The difference between Brand and Branding

The Smithsonian: Brands

This came from the Smithsonian, which has a cool article about the secret language of cattle brands.

The past couple of weeks I’ve been helping out a couple of friends and relatives launching businesses and in chatting with them, the subject of ‘branding’ came up.

Everyone told them they needed ‘branding’

‘What’s your branding?’ ‘Have you done your branding?’ ‘Who’s doing your branding?’ ‘You have to have good branding.’

Of all the half-baked or outright mis-conceptions people have about communications and marketing, it is this thing called ‘brand’ and ‘branding’.

There is a BRAND, and there is BRANDING.

People confuse the two. To their detriment.

So I explained it to them. And I am happy to share my explanation with whoever happens to be reading this right now.

Not to get too esoteric off the bat, but the difference between the brand and the branding is the difference between a number and a numeral.

The number is three (for instance). Three is the idea. It transcends physicality, space and time – it could be three apples or oranges or atoms or quarks or three feet or metres or quarts or planets or three seconds or dog years or light years.

Three the number can do all the magical things numbers do by being added and multiplied and divided and squared and put into formalae both simple and complex. It can help tell you what your grocery bill is and also be part of the necessary calculation to send a rocket to Mars.

Three the number also works whether you are in Canada or China or in Alpha Centauri.

But, since it would be complicated and time consuming to write the word three every time we wanted to talk about the number, and even more complicated and disruptive to trade and commerce because different languages have different words for the number and different letters to represent those word, in the interests of simplicity and time we now generally use this symbol   ~   3   ~   torepresent the number.

3 is a numeral.

It wasn’t always thus – in Europe a couple of millenia ago the number used to be represented by this: III. In other places it was represneted by other squiggles. But the Hindu-Arabic numerals won out because, well, look at the date used at the end of movies in the twentieth century and you’ll see why. Try to write out the equation for sending Voyager III to Mars using THAT!

To recap: three is the number. 3 is the numeral.

And to make it relevant to my point today, the number is the BRAND and the numeral is the BRANDING.

The properties of the number are unchanged by the representation of it.

Okay, the lady in the back row is saying, thanks for the math lesson. But how does this relate to the real world of communications and marketing?

Well, the best definition I have ever heard of a brand is this:


I wish I could say I made that up, but as far as I know, it was invented by David Kincaid who I used to do work with at Labatt and the clever people he now works with at Level5 Strategy Group:  (I may not have quoted them exactly correctly, but the essence is right.)

I’m going to assume that you buy into that, and will now ask the question OK, so then what is BRANDING?


Which takes us back to the origina of the word ‘branding’, which was the branding of cattle.

Why were cattle branded? Because the cattle buyers were smart fellows (yes, there were only fellows in the business back then) and knew that certain ranches bred and fed better cattle than the other ranches. But aside from obvious defects like swayback and whatever diseases cows get in their mouths, it was pretty hard in the midst of an auction to quickly be able to tell the cattle from one ranch from the cattle from another ranch.

The promise being delivered was top rate cattle.

And to represent that promise – the ranchers started to burn an indelible mark into the hide of the cattle so everyone would know at a glance what promise to expect. And yes, they were also used to mark the cattle so they couldn’t be claimed by unscrupulous rustlers.

Now we come to the second part of the equation as set forth by Level5 (and I know I am quoting this correctly, because I took it out of one their presentaitons). They have a formula to explain the value of a brand:


So what happended was the people who bought the cattle that had the mark of the Ponderosa Ranch, let’s say ‘three bar x’: represented thus: IIIX thought they were pretty good cattle and they knew if they went to auction and bought some of them IIIX cows things would turn out allright.

Because the Ponderosa with the IIIX symbol DELIVERED ON THEIR PROMISE.

And that’s how the Cartwrights got the biggest ranch in Texas. (OK, I completely made that part up. But you get my point).

Even more relevant to tdoay’s discussion point is that it didn’t matter what symbol the Ponderosa put on their cattle. Nor is it relevant that they might have put it on the cattle to prevent poaching. If they put IVX then the mark IVX would have come to mean top rate cattle because they consistently delivered on their promise and the BRANDING came to represent the BRAND PROMISE.

Which, incidentally is how a meaningless made up word – KODAK – came to be one of the best known brands in the world, then slowly crumbled into bankruptcy because they stopped delivering on their promise (or forgot what their promise was.) So the red and yellow K stopped meaning the best and most reliable image capturing company in the world and started to mean the image company that couldn’t keep up with a changing world.

And that seems a good place to end today’s lesson.

The moral of the story for my friends and relatives who are starting their businesses?

YOUR BRAND IS YOUR PROMISE. Figure out your promise, give it some kind of representation (facebook seems to have done allright without a fancy logo) and then DELIVER on your promise. CONSISTENTLY.

That’s how you build a brand and build brand value. Whatever symbol you care to attach to it will come to represent to the buyer your ability to consistently deliver the promise.

And just to return to our Wild West scenario for one last bit – I don’t think anyone starting a cattle ranch back then decided the first order of business was to hire some guys who would tell them why something called the Double H or the FourF Connected with the letters arranged just so would lead to greater sales than the calling it the RArrow or the 7Up with other letters arranged just so.

They concentrated on the feed and the water and all the other things that went into making great cattle. And the branding took care of itself.


Apple Google


General Electric

Johnson & Johnson