Branding Definitions - A Primer for Startups & Small Businesses

For a startup or small business owner just starting out, the sheer number of tasks and concepts you have to juggle can be overwhelming. Brand identity, the effects of which can be difficult to quantify, often gets shunted down the list of priorities. I've talked about the benefits of effective brand identity in previous articles, but today I'm going right back to basics.

What exactly is branding? Is it logo design? Is it putting your logo on stationery? Is it linked to marketing? The answer in all these cases is yes, sort of; in a way it's all of these things and more. Ask one hundred small business owners to define branding, and you're likely to get one hundred different answers. But to truly appreciate the value of effective branding, you first need to be clear on what it is, and what it isn't. In this article, I've compiled a few simple definitions to help startups and small business owners navigate this much misunderstood field. Rather than listing them in alphabetical order, I've listed them in a reading order designed to help you get to grips with the fundamentals first, leading into more nuanced concepts later.

 Brand Identity

Brand Asset

A brand asset is any tangible or semi-tangible asset owned by an organisation that builds a distinctive, memorable and positive impression of the business in the customer's mind. The most obvious example is a logo, but mascots, slogans, signature product features, brand ambassadors, ad jingles, custom fonts and even colours can all be considered brand assets. The more unique, effective and popular a brand asset is, the more value it holds. That said, the precise commercial value of a brand asset can be extremely difficult to measure. Physical objects such as branded stationery are not typically considered to be brand assets, although there may be exceptions.

Brand Activation

A brand activation is any public activity an organisation engages in to promote itself and its products. Brand activations are almost always some form of marketing or advertising; anything from running a contest to the launch event for a major new product. Just like brand assets, the primary purpose of a brand activation is to build a distinctive, memorable and positive impression in the customer's mind, but it may also have secondary objectives such as driving sales or generating a mailing list.

Brand Communications

A brand communication is any message created by or on behalf of a business for public consumption, and designed to build a distinctive, memorable and positive impression in the customer's mind. Again, this is closely linked to marketing and advertising, but it may include other forms of communication such as after sales service and social media.

Brand Experience

A brand experience is any experience that a customer has whilst engaged with the brand or the business. Typically this will be their experience of purchasing a product, from the moment they enter the store to the moment the product is unpacked and used. It also includes their experience whilst making a telephone enquiry, making a complaint, or receiving a service. The experience that they have will be forever associated with the brand in their mind, making this a particularly important consideration in terms of developing a successful brand. Many businesses take advantage of brand experiences as a way of differentiating their brand from competitors when the product or service offerings are essentially the same.

Brand Identity

A brand identity (often synonymous with 'corporate identity', but not always) is a set of brand assets that are designed to distinguish a business from its competitors, and to instantly communicate its primary characteristics. The identity provides a starting point and guide for all undertakings that concern the brand, and allows a business to present itself in a consistent, engaging and memorable manner. A brand's identity is often codified as a set of brand guidelines. Every brand activation and brand communication should be a natural extension of the brand identity.


The word 'branding' is often used casually to mean 'brand identity', although strictly speaking they are different concepts. Branding is the application of an organisation's brand identity to an object, format or medium. This might included stationery, clothing, vehicles, signboards and websites.

Brand Guidelines

Brand guidelines are a document or set of documents that set out the core elements of an organisation's brand identity, and how that identity should be presented. At the very least a set of brand guidelines will typically include logo usage, colour, and typography guides, as well as the organisation's brand story, mission, vision and values. Brand guidelines fulfill different functions for different organisations. For some they are primarily a practical resource, designed to be followed by anyone who works on brand activations and brand communications. For others they may be designed to help induct new employees into the brand culture, or to help them understand the brand architecture. In some cases, so much creative effort goes into developing the brand guidelines that they go beyond their original function as a resource, and become powerful brand assets in their own right.


A brand is the sum total of every brand asset that an organization owns, every brand activation and brand communication it undertakes, and the resulting associations that these build in the mind of the customer. In this sense, a brand is not something that a business can ever entirely own or control - it is a shared understanding between the business and the customer regarding the type of product, service and experience that can be expected. Customers have the power to redefine a brand if they feel that a business' image and message don't match its actions, often with disastrous consequences.

Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is a strategy for differentiating a brand from its competitors. The objective of a good brand positioning strategy is to occupy a space in the market that hasn't yet been taken by a competitor, even when the product or service offerings are essentially identical. A strong brand identity, effectively executed through brand activationsbrand communications and brand experiences, will allow a business to monopolize a particular niche and create an impression of uniqueness in the customer's mind.

Brand Culture

Brand culture (often synonymous with 'corporate culture', but not always) is the behaviour, outlook and practices of an organisation's employees. More specifically, it is the way in which their behaviour, outlook and practices support and are influenced by the organisation's brand identity and brand values. Brand culture is something that can be nurtured and controlled, with the aim of fostering a workforce and workplace environment that is conducive to the development of effective brand activations, brand communications and brand experiences.

Brand Management

Brand management is the process of managing brand assets, brand activations, brand communications, brand experiences, brand architecture and brand culture so that the brand is always presented consistently and effectively, and so that the brand supports the objectives of the organisation. Because the brand image is never entirely under the organisation's control (see Brand, above), and because market conditions and internal objectives are never constant, brand management is a continuous process that helps an organisation to maintain and build on it's position in the market.

Brand Architecture

Brand architecture is a way of defining the relationship between the different products, categories and divisions within a business or organization. By defining these relationships, each brand and sub-brand is developed and presented to the customer in the manner that best supports the organisation as a whole. Brand architecture can fulfill multiple functions, from providing a road map for the introduction of new products, to improving the allocation of resources. The three standard models of brand architecture are the 'Branded House', the 'House of Brands' and the 'Blended House'.

Brand Equity

Brand equity is the commercial value of an organisation's brand. In particular, successful brand assets increase brand equity, which in turn increases the financial value of the organisation. Fundamentally, brand equity is based on the perceived value of the brand in the eyes of the public, not on the organisation's physical assets, which makes its value extremely difficult to measure with precision.

Are there any concepts that you're still unclear on? Are there any crucial definitions that you feel have been missed, or that you'd like to see covered in a future article? Let me know in the comments section.