What Is A Brand – And What It Is Not: Branding Explained

What is a brand? How does a place brand differ from a product or service brand? This reader question brings us back to the roots of place branding and is especially relevant since we use the terms “brand” and “branding” all the time. Below the answers of our panel of place branding specialists (in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting, research or as speakers).

Our key takeaways:

  • We identify ourselves with brands and they can become part of who (we think) we are.
  • Branding is the process of ensuring people understand the brand (promise).
  • Brand has two components: brand identity (what we see, e.g. design elements) & brand image (our perception of something, such as a place).
  • A brand is the defined DNA of a place, what makes it special and unique.
  • A brand may or may not have a logo. Logos are losing importance.
  • A brand becomes a prism via which members of the audience interpret everything that is related to the brand: behaviours, communication, crisis situations etc.
  • Brands are a source of unity and identification internally (for employees or citizens).
  • Brand is a vehicle to link identity with image.

Adam Mikolajczyk

In my opinion, a place brand exists only when:

  • The place is associated with particular connotations to the recipients
  • These associations distinguish this place from the competition
  • Associations build a promise of unique experiences of the place
  • They provide local products with a premium of place-of-origin effect
  • You can easily determine the identity (cultural, social and economic) of the place

Bill BakerBill Baker

Total Destination Marketing / Speaker profile

There are probably as many definitions of a brand as there are branding books.  There is no single definition. Many people still don’t grasp that it’s much more than a logo, tagline, or advertising theme.

I think of the conventional definition of a brand as:

The totality of thoughts, feelings, and expectations that form a distinctive and compelling promise, and enables people to more easily choose one product, place or service over another.

Whatever definition you adopt, the brand must always be tethered to the reality that customers will experience. And to thrive and survive it must consistently match and exceed what you are promising. Otherwise, it’s just hype!


Caio Esteves

Places For Us

We are increasingly looking for an identification with brands that we relate. This identification, in extreme, validates our own personality.

This identification, in turn, is given through the values ​​represented / defended by the brands, or, to use a fashionable word, through the understanding of its purpose.

In other hand, still normal to confuse brand with logo.

Brand is the central idea of ​​a organization, a shared idea that can bring together stakeholders and create identification with people (and not consumers) who relate to it.

The logo is, or should be, the translation / graphic expression of the brand identity / personality / positioning.

Although it is still overvalued, it is important to think that the logo is only one of the parts that make up the ecosystem of the brand, gradually losing importance.

Although in the early days, branding and logo were practically one same thing (Roman empire, about 2,000 years ago), these are very different elements / ideas these days.


Ed Burghard

A brand is a promise. It sets an expectation of an experience. The promise must be relevant, competitive and authentic in order to be effective. Branding is the process of ensuring people understand the promise and that it is realized across all major delivery touch points.


Gunter SoydanbayGünter Soydanbay

Soydanbay Consulting / Speaker profile

CG Jung once said, “Never do human beings speculate more, or have more opinions, than about things which they do not understand.” Brand is one of those things.

Brand comes from the old Norse word, “Brandr,” which means “to burn.”

Historically, that meant using hot iron rods to mark out cattle as a sign of ownership. Today, it means burning an idea/concept in people’s mind.

Brand has two components: brand identity & brand image.

Brand identity is what we see: a logo, a slogan, visuals. Design elements exist within the sphere of influence of the place. What really matters, however, is the brand image.

Brand image is the public’s perception of the place. Perceptions change at a glacial pace, and they cannot be shaped merely by creating a brand identity. Visuals and promotional materials could “contribute” to transforming a place’s brand image. However, it is the actions that count.


Hila Oren

A city brand (versus any other brand) is the defined DNA of the city. The identity that everyone relates to and distinguishes the USP of the city.

A city brand is created by maintaining the reality in the city. Day by day reality where city makers listen to their residents and constantly support the story of the city through active programs and projects all over the city, with different communities and target audiences.


Joao FreireJoao Freire

Grounded Brands / Researcher profile

A brand is a promise. It is all the benefits that an organization proposes to deliver to a user. The benefits can be both functional, such as solving practical problems, and emotional, such as delivering intangible benefits. This means that brands have some kind of content, which is planned, created and embedded in the offer.

This implies that a brand is not just a name or a logo. A brand has to have a name, but a brand may or may not have a logo. Most important is having a name embedded with meaning, which is created by the owners of the brand.


José Pablo Arango

The first thing is that the brand is not the logo, the brand is much more, it is the set of perceptions that a certain group shares about a product or service. The bigger the group and the more correct those perceptions are, the stronger the brand.


