The Definition of Branding

An effective brand strategy gives you a major edge in increasingly competitive markets. But what exactly does “branding” mean? Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates your offering from that of your competitors. Your brand is derived from who you are, who you want to be and who people perceive you to be.

Are you the innovative maverick in your industry? Or the experienced, reliable one? Is your product the high-cost, high-quality option, or the low-cost, high-value option? You can’t be both, and you can’t be all things to all people. Who you are should be based to some extent on who your target customers want and need you to be.

The foundation of your brand is your logo. Your website, packaging and promotional materials–all of which should integrate your logo–communicate your brand.

Your brand strategy is how, what, where, when and to whom you plan on communicating and delivering on your brand messages. Where you advertise is part of your brand strategy. Your distribution channels are also part of your brand strategy. And what you communicate visually and verbally is part of your brand strategy, too.

Consistent, strategic branding leads to a strong brand equity, which means the added value brought to your company’s products or services that allows you to charge more for your brand than what identical, unbranded products command. The most obvious example of this is Coke vs. a generic soda. Because Coca-Cola has built a powerful brand equity, it can charge more for its product–and customers will pay that higher price.

The added value intrinsic to brand equity frequently comes in the form of perceived quality or emotional attachment. For example, Nike associates its products with star athletes, hoping customers will transfer their emotional attachment from the athlete to the product. For Nike, it’s not just the shoe’s features that sell the shoe.

Defining your brand is like a journey of business self-discovery. It can be difficult, time-consuming and uncomfortable. It requires, at the very least, that you answer the questions below:

  • What is your company’s mission?
  • What are the benefits and features of your products or services?
  • What do your customers and prospects already think of your company?
  • What qualities do you want them to associate with your company?

Do your research. Learn the needs, habits and desires of your current and prospective customers. And don’t rely on what you think they think. Know what they think.

Once you’ve defined your brand, how do you get the word out? Here are a few simple, time-tested tips:

  • Get a great logo. Place it everywhere.
  • Write down your brand messaging. What are the key messages you want to communicate about your brand? Every employee should be aware of your brand attributes.
  • Integrate your brand. Branding extends to every aspect of your business–how you answer your phones, what you or your salespeople wear on sales calls, your e-mail signature, everything.
  • Create a “voice” for your company that reflects your brand. This voice should be applied to all written communication and incorporated in the visual imagery of all materials, online and off. Is your brand friendly? Be conversational. Is it ritzy? Be more formal. You get the gist.
  • Develop a tagline. Write a memorable, meaningful and concise statement that captures the essence of your brand.
  • Design templates and create brand standards for your marketing materials. Use the same color scheme, logo placement, look and feel throughout. You don’t need to be fancy, just consistent.
  • Be true to your brand. Customers won’t return to you–or refer you to someone else–if you don’t deliver on your brand promise.
  • Be consistent. This tip involves all the above and is the most important tip on this list. If you can’t do this, your attempts at establishing a brand will fail.

Why Physician Branding is Unique

Odds are that when today’s physicians completed the long journey through med school, they didn’t expect they would also need the equivalent of an MBA to build a successful practice.

The information age, increased competition and Obamacare has spurred major change and challenge in virtually every aspect of physicians’ lives. The simple and uncomplicated days of Marcus Welby MD have faded well into the past.

Today’s Practice invited G. Kelly O’Dea, noted marketing expert and member of the Meridian Medical Advisory Board, to provide his perspectives and insights into the forces of change and how they affect physicians’ ability to compete successfully. This is the first in a series of interviews across a number of marketing issues. This interview begins with focus on the fundamental building blocks of marketing that must be addressed first.

TP: There has been a tremendous increase in marketing noise. Why do physicians need marketing at all?

Most physicians regard marketing as castor oil – you don’t like it but you know you need it. I understand that but would argue that marketing has become vitally necessary for survival, competitiveness and success in today’s market. It can and should become an elixir in driving successful practice. The problem is that most of marketing activity isn’t doing the job that needs to be done.

TP: How would you diagnose the state of marketing today?

Largely disappointing and wasteful. I would point to three main reasons why:

• Failure to understand what marketing is today. Too often, marketing is regarded as simply an advertising / PR function – “advertise and they will come”. In fact marketing should be about the total approach, founded on strategy and meaningful differentiation, which drives all activities at all points of patient contact.

• A vital first step is often missed: doing your homework on both the market and your practice. Most physician practices don’t do sufficient analysis of the market, competition and patient needs to identify how they can successfully fit into the market in a differentiated manner.

• Not understanding the new power of customer engagement. Patients have become Customers, armed with unprecedented access to information and the power to make choices. They will bypass you if you don’t provide a meaningful reason to be considered.

Most of today’s marketing has little meaningful differentiation. Do an experiment I call “The Wall Test”. Put a representative sample of competitive ads in your market on a blank wall. Now stand back and see how much differentiation you can find. Chances are you won’t find much. Now put your ads up against the competition. Chances are you and your brand won’t stand out. This means that there is considerable waste and lack of performance.

TP: So what’s the way forward?

For marketing to work, it must be founded first on analysis and then development of a differentiated brand. Only then can you begin to implement consistently across every point of customer contact. Otherwise you risk disappointment and waste.

Ask yourself a question: what is my brand and how is it differentiated in a meaningful manner that causes engagement with your prospects? The brand is embodiment of your relationship with the market you serve. It is the cornerstone idea that drives everything you do in marketing yourself or your practice, at every point of contact. If you don’t know your brand and how you’re different, that’s a problem that needs to be corrected. Only then will you see the vital role marketing can play in the success of your practice. To begin the process, see a colleague’s video on the path to building a great brand.

Physician, brand thyself!

TP: How can you tell if your marketing is working?

