There’s a difference between brand identify and brand image.

And it makes all the difference in the world.

We live in an era of mass information and with that comes mass confusion. The world of marketing is no stranger to the concepts of confusion, conflation of ideas, and even outright misdirection.

But as the world gets smaller through channels of mass communication, and as categories become over-saturated with competitors, the difference between related concepts can have a devastating impact on how brands, companies and agencies expend their marketing dollars and resources.

Chasing what is perceived to be an ideal approach could very well end up costing dearly.  Just because terms or concepts ARE used interchangeably doesn’t mean they have the same meaning in reality… or in execution… or in results.

In this short article I hope to shed some much-needed light on the differences – some subtle, some more significant – between the terms ‘brand identity’, ‘brand image’ and ‘brand position’. Yes, they are all important, and no, they are not the same.

‘Brand identity’ refers to how a brand wants to be perceived, and it encompasses the full spectrum of ‘branding’ elements: colors, logos, taglines, values, images, words, etc.  It’s what a brand stands for, the position the brand has decided it wants or needs to ‘own’ in the minds of its target consumers or clients.  Sounds simple.  Isn’t.

‘Brand image’ seems like it would be essentially the same concept, but there’s one difference, and it’s a big one.  Think of it this way: your brand identity is how you WANT your brand to be perceived by your targets.  Your brand image is how it’s ACTUALLY perceived, despite all your best efforts and intentions.

Mind the gap; it’s often rather wide.  Just because a brand wants to be perceived in a certain way, with a certain set of values and benefits, and a certain advantage over its competitors doesn’t mean the market agrees.  That’s the funny thing about target markets… they have a mind of their own.  And a brand’s most essential job is to influence these minds IN their favor and AWAY from their competitors.

Cue positioning

The best way to close the gap between your intended brand identity and your in vivo brand image is to not create the gap in the first place.  Second best is to fix it as soon as you know it’s there.  This is done through brand positioning: the science of influencing consumer perceptions both about your brand and about your competitors’ brands in order to create a cascade of micro-perceptions that lead to the formation of beliefs which then dictate buying behaviors.  OK, that was a mouthful; let’s break it down.

Your brand identity is what you want.  Your brand image is what actually exists out there.  There is likely a discrepancy between the two to some degree or another.  You want to close that gap.  You do it through brand positioning.

Brand positioning guides your brand – and all its component messages, imagery, words, values, benefits, differentiators and experiences – to influence how your targets perceive you.  You want and need them to perceive your brand in a positive light: to feel and believe that your brand will solve their problem or resolve their pain point or fulfill their desire.

The mind of the consumer or client is continuously engaged in a process of defining itself and its needs, and finding its bearings in relation to the world the consumer lives in. So, we could say that brand image reflects the relationship of the target consumer to themselves: “Do I have a need for something?  Is that need being fulfilled or taken care of now”? The golden ticket (the buying action) is the result of the following process:

► Consumer realizes (or is made to realize) they have a need or a desire. This can be physical (hunger, sex, safety, a new t-shirt or pair of shoes, etc.), psychological (pride, love, power, etc.), a desire for something (acceptance, recognition, status, pleasure, financial gain, etc.), or a desire to avoid something (pain, loss, fear, dissatisfaction, etc.).

► This recognition is actually the consumer admitting to themselves there is a discrepancy between their current state and the state they wish to achieve or be in.  Once admitting or realizing the discrepancy between current and desired state exists, the consumer is compelled to take an action.  This action is either an immediate (autonomous) reaction or a considered, more complex journey of information discovery and consideration of the options available that will solve their problem or resolve their pain point or fulfill their desire.

► The consumer then embarks on a journey (which can transpire in an instant or over a period of weeks or months, depending on the complexity, potential risk and potential costs of the decision to be made) of information discovery, which is part of a larger process of consideration. The consumer is looking at various options available to them to fulfill whatever it is they now realize they want or need, and making ‘yes or no’ decisions: “should I keep this option in my consideration set, or toss it?”  In essence, this is where the entirety of business and brand success lies: can your brand survive the purge?  Will it make it through the consideration fire-walk and come out in the final evoked set from which the consumer will make their final buying decision?

And this is a core reason why brands must embrace the power of positioning at every stage of their life cycle, and across all messaging across all platforms and touch points.  A brand’s positioning is inseparable from the consumer’s relationships and perceptions across the entire universe of competition and competitors.  In fact, when it’s done right, a brand’s positioning is responsible for creating, or at the least shaping this set of connections.

But positioning has a second piece that’s not only more important, without it you don’t actually have a brand positioning at all: the ‘de-positioning’ component.  This it the part of your message that compels your targets to perceive and thus believe that your competitors can not solve their problem or resolve their pain point or fulfill their desire as only your brand can.  It’s this combination of positioning and de-positioning that, when mixed in the right formula results in a higher potential for your brand image to actually match your brand identity.  And it’s all done through, and ONLY through brand positioning.