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Strategy, Design

A Simplified Primer to Defining a Brand: What Is Branding?

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Branding is part art, part science. There are a lot of intangible elements that go into shaping a brand that stands out and brings in the clientele you’re shooting for. “Think pieces” about branding elicit many different opinions, much debate, and leave us finding the concept difficult to quantify.

This leaves a lot of professionals demanding to know what a brand is, simplified. When it comes down to it, there’s one word that captures most of it, but if you’re trying to wrap your head around branding beyond the typeset on your business card, you’re going to have to strap in for a little bit of the abstract.

What a Brand Is

Ask a dozen different marketing professionals to define and describe branding, and you’ll get two dozen different answers. The reality is that branding can be boiled down to a single word: aesthetic.

In the modern vernacular, aesthetic has been used to refer to everything from sweet abs on body-builders to neon pink and cyan vintage color schemes. While the use of “aesthetic” to describe pleasing visual proportions or thematic trends doesn’t fall entirely out of the realm of aesthetics, it doesn’t capture the full depth of the term. For the purpose of branding (or your next trendy coffee shop conversation), an aesthetic refers to:

  1. A set of principles underlying the work of an artist or artistic movement
  2. A theory of beauty

There is an impressive number of old German men with prominent facial hair who have debated the subject of aesthetics at extensive lengths, but we’re going to home in on its significance in branding.

A Theory of Beauty

The lush flora of the Montana countryside flows across the horizon to the faint sound of rustling brush. Slowly, the soundscape unfolds into the sound of a running stream. Horse hooves trot into the frame as the camera pans up – and there he is: a rugged mustachioed rancher peering back at the viewer. Hanging beneath the brim of his hat, drooped from his world-worn lips, a lighted cigarette. Fade in: Marlboro.

Okay. Smoking kills. Anyone who’s actively dating will tell you that “sexy” is the last word that anyone would use to describe it in the present day, and things ended quite poorly for the Marlboro Man. But for the purposes of our conversation, he’s a prime example of aesthetics in branding.

The Marlboro Man isn’t just a rugged cowboy who appealed to John Wayne fans. While the man himself is replaceable, “The Marlboro Man” is an icon and a symbol. He conveys an idea of what constitutes masculinity. He communicates the virtue of grueling work, along with the American roots of pioneering and prospecting. Fundamentally, he serves as a symbol of individualism. He signifies an entire worldview in a single image.

Without a thesis or description, all of this is encapsulated in a single word: Marlboro.

All of Which Is to Say

Branding is what you say when you’re not speaking.

It’s the meaning, value, and worldview that your audience reads between the lines.

In order to get that message across, branding provides the context for it to make sense. That context includes everything from the language you use, the colors of your homepage, the design of your packaging, supported causes, press releases, mission statements. All of it fits together to form a cohesive whole that forms your brand.

Make no mistake. With or without your express intent, you will have a brand. If your mindset is that the product speaks for itself, then that’s a brand statement. However, there’s still a context required for that statement to make sense. Minimalism is a popular trend in messaging and design, but it isn’t to be confused with lackluster branding. There’s a difference between the crisp white box of your iPhone and the beat up cardboard that your E-bay purchase arrives in. Steve Jobs built an entire empire on branding defined by minimalism and proved that this approach takes more work, not less.

In Action

As much as the Marlboro Man encapsulates branding principles, his riding days are over. Branding in the modern world makes more waves with concepts surrounding active lifestyles, futurism, and adventure.  

Norrona is an outdoor apparel company that captures all of these concepts in its packaging. Sleek minimalist iconography across product lines conveys practical features. The color scheme mirrors those of the Norwegian flag. Imagery showcases hikers, skiers, and mountain climbers making their way into pristine natural peaks. As a whole, the brand communicates deep roots alongside thoughtful and advanced design in its products.


Your brand is a statement about your business, and it’s one that’s designed to land with a specific listener in mind. In order to make a connection with your target market, you need to understand how to make sense of your brand within the context of your consumers’ worldviews. Getting a sense of who you’re pitching to requires some groundwork to get hard data on the people you’re speaking to.

When you pull it off right, branding turns your product into a symbol of a purchaser’s own worldview – one that represents your business in an authentic way and resonates with people on an emotional level.