First of all, change your viewpoint. Make the transition from marketing as castor oil to marketing as an elixir in viewing marketing’s role in your success. Stop looking at marketing as merely an expense. There must be value delivery in the form of improved business and reputation.

Excellent brands are built like birds build nests, The desired outcome is known but it builds in stages. Here are some diagnostic questions to ask to see if your brand is building in the right direction:

• Are customer prospect inquiries increasing?
• Where are your inquiries coming from?
• Are your word of mouth referrals increasing?
• Are new customers increasing?
• Do you ask for their feedback?
• Why did they choose you?
• How are you doing with them once they become customers?
• Do existing customers stay with you?
• Are you beginning to stand out vs. your competitors?

The answers to the above questions help you understand whether or not you’re actually engaging with prospects and customers in a way that produces results.

In the next interview, we’ll focus on communications planning and execution in today’s new media marketplace. Your comments and questions are welcome.

About The Author

G. Kelly O’Dea Senior Advisor, Marketing Technologist Described in a Harvard Business School case as a “global marketing pioneer, business builder and change leader”, Kelly is a broadly experienced executive with a consistent growth record across disciplines, major market categories, multiple countries and C-level positions in public and private companies from established to early stage. Senior advisor to clients in such companies as IBM, Microsoft, Shell, Samsung, Boeing, Compaq, Ford, Fujitsu, AT&T, PepsiCo, Kraft and Unilever. Resume includes: President – FCB (Foote, Cone and Belding Worldwide) (NYSE: IPG); Vice Chairman/Global Operations – Bozell Worldwide; President – Worldwide Client Services, Ogilvy & Mather (NASDAQ: WPPGY). At each company, led and restructured the global client management organization around the 7S and transnational network models, leading to significant growth in revenue, reputation, operating profit.Business builder, leading teams that won over $2.5 billion in new business from clients such as IBM, Ford, Jaguar, AT&T, Samsung, Compaq, Boeing, Fujitsu and others. Co-created well known global brand campaigns for AT&T, Ford and Boeing. Co-founder of Alliance for High Performance Leadership (AllianceHPL), a private next economy strategic services firm focused on applied innovation. The subject of a Harvard Business School case, the firm has specialized in business / market strategies, brand development, marketing technology and design for large clients like Ford, Samsung and Lenovo and many early stage firms focused on new technology applications.

Free time: public service, competitive sport and education, including six-term Chairman of Outward Bound International, Chairman of TheThunderbird School of Global Management, Director on the University of Portland Board of Regents.


Branding budgets run the gamut depending on whether you’re building a brand that will face only moderate competition in a small geographic region or a brand that aims to elbow out major competitors in the global marketplace. What’s more, budgets vary depending on whether you can reach your market through digital communications and social media or whether you need to invest in traditional media and marketing channels.

A glance at branding budgets

Here’s a lineup of the major tasks involved in brand development along with the range of price tags involved. Brace yourself: The high-end figures are apt to cause heart palpitations.

Task Low-End Fee High-End Fee
Name development $10,000 $75,000
Brandmark (logo) creation $3,500 $150,000
Core brand presentations (website and brand marketing
$10,000 $250,000+
Advertising $10,000 Millions annually
SEO (website search-engine optimization $1,000 monthly Thousands monthly
Social media Your time Hundreds of thousands annually
Signage, vehicles, packaging $20,000 $250,000+ annually

As you can see, there’s a huge range between the low-end costs involved to build a professional brand that competes on a local or regional level and the high-end costs involved to build a powerful brand that can flex its muscle nationally or internationally.

As you start tallying up the costs to your business, avoid the temptation to strike out certain line items that you think you can handle on your own without incurring outside costs. Businesses that start with do-it-yourself logos and presentation materials achieve false savings. They economize on the front end, for sure, but they also cost themselves the benefit of a strong, competitive, professional first impression.

If your goal is to build a brand that you can grow, leverage, and even sell in the future, invest the money required to get off to a good start. By the time you amortize your start-up expenses, the cost will be minimal in comparison to the value received.

Branding without big bucks

In case you’re clinging to your billfold or balance sheet, shaking your head and wondering how you can build a brand on your kind of budget, remember this truth: In essence, your business is your brand and your brand is your business.

If you don’t have the budget to develop the most powerful brand identity, triple or quadruple your efforts to design and deliver the most consistent brand experience. Follow these suggestions:

  • Spend extra time and effort to define your brand and what it stands for so that everyone in your organization knows exactly the promise you’re making and keeping. Defining your brand involves creating your mission and vision statements, defining your brand promise, developing your brand definition and core brand message, and deciding on the brand character or personality that you’ll put forth with every brand communication.

  • Develop a brand experience that never fails or fluctuates. If you can’t have the most dazzling brand identity and presentation, aim instead to have the most amazing and amazingly consistent brand encounters.

When people choose your offerings, what they really buy into is your brand. How well you define and deliver your brand determines the ultimate value and success of your business. View branding not as an expense but as an investment that delivers value over the long haul.

By Bill Chiaravalle, Barbara Findlay Schenck


G. KELLY O'DEAMarketing Strategist
Described in a Harvard Business School case as a “global marketing pioneer, business builder and change leader”, Kelly is a broadly experienced executive with a consistent growth record across disciplines…
BOB SMITHExecutive Advisor
Founded MySuccess, Inc. after 12 years in computer industry sales operations, developing successful marketing strategy for hardware and software resellers of big names such as Satellite Software, Wang Laboratories and Data General.
NATHAN PURCELLFounding Partner, Clarity Partners, LLC
Growth hacking is an outside-the-box marketing strategy used to get the maximum volume of growth with minimal spend. Nathan helps companies unlock their full potential through a combination of creative marketing…

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