The word “brand” is one of the the hottest buzz words in marketing. Everyone talks about it, but unless you have actually defined and cultivated your company’s brand, you might actually have an accidental brand, something quite different from what you intend or envision.

What is an accidental brand? Firstly, let’s define what we mean by the word “brand” itself.

My definition of a brand is “a promise to deliver a product or service on a consistent basis and then to become associated with that promise.” Therefore, a brand is the essence of your corporate being, identified in terms that are relevant, attractive and compelling as seen through the market’s eyes. It is the essence of the company, and senior management must live its brand consistently through every function and activity.

Many people mistakenly think that a brand simply means a logo, color or icon. Although these may symbolize the brand, they are not the brand itself.

Others believe that a brand is big awareness made possible by big budget advertising. This misguided view is a main reason why smaller companies have accidental brands. They pay less attention to defining and living their brand, even though it’s important for them too. Smaller companies often believe that branding is just for the “big boys and girls” who have the big bucks to generate awareness. A brand is a promise and is valuable even when a smaller universe of people know about it. In fact, the world is full of business names people know, ones they pass by on the way to doing business with lesser known but more appealing companies.

Still others believe that a brand is image. Many of these adherents reason that because image doesn’t generate traffic or leads, spending effort on a brand is not good business. It’s a warm and fuzzy luxury that they feel is a waste of time and resources. Although awareness and image are important components, they are far from being the brand.

Every company has a brand, whether it sets out to identify one or not. A brand is most frequently the essence of the company as seen through the eyes of the market. In other words, the promises the company consistently makes that are most important to customers and to the market as a whole. That a firm decides not to pursue a brand strategy is no admission that it has no brand. It will have an accidental brand, and that accidental brand is probably not the promise that the company really wants to project.

Many companies don’t even realize that they have an accidental brand, but they most likely do if:

The brand is vague. It promises “simply the best.” But it doesn’t narrow its definition regarding its best areas and advantages, to what standards, compared to whom, in terms that are meaningful to the market.

The company ignores the idea of a brand because it sees branding as unimportant. The company states, “We just make good food, darn it,” without recognizing that other companies in its industry do too. Customers will go to other companies that produce good food and promise marketing, distribution, customer service advantages and more.

The promise is irrelevant. For example, if a company focuses on longevity and the fact that it’s 100 years old when the market is focused on superior customer service, the brand is irrelevant and will be accidentally redefined.

The focus is on the wrong promise. For instance, the company promotes legendary customer service but the market wants the promise of quick, accurate service.

Inconsistency in message or form. Diverse messages and images confuse the market, such that it will attribute its own concise accidental brand to the company.

The company projects a low-quality image. Even if the company provides a truly superior product, if one’s website, packaging, customer service and sales staff appear to be lower quality or cheaper, the brand promise will be diminished.

Staff is poorly trained. A company can have a superior product, but if only the C-suite projects smarts, your brand may be accidentally redefined as a dummy.

The brand is untrue. If the company’s brand is about quality, but the company is focused on and commits its resources mostly to new acquisitions while quality lags or goes unsupervised, the brand promise will be accidentally redefined.

Accidental branding in action

PC (John Hodgman) and Mac (Justin Long) from Apple’s “Get a Mac” advertising campaign. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Competitors can also define the company’s promise. Sometimes it is a good thing. For example, if your brand promise can appear favorably next to that of a lesser competitor’s, you may find yourself with an accidentally superior brand. Conversely, your competitor can try to define your brand promise negatively for competitive reasons. For example, if your company defines itself as a cutting-edge technology company, your competitors might define you as a niche or nerdy company that is out of touch with the market (e.g., Apple versus Microsoft).

Although a true brand is virtually always positive, an accidental brand can be positive or negative. This is a key reason a company wants to control its brand to keep the message positive and relevant.

Every business has a brand, whether you’re the one developing it or it is accidental. Take control of your promise to the market or you may discover you have a brand promise that you never intended.