Magdalena FlorekMagdalena Florek

Researcher profile

A brand is a sum of impressions and feelings, as well as relations and experiences co-created by brand owner and brand community.


Malcolm AllanMalcolm Allan

Bloom Consulting

From my experience of working with and for developers, a brand is the offer and experience of the place.

Perceptive developers recognise that an effective place brand for a development is one that describes the place as a place. It is not just about the living space and its attributes, but also about what other facilities and services are available to support a variety of lifestyles, or a specific lifestyle for a desired target audience: a mix of spaces and service offers that make occupiers lives better, that make a city, neighbourhood or development “my kind of place”.

And by experience I mean how occupiers are dealt with by the developers or their letting or managing agents, by the staff of facility and service providers. Are they welcomed and made to feel at home, to feel wanted and valued?

When these different elements of a development are carefully designed into a place then it is more likely to be attractive, to be a desirable place to live or visit, to be commercially viable and to be welcomed by surrounding communities; to be a successful brand.


Marta Herezniak

Essentially, a brand is about accumulated reputation which comes from direct or indirect experience with an object (company, product, place) and its constitutive elements. In the case of places these elements would be, for instance: people, landscape, culture.

Ultimately, a brand becomes a prism via which members of the audience interpret everything that is related to the brand: behaviours, communication, crisis situations etc.

With/ through the brand concept, managers/ owners make a promise to the audiences to deliver specific values/ benefits (functional and symbolic).

It is often overlooked that brands are the source of unity and identification INTERNALLY (for employees or citizens). They can help verbalize and internalize the values shared by the community and inspire commitment and creativity.

Brand is certainly not about advertising or public relations, neither it is a gloss to put over a product, company or place to make up for the insufficient performance or to cover up misbehavior.


Martin Boisen panelMartin Boisen

For the love of place / Researcher profile

A brand is a set of strong and shared associations and attitudes towards a certain entity – in my line of work: places. It is not a logo or something designed and decided from scratch in a policy document. There’s a difference between the brand and the brand strategy in this regard.


Paertel-Peeter PerePärtel-Peeter Pere

Future Place Leadership

In a nutshell, design or user experience is the new marketing or branding. It is the product or the place itself. It is not the name of a project or marketing campaign. It is the result of the work a place has done for its citizens and since everything is international and interconnected, this is what visitors and talents will appreciate as well. Investments will follow talent.


Robert GoversRobert Govers

Independent advisor / Speaker / Researcher

A brand makes something (products, services, corporations, communities, persons, and so on) easily identifiable and meaningful. It is a vehicle to link identity with image. So, “in simple terms, branding is about two things: making something identifiable and making it distinctive. The first deals with naming and visual design, the second with meaning (brand positioning, personality, promise, etc.)” (Imaginative Communities (2018) page 131).

I have argued many times and will continue to do so that, while commercial branding focuses a lot on the former (trademarking), place branding should focus on the latter (creating meaning by linking image with identity).


Sebastian Zenker

Depends on how you define it. Among the most common definitions:

The brand identity approach – see Kavaratzis and Hutch (2013) as the best source for that.

Brands as discourse approach (so-called Nordic School of thoughts)

And the brand image or brand knowledge approach (Zenker and Braun, 2017):

“A place brand is a network of associations in the place consumers’ mind based on the visual, verbal, and behavioral expression of a place and its stakeholders. These associations differ in their influence within the network and in importance for the place consumers’ attitude and behavior.

Luckily, it is common sense nowadays that place brands are NOT logos or slogans. These are only (overrated) communication tools that a brand can have, but doesn’t have to have – and NOT the brand.


Todd Mayfield

A brand is more than a logo and a clever tagline. If you look at a community as a person, a place brand is like a persona. The logo and brand visuals are the clothes they wear. Their physical heath is the urban infrastructure, the way they speak is the delivery of the brand message, the way they interact with new people is the front-line visitor service, the social events they attend is the presence on social media and their relationships with friends and family is the way they interact with local residents.


Tom BuncleTom Buncle

Yellow Railroad Consulting

A brand is the inherent essence, spirit, or DNA, of your place – the distinctive character that could be nowhere else. Your personality, your competitive identity.

A brand is not: a logo, a slogan, an image, a product, a marketing campaign, or a design style. It is as much any of these things as it is a cheese jelly.


Previous questions answered by the panel here

You’d like to ask the panel a question? Get in touch!


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