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There is very little agreement among academics and practitioners regarding what is or is not a brand. Even less regarding what makes for a good one. In the professional world, marketers are often expected to establish and measure them. Without agreement, these tasks are futile. The impact is felt in research as well. Academics study them without a cohesive framework to connect all of their findings. Below, we’ll offer a definition and perspective on what makes a brand good. Too long to read? Brands are relationships and good brands are good relationships.

There isn’t a great definition for brand.

In a 1998 paper in the Journal of Marketing Management, two researchers synthesized all the definitions of brands in the literature up to that point. They reviewed articles in trade and academic journals. Their study revealed there were no fewer than 12 main themes used to define brands. It included legal instrument, logo, company, shorthand, risk reducer, identity system, image in the consumers’ minds, value system, personality, relationship, adding value, and evolving entity. When they interviewed professionals in marketing, they expanded the list to include positioning, vision and goodwill.

So as not to re-invent the wheel, I checked with the American Marketing Association’s online dictionary to see if they offered an official definition. A brand is a “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” They also define 17 brand-ish concepts such as brand image, brand personality and family brand. Their wheel isn’t quite round either.

Marketers vs consumers and the origins of a brand

I’m critical of the current definitions of brand because they are either too lopsided or completely irrelevant. Let’s dismiss the irrelevant ones for now. While names, terms and designs are important, they are really just pieces of a bigger picture. They are ingredients but not the brand itself. It would be akin to saying that flour, sugar and eggs are a cake rather than ingredients. Sorry, AMA.

I gravitate toward definitions that focus on the gestalt. For example, one definition from the study mentioned earlier was that a brand “is the product’s essence, its meaning, and its direction, and it defines its identity in time and space.” I think this definition moves us closer but isn’t quite there yet. It places the control of a brand’s existence in the hands of the marketer. That’s a mistake because the customer validates its existence. Until then, it is aspirational but not real. If a brand falls in the forest and no one is there to buy it, was it really ever a brand at all?

As a psychologist, I find definitions that leverage the customer’s mind to be important as well. Consider this definition where a brand “is nothing more or less than the sum of all the mental connections people have around it.” Here, the definition moves entirely into the psychology of the customer. But this, too, is flawed. It puts the power to define a brand entirely in the hands of the customer leaving the marketer powerless. In consumers’ minds, brands think, feel and behave like people do in a relationship.

We should have 50 words to describe brands

In a conversation with Debbie Millman for her book Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. Malcolm Gladwell said that the term brand suffers from being a convenient word. As a consequence, we use it to describe just about anything related to marketing. We mostly use it to mean product. Gladwell justifiably believed we should abandon the word altogether.

At first, this debate about branding reminded me of a popular story about how many words the Inuit’s had for snow. They have 50 words for the stuff. But they don’t see snow like we see snow. They see the nuances of snow. The 50 words aren’t synonyms, they are 50 distinct types of snow that they recognize. For the Inuit, snow is an important part of culture and life. For the modern marketer, brands are an important part of culture and life. But rather than creating more elaborate terms to define nuances of the brand environment, we left it at one.

More than a product or service

Brands transcend their function as a product and become more meaningful to the consumer. This was the consensus among academics and practitioners alike. Apple isn’t really a technology company. Harley-Davidson isn’t really a motorcycle company. And McDonald’s isn’t really a hamburger company. Loyalists to these brands see them as much more.

Meaningful brands help consumers manage their own identity, their life story or how they make sense of the world. It’s not a function. It’s a part of some bigger meaning. For example, when a new father begins shopping for a family car, his choice of minivan over a sports car demonstrates his commitment to his family. The minivan has become a symbol of fatherhood. Similarly, Apple’s tech becomes a symbol of creativity, Whole Foods becomes a symbol of healthy values and CrossFit becomes a symbol of serious fitness. The research on identity and product ownership supports this suggestion.

A 2005 academic study from the Journal of Consumer Research concluded that these “loved objects serve as indexical mementos of key events or relationships in the life narrative, help resolve identity conflicts, and tend to be tightly embedded in a rich symbolic network of associations.” In other words, our favorite products are symbols of defining moments in our lives. They help us determine who we are and are more meaningful than their benefits suggests.

You are the average of the five friends brands you spend the most time with.

When the product finds its position in the consumer’s life, and the consumer engages that product to define and manage their identity, a brand is created. It’s their relationship that creates a brand, not one or the other. It’s helpful to think of products and brands as being on a scale similar to strangers and friends.

Psychologically, our friends and loved ones become tied up in our idea of who we are. We think of our friends in a Venn-diagram with each of them overlapping our own sense of self. We may feel more like our mother versus our father. Or we may draw on our spouse’s sense of confidence when we need to be brave. Our relationships with brands are similar.

A study from 2012 demonstrated that people include brands in their identity. The degree to which they do is beginning to predict how long and profitable the relationship may be. Brands that help people define themselves – like an American-made brand reinforcing a person’s sense of patriotism – will find themselves in deeper, higher quality relationships with their consumers.

Bring all the brand noise to an end.

A brand is a meaningful relationship, one that transcends the functional, between a consumer and a product or service. A good brand can be measured on a scale of how much the consumer includes the brand in their identity.

So, stop trying to measure one of the 50 different ideas that we use to describe a brand and focus on building a relationship with your consumers instead.

If you want to chat more about how to create a meaningful brand, let us know.