for Jordans or a Louis Vuitton purse, this signals to the people around you your income supports the purchase of luxury items, and that you have enough confidence and self-worth to use them.

But really, branding is a shorthand word for all the emotions and signals and promises related to your product or company. When most people hear the word brand or branding, they think of a logo and some colors. Which is why, on some levels, branding doesn’t exist. A brand is a mix of psychology, design, customer service, quality production, and marketing that meshes together in an unquantifiable way that means something positive or negative for every individual who interacts with it.

When you’re sitting down with a designer what you’re working on, and frankly all marketing efforts, is positioning. What makes you stand out. Why customers should come to you and buy your thing rather than your competitor’s thing. Why you’re cooler or friendlier or healthier or any other –er. Positioning translates that strategy to everything your future customer sees and reads about you.

Branding is a misnomer.

Not a single company has direct control of their brand; lots of money can be spent on a killer logo, the website can work seamlessly, and the Facebook ads can get all the clicks from the funny copy and engaging videos. But if a customer picks up the phone and they receive rude customer service, they’re not going to care if your branding is consistent across all platforms or you always use exactly the same color red. You still have a brand, but every time they see an ad for your company, they’re going to remember the rude phone call and correlate your brand to that bad experience. Not even the best logo in the world can fix that.

So the next time you’re in the market for a new logo, or you think you need to “rebrand,” keep in mind what you’re really working on is your positioning and how you want people to perceive you, and base all decisions from that perspective. How customers actually see you, your brand, is entirely up to them.

Build Your Brand Kit