The video ended, leaving me absolutely astounded. 32 minutes and 57 seconds of discourse on the value of brand — and mind you this was an expert panel consisting of heavy hitters: President of Global Snacks at PepsiCo, Ann Mukherjee, Businessweek-dubbed top professor at the Chicago Booth School of Business, Pradeep K. Chintagunta, and Ann L. McGill, Sears Roebuck Professor of General Management, Marketing and Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth School of Business. And completely absent in the discussion was any notion of defining what brand even is.

The problem with that, is that unlike many other business terms, brand can be used in several ways, meaning different things in different contexts. Brand is such a nebulous concept for people, it can mean something entirely different to some. It was even used differently by the same panel members in the same breath, multiple times during the discussion.

So what is brand?

Now I’m going to say something that might seem radical to some. Though commonly used this way, here are a few things brand is definitely not: your name or logo, your reputation, a promise, voice or tone, aesthetic, a synonym for company, what people say about you when you’re not in the room.

If you’re now skeptical, confused, or triggered, you’re exactly where most people are at this point.

Don’t worry I won’t leave you hanging; I’ve got an answer for you. After years of obsessive research on the origins and evolution of the term, innovation and brand strategist (Affectionately named Silicon Valley’s Mad Man of Brand), Damien Foord has uncovered what brand actually is:

“Brand is an identity, or rather, a psychological entity, that is created by and lives in the collective minds of people that are aware of and interact with it. It is the intangible sum of an organization. Brand is the interface between an organization and our humanity.”

“Brand is the interface between an organization and our humanity.”

If that didn’t blow your mind right away, give it some time to sink in.


Now let’s look at how the commonly outdated, ill-informed understanding of brand is actually hindering your ability to manage them effectively.

‘Brand is a promise.’ Isn’t it so much more though? Do you brag about promises to your friends, or feel the love of your mother when you interact with them? Do they inform your willingness to trust an entity? Does a promise help you define and contextualize your own personal identity?

‘Your audience owns your brand.’ So you just do, say and be whatever you think people want you to? And you think doing that well is a good thing? When a human exhibits that kind of behavior, we recognize that as psychopathic. Also, we all remember that kid. No one ever actually wanted to hang out with them, and you definitely didn’t trust them. If you think mindless pandering to your audience is going to make them more likely to buy from you, you grossly underestimate people’s ability to pick up on BS. Trying to be something you’re not is always a losing strategy.

“All culture issues stem from a fundamental misalignment between people and the core brand identity of an organization.”

A critically important note on brand, that reputation/perception-based conceptualizations tend to miss: Brand is not only external, for customers, vendors, and investors; Brand exists just as much internally. Culture is a function of brand. All culture issues stem from a fundamental misalignment between people and the core brand identity of an organization. This can create endless and sometimes fatal problems. The chaos of these situations is the same as that of a person being torn apart by an irreconcilable disruption to a deeply held belief about who they are, only on a much larger scale.

That same misalignment of brand also gets expressed in the business and the market. A lack of clarity on the authentic brand leads to disharmony between business strategy and brand strategy. Products, services, and experiences aren’t resonating with the people they’re intended to. This gap in market fit is a direct result of not knowing who you are, and expressing that authentically; attracting people who truly connect with that.


Fortunately for you, this little blog post exists, and you now have the opportunity to enter a powerful new paradigm of brand!

Understanding brand for what it is, you can see that it’s integral to just about every facet of an organization. Treating brand as the core psychological entity, as opposed to a marketing afterthought, unlocks a whole new level of alignment, both internally and externally; breeding success and growth.

“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu

Square one is awareness. Only after you’ve discovered the DNA at the core of your company, do you have a real shot at cultivating alignment with it. The key is translating that insight into actions that actually transform your company, from culture to customer experience. Embracing your brand authentically over time will lead to better alignment, strategy, and execution, internally; and build trust and influence in the market, as your audience connects with and begins to identify with the experiences you offer them.

“This kind of continuity and ability to influence your audience in a profoundly meaningful way is the recipe for sustainable growth.”

With that level of awareness and commitment to authentic brand expression, your organization can design and implement strategies that continually expand a rabid audience, while cultivating an evermore effective and harmonious workplace.

The punchline is that brand is baked into the psychological constitution of every organization. You can either ignore it, resist it, or lean into its power, and unlock its fullest potential to impact the world.