We know it matters. We recognize companies that are amazing at it. We know there’s something magical and intangible about the stories and feelings we associate to our favorite brands. But how the heck do brands like that even get built?
The good news is: you don’t need to be a multi-million dollar conglomerate to build a great brand. In fact, a good chunk of the resources you need are already right there in front of you. Or rather, they already exist in your team’s collective brain and vision. The challenge is to structure the work of introspection and buckle down on defining what makes you unique. And that, we should warn you, can be surprisingly emotional but deeply satisfying work.
But worry not, we’ll be here every step of the way with tips and tricks to help guide your process. Plus, stats already show that investing in an intentional brand pays off: consistent brand presentation across all platforms is shown to increase revenue by 23%.
So without further ado, let’s get you that extra revenue, shall we?
What is brand identity?
If you’re anything like us, your personal brand has probably undergone a few changes over the years. Perhaps you spent 5th grade completely obsessed with horses and now have 5 boxes full of strange equine paraphernalia in your parent’s basement to show for it. Years later, you may have gotten your lip pierced, dyed your hair black and tried out the whole goth thing for size. And as you entered the workforce, you may have even spent a few years convincing yourself you were the kind of person who wore impossible heels, quarterback power-suits and a hefty dose of knock-off Chanel perfume – that is until you realized no one wanted to share an elevator with you anymore.
Basically, our looks and hobbies are bound to change (for better or for worse) but our core identities tend to stick, or at the very least, shift much more slowly. That baseline, along with the values, priorities, experiences, histories, and beliefs that guide it – that’s our identity.
Too often, companies make the mistake of being too shallow in their approach to brand identity. The result: they tend to find out where their brand stands only once it’s been confronted by a failed marketing campaign or a tanking ROI – leaving behind a trail of wasted time, energy, resources and money in its wake. If this sounds like you, don’t panic, you can already make some concrete changes that will put you on a new trajectory towards proactively defining your brand, as opposed to letting it be defined by the whims of startup deadlines and surprising turns of event.
What a brand identity is not
Now that we’ve focused on what brand identity is, allow us a few moments to tell you what brand identity is not:
- It is not a logo
- It is not a slogan
- It is not a color palette
- It is not a marketing campaign
Don’t get us wrong, all of these elements are an important expression of brand identity – but they’re sourced from something much more deep-rooted and permanent. In our experience (which we’re proud to say spans over 30 years, at this point – #humblebrag) startups get a lot more value out of investing time and money into a rock-solid brand identity than a nifty logo design.
The same goes for a good marketing campaign. While it can do a lot for your organization, it has little value without the underlying structure of the brand identity itself. A marketing campaign without a solid brand identity is kind of like dressing up a kindergartener as Shaquille O’Neil and expecting him to defend the hoop like The Genie himself. Cute, entertaining and well-intentioned – but ultimately doomed to disappoint. Successful marketing campaigns hinge on people caring enough to pay attention to what you’re putting out there, and then buying your service or product as a way to let you know they believe in what you’re putting down. But without a clear idea of what you’re trying to say, you’re just more noise at an already loud party. Or worse yet: a loud, self-promoting voice at a party no one invited you to attend.
The moral of the story? Focusing on a logo, a slogan, a color palette or a marketing campaign means spending your hard earned cash on one particular tool. Investing in a brand identity though, is akin to buying an entire toolbox filled with interchangeable bits and functionalities that’ll go much further in helping you navigate new challenges and opportunities. Or as our good buddy Maslow (or Buddha, or Mark Twain?) might say: if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. And trust us, if your brand succeeds and grows, you’ll need to be able to do a heck of a lot more than bang on a nail.
Building your brand
Okay folks, the branding 101 lesson is over: now let’s get into the nitty-gritty. How do you actually go about creating a band Identity?
1. Find your purpose
If this sounds like one of those things you’ve heard out of the mouth of every motivational influencer and TEDx speaker you’ve ever heard, you’re not wrong. But it’s also really practical advice for companies. Better yet, you’ve already got a secret weapon nestled up your sleeve when it comes to finding your purpose: your stories. Picture yourself five years down the line. Your company has grown, you’ve got a talented team of people carrying your vision and a nice, comfortable financial runway to start thinking about next steps. Perhaps you’re having an informal interview with a friendly reporter over at the pub, and you’re shaking your head in absolute wonder that you’ve ever made it this far.
- Where did you start?
- What did you overcome to get here?
- Do you remember your first hire, your second, your tenth?
- Do any of your clients have a story about you really helping them out of a jam?
- Why did your family, friends or investors choose to invest in you?
