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The word “brand” can feel so loaded at times. Is it a logo? Is it a color palette? Is it that annoying thing we do to our businesses every year when we redesign our websites, contract out a designer to make a new logo, and make sure our look is updated to match current trends?

A brand is far more than what something looks like. It is the culmination of values and goals, molded by its actions and interpreted by its audience. A brand is not just what someone sees, it’s what they feel or think when they see it.

In this pilot episode, we dive into the foundations of what makes a brand, going back in history to determine where the term comes from and then taking a 21st century look at what it means for us today. Developing a brand means understanding the deeper principles and meaning behind what you do, and we begin to uncover what it means to build a successful brand through story and authenticity.

Highlights, Takeaways, Quick Wins
  • What you do with your brand reflects on you.
  • A brand is the culmination of values and goals, molded by its actions, and interpreted by its audience.
  • If you’re in business, you have a brand.
  • You don’t need to know everything about branding at first, but you do need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
  • It’s important your actions back up what you say your values are.
  • A brand is the personality and living organism behind the visuals—visuals simply attract people to the brand.
  • You can’t always control what people perceive about your brand, but you can make changes based on what people think and how they feel about it.
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Show Notes
  • 01:33 Cory: Today we’re going to be talking about a very fundamental question: what is a brand? It might seem really basic, but when it comes to the topic of branding, visual identity, mission, purpose, values, and all the stuff being a brand contains, there’s a lot of technical jargon out there and in-depth information on it. We wanted to provide something that’s a little easier to digest, like mashed potatoes instead of just a steak. First off, the word “brand” comes from the literal branding with a hot iron that a farmer does to his cattle to indictate they belong to him.
  • 03:24 Pre-seventeenth century, branding wasn’t so much for selling things as it was about a mark of ownership. When you say a brand it meant, “This belongs to me so leave it alone,” instead of, “This was made by me so buy it.” It wasn’t until the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that people started realizing there was something distinct about this business or name that has something associated with it.
  • 03:59 Kyle: Complimentary to the way we define a brand right now, those people would mark their cattle to declare ownership, but it also reflected on them how they take care of those animals. If the heard of cows runs through a neighbors crops destroying them, they know who did that, because of the branding on the cows. It sort of pays homage to what we call a brand today in the fact that:

What you do with your brand reflects on you.

  • 04:37 Cory: It’s an association with something bigger. Now, when you see a symbol or a logo, you associate it with something, just like back in the day, you’d see a brand or symbol and associate it with something. In the hay-day of the Roman empire, they had a certain symbol that the Roman soldiers would have on them to indicate they were part of something bigger. They belonged to Rome, and it was this sense of identity that this person, item, or animal was connected to something bigger. Knowing there’s been a history and evolution of the word “brand” will help give a little bit of clarity as we dive deeper into what a brand is today.
  • 05:57 Kyle: History in general is really important to keep in mind—a brand has a permanent history. Looking back at the history of the word “brand” is great, but keep in mind that in the same way these things were permanently branded onto an item or animal, it’s similar to what you’re creating with a brand. you’re permanently putting that in place and what you do with it from there determines what the outcome of that brand will be.

What Is a Brand?

  • 06:47 Cory: Robert Jones, who is a strategist at Wolff Ollins, a consultancy in the UK, said something I thought was incredible, “A brand is what you stand for.” I was thinking about that when coming up with what we wanted to be the cannon of our definition of the word “brand” on the show. Basically, what he’s saying is a brand is what people think and feel about you when they see your brand. What are people thinking and feeling when they hear your name, your company’s name, see your logo, or go to your website?
  • 07:39 Kyle: Why don’t we introduce ourselves? We’ve come to this definition of a brand together, but maybe giving people some insight into who we are will help them connect why we came to this decision.
  • 08:03 Cory: My background is in design. I’ve been in the design community for the last 10 years or so working with nonprofits, churches, and companies to help them craft a visual identity and a holistic brand story. It’s more than just what people see on the outside, but helping to connect what their audience, customers, or clients see to what the heart of their mission is. I currently work for seanwes full-time. I connect more with people’s stories and I help flesh that out. My background has been mostly pushing forth from what’s deeper inside, more than what’s on the outside.
  • 09:06 Kyle: I’m an icon designer and I’ve been working on my skills for the past 12 years or so in the design community. I’ve gone through multiple brand successes and failures throughout that time, so I’ve been trying to find what I do and why I do it. I have a passion for making great icons so I’ve made that my full-time job and now I have the honor of helping great brands enhance their message.

