In my home country of England, a heartstring-tugging, syrupy commercial reminds us: “A pet is not just for Christmas.” Delivered in dulcet tones by an earnest narrator, the gist is simple: If you sign up for the care and well-being of a helpless furry, feathered or scaled friend, you'd better understand it is a long-term commitment. This is the same in the world of branding.

Despite being around since the dawn of retail, the concept of branding is still a surprisingly vacuous term in our industry. It's one of those words used — or more often misused — by many, but truly understood by only a select few. And yet it remains the beating heart at the core of every successful retailer and retail concept of the past half century.

The fundamentals seem to be in place. A brand is who you are, but almost more important who you are not. A brand is a promise you make to those who would buy your products. This promise informs the way you, as a retailer, manufacturer or developer act, speak and perform. Your brand encompasses the things that you stand for, what you believe in and which govern the way you conduct your business. And I shouldn't need to mention it in these terms but, just in case, a brand is NOT a name, a logo, a product or a service — although brands are made up of all of the above.

So many questions

Still not convinced? Still asking why brands are important? Well even though consumers almost never use the word brand (and any that do in a focus group should be immediately and unceremoniously expelled), it turns out they nonethe-less have a sensitive and highly tuned brand radar. Perhaps it has evolved from some portion of the brain formerly used to sniff out prey on the savannah. If you don't believe me, just watch as a brand veers from the plot every now and again and see just how rapidly its once loyal customers pick up on this and promptly take their wallets elsewhere with faces akin to those you make when you realize the milk has gone off.

You see, everything is a brand, everything has a brand, and everything needs one. Mom-and-pop stores, retail chains, restaurants, malls, centers, villages and towns, cities and yes, even countries. Much has been written on the subject that each of us is, in fact, a brand. Apply the basic rules of branding to yourself and you'll realize this is true.

The best brands share common traits. They are self-aware, they are fundamentally assured, they are strong in their convictions and they are honest in the ways they communicate. Their core messages and beliefs are simple, and everyone associated with the brand knows them and can communicate them. But there is something else in this equation. And it goes back to the title of this article.

Brands are living things

This is where things get challenging in our business. You see, in the world of commerce, nothing around a brand is static. Rather literally every variable is in play, all the time. And the net result of all this fluidity is that brands themselves must evolve over time if they are to survive. But in the world of retail they seem to find this very, very hard.

The well-trodden roads of retail are littered with the casualties of brands that did not or could not adapt. Brands that found their fickle consumers drifting off as they relentlessly stuck to their guns. Brands that let their rigid store concepts die on the vine on the back of an antiquated payback model rather than conceiving them with change in mind so they could refresh and revitalize them in real time.

The customer that loves these brands today won't know them from Adam tomorrow. Their best-selling products will be “also-rans” by the time the limited guarantee runs out. And do these brands honestly think the competition is just asleep at the wheel? Take a leaf out of Apple's book, just last year it replaced its best-selling model with a new one in the midst of its product cycle. One day you could buy an iPod mini, the next day you couldn't. How's that for staying fresh!

There isn't the space here to go into all of the details of how to look after a brand, but here once again the pet analogy isn't far off base.

Retailers will need to know how to groom their brand so it looks its best. They will need a name that reflects its pedigree. They will need to know what to feed it, how to exercise it and at the very least how to change its litter box. Rest assured the rewards of a healthy brand are great, but just like that puppy with the soulful eyes and the house-training problem, this is going to take some work.

Vice President of Design Strategy/Creative Director at FRCH Design Worldwide.