What is a brand?

Before we can talk about Brand Strategy, we need to agree on what a brand is. 

Wikipedia says “a brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers. Brands are used in business, marketing, and advertising. Name brands are sometimes distinguished from generic or store brands.”

Hmm. Ok. Seems to lack a certain je ne sais quoi.


What do the gurus say?

Apparently everything, according to an almost endless list of quotes that author Heidi Cohen put together: 


“Brand is a known identity of a company in terms of what products and services they offer but also the essence of what the company stands for in terms of service and other emotional, non tangible consumer concerns. To brand something is when a company or person makes descriptive and evocative communications, subtle and overt statements that describe what the company stands for. For example, is the brand the most economical, does it stands for superior service, is it an environmental responsible provider of x,y,z service or product. Each communication is deliberate in evoking emotion in the receiver to leave him/her with an essence of what the company or person stands for.

Donna Antonucci


“A brand is a reason to choose.” 

Cheryl Burgess – Blue Focus Marketing


“A brand symbol as “anything that leaves a mental picture of the brand’s identity.” 

Leo Burnett


“Brands are shorthand marketing messages that create emotional bonds with consumers. Brands are composed of intangible elements related to its specific promise, personality, and positioning and tangible components having identifiable representation including logos, graphics, colors and sounds. A brand creates perceived value for consumers through its personality in a way that makes it stand out from other similar products. Its story is intricately intertwined with the public’s perception and consistently provides consumers with a secure sense that they know what they’re paying for. In a world where every individual is also a media entity, your consumers own your brand (as it always was).”

Heidi Cohen – Riverside Marketing Strategies


“In today’s social, customer-controlled world, marketers may be spending their money to build a brand. But they don’t own it. In their influential book, Groundswell, Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff state “your brand is whatever your customers say it is…” As a marketer, this means that, while a brand is the emotional relationship between the consumer and the product, you must engage with consumers and build positive brand associations. The deeper the relationship, the more brand equity exists.”

Neil Feinstein – True North


“Brand is the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization. Branding is about shaping that perception. “

Ashley Friedlein – Econsultancy


“A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. “

Seth Godin – Author of Linchpin


“Brand is the image people have of your company or product. It’s who people think you are. Or quoting Ze Frank, it’s the “emotional aftertaste” that comes after an experience (even a second-hand one) with a product, service or company.  (Also, it’s the mark left after a red-hot iron is applied to a steer’s hindquarters.)”

Ann Handley – MarketingProfs, Author with C.C. Chapman of Content Rules


“A brand is 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 the competitor. “

Phillip Kotler – Author of Marketing Management


“That old “a brand is a promise” saw holds true, but only partially true.” 

Rebecca Lieb, author of The Truth About Search Engine Optimization


“A brand is the meaningful perception of a product, a service or even yourself –either good, bad or indifferent — that marketers want people to believe based on what they think they hear, see, smell, taste and generally sense from others around them.” 

Josh Moritz


“A brand is “The intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.” 

David Ogilvy, Author of On Advertising


“A brand is a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect.” 

Al Ries – Author of Positioning: the Battle for Your Mind


“A brand is essentially a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.” 

Sergio Zyman, Author of The End of Advertising As We Know It‘


Summing It All Up

One of my fave gurus, Marty Neumeier, defines a brand by first describing what it is not: “A brand is not a logo. A brand is not an identity. A brand is not a product.” He then declares that “a brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”

Finally, the last word goes to Calin Hertioga + Johannes Christensen writing for Interbrand, who point out the obvious:

“Experts do not share a common view of what “brand” means. They call it everything from a gut feeling, a living memory, or an interface, to an intangible sum of attributes, or a business asset. To confuse matters further, many are using “brand” when they actually mean something else (e.g., “company” or “image”) 

Or “logo” as Marty said. That’s the most common thing I hear people refer to as a brand. Nope. Not it.


Just to be clear…

A logo is not a brand. 

Same brand, different logos.

How I Define a Brand

Let’s go back to Hertioga + Christensen, who wrap things up with this definition: 

“A brand is the sum of all expressions by which an entity (person, organization, company, business unit, city, nation, etc.) intends to be recognized.” 

Ok. That works, though it still lacks a little je ne sais quoi. 

Which leads me to my definition. Along the lines of Hertioga + Christensen and Jay Moritz, here’s how I see it:

A brand is the result of your attempts to influence how people perceive you.

The ‘you’ in this case is a slightly expanded version of the list from Hertioga + Christensen:  a person, place, thing, organization, company, business unit, city, nation,  etc. 

