The 4 Dimensions of Brands and Branding

Greg Kihlström

While some fundamentals never change, it’s important to understand how brands and branding have evolved in the eyes of both marketers and their audiences over the years. We can look at the evolution of brands as encompassing four eras:

  1. Brand as object
  2. Brand as idea
  3. Brand as experience
  4. Brand as relationship

As you work tirelessly to create an engaging experience between your audiences and your brand, keep this evolution in mind. You can also look at these as four dimensions that your brand needs to exist within. Remember that none of these dimensions are irrelevant, even as brands’ relationship with consumers evolves. Now, take a look at the evolution process:

1 | Brand as object

Dating from ancient Egyptian times, when a mark was literally branded onto cattle with a branding iron (ouch!), the brand as object era is a very literal approach to associating a set of graphic symbols and images with a product or company. This means that a brand is a very finite and concrete grouping of things.

At its simplest, branding consists of the following:

  • A company
  • A logo or mark
  • A product

In other words, when you see a specific mark, you will associate it with a particular company. There isn’t much room for interpretation there, but in the early days of mass marketing and advertising, with less choice and less sophisticated targeting, positioning and measurement, the brand as object worked.

The thinking behind this era and dimension of branding is that simply by having name or logo recognition, consumers will choose one product or company over another.

Brand as Object

In the early days of marketing and advertising, it was enough to simply have name or product recognition in order to generate sales. Mass advertising created mass sales.

Still today, these basic components of branding are vital. A company without a logo, or a product without a name would still be hard to market. But as time has gone on, brands needed to grow more sophisticated.

2 | Brand as idea

With increasing competition from mass production, mass advertising, and mass media in general, the need for brands to be more than an object came along. At this point, it wasn’t enough to simply have a logo that was recognizable and a product that was available in stores.

Brands now needed to compete for mindshare, or as Will Burns says in his article on, “Branding is what happens to people after they've spent time interacting with your company.”

It is still important that a brand exist beyond an abstract name and logo in people’s minds. For instance, on the surface, what do the names Apple, Starbucks or McDonald’s mean? Even their logos have no relationship to computers (or phones), coffee, or hamburgers, respectively. So how do they cement their brands into their audience’s heads? Well, one way is through conveying their brand as more of an idea, than as a simple relationship between a logo and a product.

Brand as Idea

As consumers and marketers have grown more sophisticated, it is not enough to simply be known. Companies and products must stake out a claim on an area of the popular imagination and exist as an “idea.”

For instance, seeing the “golden arches” of McDonald’s plants an idea in your head. Maybe it’s a Big Mac, or french fries, or a large Coca-Cola. But whatever it is, (and whatever your feelings about its products), that yellow “M” brings with it more than just an opinion of yellow on red typography. Same with Starbucks. It’s a testament to successful branding that a mermaid makes one thirsty for a coffee beverage, but that logo, or the name alone, have that effect. They’ve managed to get consumers to adopt an idea when they see or hear their brand.

3 | Brand as experience

With increased competition, and consumer preference for more tailored products and services, brands were forced to differentiate themselves beyond occupying an idea. They needed to insert themselves into key life moments and become part of our experience.

Going back to one of the brand examples mentioned earlier, Apple’s brand experience extends all the way from the initial sale (either in one of its branded stores or its online presence), through the packaging you open to first use your product, through the ease with which setup occurs, through usage of the product every day. And if you have problems, you can go to the Apple Store to ask questions.

Even Apple’s recent ads focus more on the experience of using their products than they do the individual features. While they often showcase one feature, the content of their advertisements is more about someone having an experience while using their product, instead of simply using their product.

Brand as Experience

In more recent times, brands have used experience to cut through the clutter of marketing and advertising, which creates deeper engagement with customers.

This idea of brand as experience also reinforces the idea that a customer may not engage with a company on a single channel (online, television, a brick-and-mortar retail store), or even device. In fact, many times people are engaging on several devices at the same time!

Because of this, a multi-channel strategy became not only practical, but necessary for brands to survive in a world of marketing overload.

4 | Brand as relationship

As more and more brands have adopted the experience approach, it has become clearer that a one-off moment in time is not enough to cement brand loyalty. This takes us to the current stage in the evolution of brands: brand as relationship.

Mark Bonchek and Cara France have a great take on this in their article in Harvard Business Review:

To get started, think about the relationship people have with your brand today. Frame your answer as social roles. For example, if you are a healthcare provider, you probably have a brand relationship based on doctor/patient. Now think about other kinds of relationships outside your industry. For example, in healthcare there are aspects of teacher/student (to educate), coach/athlete (to motivate), or guide/traveler (to navigate). Be sure to consider roles that are symmetrical, like friend/friend, neighbor/neighbor or co-creator/co-creator.

Now that just about every brand is on social media, and has some type of interactive presence, it’s not enough to simply be available and able to be searched and found. It’s also not enough to have a one-off experience with a customer.

In order to truly build long-term value with a customer, you need to consider the type of relationship you want with your audiences and build on that. This takes a holistic approach to your customer experience that goes beyond single channels, devices, or events. By thinking in terms of a long-term relationship, instead of short-term wins, your brand takes on a new life, and a cohesive multi-channel strategy takes on even more importance than ever.

Brand as Relationship

Keep in mind that your customers may not always be ready to purchase, but by keeping them engaged, they’ll be ready to buy from you when they are.

It is also important to understand that, while a customer might be loyal, they might not always be in the “buying” mood. Smart marketers have learned how to nurture customers and keep them in a state of engagement, even while they may not always be ready to take action. This state of engagement also means that they will be primed to refer your brand to their friends and colleagues when the time comes. Word of mouth occurs from engaged customers, and makes a huge difference to brands that are able to curate a loyal following.


One important thing to note from the above is that while brands have evolved from a simple mark to a lifestyle experience, this has been an additive process. It’s not the case that brands have simply “skipped” over to the last step of brand evolution. Instead, as time goes on, brands become more sophisticated, and because they are more sophisticated, we need to think of them in terms of all four dimensions, not just a single one.

When you create a strong relationship with your customers, you will inevitably build a deeper, multi-faceted bond that extends beyond a product, an idea, and a single experience. Talk to us today to learn more about how you can start this type of relationship.

Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

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Greg Kihlström
Greg Kihlström
SVP Digital