What is branding, why is it important, and what different types of branding strategies are available to businesses?

With so many options available to today’s consumers, branding is essential to not only getting their attention but also building the kind of relationships that lead to long-term success. Especially for organizations focused on expansion, branding is an indispensable tool for quickly communicating value, trustworthiness, and differentiation. 

Yet branding is also easy to misunderstand or underestimate, particularly in a multichannel world. More than just a great logo or slogan, a successful brand identity is a carefully considered, expertly designed and solidly constructed asset — possibly the most valuable one a business has. 

Here’s a closer look at what businesses should know about branding, why it’s important, and what framework to follow for a successful strategy. 

What is branding?

A brand is a specific name, symbol or concept that’s associated with a particular entity — business, individual, or government agency, to name a few of the most common. And branding is the process of creating, maintaining and improving that brand, so that it instantly communicates specific qualities or even a full corporate identity to consumers. 

For businesses, branding is a means of cultivating a larger, company-wide symbol for instant recognition, not just among buyers, but also the culture at large. A brand is an organization’s unique public identity that is, ideally, associated with positive qualities such as high value, quality, reliability or authenticity. 

From medieval watermarks in Europe to literal branding in America’s old West, to today’s carefully cultivated, digitally savvy use of style and imagery, brands have played a pivotal role in the history of business and commerce for centuries. But as important as these symbols are, the process of branding encompasses much more than that imagery. It’s the distillation of a company’s entire identity and reputation, for better or for worse. 

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Why is branding important?

Successful branding offers many benefits for many different types of entities. It can guide and enhance sales and marketing efforts, helping to bring in new customers and retain existing ones via brand loyalty. A strong brand can also positively affect company culture, helping keep current workers happy and improving the quality of applicants for open positions. 

Branding has even been shown to increase a company’s financial value: “Strong brands consistently outperform the market,” noted a 2020 McKinsey & Company report on brand strategy. The most successfully branded businesses are the ones that lead their markets and hold a place in our collective culture. (They also understand the value of their investments, protecting their brand with registered trademarks.) 

True, not every brand is a Coca-Cola or Google. Yet with the right strategy, virtually any organization has a shot at achieving some level of brand equity, or value compared to the market as a whole. For instance, Bulgari may not exactly be a household name, but it has real, measurable value as a high-end fashion and jewelry brand. 

Branding may not be a new concept. Yet in today’s multichannel marketplace, it’s arguably more important than ever before. And leaders and marketers are taking note: In just one year, brand strategy went from one of the lowest priorities for America’s Chief Marketing Officers to one of the top, reported Marketing Dive in 2020.  

With so many businesses now actively focusing on branding, those that fail to embrace it could find themselves not only left behind, but out of the conversation altogether. 

Types of branding strategies

Branding is now an almost universal practice not just for corporations, but also small businesses, government entities and even individuals. So, it should come as little surprise that there are also many types of branding strategies to accommodate this wide variety of needs. While they share some overall objectives, each one approaches branding with a different set of guidelines. 

Though the list varies depending on which source you consult, there are essentially six main types of branding strategy, and a few others that are less well-known. In general, the most frequently defined are corporate, personal, product, service, retail, and cultural and/or geographic, with the latter two often grouped together. Let’s take a closer look.  

Corporate branding strategy

A corporate branding strategy is the cultivation of a brand for a business or business-adjacent entity. It works as a shorthand for the company’s mission statement and values, as well as more tangible qualities like pricing, or specific content or personalities. 

Corporate branding is an increasingly essential tool for businesses to define themselves within specific target markets. For instance, a luxury brand is designed to attract and speak to a different group of people than a budget brand. Yet both follow similar baseline tactics to accomplish their goals — chiefly, defining purpose and target audience, and conducting market research for insights into strategic approach

Once created, corporate branding strategies should be implemented throughout an organization via specific operational guidelines that relate to everything from pricing to internal operations. Ideally, these guidelines are not only internalized by everyone from the CEO to the newest hire, but infused within the culture itself.

Personal branding strategy

Personal branding strategies focus on a single individual. Traditionally, personal branding has been used by politicians, movie stars, athletes and other high-status people for a variety of reasons (but usually to enhance their visibility and profitability). With the advent of digital marketing and social media in recent decades, though, millions of lesser-profile people now engage in personal branding every day. 

