So what is branding, anyway?

gkbrand_beer1The glass I am holding sweats, possibly from condensation, but tonight it is in fear, feeling the tension in my hand as I lift the golden ale to my mouth. I look desperately at the bartender, using my eyes to inform her I am in dire need of a distraction. This fails miserably. I can’t believe this is happening again, I think to myself. I find that I am the center of attention in a circle of comrades at a bar on the Upper East, answering a question that I seem to answer on a daily basis, justifying my existence on this planet. “So what is branding, anyway?”

How do I explain this in a completely comprehensible, understandable fashion, to a geometry teacher (or Joe the Plumber for that matter)? “Well, Joe*,” I begin slowly, contemplating how to formulate my next sentence, “think about some brands you know of.”

gkbrand_apple_logoWith this request, I can see the wheels turning as Joe explores the depths of his brain, and gives me a standard answer that I have received dozens of times. Nike. Apple. The efforts of branding agencies, similar to gkBRAND, have created goliaths of brands, and both Nike and Apple have worked tremendously hard to remain in Joe’s consciousness.

“Exactly,” I say to Joe, “now, think about how these brands were created, how they are maintained, grown, and manicured. This is the essence of what I, and our company, gkBRAND, does for others.”

“I understand,” says Joe, “but isn’t that advertising?”

Ah, the other sister, I think to myself. The age-old question of differentiating the art of branding to the innovation that is advertising is a tricky subject – especially without quoting Mad Men. I look around the bar, and then it hits me as a group of twenty-something’s walk in, visibly intoxicated.

“Branding is like pre-gaming before going out,” I begin, “you go to the store, buy a certain kind of lager that suits your fancy, decide what games to play, or games to watch, and you start drinking. Branding develops the foundation of what advertisers use in their work, similar to getting a buzz at your buddy John’s loft before meeting us down here, only to build on your buzz with more brew.”

What I really wanted to say was that branding utilizes a combination of the senses to convey what a brand stands for; it’s values, mission, vision, purpose, etc. but I didn’t want the carrot too far in front of the mule.

Joe seems stumped, “So advertising agencies take the work that you do, and make it better?”

gkbrand_mad_menEven though Joe’s comment was a complete bash of my profession and industry, I see where he is coming from. Advertising is sexy, and well – sex sells. Thanks to the perplexing Don Draper, suave Roger Sterling, and quirky Mason McGuire, the general population sees advertising as the “cool” communications profession, slating branding as Robin to advertising’s Batman.

But, branding is equally – if not more – important to a company’s success than advertising, I try explaining to Joe. While advertising is generally aimed at the masses, branding also educates employees of a company’s value system. If a branding initiative is performed correctly, the internal and external brand will work cohesively to convey a unified, strong and hopefully, compelling brand, both to those who work within the company and those outside of it.

“Sounds pretty in-depth” Joe observes.

“Oh, it is, Joe.” I could go on and on about the different aspects of branding; the research, the development of a solid strategy, and the importance of proper implementation, but I don’t want to bore Joe with superfluous details.

I stand back for a moment, gauging Joe’s reaction and determining if I have said enough about the issue. But, it appears I hadn’t as Joe’s mouth opens with the beginning of a new question.

“So take this bar for example. What is this bar’s brand?”

How does a doctor explain open-heart surgery to someone not in the medical field?

I laugh to myself as I begin explaining, “Well, Joe – it’s everything.”


gkbrand_bar“Yes, everything. The signage outside, the neon lights in the window, the material on the booths and chairs, on the countertops, the uniforms of the bartenders and cocktail waitresses, the type of alcohol being served and the types of glasses it is served in, the menu design and layout, the wording of the food description, the hostess’ personality, the smell, the lighting, the way employees speak to customers – to each other, the wallpaper, the cologne in the bathroom, and of course, the logo. Everything represents the essence of a brand, and this is all strategically deliberated over for months, if not years, before a successful launch is complete.”

I am exasperated, exhausted, and extremely eager to hear Joe’s remarks. I felt like an auctioneer liquidating the assets of this fabled pub.


Joe is satisfied. I have done it. I feel triumphant as I return to the bar for a refill, nodding at the ‘tender to get another ready for me, until I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Joe.

“One more question, Dan,” Joe begins, “so how come you guys get to drink and smoke in your office?”

– Dan Romanow

Daniel Romanow is the Group Director at gkBRAND.

*Names have been changed in the reproduction of this conversation.

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