Because a brand is all about perception, I tell clients that they don’t control a lot of the final result. That’s up to their customers, their community, their competitors, the press, etc. But they do control some of it — how it looks, what it says, what the values behind it are and how they’re expressed.

And that’s why they sometimes hire someone like me to help them figure that stuff out.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere



A new brand called Starbucks

The first time I needed to deliver insights on demand, I had no idea what I was doing. That’s because I wasn’t a strategist yet; in fact I didn’t even know the role existed. Lucky for me, I had the benefit of being mentored by some geniuses who did know what it was, and they got me started off on the right foot.

Here’s the story: after getting out of film school and working in Hollywood for awhile, I got discouraged by it all and moved to Seattle to become the writer I had always intended to be. Which meant I needed a day job.

During my job search, I somehow found myself in a conversation with a charismatic guy named Scott Bedbury, talking about an ambitious company that had just hired him. The company was Starbucks and Scott was the new SVP of Brand. 

Before Howard Schultz lured him out of early retirement, Scott had been the worldwide head of marketing for Nike. During his time there, he played a leadership role in bringing the brand up from third place behind LA Gear (!), through the Bo Knows and Just Do It eras, to become the #1 athletic brand in the world, a position it still holds today.

I had no clue about any of that. I was a wanna-be screenwriter who had optioned one script and written a couple of others that got some notice, but still hadn’t sold anything. So I needed a j-o-b, and that’s why I was talking to Scott.

He talked a great game about how Nike had exhausted traditional marketing and it was time to do things a new way. He spun a dazzling vision about how Starbucks could do things differently, without using the hackneyed playbook of yesteryear. 

I was impressed, but I told him I didn’t know a thing about marketing. I’d gone to USC film school, worked on indie movies good and bad, did my time in the studio system, and was looking to write things I believed in. Marketing was a foreign concept to me.

“Good,” I remember him saying. He wouldn’t have to un-train me. He could tap into the skills I’d honed in Hollywood to help him fulfill a vision he had for a new approach to marketing based on storytelling. This was in the late 90s, mind you, before storytelling became something everyone claims they know how to do on their resume. 

Although it sounded fascinating to me, I told him I wasn’t interested. I was a writer, dammit, and I needed to spend my precious time writing. However, I did say I’d be happy to help out for a couple of months in whatever way I could while he looked for people who were interested. 

And with that, I worked for Scott at Starbucks for five years, jumpstarting my strategy education in what was at the time one of the fastest growing brands in the world. And those geniuses I learned it from? Scott of course, but also Jody Hall,  Jerome Conlon, Kim Malek, Arthur Rubinfeld, and the boss himself, Howard Schultz.


“Go Off and Do Some Thinking”

One day a year or so into my two month gig, Scott asked me to go off and do some thinking about what Starbucks could mean in culture. Nowadays I would take that as a request to go find useful insights or a Big Idea / BOI. Back then I took it as a charge to get away of the office and think about how to describe what made Starbucks unique.

The company was growing fast and had recently hired a bunch of disciplined operators who focused on sales per square foot and quarterly financials and throughput. Scott worried that if we didn’t develop the brand into something more durable and differentiated, we’d become the McDonalds of coffee. Which is a funny thing to say now, because I’d never even heard of the word differentiated back then.

One more confession: I didn’t actually drink coffee at that time in my life. I first went to Starbucks because it was a short walk from my office at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, where I was an assistant in the Feature Film Development department. Because I’d worked on the TV side of the studio, I knew some of the writers on Frazier had discovered the small Starbucks on Larchmont Blvd and they raved about it to the rest of us.

I’d go there to write, naturally. That’s why I was in Hollywood after all. It worked for me because I loved the vibe and the music and the smell and the design. At the time, it was refreshing and egalitarian in a way that Hollywood really wasn’t. Harvey Weinstein pretty much ran the town back then and now we all know what that means. It was an ugly and depressing and oppressive and dispiriting place. Starbucks is where I would go to get away from all that. 

When Scott sent me off to think about what made Starbucks unique, I grabbed a stack of research books and headed for a local coffeehouse called Zeitgeist in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. I felt like I needed some separation from Starbucks to give myself a bit of perspective on the brand.

I found a spot at the window, watching the rain come down and checking out the people around me — tattooed pierced hipsters and multicultural tech geeks; a couple of new moms and a gray haired man reading an actual newspaper; a few business suits and two cops. And then I got hit by what I call the lightning strike of insight — Starbucks shared a lineage with the European coffeehouse, where for centuries the aristocracy and local commoners could freely mingle. 

