What is the purpose of branding?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.

Today, let’s see if we can find a workable definition for the purpose of branding that marketers can actually use.

But, first, allow me to get into some trouble with my opinion on the context…

There are generally two types of Marketers: “brand marketers” and “response marketers”

Sidebar: I should preface the following by saying that my experience as a direct response marketer probably biases me slightly toward seeing the Response perspective. I’ve worked in ad agencies creating direct mail and email campaigns. However, before that, I began my career doing freelance design, so I also appreciate beautiful aesthetic design even if I’m no Lee Clow.

Here’s what I’ve seen in many organizations: The Branding camp sees Response marketers as subservient, tactical geeks, and the Response group sees Brand marketers as fluffy, granola airheads.

In my agency days, we Response marketers always envied the budgets the Brand marketers were awarded. I think I can summarize the general feeling as injustice. After all, “We’re the ones bringing in all the sales. What has that brand ad done for you lately?!”

Response marketers often reference John Wanamer’s quote, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” and shake their heads mumbling, “We can tell you which half. That’s why we measure!”

The Brand marketers just laugh at the Response marketers’ naiveté as they enjoy their lunch martini and strip club with the clients.

But, I digress… the first question to ask is…

What is branding?

There’s an ongoing debate in many organizations between the Branding and Response groups 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.

I define a brand as the concept a person holds about a thing (person, business, place or activity, etc.) based on his or her accumulated experiences.

I think of the brand essence as a mix of intangible and tangible concepts, words and images that create a feeling.

So, if the role of branding is to create this brand essence, why do it? What is the ultimate raison d’être for branding?

What is the purpose of branding?

I have to admit that I don’t care who wins this argument between the marketing camps. My goal here is to devise a workable definition of purpose for branding.

I think the way to do that is to go to the top of the goals waterfall. I introduced the goals waterfall concept with respect to setting conversion optimization goals, but it works for branding too.

How to determine your marketing and branding goals
The Goals Waterfall for Marketing

If the goal for your brand doesn’t have a direct line of sight to your business goals, you’re probably making poor decisions about your brand.

Ultimately, your brand exists to create action, likely to sell products and/or services.

If your brand doesn’t create action, it won’t exist for long. Somebody has to pay the bills, right?

So, what’s the goal of branding?

I believe a brand needs to cause an effect. I think it needs to stand for something different and singular. Something focused, memorable, meaningful and valuable enough to cause emotion and, ultimately action.

I put that question out to my Twitter followers recently and had an interesting debate refining the wording.

I started with this tweet:

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 think the important points are:

  • 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?