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Why are people still confused about “what is a brand?”

Branding has been around for over two centuries (, yet when I type "what is a brand" into Google I get these comments like people still are confused by what a brand is.

Colin Bates: "What is a brand? Too often even marketing professionals don't have an answer, and too many have their 'own' answer. Which makes life very confusing!" (

Debbie MacInnis: "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?"


I think I understand what is so confusing about branding. It's that there are "simple brands," like trademarked names for packaged goods, and "MAJOR BRANDS," free floating associations with companies that include anything and everything from goods to services and more. A simple brand is Ajax laundry detergent. A MAJOR BRAND is Oprah. To make things more complicated, a "simple MAJOR BRAND" is Tide.

What do they have in common? Ajax, Oprah, and Tide all signify an identity.

What do they not have in common? Unlike Ajax, both Tide and Oprah—MAJOR BRANDS—stand for something more than what they physically are. Tide stands for "power" (as in the power that comes from the ability to scrub something really clean) and Oprah stands for "spiritual self-improvement and empowerment."

What is the difference between a simple MAJOR BRAND and a (regular or major) MAJOR BRAND? Tide is easily reducible to a tangible thing while Oprah is essentially intangible. Oprah's products and services are tangible, Oprah the individual is tangible, but Oprah's brand effect cannot be captured under a microscope. It can barely be captured in words.

People tend to get mixed up between the tangible and the intangible aspects of brand.
That is why when you say to someone, "we have to work on our brand," they might think that you are talking about creating name awareness of the organization, while you are really talking about creating positive associations with the organization's name. It's a subtle but really powerful difference.

People also get mixed up because everything is a brand, but not everything is a BRAND. Just by virtue of existing, everything and everyone has a brand (name), but not everything and everyone has a distinct, clear set of associations that make that name special.

So remember: A simple brand is just a name. A MAJOR BRAND is a name with a set of mental associations to it. And branding is the art and science of creating a set of associations around a name. Simple, clear, and hopefully this will be the end of the confusion.

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