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The Language of Branding

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by Brad VanAuken, President & Founder, BrandForward, Inc.


Brad Vanauken

It is important to establish a common brand-management vocabulary in your organization.

The set of definitions below will facilitate communication with fewer misunderstandings and help communicate and reinforce key brand-management principles.


The American Marketing Association describes a brand as a “name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and to differentiate them from those of competition.”

More important, a brand is the source of a promise to the consumer. It promises relevant differentiated benefits. Everything an organization does should be focused on enhancing delivery against its brand’s promise.

Combining a few different definitions, a brand is the name and symbols that identify:

  • the source of a relationship with the consumer
  • the source of a promise to the consumer
  • the unique source of products and services
  • the single concept that you own inside the mind of the prospect (according to brand management experts Al Ries and Laura Ries, in their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding)
  • the sum total of each customer’s experience with your organization

Another way to think about brands is that they are personifications of organizations and their products and services. They can hold certain values, have specific personalities, possess admirable qualities, stand for something, make promises, and create emotional connections with people.

Brand Archetype

The brand archetype identifies the primary quality or motivation that underlies the brand’s view of the world and its behavior. In his book Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs provides examples of seven archetypes—the pioneer, the rebel, the magician, the jester, the captain, the defender, and the muse. We use 27 different archetypes when we work with clients, including achiever, advocate, explorer, guide, healer, poet, sage, trickster, and wizard, among others.

Brand Architecture (or Brand Structure)

Think of brand architecture as a brand’s family tree or its hierarchy. It is how an organization organizes named entities within its portfolio and how they relate to each other. Ideally, the brand architecture is simple, with no more than two levels: brand and sub-brands. In fact, brand/sub-brand is the type of architecture most often used. Some organizations add a third level: named products. But any more than two levels can be confusing.

The four general types of architecture are:

  1. master brand
  2. brand/sub-brand
  3. endorsed brand
  4. separate (standalone or independent) brands


Brand Associations

Anything consumers associate with the brand in their minds. As David Aaker, “guru” of brand management, points out, these associations can be organizational, product related, symbolic, or personified. If there is a strong brand connection with a specific retail outlet, the associations could also be based on the retail experience.

Brand DNA

This term, which has been used in a variety of ways, is similar to brand essence. It is the core stuff of which the brand is made, including its core values, competencies, and passions.

Brand Equity

The commercial value of all associations and expectations (positive and negative) that people have in relation to an organization and its products and services due to all experiences of, communications with, and perceptions of the brand over time.

Value can be measured in several ways, including as the economic value of the brand asset itself, as the price premium (to the end consumer or the trade) that the brand commands, as the long-term consumer loyalty the brand evokes, or as the market share gains it results in, among many others. From an economist’s perspective, brand equity is the power of the brand to shift the consumer demand curve of a product or service, to achieve a price premium or a market-share gain.

Brand equity components include awareness, accessibility, value, relevant differentiation, emotional connection, preference, usage, loyalty, and vitality.

To use a metaphor, brand equity is like a pond. People may not know how long the pond has been around or when it first filled with water, but they know that it supports life, from ducks to deer. It also may provide recreation, irrigation, even human drinking water. Clearly it is a valuable resource. But many people take the pond for granted. It seems as if nothing can diminish its supply of water, although sometimes that rises with the spring rains or lowers after a long drought or overuse for irrigation.

Similarly, brand equity is a reservoir of goodwill. Brand-building activities, consistently pursued over time, will ensure that the reservoir remains full. Neglecting those activities or taking actions that might deplete reserves will reduce the reservoir, imperceptibly at first, but soon all too noticeably until it is too late and all that is left is mud.

This illustrates a chronic difficulty in brand management. Brand equity is critically important to a company’s success, yet because of its reservoir-like nature, it is often taken for granted, overly drawn upon, and not adequately replenished, especially in times of crisis or to meet short-term needs.

Brand Essence

The heart and soul of a brand—a brand’s fundamental nature or quality. Usually stated in two or three words, a brand’s essence is the one constant across product categories and throughout the world. Some examples are:

  • Nike: Authentic Athletic Performance
  • Hallmark: Caring Shared
  • Disney: Fun Family Entertainment
  • Disney World: Magical Fun
  • Starbucks: Rewarding Everyday Moments
  • The Nature Conservancy: Saving Great Places

It is rare for an organization’s brand essence and slogan to be the same. For instance, Nike’s essence—Authentic Athletic Performance—was translated as the slogans “Just do it!” and “I can.” The Nature Conservancy’s brand essence, however, also served as its previous slogans: “Saving the Last Great Places” and “Saving the Last Great Places on Earth.” Its current slogan is “Protecting nature. Preserving life.”

