The answer to “What’s a brand?” in the Age of Persuasion

Hey branders: the question is now settled. Let’s move on.

It’s one of the most frequent – and maddeningly circular – question that every brand  manager faces: what the heck is a brand?  Well, thumb sorry brand voodoo practitioners, health the argument is over. Toronto adman Terry O’Reilly has come  up with the last definition anyone needs. Read on.

So let’s have it: what is a brand?

I’m getting there. But this is hard for me. I’m a branding guy. And most days, medications those of us who DO branding professionally don’t want to think about the core of what we do. It’s just a brand okay?

I mean, would you ask a fund manager or a product manager “what’s a fund?” or “what’s a product?”

But it turns out the question isn’t so simple to non-branders; and it turns out how we branders answer that question dramatically changes how we approach branding as a discipline. So listen closely: if a brander says “a brand is a consumer product,” or “a logo,” or “a trade name,” or “a mark on a cow” you can bet they are going to approach the process of shaping your brand in very different – and potentially painful – ways.

Or imagine a branding consultant starting your exercise with this blustery explanation from Wikipedia:

Brand is the personality that identifies a product, service or company (name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or combination of them) and how it relates to key constituencies: Customers, Staff, Partners, Investors etc. Some people distinguish the psychological aspect, brand associations like thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and so on that become linked to the brand, of a brand from the experiential aspect…

Now if I were a less ethical man, I’d charge you $10,000(+tax and expenses) for what you just read there – and give you a bunch of baffling charts, voodoo incantations, and my patented Magic Brand Mood Watch ™. But that’s not how I roll.

Besides, Terry O’Reilly has now made all that unnecessary.

Branding in the Age of Persuasion

Terry O’Reilly is well known in Canada as the host of his brilliant CBC radio series The Age of Persuasion – and deserves to be well known around the world. He also blogs at, and, with his long-time collaborator Mike Tennant, has written a mind-blowingly useful and entertaining book The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture.

And while the whole book is awesome, the one sentence below changed my life:

Branding is at the core of all marketing. Different marketers have their own take on what branding really is, but to me, it means defining what a product or service promises and how it differs from the competition. (emphasis added – full excerpt here)

There you have it. Done. I’ll give you a minute for your world to stop rocking on its very foundations before I go on to talk about…

The two parts of what a brand is:

Part 1: “what a product or service promises”

The idea of brand as promise is not new. A lot of respected brand gurus definitions begin and end with this idea – just look at the Google search for “a brand is a promise”. I’ve  used it myself. It captures nicely the sense of a brand as a meeting place between the expectations your customers have, and the work that you do to set and meet those expectations.

Great, but what if everyone else is promising the same? That’s where part two of O’Reilly’s definition comes in:

Part 2: “how it differs from the competition”

Ah that lovely lovely word “differ”. For a brand to exist and serve a purpose for customers, it has to both 1) make a concrete, credible  promise and 2) create a meaningful, memorable impression that gives people a reason to choose one product over another.

So, what do you think?

Are we right here? Is this the ultimate, game changing formula for you too? Let us know.


9 thoughts on “The answer to “What’s a brand?” in the Age of Persuasion”

  1. More people know (and have always known) what a brand is and the process of building/sustaining one than I think people realize in social media land. It is easy to define, not so easy to do, and this definition debate is reserved for Marketing, Journalism, authors and PR folks who are generally defining brand online for their own content. Seems to be a fun debate. Meanwhile, great brand managers/leaders are helping marketers market a brand.

    1. I’ll agree with you on this: that there are many great brand managers and leaders out there, and I’ve had the privilege to work with a few, who are very clear about their own working definitions of brand. They just get it, and it shows in the powerful brands they build.

      Which is why I’m hoping to spread the word about Terry O’Reilly – who doesn’t just spout off about brands, but is a master in his own field of radio advertising as well as thinking deeply about the cultural *meaning* of what he does.