A brand is the culmination of values and goals, molded by its actions, and interpreted by its audience.

  • 10:16 Cory: You’ll notice there’s not necessarily any talk about what a brand looks like or the experience people have with a brand. You have to go much deeper into what a brand is to understand that values and actions go hand-in-hand. The things you want to do and the things you will do are what help build out your brand. You can say you’re a brand who cares about its costumers, but if you don’t have any level of customer support, you refuse to offer refunds, and you keep your customers at an arm’s reach, then your actions truly dicate what kind of brand you are.
  • 12:18 Kyle: We got some great questions earlier in the Community chat room. Sarah asks, “Does the fact in I’m in business mean I have a brand? If yes, what should be the first steps into finding it?” I think a lot of people get confused with this. If you have a business, even if you’re just an individual who posts things and you want to grow an audience, or especially if you’re a company, you have a brand whether you like it or not. What are the things you’re sharing? Why are you sharing those things?
  • 12:46 Who are you trying to bring under you? Who do you want to care about what you’re doing? All of those things make it to where you have a brand, you just haven’t acknowledged it yet. You haven’t done the research to figure out who your target audience should be or tried to reach that target audience. You’re sitting there thinking, “Well people come to me and like what I do,” but if you don’t have a clear understanding of what that brand is, you’re missing out on a lot of things.

If you’re in business, you have a brand.

  • 13:22 If you’re an individual who makes logos and every time you post online, you post your designs, you have a brand, and that brand just needs to be defined and molded. On the seanwes podcast, they talk about the fact that people are going to put you in a box. They’re going to define you as something whether you like it or not, so you need to guide people in the right direction. A brand is essentially moving people in the right direction and getting them under what you believe and what you care about.
  • 14:06 Cory: I like that you said it applies even when you’re doing something on your own, like posting something, not necessarily in business. You have some kind of expression. The fact that people see you doing something and they perceive you as in a certain category means you have a brand, because a brand is ultimately perception—how people feel and think about you. It’s how you are perceived by others. There’s a lot of clarity that comes when you think, “I have to do branding, so I have to pick cool colors, make a logo, and get a typeface,” but the truth is a brand is not just a logo, colors, or a typeface. It’s how people feel about you, your work, and the experience they have with you.
  • 15:07 Kyle: Which leads into not being about you. In a sense, it’s about what you’re trying to achieve, but your goal with the brand is to reach people. You need to understand what you are trying to achieve, especially if you’re branding yourself. At first that may take some time, but you first need to understand the general premise of what you would like to do and try to reach those people. They don’t need to understand every single aspect of you, they just need to understand the parts that lead them into being “raving fans”—a part of your brand.

Focus on the Why of Your Brand

  • 16:10 Cory: Keshna asked, “Should you know everything about branding if you’re just starting out?” Absolutely not. If you’re just starting as a brand, you’re wanting to start a business, you’re thinking about posting consistently on Instagram, you’re wanting to sell something on Etsy, or you want to create a multimillion dollar company:

You don’t need to know everything about branding at first, but you do need to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