- Were there moments you seriously considered calling it quits?
- Did you hit a point where you realized you’d made it?
That, right there, is your branding gravy train. Those stories are perfect to help you determine why you’re here, why your clientele needs you, and what you’re bringing to the table that no one can offer quite the way you do.
The other bonus to using these stories as the basis of your brand identity is that it makes it easy to foster clarity and consistency amongst your staff, because as stats now show, people remember stories. In recent studies, it was found that 63% of people remembered stories from a presentation, but only 5% could recall a statistic (how meta.) So if everyone on your team can remember the key anecdote about you traveling with your business partner and having your passport, cell phone and important documents swiftly sliced out of your bag – then it’s easy for them to remember that you have good reason to want your next-generation travel bag to be sturdy, high-quality, theft-proof, and all manner of things associated with your story.
2. Formalize your purpose
With your story down pat, your purpose should be coming into clearer focus now, so your next step is to try to boil it down into a few sentences everyone can understand and connect with.
In defining a powerful message, Tradecraft’s Head of Growth Marketing Graham Hunter suggests a framework called “The Four Es.”
- Explain: provide a basic understanding of what your product or service actually does.
- Emotion: tie it in to a clear, emotional benefit people can relate to.
- Evoke Questions: pique the reader’s curiosity and get them wondering how you deliver on your purpose and promise.
- Exclude/Include: help your audiences feel welcomed into the fold and foster affinity
Let’s see how those four elements might break down for other great startup brands with clearly defined purposes.
Causebox: Beautiful products that give back. Exclusive and ethically made, delivered 4x per year.
- Explain: a box of beautiful products delivered 4x a year
- Emotion: feel good about contributing to a fairer, more ethical world
- Evoke: how do they curate products and define ethical?
- Include: people who want to consume more responsibly and ethically
ThirdLove: Bras and underwear for every body.
- Explain: undergarnments that fit regardless of shape and size
- Emotion: finally feel comfortable and confident in your underwear
- Evoke: how will they make sure it fits my unique quirks and curves?
- Include: people who have previously struggled to find underwear that truly fit
Warby Parker: Offering designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses.
- Explain: designer eyewear at great prices
- Emotion: feel good about supporting a socially conscious enterprise
- Evoke: how are they socially conscious?
- Include: people who want to save on glasses while shopping ethically
We know, this part can feel a bit painful and tedious, but numbers show that investing proper time and energy into clearly defining your purpose pays off. According to Kantar Consulting's new Purpose 2020 report Inspiring Purpose-Led Growth, “brands with a high sense of purpose have experienced a brand valuation increase of 175% over the past 12 years, compared to the median growth rate of 86% and the 70% growth rate for brands with a low sense of purpose.”
Consumers want to know what you stand for and expect it to be consistently communicated with every interaction they have with your brand. So before you consider launching a new product, service or campaign, ask yourself: will this bring you any closer to your purpose? If not, move on to something that truly allows you to solidify your positioning and identity.
3. Build your brand identity system
While our personal identities rarely require much formal structure or explicit outlining (though come to think of it – that could save us all a fair bit of hassle and time), a brand’s identity can only be shared and flourish on a foundation of well-communicated and well-documented brand stories, values and attributes.
That’s where a brand identity system comes into play.
A good textbook definition for a brand identity system from the talented folks at Foundr is “a long-term, permanent marketing tool that dictates your short-term marketing campaigns”. Which, broken down into plain English, means a brand identity is made up of a few key components and frameworks that make your company… you.
The first step in that trajectory? Understanding what a brand identity system is made of.
In its simplest form, your voice is your vibe, the person that your company becomes when talking to your consumer. It sets the guidelines for every interaction you have with a client, be it in person, or online. Is your company one that promotes honesty, integrity and creativity above all else? Then it would make sense that the voice used in your content, all of your content, be playful with words, keep its messaging clear and simple, and give readers visibility on your company’s decisions and processes. This may sound simple, straight-forward and well…obvious, but defining your voice is actually quite the process of experimentation and iteration. And when you marry voice and tone, you really set the stage for what your company means to the people you’re trying to impress.
To many of us, tone is reminiscent of that ominous thing your parents told you to watch when you were speaking to them as a teenager – it’s how you’re speaking to different people in different contexts. And just as they say you should dress for the job you want, you should always make sure that the way you’re communicating and presenting yourself is consistent with the way you want people to see and hear you.
You want to be one of the girls on a lighthearted night out? Then ditch the stuffy blog articles with crazy, hyped up language and million-dollar words.
