For years, major companies have made significant investments in how to develop and define their brand. But what is a corporate brand? What companies are doing it well? And why is brand so important?

A company’s brand is the overall expression of what it is and what it stands for — it is a promise. Brand is conveyed through all aspects of a company, whether it is customer service, corporate culture, product type and quality, or visual identity. Many companies make business decisions based on what is right for their brand. Branding is what differentiates competitors in the marketplace and being “on-brand” is what brings customers back time after time.

There are a lot of companies with a strong, well-defined brand, but few if any compete with Apple. According to marketing expert Marc Gobe, it is Apple’s brand that is the key to its success, not its products. At its core, Apple is about “imagination, design, and innovation,” and its consumers have an emotional connection to the company – many have personal stories about when they bought their first Apple product.

Nike has also established itself as an “emotional,” well-defined brand. People who are Nike devotees like what the company stands for – strength, power, determination, and the belief that ordinary people can achieve the extraordinary. Recently, Nike released its “Pro Hijab,” designed after they heard complaints from some Muslim athletes about wearing a traditional head cover while competing. Developing this kind of accessory further cemented Nike as a company that believes that all people have the ability to compete.

Both of these brands have a lot in common. First, their corporate culture and corporate ethic are strong, defined by volunteerism, giving back, and making their business about the people they make products for. Second, both brands have clearly recognizable designs and vocabulary echoed throughout all of their products, advertisements, and marketing materials. The “swoosh” is undeniably Nike. The sleek, minimalist packaging is very on-brand for Apple. Apple commercials have gained notoriety and are immediately recognizable for their music and style. Finally, both brands have established a connection with their customer, resulting in extreme customer loyalty. Apple’s design is “people-driven,” made for the purpose of making technology easily accessible for its community, which comes back product after product.

While there are many examples of great branding, these are two brands that, arguably, have done it right. Whether you use the brand or not, there is no denying that each of these companies knows who they are, what they stand for, who their customer is and what they want. That is what makes a brand successful, and is exactly what I tell clients who have questions about the effectiveness of their own brand.

Think about your company: what three words would you use to describe its values? How would you describe your company’s culture? Then ask your coworker the same question – do the answers match? If not, then it may be time to go to the drawing board and figure out what needs to be done to more clearly define those answers.

Having a strong brand will help you attract and retain customers, communicate who you are as a company without having to use excess language, and guides broader business decisions.

For the next post in this series, I will take a look at brand vs reputation, and what that means for a policymaker audience.