What is the purpose of branding?

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Editor’s Note: This post was updated on January 5, 2017 with new ideas and a case study!

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.

The Zen Marketer's Approach to Branding

End the conflict between data-driven marketers and inspiration-driven marketers at your company: Get this Yin and Yang of Marketing poster to remind you that both mindsets are necessary to create a brand that delivers results!

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.

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.

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?

Enjoy this post? Share with your friends and colleagues:

  • A lot of sound points here – but one point that always disturbs me is when people talk about ‘doing branding’. The brand is fundamentally what the business is all about. It exists at the point of interaction between the company and the public.
    Look after the business; look after the products and services; above all look after the people – customers, staff, suppliers – and the brand will look after itself.

    • Yes, I did say "doing branding" without clarifying what I meant by that. It was shorthand for following a branding strategy.

      I do agree with your comment that the brand "exists at the point of interaction between the company and the public." However, I believe there's more to brand strategy than creating great products and services and looking after your publics.

      A focused brand strategy will direct the content of those interactions and create consistency and, ideally, develop "feeling ownership."

    • I completely agree, Ian.
      Moreover, research shows that brand-led businesses are twice as profitable as their peers.
      Brand strategy is critical to business success.

      • Thanks Sandra. Do you have links to that research you mention?

    • 100% agree with your statement. "The brand is fundamentally what the business is all about. It exists at the point of interaction between the company and the public.
      Look after the business; look after the products and services; above all look after the people – customers, staff, suppliers – and the brand will look after itself."

  • Donna

    Very important! Yet easy to get away from if you are not always intentionally reminding yourself. Thanks!

  • Bruce

    You know what? This is one of the best definitions of branding I've heard. And I've been in branding for 15 years. Yes – you must focus on *feelings that motivate* which of course honors the emotional side of decision-making that so many bush-league "branding experts" completely leave out. I was actually expecting the usual "5 tips for a great brand" which are always stupid random stuff that they gleaned from other branding tips blog posts after a google search like "good color palette" and "be consistent" blah blah blah.

  • The most difficult part of the whole equation is finding that emotional "branding message" and then taking that emotional concept and putting it into a phrase or statement the quickly conveys your message but isn't too awkward or wordy.

  • I think a lot of what people call "branding campaigns are really just "audience development". Even then its with very poor metrics chosen as a measure of success. A good followup would be a blog entry on measuring the success using this definition.

    • @Adam I totally agree that the marketing objective for many branding initiatives is audience development or awareness building. And yes, part of the problem of measurement is in marketer's failure to align with the Business and Marketing goals (and gain executive buy-in) as Chris mentions. You may enjoy Avinash Kaushik's blog on Brand Measurement: Analytics & Metrics for Branding Campaigns http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/brand-measurement-

  • I cannot think of a better example of owning a feeling then the use the Australian airline Qantas made of Peter Allen's song "I still call Australia home" (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7k9tzNzixsk )

  • The primary motivation behind marking is to get individuals to review your organization/administration/item from memory. Viable marking will make the sort of Organization Unwaveringness that lets your rival well enough alone for the brains of your prospects. Your extreme objective is to get individuals to trust you more than your rival and to think about your site or business before they think about your competition's business.

    Some think branding marketing is only for the enormous organizations. It's really exactly as essential to the little business ambitious person, particularly the managers of online organizations. With compelling rivalry on the Web, the individuals who don't brand will likely go bankrupt.

    Great site publicizing is critical to effectively mark your organization, yet marking incorporates considerably more than site promoting. Organizations convey marking messages to crowds at numerous contact focuses, most profitable would incorporate client administration, deals, item plan, dissemination channels, speculator relations, bundling, and pricing

  • emily

    Great article, I'd like to add that for a service provider, like myself using Hoodoko.com to build my brand, network with other service providers and sell my services according to my availability is very helpful. Their appointment system is great since customers can book you online and there is no going back and forth with dates and times. I would definitely recommend checking out their networking system, it's like online speed dating for businesses. And it's free to use, which makes it a lot better.

  • These are interesting points, but I am having a hard time distinguishing the expected customer action on a marketer’s side vs a brand strategy side. From what I can fathom so far, a marketer would only bring attention to potential customers to show that a company exists (ex: billboards, tv ads, email ads, etc.), and a brand would be the message between that potential customer and the company (ex: why the ad matters to the potential customers).

    I say this because I recently just read through some case studies of both marketing agencies and branding agencies, and they both seemed to produce the same results, but it wasn’t clear exactly what was different from what an marketing agency does versus what a branding agency does. If anything, it seems like a marketing agency is more relevant than a branding agency when you look at the results (not the solution)?

    • What’s the difference between a brand and marketing agency? Good question! They make take different approaches, and have a different focus. A brand agency is likely to be more interested in creating a brand definition and won’t be involved in communicating to customers. A marketing agency may not have a lot of expertise in defining the brand.

      In both cases, they should be testing their hypotheses. Theoretically, all agencies should become optimization agencies as they test their ideas. In practice, however, the mindset difference is just too great for most of them. It would be a rare traditional agency that has the motivation and expertise to make the shift to the “You Should Test That!” mindset.

  • David Heritage

    I once heard the purpose of a Brand: is to attract and hold the favourable attention of an economic number of the right kind of people, while a selling story was told and a desired action or reaction induced.

    • Thanks, David. That seems like a similar thought, but it doesn’t mention the positioning feeling, which seems to be important. Where did you hear this definition from?