Photo by Juhan Sonin via Flickr
Branding is perceived as a "fluff" profession precisely because its practitioners can't agree on a definition. Why can't we agree? It's not because it's irrelevant. If it were irrelevant you would not see a proliferation of definitions, frameworks, and brand valuation methods each claiming superiority and some mystical formula for generating it.
No. Brand people are smart people. Brand people invest a great deal of time in positioning themselves as the world's most knowlegeable folks about their craft. They know that at the end of the day, the firm that is perceived as having the best methodology, the most intellectual and creative capital, and the strongest results - wins.
Most brand books are not worth the paper they're printed on, because they are written by people who want to make a buck from the pseudo-method they're promoting.
Not coincidentally, those same people are the so-called practitioners you hold up as models of what a brand professional is.
Any time a person is situated in a social context - be it a consulting firm, a university, etc. - they lose objectivity with regard to that context. Call it groupthink or whatever you want, but the phenomena is real. So for example it is rare to find a social critic in an insular community who is able to remain intact in the community. The group expels dissenters because they are perceived as a threat to existence.
Over the past fifteen years, I've been an academic, an entrepreneur, a consultant, a think-tank director, and a government employee (this is my current position). I have experienced groupthink in each and every one of these settings.
It is only by studying a phenomenon while being situated outside it, that you can really speak honestly.
The advice to "acquire more first-hand experience actually branding" in itself reveals the importance of defining what we are talking about. Because if a brand (the noun) is reducible to equity-derived-from-image, then the act of branding (the verb) is reducible to positioning. Whoever has done what you call "real branding" will readily tell you that it is a long-term investment in developing a cohesive, coherent, credible , and sustainable identity for the organization that is manifested at every touchpoint and interaction internally and externally.
Just like you can't raise a family by dropping in, giving folks advice, and dropping out, you can't build long-term brand success solely over the short-term. The best thing a consultant can do is give the organization a wake-up call when it has settled into dysfunction and complacency. There is a place for that, but it is not a substitute for the long-term commitment of employees inside the organization to its productivity.