That got me off and running. I cracked open a book and read about how, in the 1600s, coffeehouses were called penny universities because for just a penny, anyone from any rung of the social ladder could buy a cup of coffee and debate the issues of the day. I read about how ideas were shared, art was created, music played, and ideologies spread across Europe. I read some who claimed the Enlightenment was born in the coffeehouse and others who claimed the French Revolution was.

At some point in the thick of all that, I grabbed my trusty notepad and wrote a note to myself — “Starbucks is the American version of the European coffeehouse,” with another note about becoming “a hub of art, music, literature and culture.”

Lofty perhaps, but I was after a big idea and this felt like one. I wrote it up as a white paper called It’s the Coffeehouse, Stupid and sent it to Scott. 

Lots happened with it after that, mostly above my pay grade. But I got lucky: the idea had traction and did what it needed to do — move the needle with the people who made decisions. 

More importantly for this story, it was the first time I developed an insight for a brand. It was also the start of my journey as a strategist who had to learn how to go from being lucky at developing insights to being good at it.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere



The Creative Hierarchy of Needs

You may have noticed that when I talk about the work Creatives do, I prefer to say “tackling a challenge” rather than “solving a problem.” Creatives solve problems of course, because clients typically hire them when they have the kind of problem that needs a creative solution. So there’s that. 

However, to me the language of problem solving is, er, problematic. It suggests that without an identified problem, Creatives have nothing much to contribute. Oy vey. As anyone who works with them can tell you, Creatives will be contributing something whether it solves a problem or not. 

In my experience that’s because, left to their own devices, the question that Creatives secretly yearn to tackle is definitely not “what’s the solution to this or that problem?” but rather “how cool would it be if…”

IMHO any client that learns to harness that yearning (yes, even to solve problems) will have Creatives giving them the best work of their lives.

And it will be because they’ve stumbled onto something I’ve come to call The Creative Hierarchy of Needs, a Maslow-inspired pyramid that peaks with Creatives asking themselves “I wonder if…”, then diving in to find out

The Creative Hierarchy of Needs


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere



What Creative Strategists do

A multi-billion dollar client of mine was struggling with the performance of a new product extension and commissioned their in-house HI (Human Intelligence) team to evaluate why consumers weren’t all that into it. 

Here’s the insight the marketing team got back from HI a few weeks later:

Insight 1:   Consumer confusion between Existing Product X and New Product Y. Need to differentiate more

Insight 2:   Emphasize ease of use

Ok, raise your hand if you already know that a new product needs to be differentiated, and that being easy-to-use is a good idea? Really? All of you know that? Wow. /s

I’m just gonna say it — those are not strategic insights. They’re table-stakes. The real question is, why weren’t they understood as table-stakes before anyone got started on product development? In my experience, this is a cycle that too many companies get into — thinking that Captain Obvious ideas like these are insights. They’re not.

Ok, if you think you’re so smart, Chris, how about you tell us what an insight is. 

Thank you, I will. But first…


What does the Internet say?

Let’s look at how the Internet defines it:

Wikipedia: A customer insight, or consumer insight, is an interpretation of trends in human behaviors which aims to increase the effectiveness of a product or service for the consumer, as well as increase sales for the financial benefit of those provisioning the product or service. 

TechTarget: Customer insight, also known as consumer insight, is the understanding and interpretation of customer data, behaviors and feedback into conclusions that can be used to improve product development and customer support. Insights are the actionable motivations behind the wants and needs of customers that can be used to expand features, develop new products and create consumer benefits.  

SurveyMonkey: Market research gathers data on consumer behavior using research methods like interviews, focus groups, experiments, and surveys. Consumer insights dig deeper into market research results to explain the “why” behind a statistic. 

Monkeylearn: A consumer insight is information that a business gathers about their audience to get a deeper understanding about what they need — and their sentiment towards the business.

Sprinklr: Consumer insights, or customer insights, interpret trends in consumer behavior. It gives a further look into the customer journey, from what consumers are buying to why they’re making buying decisions and how they’re feeling about a brand or product. 

Trustpilot: A consumer insight is an interpretation used by businesses to gain a deeper understanding of how their audience thinks and feels. Analysing human behaviours allows companies to really understand what their consumers want and need, and most importantly, why they feel this way. 

Attest: A consumer insight is specific information about the opinions and behaviours of consumers, that doesn’t just explain what they do, prefer or think, but also the reason behind it. 

Zendesk: A consumer insight (or customer insight) is the information about a specific group of buyers and what they want. 

