I set out to address the question by saying the distinction between the two was that

The cautionary note is that I’m attempting to explain the distinction and why I think there’s ambiguity over the difference. I’m not claiming to be providing an exhaustive definition of either or both!

Having said that, let’s clear up one fairly common misapprehension straightaway:

A logo isn’t a brand

It’s a brand mark.

And a brand mark is symbolic; it is applied to visually mark out the boundaries of a business’s territory and clearly distinguish it from alternative providers of similar goods and services.

(In fact, the word ‘logo’ is popularly assumed to derive from the Greek word ‘logos’ meaning a character or symbol which represents a word or phrase.)

No matter how sophisticated marketers like to think that we are these days, it’s a practice that’s as old as the human race itself.

As a species, it seems, we just can’t help marking what belongs to us, whether it’s conveyed as a brand mark on a product or is emblematic of a nation of people in the form of a flag; whether it’s a sheep’s fleece branded with a farmer’s initials (which explains the tenuous connection with the image at the top of this post) or a sign over a shop.

Each of us has also been given our own brand marks by our parents — our names — which we uniquely express via our signatures.

So, for businesses, effective brand marks serve to symbolically represent the provenance of an entity — whether that’s physical, intellectual or virtual — in a manner which is both unique and distinctive enough to distinguish itself from comparable alternatives. It doesn’t necessarily follow that they have to be beautifully designed.

In fact, for a business, what really matters is the capacity of a brand mark to help existing or potential consumers of a business’s goods and services to recognise the business and react to its presence, preferably in a positive way.

Whether they do respond to it positively or not will depend, not on its brand mark or branding per se, but on what that brand mark or branding represents — and that’s the brand thing.

So if that’s a brand mark, what’s branding?

Where they’re used, brand marks generally form part of a suite of branding elements — like the use of colour, fonts, physical materials, pictures and imagery or iconography — whose application to items like packaging, print, stationery, physical space and signage is governed by guidelines.

Despite the fact that application of branding enables businesses to mark out the boundaries of their territory, its principal purpose is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to find their way to a transactional point — whether that’s a transaction involving money, service or information.

Branding translates your business and what it does into something that is meaningful, understandable and useful for the outside world.

If the branding elements are applied appropriately and consistently wherever consumers encounter it, not only will they encourage recognition and understanding of the relevance of a brand but, over time, it may be possible to acquire a branding state of grace — consumers intuitively recognise your branding whether the brand mark is visible or not.

But branding isn’t confined to just one of the five senses, the other four are fair game too.

For instance, have you ever walked past a Subway? It’s got an instantly recognisable and distinctive aroma hasn’t it? In fact, you can often smell a Subway before you see it and recognise that there’s a Subway nearby.

And how about Play-Doh? Or Crayola crayons? (You may not have encountered the last two for years, but you probably just
recalled the smell.)

What about the little Intel jingle? Or the repeated use of music in radio and TV advertising by brands like LloydsTSB or British Gas?

No matter the extent to which individual businesses go to to hammer their point home, the principal functional purpose of branding is to clearly mark out the boundaries and areas of its territory and help consumers find their way to a transactional point.

But in performing its function, branding also has the capacity to convey emotional attributes too. And this is where the muddy waters begin to appear which, I’d argue, contribute to a misapprehension about the difference between brand and branding.

So what were the reasons that led branding to be used in this way?

The changing marketplace and evolution of branding

Once upon a time, businesses were geographically confined and media was all but non-existent. However, in Europe, the industrial revolution changed all that.

Innovation in transport and communications opened up the opportunity to both find new ways of sourcing materials, making and doing things, as well as trade your business’s goods or services in more than one location.

(It’s always worth remembering that businesses like Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco all started out as a single shop or market
stall — Sainsbury’s in Drury Lane, London (right) and William Morrisons’s market stall in Bradford. Jack Cohen’s Wall Street Market stall in Hackney, London, later became Tesco.)

By doing so, you were pitching your business’s stall elsewhere in the midst of established competitors who already offered the same goods and services that you did. At the same time, new names were popping up on your patch in your own marketplace.

That opens up a new front in the competition for attention, even among customers whose patronage you had previously enjoyed.

When that competition for consumer attention extends beyond the boundaries of your physical environment — thanks to the proliferation of both national and international broadcast and print media, and increased trading across international borders — the accompanying commercial clamour and noise presents you with two problems: how to secure a distinctive and sustainable reputation and — if it’s your intention to do so — how to grow your business.