Yet even though social media is currently the foremost venue for personal branding, it’s certainly not the only one. A personal branding strategy can also include other digital activity like regular blogging or YouTube video production. In a physical sense, it could also include joining a club or group, attending conferences and other public events, or publishing a book. 

From executives who work to extend the brand of the companies they lead to local musicians cultivating a fanbase, personal branding has become a significant part of American and global culture. At the same time, striking the right balance between personal behavior and professional conduct in an era of media saturation, instant communication and viral sharing requires discipline and expertise.

Product branding strategy

Product branding strategy uses a similar framework as a corporate strategy, but focused on a specific product or piece of merchandise. It involves defining a product’s specific positive characteristics and then working to communicate them to a target market. For instance, within Apple’s overall corporate branding, there are separate product strategies for specific products, like the iPhone or MacBook Air. 

While some products are created to fill a void, others must work to distinguish themselves in an already-competitive marketplace. Creating a consistent, effective branding campaign that delivers value can help meet that goal. Yet to do so, it often requires extensive research into target markets and the competitive landscape.

Service branding strategy

Service branding is a business strategy that’s focused on a specific service provided by a person or organization. It can also encompass an assessment of the overall service provided, such as a company’s reputation for customer service wait times, or the quality of its technical support. 

Customers are more in control today than ever before, and many businesses are actively enhancing their customer experience to win them over. Since service can be defined as the relationship between businesses and customers, service branding is instrumental in the pursuit of a superior customer experience.   

As with product branding, service branding strategies require defining saleable characteristics for a specific audience, then representing them within a unified brand. Since services are less tangible than products, effective strategies may require out-of-the-box thinking. Actively improving the quality of the service in question is also a component, making service branding more than just a job for sales and marketing but a priority across an entire organization.

Retail Branding

Similar to product and service branding, retail branding is oriented around a specific aspect of commerce — in this instance, the retail sales of products. Retail itself has a variety of sub-categories, from companies that sell only self-produced items (as with Apple), to those that offer the full spectrum of retail products (Walmart), to those focused on a specialty niche (IKEA). 

Whatever the specific market, most retail branding strategies share components like product branding, quality of service and digital and physical architecture. Over the past 20 years, online selling has transformed the mechanics of retail branding, multiplying customer touchpoints and selling opportunities. But the central goals have remained the same, as has the need for smart market research to meet them.

Cultural and geographic branding

Cultural branding and geographic branding are often used synonymously. And, while there is enough crossover to justify categorizing them together, they’re not always quite the same thing. 

Geographic branding strategy is based on a specific location. That could mean different branding in different countries for a multinational company. It could mean different branding in different states for a fast-food franchise, or different counties for a utility service. Cultural strategy, on the other hand, is focused on a specific group of people, as defined by shared cultural demographics. 

Yet these two concepts are often inextricably linked. Geographic distinctions are sometimes mostly defined by cultural considerations. For example, branding that’s focused on India will be different than branding focused on Italy because of differences in culture more than differences in physical terrain. 

At the same time, cultural branding can also be used to communicate with groups like religious or ethnic communities in a way that isn’t necessarily tied to geography. And geographic branding doesn’t always involve cultural considerations; it could also be used by a country’s tourism board to boost interest in traveling to a region, or a farm-to-table restaurant’s focus on local community. 

In the online era, geography isn’t as important as it once was. Consumers today generally expect a customer-forward experience no matter what country they live in. Yet it’s also important to remember that some cultures have different priorities — for example, the greater need for a brand to communicate trust in a developing country, where buyers have different standards and experiences.

Other types of branding strategies

Other types of branding strategies are also available to meet more specific goals. For instance, non-profit branding is oriented more around concepts like engagement and activism than profit and revenue. And co-branding is a strategy that seeks to integrate two brands into a single campaign or concept — a process that’s more complex than simply presenting two logos together. 

Some experts also consider online and offline branding to be their own distinct strategies — the former focused on digital, social and app-based communications, the latter on print media, broadcast, or even person-to-person interactions. While some entities will find value in differentiating online and offline strategies, for most businesses, they’re elements of a larger corporate strategy that are best approached holistically, and not as separate concepts. 

As the marketplace continues to fragment and diversify, we can expect to see less common branding strategies increasingly being used to reach people in different places and different ways.

