Successful branding begins with the customer, by identifying the specific niche or sub-niche the product or service will satisfy. All other branding decisions flow from that identification. The logo, the slogan, the packaging, where a company advertises and the images it uses, all need to be designed based on that customer’s needs, wants, and habits.

Branding originated, of course, with the cattle rancher’s branding iron. Branding was never about the cow. The cow was the product; the brand was a symbol representing the owner of the cow.

Steve Jobs was a branding master – right down to the packaging of the box the Apple iPad came in and how it felt in the customer’s hands. He was forever sensitive to his customers’ perceptions and expectations. Jobs understood branding definition very well. He knew that “branding” is an action word — an adverb, a gerund, like running or riding. And like riding or running, successful branding requires ongoing action, an action ideally based on tremendous sensitivity to customer feedback.

The reach of the customer on branding needs to extend beyond its logo down to the design of the product itself. When we first introduced Barefoot Wine, the customer exerted more influence on branding than did its own industry. The logo we chose (the foot) and the style we used for marketing (entertaining) were contrary to the conventions of the wine industry at the time, but our customers found them appealing. Barefoot Wine made a statement of fun and recreation that our customers wanted in an everyday wine product.

Once a company goes into the market with a brand it built, after a few generations, that brand needs to respond to the needs of the customer by making slight variations to it, but gradually – evolution not revolution. This is true in all the top companies: Wal-Mart, Apple, Procter & Gamble, Dell, Microsoft, GE, Starbucks, Johnson & Johnson, Google, and IBM. Branding in each of these companies is constantly evolving based on feedback from the market. The number-one rule in retail is “Don’t aggravate your customer by making drastic changes in your logo and/or packaging”. Coca Cola tried and had to go back to “classic” Coca Cola.

Reinventing branding at Starbucks has been the ongoing thrust of Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks. Since the company brewed its first Grande Latté in 1971, he’s constantly looked to customer feedback to guide his company. For example, in some of Starbucks’ international markets, the company sold teas called “Starbucks Coffee Tea” – a label that confused consumers, so in March of 2011, Starbucks eliminated the word “coffee” from its name. This cleared up ambiguity in all of the company’s non-coffee products.

As Starbucks, Apple, Wal-Mart, and so many successful brands know, companies don’t build a brand for the market. Great branding begins with the customer. In my experience, branding designers who recognize this are most successful.

There’s much more to this subject. What’s been your experience? Michael Houlihan, co-founder of Barefoot Wine, the largest selling wine brand in the nation, invites you to join the discussion on the Definition of Branding with your comments, thoughts, and opinions below.