I was listening to a talk given by Ije Nwokorie of Wolff Olins. (Because I am a nerd) His talk is essentially about how branding can drive innovation. And he does a grand job, it's a very informative presentation. So watch it! He briefly touches on a few definitions of "branding" but I think what is happening currently is that the noun brand and the verb brand are becoming two different things.
Ije does a pretty good job of describing the noun brand. To paraphrase: when you take away the widget you make or the service you provide, the brand is the thing that's left. It's the feeling or trust or "vibe" someone has about your company. He extrapolates some dark arts from this but at it's core it's basically right. And there is some dark art to it as there is to most things. Even if you define the noun brand as a promise delivered, the delivery of a promise is not "branding."
Branding the verb, is intentionally expanding your voice. Some folks see expanding the voice of their brand as putting it on things like pens and mugs and stress balls. Some see it as working with partners to get their brand in front of new eyeballs. But these are rather passive ways of trying to extend a brand, and the latter is reliant on the brand of your partner which can be a risky move at best. This isn't to say that neither can be successful, but for larger companies with behemoth bureaucracy and smaller companies with limited resources, these two ways are either over-used or impossible.
What's a boy to do? Well, this is where having a strong concept of who you are at the core of you're company. With that defined your branding efforts and innovation efforts can actually branch out farther than you may realize. If you're a bakery perhaps you devise healthy snacks you can supply to elementary schools. If you're a furniture company, perhaps there's value to teaching woodworking as a potential marketing tool and revenue generator. And this is what is important (and what Mr. Nwokorie's presentation is all about). Branding actively can be a generator of revenue, not just eyeballs. Eyeballs are well and good, but eyeballs that spend money are better.
In the fight that designers have about their value, we need to be sure to show clients that brand doesn't stop. It is an active and stimulative process. It doesn't stop with a logo, and doesn't stop with a promise. It starts with a promise and builds on itself by finding ways for others to connect with your core idea of yourself.
If you weave a strong enough web you can always catch flies.