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What makes a brand?

Brands have become vital components of everyday life in the early twenty-first century. They’re as ubiquitous as kitchen sinks, and they’ve become integral to everything from the clothes we wear, the technology we use and the cars we drive. In mainstream Western culture, brands have, to some extent, replaced the role once played by religion; they provide stories through which people find meaning and identity. This is a striking measure of the influence a brand can have in the world today.

brand, branding

But what exactly is a brand, and how might we define its key features? This is a question as long as that proverbial piece of string. However, there are certain key features that any brand must have to be worthy of the name. It’s therefore worth thinking about the overall big picture of what makes a brand before we dive into the details.

In the opening section of her classic book Defining Brand Identity, Alina Wheeler comes up with one of the more solid definitions of what a brand might be by paying attention as to why brands are needed in a free market economy:

“As competition creates infinite choices, companies look for ways to connect emotionally with customers, become irreplaceable, and create lifelong relationships. A strong brand stands out in a densely crowded marketplace. People fall in love with brands, trust them, and believe in their superiority. How a brand is perceived affects its success, regardless of whether it’s a start-up, a nonprofit, or a product.”

In Wheeler’s view, the rise of brands as a core feature of business activity is a direct consequence of the intense natural competition produced by a healthy market economy. A quick look at history seems to confirm her point. In Soviet Russia, which was probably the most advanced non-free market economy that’s ever existed, television advertising only began seriously in the late 1980s just as the entire communist system of the USSR was beginning to collapse. That’s an interesting reflection of the power of brands as both a cultural phenomenon – and also as geopolitical instruments. Only as the Soviet Union was imploding could the many Western brands so cherished by Russia’s elites (and enthusiastically purchased by them for decades on the black market) come out of the shadows and into mainstream culture. In the few countries today that still have centrally-planned economies, such as Cuba and North Korea, advertising is severely limited under state control, and desirable Western brands are extremely hard to come by. The availability and wide variety of brands is inseparable, then, from the free market itself.

If brands have become a central feature of the free market, it’s because competition means that customers start to demand both quality and also originality in the products they buy and use. For this reason, brands have become as commonplace in modern life as electricity, smartphones and reality TV. They are status symbols, for all kinds of reasons, depending on what the brand is and who is using its products or services.

Specific products from certain brands become iconic for particular demographic groups. The numerous Chinese tourists who sport French and Italian designer bags give us a clue as to why this might be: brands can offer people a way of becoming something different to who they are and where they’ve come from. A Louis Vuitton bag could be as exotic to a city worker from Beijing as a Ming dynasty porcelain vase might have been to a nineteenth century British aristocrat. It’s exotic, powerful, and therefore desirable.

Brands are often interesting to us because they represent something different from us. As Bob Dylan says to Martin Scorsese in the epic biopic No Direction Home, “if you remain in a state of continually becoming, you’ll kinda be alright”. Brands, more than almost anything else in the modern world, are a way for people to continually become something (or someone) they want to be. That, perhaps, is a measure of their true power in contemporary culture.

Brands are everywhere around us. They are cultural commodities, and a kind of shadow-currency of success and achievement. At times, they can also represent the opposite as symbols of a counter-culture. When this happens, it’s often because brands become signifiers for a particular social group. Baggy jeans, for example, became popular in youth culture in the late 1990s – and were then adopted by various high-end fashion brands – because the standard issue size for men’s jeans in United States prisons is usually extra large. A potent symbol of the criminal underworld thus developed into a brand identity of teen and young adult fashion.

But what are the core components of a brand? Every brand has different elements, and no two brands will have exactly the same elements. Their subtle but essential differences are part of the reason brands exist at all. However, the fundamental components that all brands share could be summarised in the following categories: brand identity, ideas and values, quality and longevity, and symbolic status.

The world’s strongest brands usually score high marks in not just one or two but all of these different areas. When you think, for example, of a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine, a Mercedes-Benz car, a Patek Philippe watch, or an Apple computer, what do you really imagine beyond the product itself? In all these cases, we usually think of something that represents the best possible example of a product in those respective industries. That, is the true mark of a world-class brand. It is also the reason that those products mentioned above, and numerous others like them, are sought after across the world. A brand is an idea as much as it is a product or service. The product or service is the thing that drives the idea, but the core idea is perhaps the most powerful thing about a brand in the end. Nike’s enduring slogan, Just Do It, is one of the most powerful marketing lines ever conceived. As soon as you’re swept up in that, buying a pair of trainers isn’t about buying a pair of trainers anymore, but owning an idea about yourself. 

Brands in the digital age

In the hyper-reality of digital spaces, brands are even more complex beasts than they were in the traditional analogue realm. In the digital age, the role and value of brands has been transformed as they’ve presented consumers with completely new ecosystems of products, services and platforms. Who would have thought in 1999 that within twenty years, billions of people worldwide would be connected through social networking brands offering ‘free products’ that were assimilating and selling personal data on a truly colossal scale?

Some of the leading brands of the digital age, such as Google and Facebook, have inverted the traditional relationship between brands and consumers. By pioneering the new business model of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (described by the Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff in her brilliant book of that title) the tech giants can offer ‘free’ services to consumers, whose data is then sold as marketing collateral to whoever wishes to pay for it.

Whether we like it or not, though, the biggest brands of the digital age are very much here to stay. Whilst American tech giants like Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft and Amazon have monopolised huge swathes of this space over the course of a generation, it seems likely that their market share will be slowly eroded by disruptive forces and continuing digital innovations in the fullness of time. This can already be seen clearly with the rise of TikTok as a leading social media platform. Numerous other disruptions are likely to occur in the near future, although we don’t necessarily know yet what form they’ll take.

One thing that is certain though, is that the rise of these digital giants has transformed the way brands interact with their customers and audiences. The emergent twenty-first century professional field of ‘digital branding’ is all about establishing a brand’s story and presence in the digital space. Companies today, more than ever before, need to design and build their brands online using websites, apps, social media accounts and video channels.

This new art of digital branding strives to build connections and networks between consumers and the products or services they’re using, so that recognition of the brand in question is established in the digital space. Digital branding, therefore, isn’t necessarily concerned with generating and driving sales, like conventional marketing. Instead, it focuses on enhancing the public perception and awareness of the brand in the eyes of its customers.

In this fast-paced world, if you want to build a brand today you need a digital strategy and a dependable team, or a trusted, expert partner to work with you towards your brand’s digital goals. At Modular Digital, we live and breathe digital branding, and have worked with numerous businesses on digital brand launches and rebranding projects. So whatever the size, style, or reach of your brand, why not give our team of friendly experts a call to discuss your needs and ambitions in more detail?

You can reach out to Emma on 07584 652 285 or to get the conversation started.

Emma Millington

Emma Millington

Head of Customer Relations - Passionate about demystifying tech so we can all speak the same language

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