Although humans have been "branding" with visual images to show ownership and authenticity for thousands of years, it's generally agreed that the practice of brand management as we know it today peaked in the 1990's. That said, we shouldn't confuse individual tools used to build brands, like logos or packaging with a company's brand. Logos are brand elements, visuals used to differentiate a product or service from another, but they fall short of incapsulating a company's identity.
So then...what's a brand? I'll admit, I've had a few definitions through the years, each built to satisfy a different demographic (consumer, business owner, marketing student, etc.) but my current 'go to' covers most bases for clients and civilians:
A company's brand is the soul of the organization experienced by the public. Marketers strategically create brands with various brand elements, in efforts to appeal to intended target markets and drive customer expectations, but they're ultimately owned by the outside world. - Me
There's a lot packed into this definition because building a brand from scratch is a major undertaking made up of many pieces. The mentioned brand elements include the brand's voice (tone used in commercials, website copy, social media, etc), visual identity like colors and symbols (logos), partnerships, packaging, and the name itself. Everything from an organization's declared mission to how it treats its employees helps mold the brand over time.
Nearly all brand definitions you'll find fall short because they tend to be overly focused on visual elements. Design is obviously an important part of the picture, but our interactions with brands as consumers go much deeper. When managed correctly, consumers' understanding of brands' histories and the people behind the companies help shape what some marketers would identify as the company's personality. I go one step further with 'soul' because it suggests that the brand is an essence that is felt. A personality, on the other hand, is slightly different because it is owned by the person. Personalities can't be experienced by the outside world until it is acted out. Brands are the opposite. They're not fully owned by the organization. Marketers do their best to sway how we perceive their employer's brands, but your customers (and the rest of the world) ultimately get the final word on what your brand "is".
If your brand is the aggregate total of memories and experiences once has with a company, imagine all the voices that come together over time (through millions of interactions) that make-up your brand. This really illustrates how daunting a task brand development can be. Not only do customers interact with your brand from different entry points (B2B, B2C, social media, storefront, online, etc), but they're all processing your brand with different viewpoints based on their unique demographics.
A fantastic brand definition to close-out the topic is from the one an only Seth Godin, a well-known Writer, Entrepreneur, and marketing mind. If you aren't familiar with Seth, I recommend doing yourself a favor and visit his blog (Seths.Blog) and subscribe to his feed for updates. A brand according to Seth:
A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer's decision to choose one product or service over another. - Seth Godin
You'll notice, Seth's definition is completely based on the consumer's point-of-view. There's no discussion of how the brand came to be, or goals from a business perspective. That's a good lesson in itself because businesses tend to get a little too wrapped-up in their quarterly goals, pretending they have control of everything. We forget that at the end of the day, we're all here (as business people) to serve our customers and we don't ultimately get to say how our brand is perceived. Like Seth says, "they'll choose one product or service over another."
And now the big question for you and your team, what are you doing differently to ensure they choose you? Does your branding serve your customers, actively building the next generation of super fans? Are you directing your own fate (as much as possible) with a dedicated plan, or are you simply going through the motions with marketing-like tasks when able?
Extra Reading >>
Those interested in the evolution of branding should visit: