Spoiler alert: You have already defined it – you just may not know it yet.

I was recently talking with a prospective client about his company and asked him a question that usually makes me cringe when I hear the answer.

“What is your brand?”

“Well,” he started rather contemplatively, “We want to be…”

“Stop.” I cut him off abruptly. “Start over.”

He was a bit quizzical, then started again, “Well, we want to position…”

“Stop.” I cut him off again. “I asked you what is your brand… Not what do you want your brand to be.”

He smiled. Immediately he knew his mistake. “We are…” and he went on to describe his brand perfectly, in three words. He understood what many don’t, including some who have been in this business for a long time.

Ask someone what a brand is and you’ll get a decent assortment of answers. Odds are, some portion of that answer will be correct because a brand, whether it belongs to a person or company, is made up of a lot of things.

Here’s what a brand is not:
A logo.
Your slogan.
The company mission statement that hangs on the wall.
The cool actor/actress who does your advertisements.
The uniforms your employees wear.

All of those things derive from your brand and can help represent it in some way. But none of them have any meaning unto themselves.

Here’s what your brand is: You.
Your brand is who you are.

You don’t get a chance to pick your brand. It is already there, embedded in your DNA. Bill gates is a software geek. Look at him. Do you really think he could brand himself as the CEO of a surfboard company? Ha! Only if the surfboards were made out of microprocessors or 1’s and 0’s.

My son manages a restaurant where all the employees wear red Chucks. I asked him why. He said that’s part of their brand, the image they have. I cringed. Confusing brand and image. Yikes!

Now, I would have made the argument that wearing a pair of red Chuck Taylors does not a brand make, but… I knew many of the people who worked there. If I had to bet on it, I’d say most of them had and/or wore red Chucks long before they worked there. It wasn’t just a uniform gimmick to them – it was an outward embodiment of their own personality.

Businesses who are just starting out often spend a great deal of time and/or money trying to figure out and establish their brand. What they could do in about five minutes is reflect on who they are. Odds are, when they are comfortable with that answer, they could just as easily look out across their organization and see those same qualities in their product, business model, employees and office culture. It all comes back to a reflection of who you are.

Should come as no surprise when my prospective client rolled off those three words telling me what his brand was, they were perfect descriptors of his product, himself and the people he worked with. Imagine that.

And the last thing about brands: you can’t fake them. Perhaps for a while you can, but eventually people see through to the real you, your company’s real identity. That’s one reason why so many new businesses fail – they try to be who they think their consumers want them to be instead of who they are and they can’t sustain the facade indefinitely. Consumers are smart. They eventually figure it out and don’t like to feel put on.

…Besides, it’s too easy to find another place where they wear red Chucks because they simply like wearing red Chucks.

This post also appears on The Harbor Entrepreneur Center blog