I determined the title of this post via Google Battle.
In pitting "brand" vs. "branding", the keyword "brand" got 913,000,000 hits, while the term "branding" got only 50,500,000 hits. "what is brand" got 413,000,000 hits, while "how to brand" got 292,000,000 hits.
Then, to verify, I used Google itself. "what is brand" got 406,000,000 hits, while "how to brand" got 289,000,000 hits.
According to the University of Idaho, "brand marketing" is "the process of managing media and communications of an organization so a clear and consistent personality is established in the minds of the organization’s constituents."
Kellogg on Marketing (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) discusses many different aspects of branding: brand essence, brand targeting, brand category affiliation, functional brand vs. image brand, brand value, brand positioning, brand design, selling products vs. marketing brands, brand management, and brand differentiation.
What I want to discuss briefly is the atomic unit of "brand". What is the most basic, realistic, and intrinsically essential definition of a "brand"?
Brand, in the mind of an actual customer, may begin with advertising, TV commercials, press releases, event sponsorship, logos, slogans, peer pressure, and other marketing and lifestyle experiences.
You keep hearing that jingle on the radio. You keep seeing that commercial on TV. You like the powerful logo. Your friends are all buying, boasting, and flaunting the product. You start to feel left out. You feel you really need to obtain that hyped and ubiquitous product.
An aggregated image and essence of the product has invaded your consciousness, pulling you toward the purchase of it.
So that's the preliminary "brand": the total accumulation of everything you've seen and heard about the product, including the overall presentations of the company that provides the product. But all that external "branding", no matter how much you've internalized it into a motivation to acquire the product, can disintegrate instantly.
By actually using the product to accomplish a goal, satisfy a need, solve a problem, or enhance a lifestyle. The moment you attempt to use the product, the real "branding" begins. The outcome of your product usage is what determines what gets "branded" or burned into your brain.
The dress doesn't fit right on you. Your body doesn't match its design. It looked better hanging in the rack.
The digital voice recorder is hard to operate. The buttons are too small.
The Web 2.0 service is buggy and unreliable. You can't login, or the servers are down due to traffic overloads.
The SUV guzzles too much gas, and gas prices are soaring.
The lawn mower is hard to start.
The hamburger tastes like something other than beef.
The music CD has only 2 good songs out of 12.
The book is boring, and there's little to yellow highlight or underline in red.
That's what gets branded in your mind.
Branding of a product must not be determined in a conference room. You must give the product to a typical "target" or customer, and watch them try to use it. Listen to what they say. Ask them how they like it.
Your best slogans, taglines, mission statements, TV commercial ideas, and other marketing material can be derived from things the customers say about the product. When you base your ad copy and website content on what real customers say and feel about your product, what they like and what's important to them, you're far more likely to connect with other prospects.
Let your customers determine your advertising, marketing, and sales pitches. Branding should be based initially, primarily, and evolvingly on usability studies. Branding begins with the user, in a real life situation, with no prompting, coaching, or persuasion.
You may add other dimensions and considerations to your branding efforts, but you must begin with the user.
To do it backwards, to attempt to force a perception on the customer that the product may betray or not live up to, is foolish. Your ad copywriter cannot just dream up some arbitrary essence and image, some random feeling and persona for the product.
Your product contains its own branding within itself. This inner essentiality is revealed only by letting the customer use it, eat it, wear it, drive it, live in it.
Branding is burning a cattle owner's mark into the hide of the individual cows he owns, to differentiate those cows from his competitor's cows.
Brand is what's burned into the customer's brain when they use a product.
The only way to change a bad branding experience for a customer is to improve the product, then do your advertising, marketing, and sales based on how customers now feel about the new, improved product.