The Funny Language of Branding

As with all disciplines, brand strategy comes with its own set of largely agreed-upon vocabulary. From positioning to messaging, values and benefits, the conversation is guided by a set of understandings of the key elements of a successful brand program, and how they should be worded. But what are we really talking about?

A branding program should be focused on the end goal: telling a clear, believable, and desirable story to the company’s employees and customers. That’s all it simply is: a story, with a beginning, middle and end. Whether we call that story a ‘positioning statement’, wrap it up as a ‘mission statement’, or point it to the future as a ‘vision statement’, it is, at its heart, the company telling its story, as best and as meaningfully as it is able.

Another word for this, not often used, is ‘credo’. Does the company have a unique belief about the world, engage in business to make that belief real in some way, and have that belief touch the lives of people in some significant way? This is different from why a given product or service may exist in the company. It’s the ‘higher purpose’ or ‘north star’ of the company that guides product and service development.

For example, a retailer may believe that providing the lowest possible prices ensures a better way of living for its customers, a bank may believe that every customer deserves the greatest possible variety of financial tools to manage their lives, a computer company may believe that providing the simplest possible interface experience will create greater use and pleasure for computing. Whatever we call that idea, its guides everything else about what a company does. Defining that idea and bringing it to life is the purpose of brand strategy.

Unfortunately, however, those ideas, as powerful as they may be, often get hidden in internal ‘corporate speak’ familiar to anyone who has read a typical mission statement. “Leveraging key opportunities to achieve…” and suchlike language may make an exciting, emotional, and powerful idea feel as dry as a legal contract. This may be because the linguistic model for internal ‘business’ documents are often business strategies and investor language that seek to balance nuance and precision using a set of corporate vocabulary terms that convey professionalism and purpose.

However, why this language fails to work for branding is because branding has to take professionalism and purpose as table stakes. Rather, the way you talk about your brand has to both inform, engage, and if possible, excite.

The best articulation of the brand idea is a simple and effective one. While it doesn’t have to be as catchy as an ad slogan, it should seem real, immediate, and believable. Telling your brand story shouldn’t require a degree in a foreign language; it should be as real as your own beliefs about the world, easy to follow, and ignited by emotion.


Sean Ketchem, PhD

Sean Ketchem, PhD, is a branding and content strategy consultant based in San Francisco. You can reach him at


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