The term brand has no shame. Remorseless in its own ubiquity, it has now lost all meaning.

From so-called “personal” brands to born-today, direct-to-consumer businesses claiming they’re the next Nike, the term itself has become commoditized beyond recognition, flung around with all the consideration of a custard pie at a clown convention.

Lightweight. Cheapened. Disposable. No surprise then that most CFOs tighten their purse strings at the mere mention of the term, and even CEOs are distancing themselves from it like they might a rogue cloud of flatulence.

The scale of the problem is staggering. 64% of businesses say brand doesn’t influence the decisions made in their company. 23% don’t see the value in investing in brand. And only 29% are using brand to improve competitiveness.

Which is somewhat lamentable because brand’s commercial clout is incontestable. Strong brands create profits in excess of market averages, with the total brand value of the world’s top 100 brands standing at $6.9 trillion. And whilst there’s variance dependent on sector, brand value alone is estimated to account for an average of 20% of the total market cap of businesses.

Brand, it seems, has a branding problem.

It’s not hard to see how we got here. Two generations of tactical missteps, with marketers talking the language of arts and crafts rather than economics and finance, was always going to poison the well of credibility. But whilst it might be marketing’s fault, it’s the boardroom’s problem.

Allowing brand to be reduced to a promotional puppet–focused on “comms” rather than commerciality–is siloing its potential influence and belittling its economic power. This isn’t rhetoric. The annals are groaning under the weight of evidence demonstrating the value and competitive advantage that a strong brand can unlock.

First, the obvious stuff. Strong brands capture more sales, command a higher price, prompt greater loyalty, generate higher profits, and build price inelasticity. This subsequently has an impact further up the food chain, with strong brands outstripping stock market benchmarks and delivering greater shareholder returns. They allow you to bounce back more quickly in tough times and yield greater long-term revenue.

Staff-wise, strong brands act as both carrot and stick. When organizations can clearly articulate what they do, why they do it, and how that creates value for their customers, they increase productivity, get better NPS scores, have greater organizational profitability, and improve recruitment and retention. Less flagellation; less fat paychecks.

There’s also the “soft power” that a strong brand conveys, creating the conditions by which specific goals are more easily achieved. When you have a strong brand you pay less interest on your debts, secure more favorable payment terms, get listings more easily, conquer new categories at lower risk, and have greater protection against PR disasters.

Seen this way, brand isn’t just the name over the door, it is the connective tissue of all growth.

Which is why it’s high time that brand be rebranded. Reframed and resold as the organization’s economic flywheel; a force multiplier affecting every way it makes money and accumulates competitive advantage. The only defense a profit and loss–along with the culture–has against commoditization.

It’s not that there haven’t been any moves in the industry to this effect. Marketing’s favorite double act, Binet & Field, have been touring their “long and short of it” routine long enough for people to finally be cottoning on to the importance of brand-building activities. Ditto Professor Byron Sharp and the work of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.

But let’s be clear, theirs is still just a conversation about eyeballs. It contributes to the fatal fallacy that building a successful brand comes down to the depth of your advertising message and pockets. It’s all the “still a little bit narrow-minded” of it.

A CEO isn’t interested in Super Bowl ads, no matter how funny/moving/bonkers they are. They’re too busy thinking about international trade agreements, the cost of oil, or just how many people they’re going to have to lay off given that big factory bet didn’t pay off.

Brand is never a comms problem; it’s always a business one.

Yes, to create sustainable value, a business must appeal to customers, but it must also build trust, secure investment, engage employees, innovate relevantly, attract partners, and have good relationships with suppliers.

And to do that it must be able to clearly communicate its central idea to all those parties in a way that cuts through the competitive set. It has to be relevant, drive action, and get everyone on the same page.

That’s how brands REALLY grow.

There is no difference between brand strategy and corporate strategy. Brand is the single attacking purpose that enables an organization to compete and win. The real job of marketing, then, is to understand the total business strategy and to approach it from the vantage point of the consumer. Only at the very end of the business planning process should the cleaving happen–one side emerging as an operations plan, the other as a communications one.

As celebrity CEO Jack Welch once said, the strongest businesses “create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion”. A single-minded brand idea is this vision. Executed properly, it is a focused schema that supports and exudes a sense of who you are and why that matters; a central premise that all stakeholders can rally around that’s as helpful in orienting process as it is in driving demand.

Of course, brand’s transformative effects can only be felt if it’s successfully operationalized. It must be deployed internally and externally through tailored education, alignment, implication, and activation programs. And this takes investment, often far beyond what the marketing team might be able to salvage from down the back of the finance team’s sofa.

We’re at a critical moment in our industry’s history. Only 2.6% of board members have active marketing experience (less than 1% for the Fortune 100). Only 26% of CMOs attend board meetings, while the average tenure of a CMO is 40 months. The CFOs are in charge, hunched over their counted pennies, unconvinced by arguments that the business of brand is one of opex and not capex.

Yet the biggest chunk of a corporation’s value lies in its future profits, on its ability to anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s customers rather than more efficiently meeting what their needs may have been yesterday.

We have to find another way.

We must understand that the “coloring in” should only ever be in service to the commercial rather than creative whims. We must learn to speak the language of finance. We must educate ourselves in economics.

We must evangelize brand as an act of leadership. An intangible nothing that is everything. Ideology alchemised into coffered gold. Only then can marketing move beyond the confines of its creative straitjacket, tear away from its shallow intellectual roots, and create the value of which it is truly capable.

The business is brand. And the sooner we all recognize that, the better.

Cover image: Guajillo studio