Far from a "buzzword" or even a trend, but I'm not sure how to truly categorize it. Important? Sometimes. Irrelevant? Sometimes. Overblown? Sometimes. Understood? hmm, let's talk about it...
In my opinion, the reason why I would even use "buzzword" in the same sentence as Branding is because it truly has become overused and misunderstood. Probably the prime example of those who have taken marketing classes, read some books, listened to others and have come to simply just "believe" rather than truly understand and develop a practical opinion. How important is branding in the overall scheme of marketing? I hate to disappoint with this simple two-word answer, but the truth is...it depends. (those are the two words)
If you're Coke, Nike or Apple, you could argue that the brand is everything! And I probably wouldn't disagree. For the rest of us? Not so much. The bigger concern is that I consistently witness the adoption of principles that would apply to those aforementioned brands without fundamentally thinking about the practical relevance to their brand. Sure, developing a custom ink mixture for the infamous Coca-Cola red and making sure that it is communicated and adhered to in an elaborate corporate style guide has some merit in that environment, but would that same thinking apply to XYZ widget manufacturer with the primary objective of trying to grow his or her business? And in my travels building and implementing lead generation methods as part of a larger integrated marketing communications plan, I often see people trying to force this type of thinking into the process.
To me, "branding" has become the new religion of marketing. You accept the philosophy, foundation and principles blindly. Never questioning why nor encouraged to explore and discover for yourself. And when you do question that sacred ground, you're either met with bewilderment, or simply just shut down as someone who must not understand the rules and is uneducated on the "truth".
Well the truth is, in order for your marketing communication strategies to be effective as we're all challenged to do more with less and justify our existence, you're going to need to question what you're doing. Ensure you're maximizing your marketing spend and truly hitting your core goals (the ones you're ultimately judged on by the big guy upstairs...the office above yours) by prioritizing your tactics and making sure those tactics are directly in line with the ability to meet or exceed those goals. And when you hit your goals, I'd be willing to bet that you just might see the light!