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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. Many intangible elements go into shaping a brand that stands out and brings in the clientele you’re shooting for. “Think pieces” about branding elicit many opinions and 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’ll have to strap in for a little bit of the abstract.

What a Brand Is

Ask a dozen 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 bodybuilders 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 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 touch on its significance in branding.

Branding vs. Marketing

Branding and marketing are closely related concepts, but they have distinct differences. Creating and maintaining a reputation for a company is called branding. Branding includes the company’s name, logo, and overall visual identity. Marketing is promoting and selling products or services. Aspects of marketing include activities such as advertising, public relations, and sales. While branding focuses on creating a positive image and reputation for a company, marketing focuses on generating demand and driving sales. Both branding and marketing are essential for the success of a business, but they are different in their goals and strategies.

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, a lighted cigarette drooped from his world-worn lips. Fade in: Marlboro.

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

To get that message across, branding provides the context for it to make sense. That context includes everything from the language you use, your homepage’s colors, your packaging design, supported causes, press releases, and 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, context is still 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 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 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. To connect 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 pitch 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 worldview – one that represents your business in an authentic way and resonates with people emotionally.

Specialists in CPG Brand Management

Want a best-selling brand? SmashBrand is a brand management agency that delivers our clients profound insights and greater profits through consumer & shelf testing. From branding to packaging design, we help FMCG and CPG brands outperform their retail shelf competitors. Book a time to discuss your project with our team.