DemandJump:The word “insight” is defined in the dictionary as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep, intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” Consumer insights highlight more individualized shopping behaviors, and may restrict data to a specific market, industry, or company. This is how consumer market insights provide actionable revelations companies can implement to improve business performance. 

Indeed: Customer insights refer to the reporting and analysis of the behaviors, data and feedback of consumers.

Two Thoughts

Most of these definitions revolve around the “the opinions and behaviors of consumers,” with a few tacking on something about what “consumers want and need, and… why they feel this way.”

Two thoughts here: first of all, “opinions and behaviors” is good to know when developing insights, so I buy that. And knowing why someone feels the way they do is super-helpful.

What I don’t buy is that people always know what they want or why they feel what they feel! 

Or as Steve Jobs famously put it:

“Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!'” 

Exactly. And here’s the kicker:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Now to be fair, Apple does rely on market research and always has. They just don’t use it to ask customers what they want. Instead, Apple looks to their internal experts for that insight.


My Definition of Insight

Ok, my turn.

Stealing from Jobs, here’s how I define an insight:

An insight is informed intuition about what an audience wants and why they want it, often before they even know they want it themselves.

That’s it.

Everything else is just run-of-the-mill research data that every competitor has access to. But insights about what your audience wants before they know they want it? That’s unique to you and your client.

And being unique is of course the whole point of strategy.

WTH, you may be thinking. “Informed intuition” sounds like new-agey bullshit, not strategy. And knowing what an audience wants before they do? That sounds like voodoo. Nope. Let me explain.


Informed Intuition?

The term Informed Intuition was coined by Organizational Theorist Geoffrey Moore in his seminal book Crossing the Chasm, where he writes about how innovative companies can ‘cross the chasm’ between early adopters and mass audiences with their products. 

Moore explains that at some point in its growth trajectory, every new product faces a crucial moment where a low-data, high-risk decision has to be made and the decision-makers have no solid case with which to make it. So what do they do?

Moore says they should rely on Informed Intuition, an analysis technique that merges the useful data fragments they do have with a few high-quality mental images of the audience they’re targeting.  

When the book was published in 1991, Moore called these mental images “data characterizations” because they encapsulated “characteristic market behaviors.” Today most strategists would call them Personas (or Composites as I like to call them — more on that later).


From Informed Intuition to Insight

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re helping a client position a new product, so don’t have a lot of historical data to guide you. Or you’re trying to reposition an underperforming product and most of the data are bad, except for a few useful fragments. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out a seasonal campaign message that will break through.

If any of that does sound familiar, then guess what? According to Moore, you’re facing the exact kind of low-data, high-risk decision that informed intuition can help with. 

The good news is that you already have one a very useful tools to help you cross that chasm: Personas / Composites. That’s because building them right can help you do one very specific thing — inform your intuition about who your target audience is.

Which in turn sets you up to develop deeper insights about what that audience wants and why, often before they even know it themselves.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere



Consumer v. Audience

We need to talk about the word “consumer.” 

I hate it. 

I think it makes human beings sound like flesh-eating bacteria. Or maybe post-apocalyptic zombies. Take your pick.

Whatever. I think we should stop using it.

For a while there I thought I was the only person working with brands who felt this way. Then I finally cracked open Marty Neumeier’s book Brand Flip and read this:

“The best customers are no longer consumers or market segments or tiny blips in big data. They’re individuals with hopes, dreams, needs, and emotions. They exercise judgment, indulge in whims, express personal views, and write their own life stories. They’re proactive, skeptical, and creative. They’ve reached the top of Maslow’s Pyramid, where the goals are autonomy, growth, and fulfillment. They don’t ‘consume.'”

Hear hear.

And while we’re at it, can we stop using “user” too? Another terrible word.

There’s no stopping the use of either one of course, not inside the world of marketing and MBAs and spreadsheets and analysts and all that. 

But in my own strategies and strategy teams, I avoid both words as much as I can because I think they are one of the reasons that too many marketing messages fall flat. They’re disconnected from everyday humans because, in terms of language, they focus too much on this abstract thing called a consumer or a user, instead of on the living, breathing people around us everyday. 

Sometimes the fact that I’m avoiding either word is obvious and a colleague or client will ask about it. I’ll tell them that I use the word “audience” or “visitor” instead, since we’re focused on getting people’s attention and attending to them once we have it. That usually does the trick. 

Very smart strategists I know use both words constantly and seem to do fine, so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. But IMHO the best brands and messages appeal to our humanity by treating us like we actually are human, starting with the words they use to describe us when we’re not around.


Portland, OR / Santa Rosa, CA / Remote Everywhere