I’m Stef Hamerlinck. A brand designer and strategist. I founded Let’s talk branding so I can help other designers learn more about strategy, design and branding.

Branding vs. Marketing: The bigger picture.

Branding vs. Marketing: The bigger picture.

I need to be honest, people; I've been living in a bubble. I thought branding was the overarching theme that manages marketing, advertising, sales, ... Heck, it could even drive business decisions. I believed that a brand is "the gut feeling a customer has about a product or service ( Marty Neumeier's definition)”, thus branding must be the act of 'creating a brand' and all the possible 'touchpoints' like 'content, sales, ads, customer support' should be driven by the 'brand strategy'. So my vision was: Branding → Marketing, Sales, Support, ... And all of those things together make up the brand.

Wait, what? Wasn’t identity a part of branding? I’m lost!

Wait, what? Wasn’t identity a part of branding? I’m lost!

One of the many examples of a ‘branding-centered’ view

One of the many examples of a ‘branding-centered’ view


But boy, was I wrong. I started talking to marketers, brand managers, and entrepreneurs and saw a lot of different perspectives. All of a sudden, the hierarchy becomes Brand → Marketing → Branding. The CMO is in charge, right? Then there are things like 'brand marketing', making it even more confusing! Can you really do 'marketing' without 'brand'? It seems to add more confusion to an already crazy world.

Things got wacky, so I decided it's time to figure this out. Why are different industries seeing this differently? Is there a right answer? I started exploring as I would in any other strategy project. In this article, I want to give you the different perspectives and opinions and hopefully help you in understanding both concepts so that we can all talk about the same thing.

Let's start with looking at some definitions:

What is a Brand?

"A brand is a customer’s gut feeling about a product or service" — Marty Neumeier

"A brand is a name, term, design, symbol or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.[2][3][4] Brands are used in business, marketing, and advertising. Name brands are sometimes distinguished from generic or store brands." — Wikipedia

We can see a big difference in the meaning of 'brand', coming from the most simple recognizable touchpoints such as a logo or tagline (Wikipedia's definition) to the 'full emotional response' (Marty Neumeier's definition). This evolution of a brand being a 'identifier' to being an emotional gut feeling is important for the impact on the word 'branding'.

What is Branding?

"The process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumers' mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers. — Business dictionary

"The practice of branding is thought to have begun with the ancient Egyptians, who were known to have engaged in livestock branding as early as 2,700 BCE.[5] Branding was used to differentiate one person's cattle from another's by means of a distinctive symbol burned into the animal's skin with a hot branding iron." — Wikipedia

We can see here, again, the difference of the word 'branding' as 'marking' something with a 'brand' to make sure we recognize it versus branding being the act of creating a 'presence in the customer’s mind'. Wikipedia recognizes this shift:

"In the modern era, the concept of branding has expanded to include the marketing and communication methods that help to distinguish a company or products from competitors, aiming to create a lasting impression in the minds of customers. The key components that form a brand's toolbox include a brand's identity, brand communication (such as by logos and trademarks), brand awareness, brand loyalty, and various branding (brand management) strategies.[6] Many companies believe that there is often little to differentiate between several types of products in the 21st century, and therefore branding is one of a few remaining forms of product differentiation.[7]" — Wikipedia

So according to Wikipedia, 'marketing' is driven by branding. One point for me!

"Branding is the act of creating a brand. The process involves positioning your company or product in the market (carving out your own place), devising brand strategy (how you will reach your goals), creating your name (your verbal identity), designing corporate identity or product identity (your visual identity), writing brand messaging (verbal and written tone), and setting brand standards (how you keep your brand consistent and strong)." — Train of thought

It seems like the word 'branding' derives a lot of meaning from our view on 'brand'. Obviously, like 'skateboarding' derives most meaning from the word 'skateboard'. Yet there seems to be a split. Where brand is perceived as the 'high-level value asset' that has emotional meaning for a customer and has 'equity', branding is oftentimes not perceived as the act of 'creating an emotional response' or developing equity but rather as the old 'branding a cattle'. In marketing world, branding is seen as 'making it distinctive'. Let's take a look at marketing definitions

What is Marketing?

" '[…] the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising." — Wikipedia

"Marketing is actively promoting a product or service. It’s a push tactic. It’s pushing out a message to get sales results: “Buy our product because it’s better than theirs.” (Or because it’s cool, or because this celebrity likes it, or because you have this problem and this thing will fix it, etc.) This is oversimplification, but that’s it in a nutshell." — James Heaton

If marketing is the 'push' activity to 'promote' and branding is defining what the brand really is, then clearly, marketing is just a small part of branding, right?

I started asking around and got some really interesting different opinions, here are some different point of views:

"I think the phrasing of the questions could be somewhat misleading. In terms of value to the enterprise, over the long term, branding is more important than any particular marketing initiatives, advertising, products, etc., but looking at the sheer volume of output and dollars spent, one could infer that branding could be seen as a "small part of marketing" even though the brand is the foundation of what drives that marketing." — Gary Ludwig

Interesting thoughts! It's not about whether 'branding' is 'more important' than marketing or the other way around. It's more about what comes first. Branding, defining your brand must come first, but marketing is the continuous building of that brand which probably needs a lot more resources.

