One of my pet peeves in the marketing communications business is lack of consistency in marketing nomenclature among industry practitioners. If you ask six different agency people what a positioning statement is, you’ll most likely get six different answers (Once when I asked a very senior marketing person at a Fortune 100 company what the company’s positioning statement was, she gave me the corporate tagline – Scary!)

And so it goes with brands.

I do think we throw around the term loosely – too loosely for my liking. As someone who makes his living helping develop and nurture brands, I am somewhat conflicted as to how easily the word has slipped into our everyday vernacular. Although brands are important things, I cringe when I hear a celebrity or even a professional like a doctor or lawyer, refer to, “my brand.” It’s sort of like an athlete right out of college referring to himself in the third person. It just doesn’t work for me.

But I digress……

Defining the brand correctly is the most important thing a marketing communications professional can do — whether you’re developing a traditional TV spot, a social media campaign or even an interactive advergame. If you don’t have the brand nailed down, everything else you do is just fluff.

Here’s a definition I’ve used successfully throughout my career:

A brand is a set of emotional attachments between a product, service, institution and its key constituents.

So how do we identify these emotional attachments? There are many ways. What I like to do is conduct a series of 360-degree interviews (either qualitatively or quantitatively depending upon the size of the target audience) and perform what is commonly referred to as a “laddering exercise.” We start with identifying a laundry list of the brand’s key attributes. Then we ask these key constituents (both external and internal) what benefits those attributes provide to them. Then we ask what do these benefits mean to them and what they say about the brand.

Ultimately, these become the brand values which should be skillfully woven into every piece of communication developed on behalf of the brand, no matter what the overall message.

So back to my original premise: a brand is a feeling, not a logic.

The brand values are the “tools” we use to engender this feeling in the psyches of brand constituents over time. You think of Disney and you think of “family entertainment.” You think of Apple and you think of “cool technology that enhances my life.” But not exactly in those words. Over time, there’s a certain “feeling” you associate with those brands that conveys just that.

Here’s a little exercise I do when I speak to groups about branding. You are taking a trip to Florida. There are two airlines leaving at about the same time, from the same airport at the same price. Everything is essentially equal. One airline is called Jet Blue and the other is called Delta. Now quickly, which one would you pick?

Invariably, everyone in the room can make a choice within several seconds, either way. Why? Because they have a certain feeling about each brand and respond instantly and intuitively. They didn’t have to think logically to come up with a response. They felt it.

And feelings and emotions are the most powerful communications tools we have at our disposal.