Want everyone to picture you in a penthouse suite decked in a two-thousand-dollar suit? Then stop with the frat boy, witty repartee in the opening salvo of your website.
How you create your content, down to the words you choose and the order in which you put them, helps the consumer get a picture of you in their mind. So spend some time here nit-picking over every word and turn of phrase. That extra attention to detail could mean the difference between emotional resonance and falling flat.
Want to drill down on how your brand might communicate and talk? Try running through this list of words and getting a sense of which would suit your brand best. If your brand was a person at a party, would it be likeliest to say...
- Super or incredibly?
- Affordable or cheap?
- Awesome or great?
- Hot or beautiful?
- Streamline or speed up?
- Cool or fascinating?
- Helpful or nifty?
- Ask or enquire?
- Get or receive?
- Hey or hello?
- High five or good work?
Marrying voice and tone is your answer to the inevitable “what do you do again?” question you have to answer every year at the Christmas table. Of course, you want mom and dad to be proud, so you confidently provide your elevator pitch to make what you do sound important and game-changing. But don’t forget; you’ve also got to adjust some of the wording so that both grandma and your ten-year-old nephew will understand what you’re talking about. If you didn’t adjust this way, you’d risk losing half of your audience and impressing no one – either under-talking the complexity of what you do or burying it under a pile of jargon and technicalities. When representing your brand, your job is to find the language that best translates your core values for the people who matter most.
The cliffs notes? Your voice guides your tone, and your tone adapts to the audience you’re addressing. Together, they give your team the platform and clarity you need to accurately portray your stories, your company, and everything it stands for.
3. Provide Context
Though we’d all love to think that we’re the absolute only people on earth truly solving the pain points we’re addressing, we suggest you get that idea out of your head right away. In today’s brand landscape, the notion of competitive landscape has been completely redefined.
“Welcome to the world of brand versus everyone else. I’m referring to the idea that brands are competing in a collective space that is growing exponentially more crowded. In the digital realm, particularly, it’s important to maintain a mentality that your website, app, login or checkout experience and every other interaction a customer has with your brand is implicitly compared to that person’s favorite experiences, which can change rapidly in a saturated digital market.“
- Kathleen Lucente, Forbes
Think about it: even if you’re not in the travel space, people could be landing on your sandal-selling website right after booking a beautifully sunny flat on Airbnb. Curious cooks might start digging around for your gluten-free flour substitutes minutes after browsing their latest Pinterest board. That’s why, beyond understanding your direct competitive landscape, it’s important to get a sense of the wider context in which your brand evolves and relates to others, and to bake that into your brand’s identity system in order to make sure your purpose and values consistently stand out, no matter where your visitors are arriving from.
Here are a few elements of your competitive landscape worth thinking about.
These are the obvious ones – the companies that have hopefully been on your radar since day one and that are trying to beat you at the same race using a relatively similar approach or technology. Think Harveys and Burger King.
These are the other products or services currently trying to meet the same want as you are, albeit using a different approach or perhaps addressing a smaller part of the overall solution. Think Burger King and McDonald’s.
Complimentary brand experiences
Think of this as your group of cool brand friends at the party; though you may all work in different fields, you share a certain number of values, interests, hobbies and – chances are – audiences. Think RedBull and GoPro, Uber and Spotify, Nike and Apple.
Brands you love
While broadening the scope of your competitive landscape might feel daunting, it also offers a whole wealth of opportunities to get inspired and learn from brands across all industries and verticals. Pay attention to the brands that charm you and find out what they all have in common.
Once you’ve defined your competitive ecosystem, take the time to clearly position yourself in relation to them. Traditionally, main differentiators have been drawn along the lines of price and quality/class, and while those are great places to start, don’t hesitate to dive deeper into what sets you apart. Is their tone more formal than yours? Do they focus more on technical capacity than end-user benefits? Are they faster or simpler? Do they tend to target different consumer segments? Are they telling a different story about their product or industry?
Knowing the strengths, weaknesses and stories behind each of these brands will help your team understand which gaps you can fill, where you can foster emotional resonance and what you can learn from established companies that have already completed and succeeded their own branding journey.
4. Define your Audiences
If you’ve had the chance to read our Ultimate Startup Bible to Brand Awareness, you know how crucial it is to build a better understanding of your existing and potential consumers. In fact, Hubspot has found that using marketing personas makes websites 2-5x more effective and easier to use for your targeted user.
So: who are you talking to? When your talented team of copywriters sits at their desks to craft social posts, emails and marketing assets, who should they picture at the other end of the proverbial line?
