Branding is one of those confusing words that seems to have a million different definitions. Try googling the word and you end up in threads where people with very different conceptions of branding battle it out. More often than not, the conversation misses the bigger point (which is just to confirm that I am one of these people, believing I have the right answer. And yes, I believe I do). But more importantly that getting the definition 100% right is what branding really means in terms of how you apply it in your life or inside your organisation.
Branding today is largely about "making difference", i.e. shaping people's perceptions in ways that help them choose one offering over another.
Consider this example:
"How can we make our brand of coffee different than those of our competition?" asks the marketer. Enter branding. Consumer insights + brand strategy + design + communication, is the typical formula. After the branding work, we might see two different strategies at play on the same retail shelf. One is priced at 70 eur per kilogram. This brand of coffee comes in beautiful packaging with a rich story that takes us to the origins of the coffee and the people who made it. The other brand is priced at 5 euro per kilogram. This brand has a modest packaging and no story. It puts all its bets on price. Two different strategies, two very different ways to create consumer value. And most likely, two very different consumer segments and need states.
The first coffee brand (this is a real comparison), charges a 14x premium over the other one (a private label brand). In other words, to some people, the first brand is worth at least 14 times more than the other one (!).
Talk about the power of branding. A difference has been made. Let people decide what they want. Branding has worked its magic.
Yet, however simple, powerful and real this example is, there is another way to define branding. I believe this is where branding is heading today and in the future.
Using branding for differentiation is the point, but instead of just "making difference", branding can be about "making a difference". The added a makes a big difference (pun intended).
Moving from "making difference" to "making a difference" requires a big shift in thinking. Instead of asking yourself how you can stand out from competition, try asking a bigger question. How can you make a difference in the lives of your customers. Or better yet, how can you make a difference in the world?
When you shift your thinking about what branding means, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. This is why definitions matter, and why you can find my name deep in those threads, battling it our for the best definition of branding.
When you re-frame the questions you ask yourself regarding your brand, i.e. when you start asking questions about how you can be making a difference, you are forced to view branding as something greater than marketing and communications. This framing also forces you to think beyond mere product features and benefits. You will have to face the bigger stuff. Branding becomes an integral part of the whole business, a vehicle for creating value and making real meaning. That's the stuff that really matters. And that's the rare stuff that people are willing to pay for. Even more than for that expensive package of coffee.