"If you think the brand relates only to marketing you don’t understand branding. Branding is the philosophical DNA of any firm and when controlled it will influence all four pillars of a company: HR, Finance, Operations and yes, Marketing. Maybe you are referring to brand identity or brand communication?" — Liam Farrel

Strong opinion! So again, points for my original view (I’m not counting).

Having these discussions online sparked a lot of interesting comments, but I could also see how there is no clear consensus, things got really confusing sometimes, like in this exchange:

So wait, who tells what? Is marketing the storytelling? Or branding the storytelling? Noooooo! I'm going crazy. How can we explain to our clients what we do if we can't figure out ourselves?

Community research

It's clear that there is no simple 'consensus'. So my next step was to take a more quantitative approach, asking the different communities to vote:

The Sweathead group is an awesome community filled with people in Brand management and strategy

The Sweathead group is an awesome community filled with people in Brand management and strategy

As you can see, a pretty clear 'victory' for marketing. Marketing is clearly the overarching theme here from the eyes of brand managers.

The Logo geek community, a community filled with graphic designers and logo designers

The Logo geek community, a community filled with graphic designers and logo designers

In the Logo geek community, we can see 'branding' becoming increasingly important, makes sense, since a lot of people in this community value their work as 'brand designers' or identity designers. But still, branding as a part of marketing wins with a landslide.

The poll on Twitter had similar results to the Logo geek community

The poll on Twitter had similar results to the Logo geek community

Overall, it looks like the different communities align. If we live in a democracy, then it's clear: branding is a part of marketing. Discussion over.

Again we can see this split that marketing drives branding, yet 'brand' is considered the 'overarching theme. At this point, you might be saying, it's all semantics Stef! Just give up. But actually, I think it's important to have a common ground when it comes to this terminology, even if it was just for my own peace of mind.

I wasn't satisfied yet, so I reached out to some experts or 'thought' leaders to get some more insights, Here are their thoughts:

"I separate it out into three tiers. 1) branding is the activity of putting the brand on something like a pack, or advertisement 2) brand management is the decision making process of how to use the brand to achieve the company objectives and involves understanding the consumer who buys the brand, how to reach them, what sort of portfolio etc, what we call mental and physical availability and then 3) marketing management which is the decision of which brands to invest in, how to achieve the corporate objectives etc." — Jenni Romaniuk, Professor in Marketing science

Interesting, in this point of view (from a marketing perspective), 'branding' is the act of 'visualizing the brand on a touchpoint'.

In a nutshell, marketing is more tactical (short-term selling) and branding is more strategic (long-term positioning). Therefore marketing should report to branding, not the other way around. Most companies still get it backwards. — Marty Neumeier

It makes sense from Marty's view of the word 'brand' that marketing should report to branding, because brand is the 'emotional response' a customer has to a product or service, according to his definition.

I also wanted to include the view of the ‘entrepreneur’ of course, in this case, an actual client. We sat down and had a really interesting conversation about his views on branding and marketing. This is of course really important because this is who you are selling to.

“Branding for me is about ‘brand building’. It’s defining your logo, tagline, webdesign, the t-shirt that your staff wear but also your vision, mission and messaging. While marketing, which I often put in the same boat as ‘Sales’ are the tools that you will use online and offline to reach your audience. I always think about marketing as: “Mark that thing”.
Peter Van Praet - https://bavet.eu/

For Peter, branding is the starting point and marketing is the tools to get it out there.

In this video, Don Miller from Storybrand says you need to invest in marketing first, because without marketing, branding does not work. He even goes as far as saying ‘branding/marketing’ budget should be '80/20’

In this video, this ‘split’ comes up, even Don Miller has a book called ‘storybrand’, but he sees ‘branding’ as the logo, colors, etc. So it makes sense from this point of view to say that marketing is a lot more important. So depending on your view on marketing and branding, this budget will be 80/20 tot 50/50.

In this follow-up video by Chris Do and his team from the Futur, we can see this debate further defined.

After having done tons of conversations, I started seeing some patterns emerge, it's clear that depending on background, culture and career, we view marketing/branding as different concepts on a spectrum. It's positioning time folks!

Tactical vs Strategic

A lot of definitions talk about marketing being more 'tactical' whereas thinking about 'brand' needs a more strategic approach. Again, this is depending on how people view marketing. If you see marketing as the 'SEO, SEA, performance measuring' type of skillset, then yes, it's more tactical. But good marketers think strategic and have a long term (brand) strategy.