In the face of increasing competition, the recognition of your business via its brand mark is one thing, but helping consumers understand what it represents is something else entirely; it could be the difference between buying or not buying your brand’s goods and services.

The likely source of confusion: The road to emotional branding

Let’s suppose your business couldn’t consistently compete on the basis of price. It had to be able to convey ideas on which it could compete and which consumers would instinctively recognise and value; things like quality, originality, service, support and innovation, for instance.

Of course branding can’t, itself, make the slightest bit of difference to the intrinsic value of a good or service, because it only serves to represent those qualities by helping express what a business does.

(To assuage the designers who will disagree with that last statement, I’m talking strictly about branding here. In the next post I’ll be arguing that a consistent characteristic of great brands is their pursuit of brand principles, of which interaction design is one. But brand identities are a consequence of this and not the catalyst.)

But what branding can do is seek to influence people’s perception of a brand.

It’s how, for instance, the branding approach adopted by Dorset Cereals helps it encourage consumers — based on today’s pricing at sainsburys.co.uk, at least — to part with a couple more pence per 100g for its muesli compared with, say, Alpen’s original Swiss recipe product.

On your next trip to the supermarket, why not pick up both brands of cereal and compare the two based just on their respective approaches to branding?

Compared to the Alpen packaging, you may notice that the texture of Dorset Cereals’s packaging is slightly rougher — suggesting an ‘earthier’ quality compared to Alpen’s smoother packaging.

You can’t see Alpen’s muesli but you’re invited to look at Dorset Cereals’s product thanks to transparent windows cut into the packaging — conveying the idea that this brand is both focused on the nutritional content of its product and proud of it too.

Finally, the text mimics a typewritten face and is impressed into the outer packaging (just run your fingertip across the type) which — whether you realise it or not — suggests each box is carefully packaged and not mass produced.

Admittedly that’s a pretty cursory analysis of the packaging, but do you think the branding of the Dorset Cereals product pulls its weight in conveying what’s distinctive and unique about the brand? Is it enough to contemplate parting with that extra couple of pence per 100g?

Whether you like muesli or hate it, the example serves to show that branding design possesses the capacity to roam beyond its functional role and encompass an additional role — employing the senses to convey emotional ideas about the brand it represents.

The use and abuse of branding as a means of conveying personality

It’s this capacity of branding to convey emotional ideas that’s given rise to the idea of ‘brand personality’.

And, since a brand’s personality is a fictions of its parent business’s imagination, it’s also where the worlds of fiction and reality either harmoniously converge or discordantly collide.

Throughout this post, I’ve been careful to say that branding serves to help convey functional and emotional ideas about a business in order to translate and articulate how its brand of goods and services help a waiting world. The problem is that branding can also be used to portray its brand of goods and services.

The moment a business lays claim to human qualities like ‘values’ and ‘characteristics’, and seeks to reflect those qualities through its branding, it is treading a fine line between conveying the characteristics it really possesses and portraying the ones that it wishes to be seen to be associated with.

The only problem is that the way people seem to be, and the way they really are, can often be poles apart. And businesses can be just the same.

The temptation within businesses is to articulate a brand reputation to which they aspire and immediately deploy all elements of their marketing communications armoury — including branding — to portray acquisition of that position without even embarking on a strategy to change the way they do business.

But changing the way you appear doesn’t change the way you are.

And its the superficial application of branding to portray one thing rather than convey another, that is probably where the confusion over the distinction between brand and branding stems from.

It’s been compounded by the fact that — in the scrap for consumer attention that is intensified by the scarcity of available space in traditional media — businesses opt for promotional content which carries claims that are littered with hyperbole and neologisms: to be first, to launch something new, to improve on something, to be award winning, to claim superiority over a competitor.

So I’d argue that — until recently — it’s been all to easy for businesses to let its branding do the legwork and portray characteristics of, for instance, originality or innovation, rather than go to the effort really being original and innovative.

But branding does not maketh the brand. Consumer experience is the ultimate judge of the way brands really do business.

And the shift in the communications landscape — which I’ve illustrated previously in this presentation at Slideshare — is already changing the ability for businesses to fall back on presentation to do the heavy lifting for sub-optimal operation.

Branding can no longer be relied on to sustain reputation.

And, in the next post, I’ll pick on a brand in order to illustrate exactly how its branding appears to promise more than its brand is really able to deliver. By doing so, I hope to conclude the epic journey to explain what I consider to be the difference between brand and branding.