Multi-branding strategy

Especially for larger, enterprise-level organizations, multi-branding strategies are useful for distinguishing a portfolio of different offerings from a shared owner, while keeping them as their own distinctive brands and working to boost synergy throughout a larger ecosystem of products and services. 

A means of combining corporate, retail, product, service or other types of branding into a larger framework, multi-brand marketing gives businesses the chance to expand their market reach through diversification. That’s a particularly useful benefit for products with a limited threshold of potential customers, or for businesses seeking ways to expand beyond their immediate geographic area.   

Multi-brand strategies can also emerge as byproducts of market research. Data sometimes reveals new upselling or cross-selling opportunities that align with an organization’s mission and values. And the likelihood of successfully seizing those opportunities is only improved by a pre-existing structural branding framework or collection of related consumer or competitive data.   

Multi-brand marketing doesn’t just involve different types of brand strategies, but can also refer to the use of the same brand strategy for products in the same market. For instance, businesses looking to dominate a niche may create different products to serve different value points in that market. Think of an automaker like Toyota and the different way it brands the Prius and Lexus. 

This kind of multi-brand strategy is designed to beat out competition, as well as to make a single company the most likely choice for consumers on a statistical level. Yet it also comes with the risk of self-cannibalization, and harming one brand to promote another. For this reason, creating and executing effective multi-brand strategies require real expertise in areas ranging from marketing and communications to market research and consumer behavior.


Branding strategy framework

Businesses looking to create or revamp their brand have the choice of embracing an existing framework or forging their own path. A variety of different frameworks are available to meet virtually any specific level of need. There isn’t a single universal framework, nor should there be— each brand strategy should be customized to best communicate a company’s unique selling points to a select audience. 

All the same, most branding strategy frameworks are based on a few universal fundamentals. McKinsey defines the three sources of a brand’s power as science (“a deep understanding of customers and the market based on rigorously tested concepts”), art (“a clear purpose brought to life by creativity”), and craft (“an inspiring brand experience delivered consistently across all touchpoints”). 

Other sources cite purpose as its own factor, rather than a subset of art. And it’s true that purpose is the logical starting point for any brand framework. It’s essential for establishing consistency, which is in turn important for creating positive associations across all channels — a must for effective branding. 

With these key factors understood, a standard framework for building a branding strategy could include: 

1. Defining purpose. What does this branding campaign seek to accomplish? How can it incorporate an organization’s mission statement and immediate goals?   

2. Defining audience. Who is most likely to be moved by this purpose? In other words, who are we trying to reach? Where are they located, and how can you most effectively connect with them? Even if you think you already know the answers to these questions, they can be better defined or updated with the help of market research.

3. Defining the competition. What organizations offer competing services, or a similar niche in the marketplace? What are those competitors good at, and what are their weaknesses? Market research can help answer these questions, which are critical in successfully distinguishing a brand in the minds of consumers. 

4. Arts and crafts. With the first three steps done, it’s time to transform purpose, data and knowledge into an actual brand campaign. From designing a logo to implementing a marketing plan, this is a large task requiring expertise. Larger corporations may tackle these tasks in house, but most companies choose to partner with specialized firm to ensure professional-level results. 

5. Execution. With a brand strategy now in place, it’s time to implement. Again, all but the largest enterprise-level companies usually rely on expert guidance. It may be the same firm that helped design branding logo and guidelines, or it could be a partner specializing in PR or media purchasing. Either way, leaders should make sure they’re leveraging actual expertise.  

GfK can help your business craft a successful branding strategy

Even with a clear framework in place, creating an effective branding strategy takes real expertise. Any misstep could mean that the brand doesn’t just miss the mark, but may even have a negative effect. And that could not only nullify the time, money and work invested in defining purpose, audience and competition, but actively harm an organization’s present value and future prospects. 

In addition, traditional methods of branding are no longer adequate to keep up with today’s omnichannel market. An innovative approach is often required to make a brand stand out in a crowded marketplace, or against better-established competitors. And for most businesses, that means seeking out partners with a great deal of proven skill and expertise. 

At GfK, we’re proud to offer a suite of Brand Intelligence solutions to provide leaders in diverse industries like technology, retail, automotive, media, and more with innovative frameworks, reporting, and consulting services to help ensure brand success. From market intelligence and research to campaign implementation, GfK is the best choice to help today’s businesses meet their goals — quickly, efficiently and cost effectively.