Unpicking brand semantics – a guide


Every discipline has its own vocabulary, but brand consultancy is probably derided more than most for its use of mysterious pseudo-scientific or trademarked terms. Jargon can instil fear in prospects, and does the discipline a huge injustice. I probably shouldn’t adore Jessica Hynes’ performance as Siobhan Sharpe in W1A, but I can sympathise with this layman image of what I myself do. Thank goodness we have Mary Portas on our screens to redress the balance with her no-nonsense good advice.

Most agencies are now over the 1990s trend for scientific-looking models and have moved towards a more humanised approach. There’s more discussion now around ‘narrative’ and ‘storytelling’ rather than brand onions. And more effort to use plain language confidently, rather than dressing it up.

But across the design industry, there is inconsistency in how we use the most basic terms relating to brand identity development. Usage of the words ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ have created a minefield for prospects looking to buy our services. Consider for a moment: if you say “we create brands”, what on earth does that mean?

What’s the problem?

Brand Strategist Peter Mills, founder of Brand Ethos, thinks: “A lot of people talk about brand, but really mean branding”. Jamie Ellul of Supple Studio agrees: “There are a lot of agencies out there spouting the word ‘brand’ willy nilly.”

The point is, that the terms ‘brand’ and ‘branding’ are different, but are very easy to use in place of one another. Matt Baxter of Baxter & Bailey recounts: “Clients and designers say ‘brand’ when they mean ‘logo’ which is, to be fair, its original meaning but certainly not any more.”

Jack Renwick thinks: “There’s a general understanding in the design community but it seems unspoken and undefined.” And freelance designer Adam Mitchinson says: “We devalue ourselves as an industry by not having a common approach to the use of these terms.”

Tim Parry, Head of Communications and Brand at Alzheimer’s Research UK, shares a client’s view: “Design people tend to concentrate on ‘brand’ as visual packaging. Marketing or brand professionals (I hope) would recognise ‘brand’ to be about shaping perception more broadly in a way that touches on all parts of an organisation.”

In a bid to encourage more consistency, I spoke with 28 senior people, all working in branding, as clients, consultants and designers. I wanted to explore the issues and try to find some consensus. First of all, I gave them a list of possible meanings and asked them to select those that they identified with the terms ‘the brand’ and ‘the branding’. The results reveal some of the things we are struggling with.


What do you mean by branding?

80% of those I asked agreed that when they use the phrase ‘the branding’ they mean ‘the design’ or ‘the logo’. Over half would use it to mean ‘the strategy’. Views were much more mixed when asked if they would use the phrase to mean ‘the customer perception’ or ‘the associations’ – definitely some uncertainty here. And while over a quarter felt very strongly that it could mean ‘the whole customer experience’, others would not use it to mean this at all.

What do you mean by brand?

When it came to using the phrase ‘the brand’, the favourite definition was ‘the promise’. They also agreed that it could mean ‘the whole customer experience’. Many would use it to mean ‘the strategy’ or ‘the vision and values’. The majority agreed that it could be used to mean ‘the associations’ and ‘the customer perception’. And, they agreed that it was used to simply mean ‘the product’.

But while over half would use ‘the brand’ to mean ‘the logo’ or ‘the design’, these were the definitions that attracted the most disagreement, with some not using it in this way at all.

chart grey2Finding common ground

There’s a well-worn mantra that “a brand is more than a logo”, but this for me isn’t quite the point. It is more helpful to use different words – such as ‘the brand’ and ‘the branding’ – in the relevant context to mean different things.

Jack Renwick summarised the majority view: “Branding is the visual, verbal, sensory expression of the brand/product/service. Great branding helps create great brands, but only if there’s a great product or service to actually deliver the goods.” Communications Consultant Mark Johnson explains it like this: “Branding is applied. The brand is everything – the essence. The total experience.”

Bob Young, Creative Director at Alphabetical Studio makes an interesting point: “To me the distinction is clear. Before the Airbnb rebrand I loved the brand but hated the branding. It took an agency [DesignStudio] to capture what the brand was about and then express that through their branding. The cross over is where creative thinking and strategy influence not only the look of the brand but the way it behaves – so by working on the branding you could in turn effect the brand.”

The two words inevitably get mixed up, and it can have real consequences. Peter Mills believes that: “Because of this fundamental misunderstanding ‘brand’ stays in marketing and communications teams and not where it should be, which is in the boardroom.” He maintains that: “A purposeful organisation behaves in such a way that is defined by its culture and that is what determines experiences and how people understand and talk about you. ‘Branding’ (rightly) gets a bad name because it is often about unfulfilled promises.”

Developing conventions

As you develop your practice as a consultant and have to describe what you do in proposals and presentations, you start to form your own linguistic conventions. These are inevitably shaped by your client’s language too. We’ve all been in the position of working for a new client and having to learn their unique vocabulary and shorthand terms to communicate effectively.

Tim Parry suggests that: “Whilst common understanding between client and consultant or designer is at the heart of a great job, perhaps defining that lexicon together is part of building that close working relationship.”

Published material helps to put a stake in the ground. Marty Neumeier’s best-selling books The Brand Gap, Zag and The Brand Flip offer accessible introductions to brand thinking. His definition is widely quoted: “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”

Another common quote which captures the imagination comes from Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon: “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.”


So where did I get to?

Definition and clarity is central in my work and for me this issue is like a small stone in my shoe. So if it’s at all helpful, my thinking is this.

The brand’ as a noun, has two meanings:

  1. the lay term referring to the product (“I buy this brand”)
  2. the marketing term referring to customer associations and perceptions and the efforts to shape these (“I love the brand”, “It’s a strong brand”, “We’re working on our brand”)

Branding’ is used in two ways, after all it can be a noun or a verb:

  1. ‘The branding’, as a noun, refers to all the elements that the customer experiences, whether visual or broader, and the efforts to shape these (“We created the branding”, “I love the branding”, “The branding is successful”, “We’re working on our branding”).
  2. ‘Branding’, as a verb, refers to the process of creating a brand strategy and brand identity. (“We’re re-branding”, “We’re going to brand the product”)

But it doesn’t really work as an active verb, particularly when used by a creative agency. Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks, has said: “Authentic brands don’t emerge from advertising agencies. They emanate from everything the company does.” I agree. As a consultant, you can’t ‘brand’ something, it implies a relationship that just isn’t true to how it works. A brand is built from the inside out not simply applied as a wrapper from the outside. You can certainly ‘develop a brand strategy’, ‘design a brand identity’ or a ‘create a brand experience’.

‘Branding’ is also unhelpful in that it relates to a very broad process, from strategy through to implementation, but is frequently used to mean an isolated part.

My rule of thumb is this:

Never refer to a logo as ‘the brand’. And avoid using the word ‘branding’ if an alternative works. Try talking about ‘the brand strategy’, ‘the brand identity’, or ‘the brand experience’ and you’ll be surprised about how much clearer your communication with clients and colleagues becomes.