Seems like I run across the term "branding" every day. What does this latest business-babble really mean--if anything?
What a great question! The buzzword "branding" seems to be a creation of the Integrated Marketing Communications crowd. In the olden, golden days, when I was in journalism school, these sinister advertising types were confined to the other end of the building and we virginal junior journalists were not permitted to mingle with them. But these days everyone seems to wallow in the same pond, so I'll risk my reputation and attempt to answer your query.
Current wisdom says that "brand" must not be confused with "identity" or "image." Identity allegedly refers to a company's name, logo, slogan and things of that ilk. Image, theoretically, is the public's perception of the company--for good or ill.
Branding is supposed to be the process by which the true character and purpose of the company is communicated. And this process is a strategy that is consistently applied through the entire firm, hopefully creating an aura of trust; an appreciation of your uniqueness; and a set of expectations in your customers, shareholders and employees. Everything is consistent--packaging, advertising, public relations--I guess that's why they call it "integrated" marketing, right?
These days, so many products (and even methods of distribution) are becoming commodities. To that end, branding often seems to be the only way to create customer appeal and loyalty, and allow you to put premium prices on something that would be hard to distinguish on an objective basis from your competitors' offerings. Take Absolut Vodka, for example. Between you and me, vodka is vodka--even when shaken, not stirred! But Absolut has created a brand out of the shape of a bottle, consistently presented across all forms of media (and all flavors of product.) This is Coca-Cola all over again, n'est pas? You can't argue with a proven success.
Branding creates value beyond what's intrinsic in the product (or service, for that matter.) And this value can be pseudo-quantified and tantalize some enterprising potential partner to woo you into a merger. Here lies the mystique of the Internet bubble stocks which sold for umpteen times their objective value!
For a short course in the nuts and bolts of this aspect of marketing, take a look at what the Toolkit Small Business Guide has to say about the subject, Business Success Needs Successful Marketing
And for some stunning examples of branding, read Al Ries's book (written with his partner/daughter Laura,) The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding: How to Build A Product or Service into a World Class Brand, which can be ordered through their excellent and information-packed website. Another excellent, but pricier, resource on this topic is Kevin Keller's book, Strategic Brand Management: Building, Measuring, and Managing Brand Equity.