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What is the purpose of branding?

By: Chris Goward Last updated: August 27th, 2020 8 min. read

Marketers are a confused bunch.

In what other industry do professionals disagree so vehemently about the basic goal of their work?

Do engineers debate whether their buildings should stand up or fall down?

Do accountants wring their hands over whether their beans should add up?

Do teachers wonder whether it’s important for their students to learn stuff?


But ask 12 marketers what the goal of their job is and you’ll get 13 answers.

In this article, I’d like to define a ‘purpose of branding’ that all marketers can actually use.

There are generally two types of marketers…

In many organizations, there is a conflict between data-driven marketers and inspiration-driven marketers. They sit in different camps:

  • the Analysts versus the Designers,
  • the Response marketers versus the Brand marketers,
  • and even the Paid Search versus Organic Search practitioners.

These divisions lead to misunderstandings about the role of branding itself: Response marketers are frustrated when Brand marketers create brand rules, codified in brand standards or brand guidelines or even “Brand Bible” documents when they’re based on aesthetics alone.

On the other hand, Brand marketers are disgusted by the ‘ugly’ campaigns Response marketers create to drive sales.

But really, these two sides represent complementary components. They are the yin and yang of marketing: neither is better than the other and both are necessary to create a brand that delivers results.

Yin and yang of marketing

The Zen Marketer’s approach to branding

Zen marketing recognizes that there is an intuitive, qualitative, inspired, exploratory side to marketing that imagines potential insights, as well as a quantitative, logical, data-driven, validating side that proves whether the insights really work.

The best marketers embrace this dichotomy and get the best results. They follow the inspiration, and prove whether it works; they have a rigorous process and allow themselves some flexibility for lateral thinking.

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The path to zen branding

The purpose of your brand is to cause an effect.

It needs to stand for something different and singular. Something focused, memorable, meaningful, and valuable enough to cause emotion and, ultimately action.

Further reading: Is your brand hitting the mark? Do your marketing experiences resonate with your shoppers’ core motivators? Discover how to optimize your marketing for emotional relevance in this recent blog post.


So, how do you apply zen marketing principles to your brand?

First, you need to believe that your brand needs to create action. It exists to sell products and/or services. If it doesn’t, it won’t exist for long. Somebody has to pay the bills, right?

When making your brand decisions, the goals for your brand should flow from your business goals, as shown in the goals waterfall diagram. Then, by setting relevant conversion goals, the results of your conversion optimization activities will inform your brand.

branding goals waterfall
The branding goals waterfall.

In other words, by viewing your brand as a driver-of-action for your business, you can ask questions in your conversion optimization program that give you insights into your brand positioning.

This approach will align your Brand and Response marketers, and multiply their results.

You may be thinking, “Yes, of course my brand goals are aligned with my business goals.” But is your brand being informed by its effect on your customers?

Let’s say your Marketing team operates within the following belief: “We sell luxury linens and homeware, therefore, we believe our target market will respond to luxury. So, let’s use words and images that exude luxury.”

But what happens if you’re operating within the wrong belief?

The following case study will show you how one e-commerce retailer uses A/B testing to gain surprising insights that are changing their brand messaging.

Case Study: Gathering brand perception insights through testing

One of WiderFunnel’s clients, Annie Selke, is a luxury home-ware goods retailer. In that vein, their site featured the word “palette” when referring to the different colors of their products. For instance, on the product category page, you could filter by “palette”.

But there was a bit of terminology confusion on this page. Users could filter by “palette” or sort products by “color”.

branding annie selke
Annie Selke’s original product page featured the words “palette” and “color”.

WiderFunnel’s team had gathered telling heatmap data and had previous test data that indicated a lot of user engagement with “color” and less with “palette”.

This led WiderFunnel’s Optimization Strategists to hypothesize that replacing the word “palette” with the word “color” would help shoppers filter products more easily.

branding annie selke
The winning variation used the word “color” only.

This single change was shown in an A/B test to improve filter interactions and lift sales by 6%. The word “palette” seemed to be on-brand, but it wasn’t creating the right action.

If the Annie Selke team had focused solely on the intuitive, fuzzy side of branding, they might have continued to use the word “palette” throughout their site. After all, the word “palette” does have a nice ring to it.

But because they were willing to test and validate (or disprove) their gut instincts, they were able to uncover an insight about their brand that they can apply in all of their marketing: “color” is more engaging for their customers. Maybe they don’t need to use fancier words to resonate.

That’s zen branding.

When I first published this post in 2014, I posed this question to my Twitter followers:

I think the end result shows I have much smarter followers than myself.

After a few good iterations, here’s our co-created opinion on the purpose of branding.

I believe the important points that came out of that debate still hold true:

  • The brand should aim for exclusive ownership of their mindspace
  • The brand should own a feeling; not just a word, mark, phrase or idea
  • The feeling should compel action!

What do you think?

How would you refine that? Do you disagree? What’s your definition of branding?

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