If you don’t know yet, here’s the short version of how you can begin to find out, but we truly recommend giving the full guide a gander for a deeper dive.
- First: collect data through surveys, Google, social and feedback loops.
- Second: identify shared values and areas of emotional resonance.
- Third: try building nuanced characters around each of the profiles that emerge
- Fourth: experiment, validate, iterate and repeat.
As the intricacies and particularities around your audiences bubble to the top, be sure to document the little quirks that help you adapt your content and messaging to help them resonate and connect.
5. Establish your Channels
Once you’ve understood your audiences, deciding which channels to engage them with can be a process of trial and error. But just as you’ll find yourself shifting your narrative a bit when you move from the office to the pub, different communication channels call for different personalities and tones. Here are some of the best practices advised for a few of the platforms you’ll likely try out.
- Facebook: opt for a playful, informal tone but write in complete sentences and focus on story-telling.
- Twitter: if you have a slightly snarky or funny side to your brand, Twitter is your jam. Opt for short, punchy and clever.
- LinkedIn: unless you’re writing an article, stay formal and brief. Stats show the optimal length of a post to get more shares is 25 words or less.
- Email: focus on being direct, helpful and well-structured. Numbers show the best results at 50-125 words, so get to the point then provide a clear CTA.
Once you’ve thought about how you’d like your brand to express itself across each of these platforms, be sure to add a few lines in your brand guidelines and to provide examples of proven home runs. And of course, make sure you’re always staying fresh and experimenting with different kinds of content and variables in order to tune in to what your audience’s truly want to watch, see, hear or read.
Building your brand arsenal
In many ways, your brand identity is like the bones of your skeleton: very important, the very backbone of the entire operation, in fact – but it lacks a certain amount of meat on its bones (see what we did there?) To soften the edges and doll up those lovely cheekbones, we suggest creating a well-crafted brand ecosystem – like a content wardrobe of sorts.
Now now. I can hear the collective in-drawing of breath and mutual eye-rolling at the introduction of this new buzz-worthy term, so I’m going to break it down. Your brand ecosystem is your branding toolbox; it’s the set of guidelines, templates, assets and visual standards that represent and communicate your brand in its daily form. Think: branding guidelines, logos, stock or backdrop images, font choices, product shots, and color palette. The good news is, you likely already have a good chunk of this content lying around. Remember the brand identity system we just developed and documented? This is where it’s all going to go.
We also recommend creating time-saving content like email templates and best practices, a bank of social media quotes, or better yet – gated content that can serve the community: lists of resources, checklists and social media guidelines. It’s a one-stop shop for everything your brand needs for your team and ambassadors to maintain the consistency that is oh-so key for branding to actually work. It also makes it faster to bring your marketing campaigns from ideation to implementation in just a few steps – no need to spend half a day trying to get the ok on a possible email design.
The gist: by building a brand ecosystem, you’re building the framework for brand consistency and clarity, which are essential to any brand identity taking hold. This proves especially true as you grow and onboard new team members, partners, and products and services.
The other benefit? Efficiency. With clear support tools in place, everyone from the social media guru to the communications expert and marketing executives will all know where to go to make sure they’re staying on brand. Which means people can feel empowered to share ownership of your story without having to navigate a million back-and-forth emails, or any wibbly-wobbly on whether the logo looks a little “squished”. One well structured Google folder and they’ve got everything they need.
Because trust us, one-stop shopping is as big of a god-sent to your marketing personnel as it is to last-minute shoppers on Christmas Eve.
The cherry on top? That increased level of ownership is almost certain to lead to an overall increase in your team’s commitment to quality: with the right access to assets and guidance, your coworkers will be no more tolerant of distorted logos, or off-colored banner headings than you will. Which means you’ll have new recruits in your brand consistency watchdog crew.
Curious to know more about how to nail your brand strategy? Check out our post highlighting 10 Key Ingredients For Your Brand Strategy Secret Sauce.
Phew – you made it! Another notch in your branding belt. Hopefully this guide has made you feel that much more equipped to build and collect your own branding toolbox. We know it can feel big and a little intimidating, but trust us, we’ve done this before: if you lean into it, the process of self-discovery can be truly validating and invigorating. In fact, by the end of this process, we’re willing to bet that you’ll have reconnected with some of the lost elements of why you started this wild startup gig in the first place.
We’ll be publishing some great new content about branding over the next few days and weeks, so make sure to stay posted. And until then, get in touch with any questions or projects you’d like to share – we’re always happy to schedule a chat and find out what you’re working on.
Now go out there and start exploring and growing your brand!