tedster - 10:01 pm on May 23, 2011 (gmt 0)
I don't think you've got it "all wrong" but there is some element that is exaggerated beyond truth. If what any site offers is of value, then that value will naturally be reflected in social signals of some kind. And with regard to "branding", everyone and everything is a "brand" in some way.
There's a great branding book called "United We Brand" by Mike Moser - he's the branding power behind Dell, Reebok, Apple and Hyundai - but also Jerome's Barbecue in Petaluma as well as a local high school. The book makes it clear that successful branding is done in addition to a core of quality, not instead of it.
A brand is always part of any communication - a name is branding, a manner of dress is branding. The human mind uses a "brand" to move information from short term memory into long-term memory. We can either help others in that exercise through intentional branding, or we obstruct it by being vague.
If a website offers excellence, then helping visitors to remember the site, long term, is building a brand.