What is a Brand?

Imagine if Potbelly Sandwich Works stopped putting that little cookie on the straws of their milkshakes. Or if an engagement ring from Tiffany’s & Co. suddenly tarnished and broke three weeks after the big event. Imagine if TOMS suddenly stopped providing shoes to children living in poverty, without informing their customers. 

In each of these cases, we’d say that a promise had been broken between the business and their customers. 

Because, as a business, your brand is built on promises. 

It’s not about your logo, packaging, or advertising. Your brand is defined by the expectations you set for your customer and how well you deliver on those promises at the point of sale. 

If a fan of Potbelly milkshakes always gets a cookie on his straw, and then one day does not, that milkshake in particular will seem less valuable to him. If the man who saved up his salary to buy that expensive engagement ring soon discovers that the ring has tarnished, he will never trust Tiffany’s & Co. again. And if TOMS shoes are viewed as valuable by their customers only because of the charitable aspect involved, then the abandonment of that mission is the equivalent of abandoning the brand altogether. 


Your Brand Is Your Customer’s Perception

We can talk for hours upon hours about what a brand is or is not; but that won’t affect your customer’s perception of you. A customer doesn’t care about internal documents, inside jokes, or any of your good intentions. What they care about is whether or not they received what they were promised from the beginning. 

And it they didn’t, watch out, because even the worst customer experience defines your brand as a whole. Consider reviews on Yelp! or Amazon. Each prospect makes a decision based on how many one to five star reviews there are of a product or service, using their intuition and instinct to determine whether or not to purchase. 

This occurs even off the forums, with friends and family making recommendations based on their personal experiences, and outside recommendations from their friends and family members as well. How customers discuss their experience with you shapes the idea of your brand for others, and over a very long stretch of time. Their stories define your business, and help others determine your value. And you have no control over the words they use or the opinions they share once a customer has completed their journey, which is why it’s so vitally important that you create the right experience from the get go. 


Say What You Mean, and Mean What You Say

It’s easy to believe that you can just slap a few sentences onto your website and voila! you have a brand. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As marketing guru Seth Godin puts it, 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.” 

In other words, it’s not so much what you say, it’s how you make your customers feel. And to make them feel that they made a smart decision by choosing you, you absolutely must follow through on your promises. 

[Perception of What to Expect] x [Emotional Power of That Expectation] = Your Brand 

And the best way to harness both expectations and the corresponding emotional weight is simply to do what you say you’re going to do. Actually deliver, again and again and again. It’s not enough to make a strong first impression. You must ensure that the same promise is kept over time, without sacrificing quality or consistency. 

That’s how Tiffany’s & Co. became Tiffany’s & Co.
It’s how Potbelly won over fans for their milkshakes. 
And why TOMS garnered a reputation for being virtuous. 

They made promises, and they kept them. And as a result, new and past customers alike know exactly what to expect every time they consider each offer. And because each business is crystal clear about what it values, and why, they are in possession of strong brand identities that resonate with their customers.

To me, marketing is about values. This is a very complicated world, it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.
— Steve Jobs

‘People like us buy things like this.’

Once you’ve established a strong brand identity rooted in what you value, then customers will seek out that identity as a reflection of their own. This, in turn, creates strong customer relationships. Fans believe the brand to be authentic, mostly because it’s authentic to how they view themselves. 

Consider this:

A woman who only shops at Tiffany’s & Co. is very different from a woman who only shops at Cartier. 

A man who only buys milkshakes from Potbelly Sandwich Works is different from a man who will buy a milkshake anywhere. 

And a millennial who only buys their shoes from TOMS is most likely a different breed of customer than someone who only buys from Doc Martens. 

This is how “tribes” are built, to steal again from Seth Godin. It starts with an idea of identity that is then shared among a group, and the group itself forms the brand identity as they communicate its value to others over time. 

Because, just as a writer has no control over their novel once it’s published, you have no control over your brand’s perception once customers start talking about it, if they talk about you at all. The only thing you can control is what you promise and how you deliver. Those two things not only set the stage for your brand, but feed the conversation surrounding it moving forward. 

So think hard on what you can realistically deliver, then guarantee an experience worth having. 

That’s how you build a brand. 


Questions to Ask Yourself Moving Forward:

  • What value am I creating?

  • Who is my offer really for?

  • How will my customer describe my offer to others?

  • What differentiates my offer from cheaper options?

  • What promise am I really making?

  • How long can I sustain this promise?

  • What will happen if the market changes?

  • What will happen if I change down the road?

To dig even deeper into your brand’s identity, snag your free copy of The Brand Swatch. It’s an actionable workbook designed to get those wheels turning. 


At Words by Sørensen, we help clients set the right expectations for their customers. To learn more about our offerings, visit Phase One: Brand Identity.