Long-term vs Short-term

Similar to the 'tactical vs strategic' axis, a lot of people put 'marketing' on the short-term (tactical) end of the spectrum and 'brand building' on the long-term overall view. For example, Nike has an overall brand strategy of being a 'rebel' brand, short-term might be a campaign to promote a new shoe. Again, I believe it’s a false assumption about marketers being short-term thinkers. Often it's being able to translate long-term strategies into short term goals without losing oversight of the main message.

Creative vs Logical

Marketers 'measure', creatives 'create'. Branding is 'creative', marketing is 'logical'. Marketing 'science' is an important part of business, while 'branding science' really doesn't really exist. So we often put branding on the more creative end of the spectrum and marketing on the 'logical' end. Again, this seems rooted in the idea that marketing is somehow not 'creative' in nature, while I believe the strongest marketers are often those that can leverage creativity but have a good understanding of measuring outcomes. On the other hand, people in branding need to be more understanding of the actual effects of branding. For example, how to measure the actual effect of 'distinctive' assets is an important part of branding.

Push vs Pull

“I want to show there’s an alternative to marketing, which is actually design,” says Engman. “And if you work with design and communications in the right way, that would be the best kind of marketing, without buying media.” Engman implies that 'marketing' is about 'buying' media, while design is about 'organic' traffic by good design. Again, it's a matter of how you see marketing, in this case, marketing is seen as 'paid media' or 'pushing' a message out there. While if you would ask any content marketer, he would strongly disagree of course.

Chronological vs Hierarchical

A lot of discussions stem from these axes. Branding comes before marketing. First, you need to define the story, the messaging, the visual identity and then marketing can take those assets and bring them out there. This is also how I experience it daily, creating assets and then transitioning to a communication strategy on what content to write, on what channels, for whom, ... I think it's wrong to approach marketing and branding in a purely chronological way, similar to webdesign and development. The earlier you can involve developers into a design process, the better it will be. Marketers and brand strategists/designers all need to work together on building a brand.

Holistic vs Specific

Part of what started this discussion was a thread on LinkedIn with my friend Haris Spahic. He made a post about branding and marketing being related, but not the same. One of the comments stood out for me. It was by Graham Robertson, author of the book 'Beloved Brands' and experienced veteran in branding/marketing. He said: "Mark me down as one who sees marketing and branding as the same thing. I get scared when people think they are different". I messaged Graham to give a little bit more clarity and this is what he told me:

"I take a much more holistic approach to brand management. Call it whatever you want, it’s all one thing...marketing or branding. Zero difference. A logo, a TV ad, getting employees to smile, or what type of toilet paper to use....all impact the brand. Separating into components goes against a holistic approach to me, and feels silly. This has been the approach of brand management. As far as myself, I’m a marketer who loves brand management. I’m it all. When we talk specific stuff....we should not call it branding or marketing. It's part of it...but not it. It's a logo, not branding. It's a content piece, not content marketing. It's a digital channel, not digital marketing." — Graham Robertson

It's clear that approaching 'branding and marketing' from a holistic point of view is different to viewing them as to seperate entities. I especially like Graham's advice to avoid words like branding and marketing and use a 'logo' or a 'content piece' or a 'channel' instead of saying 'content marketing' or visual branding. Making sure we use words that are not perceived differently might help us in understanding the same things.

So the next time you are writing up a proposal, or talking to your team, try to use words that can't be confused. If someone says, we need a new brand, ask them what they mean? Do you mean a new logo? Or are we talking about the whole vision of the company?

I also like this comment by Koen Verbrugge (an upcoming podcast guest):

“For me the branding aspect is the part that makes you recogniseable, but is sort of feelgood/selfcentric.

I tend to see brand-centric marketing to loud & high in production value. Interaction-led marketing targets high interactions but looses sight of the overall narrative.

IMHO: Being able to decide 'What the market needs would be a crucial part in defining the split in budget/the criteria for brand identity assets.”
Koen Verbrugge http://koenverbrugge.be/


After seeing all the different perspectives and opinions, I believe that there is a lot of overlap between both concepts, and depending on our experiences with these skillsets, we might oversimplify one or the other. A marketer might think: "Those creative people just need to create a beautiful logo and listen to me". A designer might think: "These marketing people are just thinking about the 'sales' part, I'm seeing the brand as a whole." I think both are wrong. We need to see the bigger picture, whether we are a marketeer, a brand planner, a brand designer, a strategist, a storyteller, ... We always need to think about 'the brand', the strategy, the bigger problem to solve. Anyone that is too focused on their specific industry or their skillset alone will fail to understand the bigger picture and help companies grow.

I believe marketing and branding are the same things with slightly different connotations depending on the context of the person listening. So whether branding is driven by marketing or the other way around, it completely depends on how you view both. What's more important is that we need to bring together both fields to build better brands. The best brands are driven by long-term strategic thinking, but know how to implement, execute, activate and communicate that simple message with the right tactics. One falls flat without the other. We need each other!

Koen Verbrugge: Measuring Brand Impact

Koen Verbrugge: Measuring Brand Impact

Stef Hamerlinck - The End of Positioning

Stef Hamerlinck - The End of Positioning