If you were to look at what people have written about branding, chances are you'd be confused about many things, not the least of which is the term “brand.”

What is a brand, anyway? What does it mean? How is it different from brand image, or other terms for that matter?

Are We Confused Yet?

There is a good reason why you may be confused. No one seems to agree on just what a brand is. Look, for a minute, at the various ways different organizations, people or companies have defined “brand” (italics mine):

  1. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.

  2. The well-known advertising creative site Adcracker defines a brand as “the sum of all feelings, thoughts and recognitions — positive and negative — that people in the target audience have about a company, product or service.”

    This definition resonates with those of companies such as Hyundai and brand-naming companies like Brand.com. The former defines a brand as “nothing more, nothing less than people's perceptions about a product or company.” The latter defines it as “the proprietary visual, emotional, rational, and cultural image that one associates with a company or a product. A brand is how the company is perceived by its consumers—the associations and inherent value they place on your business.”

  3. Michael Eisner, arguably one of the biggest keepers of the Disney brand, defines a brand as a living organism and suggests that it is “enriched or undermined cumulatively over time.”

  4. The company Virtual Business defines a brand as the personification of the organization, its products and services.

  5. The Brand Names Education Foundation defines a brand as “a highly compressed communicator. ” According to the foundation, brands “deliver rich bursts of information that ease, speed, and reduce the costs of transactions, enabling the economy to function more efficiently.”

  6. The company Target Marketing proposes, “A brand is not a name. A brand is not a positioning statement. It is not a marketing message. It is a promise, made by a company to its customers and supported by that company.” 

  7. Several companies describe the brand as the face of the company to the world. 

  8. Finally, the European Brands Association proposes that a “brand is a constant point of reference: a contract, a signpost, a relationship. A contract because it implies constraints and responsibilities. It is a signpost because it shows consumers a way to fulfill their needs. It is a relationship because trust and loyalty are earned over time.”

Brands Versus Brand Images

So who's right?

Wouldn't you—the discerning reader—agree that the AMA definition is an accurate and clear definition of the term “brand”? It indicates what a brand is—it is a marker that distinguishes one firm's products from those of another. It bears strong correspondence with the original use of the term “brand.”

“To brand” was to use a hot iron on cattle (called a “branding iron”)—to burn into the haunches of cattle a mark that differentiated one rancher's cows from another's.

The notion that the brand is the sum of all thoughts and feelings, I would argue, refers to something different—that of brand image. Brand image is not what a brand is, but what it means to consumers.

Brands Versus Brand Metaphors

The remaining definitions are really metaphors for brands.

A “definition” is “a statement of the meaning of a word. A definition answers the question, What is it?

A metaphor is something quite different. It is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison. A metaphor is one thing conceived as representing another. A metaphor answers a different question, what is it like?

The Value of Brand Metaphors

So should we toss definitions 3 through 8 out the window because they reflect metaphors? Well, yes and no. Yes, because they are not definitions of brands. But no, because these metaphors give us insight into other things that are relevant to branding.

Brands are Like Promises

Brands are not promises, contracts or relationships. But by thinking about how a brand is like a promise, contract or relationship, we can identify things we might want to look at or track in our branding strategies.

Things like perceived trustworthiness, fairness or credibility of the marketer, the trustworthiness and fairness of the consumer, the explicitness and clarity of the terms, the extent of agreement by parties with the terms, and the degree of and implications for revocability of the terms, are just a sampling of the kinds of things we can identify if we think of the brand as a contract. Such a perspective enhances our understanding of branding and consumer behavior.

Brands are Like Communicators

A brand is not a communicator, but firms do communicate brand concepts to consumers, and presumably consumers receive and attend to these communications.

Thinking about how a brand is like a communicator helps us to identify things like communication speed, accuracy, efficiency, effectiveness, cost, discretion, capacity for two-way communication, and other measurable outcomes.

Brands are Like People or Faces

A brand is not a face or person, but we have described a brand as being like a face or a person. That metaphorical relationship between a brand and a person has given us the term “brand personality.”

Like people, brands can be sophisticated, rugged, stylish, extroverted and so on. Like faces, brands can have blemishes, can vary in the degree to which they are expressive, the emotions they portray, their attractiveness and so on.

Brands, like people, can be packaged to look good. And like a face, a brand's exterior appearance may belie its internal characteristics (don't judge a book by its cover—or a product by its package).

Like people, brands vary in age, life-stage, country of origin, strength, vulnerability and so on. Like people, brands can come from neurotic families, engage in behavior viewed as inconsistent or schizophrenic, can be controversial, can be powerful, vulnerable, in control and trend-setting—to name a few.

Brands are Like Living Organisms

Brands are not living organisms, but like living organisms they are born, they live and they die. They must be fed and must have a constant source of resources and a hospitable environment if they are to thrive.

They can procreate and produce offspring, they can change and mutate over time as they adapt to environmental changes. They can even mutate into things that are self-destructive or provide cancerous effects on their host organism.

Brands are Like Signposts or Constraints

Finally, brands are not constraints or signposts, but they have features that make them similar to constraints or signposts.

Brands are like constraints in that they vary in their extension capacity. They are like signs in that they vary in the nature and clarify of their extension direction and the capacity to return to the place of origin if desired.

New Metaphors and New Brand Outcomes

If we think about metaphors for brands beyond those noted above, we can identify even more potentially interesting brand relevant outcomes. Consider, for example, the metaphor between brand and a parent.

A brand is like a parent who oversees a child. The parent could, for example, be described in terms of his or her capacity to nurture, protect, discipline or grant independence to the brand extension.

The brand extension, in turn, could be examined in familial terms such as similarity, family resemblance and reputational effects—but also other factors, such as degree of deviance, birth order and rivalry with other extensions.

What's the Bottom Line?

What are the key points to remember? There are four:

  1. Although we know that branding is important, we've got to be more careful about what we mean by various branding terms—including the term “brand” itself.

  2. It is important to distinguish the definition of a term from the metaphors used to describe it.

  3. While metaphors are not definitions and should not be confused as such, they do provide insights into potentially new (and some old) branding outcomes.

  4. By thinking about these metaphorical relationships, we may be able to identify novel metaphors that can help us understand branding even more.

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.