What is a brand? What do you think of when you hear the word? I’ve asked that question more than a thousand times in the last five years, which is pretty impressive when you do the math. Through my work in marketing, brand, and innovation, I’ve come to understand that brand might be the most confusing and misunderstood business jargon of all time. Even among industry practitioners, there is little agreement as to what exactly the word “brand” means. When a word means so many different things to different people, it starts to mean nothing at all.

When I ask people what brand means, typically, people say things like, “It’s a name or a logo,” or “It’s the way you make customers feel,” or “It’s a company’s communication style.” But from within the industry, we understand these as Brand Identity, Brand Experience, and Brand Voice, rather than the brand itself. It got me thinking; If none of these are brand, what does the word “brand” actually mean?

The Evolution of a Term

If you do a google search for the word, you’ll get an answer something along the lines of this quote from Investopedia:

“A brand is an identifying symbol, mark, logo, name, word, and/or sentence that companies use to distinguish their product from others.”

Of the answers people give me about brand, I would estimate this accounts for about 80%, and it’s not wrong, it’s just a fairly rudimentary idea of brand, insufficient, and perhaps a bit outdated.

I’m sure you already know that the concept of “branding” originated with livestock, but did you know the practice dates back almost 5000 years to the Nile banks of ancient Egypt, predating the pyramids? It began as a practice to identify one person’s sheep from another. As people began to trade livestock, you can imagine it wouldn’t take long before the owner’s mark became associated with the quality of the sheep. After a while, people began to say, “You know, that sheep has Bob’s brand. Bob always has the best sheep.”

Eventually, branding made its way beyond livestock into crafted goods. A pot or a vase maker would make an imprint of his unique “maker’s mark” to signify who made the vase, and of course, on the best of vases, the maker’s mark became not only a mark of quality, but a status symbol. Owning a vase by Bob meant you were a connoisseur of the fine quality it came to represent.

From Stockyard to Stockmarket

But brand has long-since grown beyond the stockyard. This quality association process that happened with sheep and vases continued to impact every kind of product in all industries, and eventually enveloped the companies themselves. It has given birth to multi-million dollar logos, it’s the driving force behind the world’s first trillion-dollar company, and just about every client that comes into my office now wants to be a “lifestyle brand.”

It has become an asset accounted for on these companies’ books to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Statista estimates that Apple’s brand alone is worth over 300 billion dollars — just the brand — prompting the phenomenon of starting a company to be acquired for the brand alone, and spawning an entire industry rushing to develop ways to maximize brand value. If you look a little closer, you’ll find the concepts driving all of this are driving our politics, our entertainment, and virtually every aspect of our lives.

And yet, most people’s view of brand still has something to do with identifying a product. By now it should be clear that brand is much more than that. It’s not identification that makes a brand so powerful but the underlying principles of the complex science of identity. It’s time that we got serious about the rigorous application of cognitive science which tells us how identity comes into play in our lives.

The Power of Brand

This is what these large companies have come to do so well that makes brand so worth these large investments. And you know what? You can do it better. I don’t think you can, I know you can. You can do it in a way that gives life to people who experience it. You can serve your bottom line factors and do so in a way that empowers people and makes their lives better.

That’s the magic that happens with identity. Identity is a mental concept we create in order to fit into and in turn shape our communities. It’s a sort of social innovation. As companies adopt this tool in order to become members of our community it’s most strategically advantageous to do so for mutual benefit. A person that manipulates their way into a group is living on borrowed time, eventually to be found out and exiled. The same is true of companies. Not only is it possible to leverage this powerful mechanism to enter and benefit from communities, but it is also actually more beneficial for companies to do so responsibly.

As companies learn the nuance of identity and how to employ it to greater success, they unlock previously inaccessible opportunities to connect with customers, employees, and partners in ways that have compounding effects and produce results on an exponential scale.

So now is the time to jump into the science of identity and how it can unlock breakthrough possibilities in your company. The next great frontier is happening in our minds, and the space we share in between.