100 Days to Define Branding

"What is that?" -- or a polite nod -- are common reactions when I explain that over the past eight months I've been working toward my Master's in Branding at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City. I get it; the word "branding" has become business jargon. It is a misunderstood discipline that is, in fact, more than just the creation of a logo.

A brief history of branding: The word brand has Germanic origins and translates as "burn" or "burning." As a verb it means, "mark permanently with a hot iron" and as a noun, a "mark of ownership." In ancient times, branding was used to identify ownership and has been traced back to ancient Egyptian paintings, where oxen were branded with different hieroglyphics. Branding is the reason cowboys in the U.S. could isolate cattle at "roundup" to bring them to market and eventually the cause for laws passed requiring registration of brands so that each cattle's owner could be rightly identified.

With 100 days until graduation, I was inspired to work on a project: 100 definitions of branding from 100 different people to bring the definition of branding to current times and also to help explain to my parents what I've been doing since September. A mark of ownership is, in fact, still an important part of a brand -- it's their visual identity -- but today, consumers demand much more than a pretty logo. My project, "What is Branding?" will bring 100 definitions together from different individuals in various industries: marketers, designers, strategists, authors and more to show the nuances of what branding really is.

McSweeney's brilliant This is a Generic Brand Video is an example of how companies have turned their unique assets into a commodity. Today, the brands that stand out create distinctive, authentic and aspirational stories, and they are winning our hearts. These brands know who they are, can give their elevator pitch with ease and have spread their message far and wide.

Only a week and a half into my project, I'm energized by the range of definitions I've received from experts working with various brands. From the head of U.S. strategy at one of the largest global agencies, UM, two lines say it all:

The visual and conceptual identity of an offering. Both a look and a persona that guides what it does, how it does it and how it talks about it. -- Will Wiseman

And from the chair and co-founder of SVA's Masters in Branding program, Debbie Millman, it took two words:

Branding is deliberate differentiation. -- Debbie Millman

As my project develops, I will continue to share the definitions I receive and look forward to the unique insights from industry experts.

To follow my 100-day journey, visit What Is Branding. If you are a brand aficionado and interested in participating in my project, leave your definition of branding in the comments below or email me at sfudin at sva dot edu for possible inclusion in the project.