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  • Forfatters billedeMark Hallander

From product to corporate branding and beyond

Branding is a multifaceted concept that does not have a definitive definition in the literature. Rather it is a summary of the development that the concept has been through. But what exact development is that? And what can we learn from the history of branding as presented by the literature? Here are my reflections.

As marketers, we talk a lot about branding, but to truly understand the complex term, we need to start from the beginning (or at least at the early stages of the first theoretical phase in the literature).

The starting point

A very important premise in branding's development is the fact that a brand can only exist if the receiver can attach meaning towards it. This meaning is called connotation - the overall meaning or story - you are actively trying to give others (Rosenbaum-Elliot et al., 2011). Even though branding has undergone various stages in its development, the purpose of branding has always dealt with the company's ability to distinguish itself and create identification through this meaning.

In 1960, the American Marketing Association defined a brand as:

"A distinguishing name and/or symbol (such as a logo, trademark, or package design) intended to identify the goods or services of either one seller or a group of sellers, and to differentiate those goods or services from those of competitors.”

So at first, brands were aligned with things (products and services) to create experiences. A common direction thus became Product Branding: A type of brand management, where market players wanted to strengthen their market position by differentiating themselves through logos and product names (Schultz et al. 2005). Back then, the brand was therefore seen as an extension of the company's product and was considered as an object that the company could manage.

But can the brand, in fact, be managed? And is it only related to our products?

Professor of Branding, David Aaker, made a crucial distancing between product and brand. He argued that branding should include the entire company - not only its products or services - and only through a focus on intangible items, such as values, culture, or competencies, could the company differentiate from competitors (Aaker, 1996).

Aaker's view - that the brand is more than a focus on products, but an inclusion of the company as a whole - constitutes the foundation of the next direction of branding.

Expanding the term

Corporate branding differs from a focus on product-related values by integrating a far broader objective of trust and credibility in the organization. The employees, for example, plays a greater role than before, as they ensure internal cohesion:

”Corporate branding is a move towards conceiving more integrated relationships between internal and external stakeholders linking top management, employees, customers and other stakeholders ” (Schultz et al. 2005: 220).

This development meant that branding could now unite both internal and external stakeholders with the company's vision, culture and image, and it was the company's brand identity that became a factor for differentiation and employee motivation.

Therefore, Corporate Branding was a way to control all the company's communication activities and messages through one integrated discipline.

Practical implication 1: Branding should not be viewed as an isolated activity

The development from a product - to corporate focus is interesting. Here, the implication is that our work with branding cannot be seen as an isolated activity. Brand development thus becomes something that influences several parts of the organization - from marketing to R&D - and should be given the investment that it deserves. It is what we do as a company, what we say and what we bring to the market. With the proper work, our corporate brand has the potential to create coherence between markets and, in turn, growth that can be felt on the bottom line.

But what about - arguably the most important aspect of branding - the customers? What role do they play in developing an organization's brand?

Moving beyond: The next chapter in branding

In 2004, Web 2.0 entered - a term that covers the introduction of second-generation websites, online forums, and social media - and this had a huge influence on branding. Consumers now had greater access to information, more choices online than ever and increased demand for organizational transparency.

In this time, branding was more than only a focus on products or the company's identity - it was something the company's stakeholders interpreted and co-created when interacting with it. Network branding was therefore way more holistic and dialogue-based because the identity creation and the brand were not something that could be managed to the same extent (Hatch & Schultz, 2009).

Practical implication 2: We can affect brand perception with marketing communication, but brand control is an illusion

While Corporate Branding can be seen as a way to control all the company's communication activities through one integrated discipline, herein lies a paradox, because we cannot control the perception of our consumers, and they too create the brand when they engage with it. We must acknowledge that we cannot own and manage the brand in the same way as we used to. Instead, we must engage in more open dialogue, for instance on social media, rather than try to control consumers' perceptions with linear communication.

Branding today...

Today, several branches of cause-related marketing have emerged. One of them being Purpose Branding, which entails that the company reaches within to find a strong, culturally embedded, and value-driven purpose as the focal point for branding activities. It is no longer a cynical focus on getting profit for the stakeholders, but a broader wish to make an impact in our societies (Craig & Snook, 2014).

Practical Implication 3: Branding must focus on more than generating profit

For one, the development from a product-focus to a societal-focus tells us that stakeholder expectations have definitely changed. Organizations are no longer safe by chasing a great annual result - they need to take care of their corporate social responsibility too. And better than loosely stating this on the corporate website - like too many are doing - the sustainable activities should be properly integrated with the business processes and then communicated externally to generate a truly authentic brand purpose.

The complete development

In summarization, the development looks like this:

I hope this walkthrough and the implications find you well in your work with branding and marketing. If you want to dig deeper into the literature presented in this blog post, here are my references:

  1. Aaker, D. (1996). Building Strong Brands. New York: The Free Press.

  2. Craig, N. & Snook, S. (2014). From purpose to impact. Managing yourself. Harvard Business Review.

  3. Hatch, M. J. & Schultz, M. (2009). Brug dit brand. Udtryk organisationens identitet gennem corporate branding. København: Gyldendal Business.

  4. Rosenbaum-Elliot, R., Percy, L. og Pervans, S. (2011). Strategic Brand Management. Oxford University Press.

  5. Schultz, M., Csaba, F.F. & Antorini, Y. (2005). Corporate branding. Purpose, people, process. Towards the second wave of branding. København: Copenhagen Business School Press.


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