Brand Basics

At Cultivate, we’re not interested in brand as an academic exercise, we’re interested in what brand can do. So we use a very pragmatic definition: brand is simply the perception that a group of people has of an organization, product, or service.


Brand is the perception that a group of people has of an organization, product, or service.

Basically, brand is the set of ideas that pops into a person’s head when they hear the word “Starbucks”. The ideas people have about Starbucks might be shaped by the experience they have when they go inside to order, the commercials they see on TV, or the things they hear other people say. Regardless of the source, those ideas shape their perception, which in turn affects their purchasing decisions.

Because we at Cultivate take a very pragmatic view of brand, it means we believe that three things are true:

Brand is.

Whether you know it or not or like it or not, as soon as people know about your organization, product, or service, you have a brand. And when those people hear your organization’s name, a set of ideas pops into their heads. So the first question you need to ask yourself is this:

  • Is your brand perceived in the way that it should be?

Do others really understand what’s great about your brand, and why they should engage with it? One issue is that it’s quite common for brands to be only partially understood. You might associate Starbucks with coffee, for example, but they offer so much more than that. So it’s critical to build a full understanding of what your brand has to offer to the people you’re trying to reach.

Brand happens.

The perception of your brand changes over time, because everything changes over time – markets change, competitors change, technology changes, culture changes, and organizations change. Because the perception of your brand changes over time, the next thing you need to ask yourself is this:

  • What are you doing to shape the perception of your brand?

Are you actively working to shape that perception, or are you letting the market or your competitors shape it for you? Organizations, products, and services all change over time, and it can be really hard to effectively communicate those changes to the people who need to know about them. Over time, this leads to the type of partial understanding or misperception that we talked about a minute ago.

Brand matters.

Ultimately brand is about things that people think, the way that people feel, and the decisions that people make—and those things matter.

So you need to dig into what matters to you, and why, and then dig into what matters to the people you want to reach, and why. We believe that the real magic lies in the intersection between the answers to these two questions:

  • What matters to you, and why?
  • What matters to them, and why?

It’s easy to think about your organization primarily in terms of what matters to your leadership team or to the organization as a whole, and then to extend that thinking to your target audience.

Going back to our earlier example, it might have been tempting for the leadership of Starbucks to think “we do coffee, so we need to find people who like coffee and convince them to buy our coffee”. But that would have been a huge mistake because it’s too simple and it stops short of what really matters: so instead, they went a step further by thinking about why coffee matters to their customers – why they’re buying it, when they’re buying it, who they might be with, and what else is on their mind at the time, etc. Thinking more deeply led them to build deeper engagement with those customers by doing things like providing tables for meetings, free WiFi, food to accompany the coffee, non-coffee drinks, and by creating mobile order and easy pickup. Over time, they built a deeper understanding of how and why Starbucks matters to the people that they serve.

In the end, that’s what brand is all about – how and why you matter to the people that you serve.

Next: Expectation & Experience

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We’ve developed and refined an approach to brand that is very pragmatic—one that works in practice, not just in theory—and we can’t wait to share every detail with you.