Kevin Keller, brand expert and author of the popular book Strategic Brand Management, has coined the term brand mantra, which is very closely related to brand essence. The “mantra” concept reinforces the role of brand essence in internal communication. According to Keller, it should define the category of business for the brand, set brand boundaries, clarify what is unique about the brand, and be memorable.

Brand Extension

Applying the existing brand to new products, services, or consumer segments. If done by combining an existing brand with a new brand, the new one is a sub-brand. Executed properly, brand extensions can broaden and clarify the meaning of the brand. Improperly done, they can dilute or confuse the brand’s meaning

Brand Identity

A combination of visual, auditory, and other sensory components that create recognition, represent the brand promise, provide differentiation, create communications synergy, and are proprietary. Although some people define brand identity more broadly to encompass almost everything in a brand’s design, including essence, promise, personality, and positioning, the more specific definition reflects the most common usage.

Names and nomenclature, logotypes, symbols and other graphic devices, distinctive shapes and colors, brand voice and visual style, sounds, jingles and other mnemonic devices, typography, theme lines or slogans, and characters that are uniquely associated with a brand are all components of a brand’s identity. Textures, scents, flavors, and other sensory elements also can be components.

Brand Image

The totality of perceptions resulting from all experience with and knowledge of the brand—in other words, how consumers perceive the brand.

Brand Personality

Brand personality refers to adjectives that describe the brand (such as fun, kind, sexy, safe, sincere, sophisticated, cheerful, old-fashioned, reliable, progressive, etc.). How consumers perceive a brand’s personality is often discovered through qualitative research by asking people to describe the brand as if it were a person or an animal.

Brand Portfolio

The mix of brands and sub-brands owned by an organization. This portfolio should be actively managed.

Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is the way the brand is perceived within a given competitive set in the consumer’s mind. Ideally, it is a function of the brand’s promise and of how the brand compares with other choices with regard to quality, innovation, perceived leadership, value, prestige, trust, safety, reliability, performance, convenience, concern for customers, social responsibility, and technological superiority. Relevant differentiation is the most important aspect of brand positioning.

Brand positioning elements can be intentional and crafted by the marketer—for instance, in the brand positioning statement. The brand essence, promise, archetype, and personality can also exist in the mind of the consumer. Ideally, what is in consumers’ minds is congruent with the intended brand positioning.

One could argue that brand essence, promise, archetype, and personality are all a part of the brand positioning.

Brand Promise

To be successfully positioned in the marketplace, a brand must promise differentiated benefits that are relevant and compelling to the consumer. The benefits can be functional, experiential, emotional, or self-expressive.

A brand promise is often stated as:

Only [brand name] delivers [benefit] in [product or service category].

Sometimes, with corporate brands, it is stated as:

[Brand name] is the [trusted/quality/innovative] leader in [benefit] in the [product or service category].

To be believable, brand promises require compelling proof points (and what advertising professionals call “reasons to believe”) in support of the brand’s promise. A brand promise must:

  • Address important consumer needs.
  • Leverage the organization’s strengths.
  • Give the organization a competitive advantage through differentiation.
  • Inspire, energize, and mobilize its people.
  • Drive every organizational decision, system, action, and process.
  • Manifest itself in the organization’s products and services.

As respected marketing consultant Kristin Zhivago once said, a brand is not an icon, a slogan, or a mission statement. It is a promise your company can keep.

Corporate Brand

The brand bearing the company name, and always the highest in a brand hierarchy.

Endorsed Brand

The primary name the consumer uses to refer to a product. It is a brand that is endorsed by the parent or corporate brand in the brand identity system and given much greater visual weight than the parent brand. In this situation, the corporate or parent brand lends credibility or assurance to the endorsed brand without overpowering it with its own associations. An example is Shoebox, a tiny division of Hallmark.

Parent Brand

A brand that is extended into more than one product category. It may or may not be the same as the corporate brand.

Private Label

The phrase describes products or services that are manufactured or otherwise sourced by one company to be sold under another company’s brand name.


A new brand that is combined with a parent or corporate brand in the brand identity system. The sub-brand can make the parent brand more vital and relevant to a new consumer segment or within a new product category.

Trade Dress

This term refers to aesthetic elements that provide legal protection for a brand’s identity. For example, Coca-Cola’s bottle shape is a part of its trade dress, as are Absolut Vodka’s bottle shape and Harley-Davidson’s engine sound.

Unique Value Proposition

A brand’s unique value proposition is what makes it seem unique and compelling to its target customers. In this way, it is similar to its promise.

Brad VanAuken is the president and founder of BrandForward, Inc., a brand strategy consultancy with clients throughout the world. Previously, he was director of brand management and marketing for Hallmark Cards. An active speaker, he has often been interviewed by national media. This article is derived from the new Second Edition of his book Brand Aid: A Quick Reference Guide to Solving Your Branding Problems and Strengthening Your Market Position © 2015 Brad VanAuken. amacombooks.org.

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