      I’ll also agree that we probably spend too much time debating finer points of theory when there’s real world work to be done. That’s why I’m pleased somebody has nailed down a solid practical definition like this one. It works and I can use it to help real world clients solve problems.

      But I can’t agree that this knowledge is commonplace, or that the “debate” is just for the chatter-sphere. Otherwise there would be more well crafted brands than bad ones – and we both know that just isn’t the case.

      Otherwise we’d both be out of a job.

  2. Well, I for one love this definition. It’s so elegant, concrete and useful.

    I’ve been *working* with a brand consultant for years and I still couldn’t easily articulate what a brand was. That little formula will help a lot with the brand work I’m doing in Action Studio.

    Thanks, Dennis!

    1. Yeah, and I’ll have to admit, I’ve been fishtailing around the edges of a definition myself for years. I’ve been much better at talking about what a brand ISN’T than what it IS – mostly that it ISN’T something you can own or fully control.

      The nice thing about this definition is that both parts are owned by the customer, not the brander. Promises are owned by the recipient, not the maker, and differentiation can’t exist in a vacuum: it MUST be judged relative to its counterpoints.

      There is no platonic ideal of your brand or mine hovering around in space waiting to be discovered. It needs to be worked out, negotiated into existence, debated on, and as much as possible, agreed on between real people.

  3. That is exactly how we have been defining “brand” for years, only in simpler form: “The promise you make to your customer.”

    People buy emotionally and justify logically. So a properly constructed definition of that promise establishes the “how you differ” by being emotionally relevant and engaging, and then DEFENDABLE (that is, does only your company actually fulfill what it promises, and is it the only company fulfilling that promise?)

    As simple as it is to say, it takes a lot of “roll up your sleeves” work that most people just don’t have the time, discipline, or methodology to do properly.

    I’ve seen this discussion a lot recently, more from the point that marketers and brand pros are adding to the noise and confusion by mixing and matching or “inventing” new definitions, or adding layers of “Brand things”: Statement, Essence, Promise, Magic, Mantra, Proposition that seem to dilute the very basis they establish. They will arrive at a fairly good Promise statement, and then add these thickened layers which then start to overlay words and ideas on the original Promise, with nuances (or in some cases I’ve seen, BOLD contrasts) that actually change meaning.

    I get it, we’re all trying to create the ultimate proprietary way (with a cool name) to arrive at a brand and market those services, but in the end we are sometimes hurting our own cause.

    1. Nice. I love your image of “thickening layers” – the additional complicating factors branders add to make themselves seem smart and clever, when the really clever brander is the one who removes layers.

      However, lest I appear thick myself, I’ve never felt that the equation Brand=Promise was enough – even if you nuance it by saying it must be RELEVANT, emotionally compelling, or whatever (all of which are part of the picture).

      One of my clients right now was trying to build a brand around this promise: Quality, Service, and Price. All good, and definitely relevant. But not different – either within their industry or across industries.

  4. Dennis,
    great. I forget whether it was a “branding” or something else talk you gave many years ago where you said your “brand” (or whatever it was) had to have a positioning statement (to anchor you) and then a differentiater (what makes you special). Hard to do, but very powerful when accomplished.

    Don’t know who came up with it first, but if something is good to go for you *and* Terry then it’s gotta be good.


    1. Ssshhh! I’m trying to help poor Terry O’Reilly feel like he came up with this by himself, and you go pointing out that I’ve been saying similar stuff all along!

      So yes, it’s true. I’ve always had two parts to my “Good Jazz” of a great brand (did I mention that in my talk?) – a left brain and a right brain, a yin and a yang, an anchor and a sail.

      But really, what I love about the PROMISE+DIFFER formula is not that it’s revolutionary, but that it makes good plain sense.

  5. Nice post, Dennis.

    I continue to be entertained by the (good and the bad) branding efforts of many businesses. Terry O’Reilly has a knack for exposing and explaining how and when the branding message works and when it does not. I have been a fan of his ‘The Age of Persuasion’ radio program for some time and I am glad to see that he has put out this book. Thank you for shining a light on it.

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