Branding in a nut shell: the application of a unifying mark on a specific product or company, most often identified as a logo and/or word-mark.
Coke, for example, has the familiar logo with the of colors red and white. Even if you can't see the entire logo, that shade of red and a hint of lettering from the logo, and you know in an instant it's Coke. It encompasses not only the product of their staple soda, it is also used to represent the company.
Branding is essential for every business in any industry. It is what makes your company, be it services or products, quickly identified by your customers. A company without a logo doesn't give the impression of being professional. Advertizing is the first encounter a potential customer will have with your company. If they don't know your name how can you make a sale? Simple answer is you won't.
Think about your last trip to the grocery store. You walk down the cereal aisle and look for your favorite one. How quickly were you able to identify the box of your favorite brand? You know what to look for when you're searching for that box. The color, the imagery on the box, the font used for the label. All are key elements to making a memorable brand.
Elements to branding can go far beyond just a logo. It can include package design. Going back to our Coke example, you can easily identify the unique bottle shape. Glass or plastic, Coke has created an additional brand identifier with their bottle design. The constant repetition leaves a mental impression on customers and it is also reinforced by not changing the design. Companies that change their logos or word-marks too often can cause confusion.
Yahoo is a good example of a logo that has been changed significantly since 1995. In under twenty years, the logo has had five incarnations. The occasional tweak or alteration to a logo can be expected, but the change for Yahoo has been quite dramatic each time. Each are similar to the previous version, but are removed enough to almost make it unrecognizable. This not only changes the visual appearance of the brand, it also changes what the company might stand for.
Even if only in an outward appearance. If the Toys-R-Us logo was turned into a logo that looked like say Apple, would it be as fun or convey a sense of adventure? No it wouldn't. Strip the colors and playful font away, and you wouldn't even think it had anything to do with toys or children's products.
Coke is a broad example, as it has been in business since 1886 and has much more time to become part of the collective social consciousness in that amount of time. However, unlike Yahoo, they have stuck close to the original logo design. That move has only helped keep their company and product in a solid place in the minds of customers over several generations. Newer companies don't have that luxury of a long-term establishment.
Starting with solid branding will not only begin your company on that journey, it will also provide you with a spring board to support your companies principles. Great branding is worth the time and money involved.