In the early days of advertising, a company's logo was referred to as their brand. In my mind, that term comes from the old west when livestock was marked with a branding iron to show ownership. The Lazy S Ranch burned their mark onto said animals with a branding iron. That mark is commonly referred to as a logo today. The notion that calling a logo or a design-look a 'brand' is about as outdated as the old west. Unfortunately, far too many marketers and agencies refer to logos, letterhead, brochures and other corporate identity materials as 'branding.' Basically, their design look is called their brand. Graphic design shops are experts at perpetuating this misunderstanding.
But we're here to educate you, Little Joe Cartwright. Hear this: A brand is not a design. It's not about design at all. Your brand is your promise to the consumer, based on reality. That reality is your culture, your deliverable and how you act and interface with your customers and prospects. It's what people think about you when your brand name comes up in conversation, or they see your shop or visit your web site. While design can and should communicate brand attributes, it has hardly any influence at all on your brand position in the marketplace.
The branding process begins with research. Period. Because again, a brand is based on reality. Facts. That research should provide data on corporate culture, competitors and their brand positions, market perceptions and plenty of other facts. Then a lot of analysis and strategic work takes place by strategic branding professionals. The goal is to find a brand position that you can live up to, that the market wants and that a competitor doesn't already claim. It's hard work and doesn't include fonts, colors or sketches.
A strategic brand plan describes how to correctly position and support the brand. This is done differently for every organization of course. And somewhere in the execution of the plan there will likely be some design, maybe a new logo. Maybe not. Design will be one of dozens and dozens of tasks that need to be completed in a branding plan. But, if design is your branding plan, your six-shooters are empty, your marketing is in the latrine and your cattle are about to get rustled.