Some have distilled branding down to simply meaning a good name, but if it were that simple, there wouldn't be dozens of books written about the subject. Creative Strategy in Advertising defines a brand's identity as "its strategically planned and purposeful presentation of itself to gain a positive image in the minds of the public." This means that while branding does involve the obvious visual identifiers that immediately come to mind - things like logos, wordmarks, color palettes, etc. - branding is also about perception and reputation.
But why does this matter?
I spent the majority of 2009 working on a research project involving social media and politics. During that time, I discovered the work of professor and social scientist Margaret Scammell, who has written extensively about branding and marketing as it pertains to the realm of political science. The following points summarize her conclusions on why branding matters:
1. Branding is imbued with intrinsic financial value.
2. Branding has the power to transcend audience fragmentation and succeed where traditional mass advertising is ineffective due to the glut of advertising in modern society.
3. Branding is a two-way conversation where customer engagement helps shape the brand.
4. Branding is an asset to the brand holder due to the protection the brand offers against more demanding consumers and, through successful emotional engagement, the brand drives repeat business and return sales.
You can probably imagine how these concepts apply to political science (and regardless of your politics, it's worth examining the 2008 Obama campaign's use of branding, another topic I've put some time into researching). These attributes also point to why branding is such a popular concept in marketing circles. Achieving financial success, rising above the information glut, engaging consumers, building a strong reputation, and creating repeat business - these are obviously great goals.
And yes, your journey on the branding path might start by thinking about names, logos and colors (and hopefully copy - don't underestimate the power of good wordsmiths!), but true branding success doesn't come without thinking carefully about bigger issues. For example, how will you interact with your audience, and how will you manage those interactions? Just having a Twitter account and a Facebook page aren't, in and of themselves, enough to guarantee success. But that's a topic for another day.