  • 16:50 The easiest questions to ask yourself are: what do you want to do and why? Who’s it for? What problem are you solving? These are the building blocks of a brand foundation. You’ve got to know where you’re going in order to know how you’re going to get there. As you define who you are and the brand you want, you’ve got to have something down the line you can look at and say, “That’s where I want to be. That’s the business I want to have. That’s the company I want to have.” Then, you start working backwards and ask yourself how to get to that point.
  • 17:27 Kyle: That leads into a question Emily asked earlier, “What is a good way to educate people on what a brand is and what a brand is not?” A lot of your actions are what speak that. If you know what you’re going for and what you’d like them to understand, and you’re not getting that message across, then there’s no real way to educate someone on what your brand is. You have to speak more through actions, the way you present things, and hold to your values. Put those things out publicly and let people know this is what you do, and then do that.
  • 18:11 Cory: There’s a great divide between what you say you’re going to do and what you actually do. You can say one thing, but if you don’t follow through on that, then that’s part of your brand. Here in the US, we have various phone carriers and several years ago AT&T had an “unlimited” plan, which people started realizing wasn’t actually the case. A they were using data, their speeds would get throttled. People started saying, “You promised me one thing and now you’re doing another,” and that affected what people’s perception of the brand was. They were seen as tricksters and for a time, that was a huge aspect of how people looked at phone companies. There’s so many things a brand can do that connect with what your brand promises. It’s important that your actions back up what you say your values are.
  • 19:47 Kyle: You need to define how you’re going to go about doing this, but at first don’t feel bad if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing with branding, because a lot of that gets defined as your audience starts growing in the early stages of your brand. A brand is a personality or a person. You’re born, you start growing, you learn some things, and as you hear influences from other people, that defines you as a person.
  • 20:31 It starts to mold you and shape you into what you actually want to accomplish in life—it gives you purpose and meaning. When you begin focusing on your brand, just know it’s not going to be perfect at first—there’s going to be stumbles and hurdles. The values you put in place should remain as you’re growing it, but there are a lot of things you’ll learn. I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve been doing icon design full-time for a year now, and what I would have told you my brand is all about a year ago is different than now.
  • 21:10 The core values of how I’d like to run my business and the way I treat people are the same, but a lot of the ways I try to reach people is different now because I’ve heard from those people and I’ve listened. If this seems overwhelming, I want to encourage you to sit back a little and think about where you’re at now. Really focus on what you’d like to accomplish right now.
  • 21:39 Cory: Over the last year or so, as you’ve been going out on your own and doing icon design full-time, you said your methods of reaching your audience have changed. Have your values changed? Have you found there are core principles of your personal brand that have changed, or have those stayed the same and the methods have changed?
  • 22:06 Kyle: It’s more of a method change, the values haven’t changed. The core values I hold true to, like building my own platform—having my store and contact page on my website—is an example. The way I’ve reached people has changed to a degree because I actually understand their problems. I’ve reached out to people and asked them to talk to me about what they don’t understand about icons or why they don’t think it would be viable as a business. There are people who don’t understand how I can make icons as a business. Through that, I’ve been able to communicate better not only to my audience, but also to my clients. I want them to know why they should care about icons. It’s just the way I’ve communicated with people that has changed and because of that, there’s been shifts in the way I want my brand to be perceived.

Shaping the Perception of Your Brand

  • 23:37 Cory: I want to speak to the idea of educating people on what a brand is and what it’s not. I want to take a look at the language we’re using. It’s frustrating to me when people say they did a rebrand, so I ask what it contained, and they say, “We got a new logo.” Is that the only thing that changed? That’s not a rebrand, that’s a visual update. There’s this hierarchy of a brand—visual, color palette, logo, typefaces, etc. If you call things something they’re not, that’s going to effect how people feel about what a brand is. As people in the creative industry or branding, it’s important to take a look at the words we use and realize that there’s so much more to what a brand is. Have clearly defined terms so that there’s no confusion—that’s how you can have more power in what you say.
  • 25:36 Kyle: This goes back to personifying as well. I’d love to sit here and say, “All the visuals are what make a brand,” but they’re not. Visuals are almost the last thing that help communicate a brand and push it forward. It’s important, but seeing the brand as a person, you have values and ways you like to communicate, which are very much reflected by the clothes you wear, the words you say, where you go, and what you spend your time doing. All of those things shape how people perceive you and what they think they can get from you. The core values and personality behind it are what really define a brand.

A brand is the personality and living organism behind the visuals.

Visuals simply attract people to the brand.

  • 26:57 Cory: Everyone wears different kinds of clothes and if I were to look at the person and say, “By the clothes you’re wearing, I’m going to infer you are a certain kind of person.” You also have to be careful though, because you can’t always judge a book by its cover, but the things we wear are an expression of what’s happening on the inside. As a person, I wear jeans and a graphic t-shirt and that says something about who I am to a certain degree. The clothes I choose and what I like is an expression of who I am, and in the same way, with a brand, you have to have that outward expression, because people are going to perceive you in certain ways.
  • 27:50 We had a lot of questions earlier along the lines of, “How do you shape what people perceive you as?” Ben asked, “If you find your audience is defining some aspect of your brand you haven’t purposefully shaped, should you try to take control of that and shift if in the direction you would like it to go? Or should you shape your brand around the perception of your audience?”
  • 28:15 Kyle: Even on the clothing topic, what you wear doesn’t necessarily define you, but it does give people a certain perception before they meet you. You may be the nicest person in the world, but if you dress like you’re going to beat that person up if they approach you, there are certain people who won’t approach you because they’re unsure about you. If your audience is perceiving you in a different way than you intend, then it’s either by the your actions or even your visual identity—maybe you’re looking differently than you act. I know plenty of good people that some people might not approach, or on the other side, some people might think, “They won’t like me,” about them. It might be that if someone is perceiving your brand in a way you’re not intending them to, you might not be reaching the right audience.

You can’t always control what people perceive about your brand, but you can make changes based on what people think and how they feel about it.