What is a Brand? (I)

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By Emmanuel Obeta

According to Roland Barthes, meaning can be elusive; it flows and drifts and is often hard to pin down. Regardless of that it still remains an endless search engraved in the heart of man. Meaning is also not manufactured or cast in concrete nor is it a given; it is up for negotiation and interpretation and the individual plays a very active role in the creation of this meaning.

In trying to define or arrive at the meaning of brands maybe the best place to start will be the history and origin of brands. Branding arguably commenced in ancient Egypt where brick makers were said to have put symbols on their bricks to identify them. In Europe the earliest signs of branding were the medieval guilds’ efforts to require craftsmen and craftswomen to put trademarks on their products to protect themselves and consumers against imitation and inferior quality. In the United States cattle ranchers would brand their livestock to more easily identify them. Manufacturers began to burn their identities onto the barrels that carried their products using a branding iron. The Guinness harp and the Bass red triangle are among the world’s oldest registered trademarks, being first registered in 1876.

In defining the term brands so many people have come up with different definitions or explanations as to what their own understanding of the term means.

The Economist defined a brand as a name given to a product and/or service such that it takes on an identity by itself. This forces us to ask a series of questions like. What is in a name? Does a name have any intrinsic meaning or significance? Can a name standing alone on its own make any meaning or are there things you imbue or embed in a name that makes it to attain or acquire significance? What is the concept of meaning and how do you arrive at meaning? In today’s marketplace teeming with thousands of products and services, all of which are being rapidly commoditized, how can a name as a brand make it stands out from the clutter and attract attention or gain the required identity?

The American Marketing Association’s went further in its definition of a brand in 1960 to introduce some other elements into the concept of brand. It defined brand as “A name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods or services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competitors”. By this definition they emphasized visual features as a means of identification and brand differentiation.

John Sherry went further to expatiate on this definition. According to him, three basic clusters of meaning have emerged based on the chronological account of the birth and development as well as the evolving changes in form and meaning (etymology) of the word brand. The first one clusters around the concept of ‘burning’ with connotations of guardianship, custodianship, family origin or roots. The second one relates to ‘marking’ which has connotations of ownership, and indelibility and an allusion to an intrinsic essence (something it has and unique to it which no other brand has or can have) and the third cluster centers around the “delivery or deliverance from danger, imitation or faking”). Other definitions of the brand also followed in very quick successions and from diverse sources as follows.

A brand is akin to a living being: it has an identity and personality, name, culture, vision, emotion and intelligence. All these are conferred by the owner of the brand and needs to be continuously looked at to keep the brand relevant to the target it intends to sell to.

A brand is a product, service, person, company, or a concept, which has characteristics like a name, symbol, etc. to be differentiated from others in the market. It is what makes the product identifiable and differentiable.

A brand is the combination of properties within and outside a product, which gives an identity to the generic product. It cannot be separated from the product.

Central to all these definitions are the purpose intended to be achieved by the branding effort like differentiation, identity, relevance etc. The definitions also expressly imply an active process of building these characteristics into the product by the brand owner, which then becomes the vehicular mode of expressing these inbuilt characteristics.

David Aaker however pointed out one huge anomaly in some of these definitions of the brand, which is that it has been framed as a cognitive and structural enterprise by Strategic marketing thereby overlooking the lived experience that consumers have of brands. Marketers according to John Sherry are behavioral architects or social engineers who in conjunction with consumers, public policy makers, and consumerists are involved in the never ending game of discovering, creating, translating, transforming and reconfiguring meaning which is the primary quest that drives the marketplace behavior.

Brands according to him are therefore essential ingredients in this equation because they are the principal repositories of meaning in the consumer culture both as a storehouse and as a powerhouse.

*Emmanuel Obeta is a Brands & Marketing Consultant with Directorate Level experience across FMCG, Banking and Public Service (eobeta@gmail.com ; +2348139322773)