Brand strategy is one of the most commonly misunderstood and misapplied business practices. What could be used as both a guardrail and source of inspiration to guide business development is frequently downgraded to a novel marketing tactic—something to check off the list to appear “more legit” to investors or prospects.
When a company’s brand is equated to a logo and a handful of colors, it serves more as decoration than of something with any real substance or business value. Operating from this definition, founders who invest in branding might see it as an opportunity to camouflage a less developed product in order to appear more established. For others, the chance to brand their company might make them feel that they belong in the market because their company looks more put together than it actually is.
At most, this visual application of brand provides temporary relief to the deeper underlying issues that brand strategy is meant to solve. People evaluate the trustworthiness of a company initially based on what they see, so companies that look more polished often start with a much higher rate of conversion. But it’s only a matter of time before customers realize they’ve been lured in by flimsy promises. Churn sets in. A startup’s energy is then spent battling to retain customers. Their attention is forced to shift from expanding their offerings and serving customers to rigging together incentives to get them to stay just a little longer. While this might buy enough time for a company to catch up and deliver on their promises, this response can become a cycle that burns through profits, eats away at team morale and puts them out of favor with their investors. Ultimately, when the perception of a company doesn’t match the experience, consumer perception will shift to meet the reality. The brand loses value and credibility.
What is a brand
Brands are meant to help customers differentiate the options available to them. Differentiation comes from the beliefs, values and perspective that a company brings to the market. When the beliefs that sparked your marketing message are given the opportunity to guide how your organization operates, building on top of this defined brand reduces painful rework and inspires more profitable product offerings. This definition of a brand focuses your energy and ensures that what you offer is unique and memorable.
A brand is not a logo. It’s not something that just for big companies or for B2C companies. It’s the perception people have of your company. Or, as Jeff Bezos puts it, “the things people say about your company when you’re not in the room.” It’s the reputation you’re building with every interaction you have, every product you build, and even every idea you or your business partners are using to develop your company.
People buy based on their emotions and on what they value. When they perceive that your brand shares their values and appeals to their emotions in a relevant, helpful way, they are more likely to keep buying from you and telling others to do the same. Brand loyalty is earned over time, so it requires consistency from your company to stand for something clear and recognizable in the market.
Consistency can only happen if you know what you’re actually aiming for. You can’t accidentally be consistent — you must be intentional.
How to build your brand:
Step 1. Realize that you’re already building your brand. One common mistake is to start by building a product, marketing it, and then “saving” the work on your brand for “later.” It might surprise you to learn that you already have a brand! As soon as you decided to start a company, you began building the perception people have of your company. Your brand is not a thing you can simply set aside and work on later. Everything you do is building your brand, you may just not be doing it very intentionally. Being intentional about building your brand is the first step to creating a more successful company, even if you are just launching your first product. As a builder or maker, you probably find it easy to build products, but have a hard time marketing them. When you focus on your brand first — on the lowest level of the pyramid here — it allows you to market your company more efficiently because you have already answered these questions: How does our messaging need to sound? Who do we reach out to? How do we style this to make it appeal to the right people? All of those questions need to be answered up front so you can build your brand more systematically. This way, you’re not having to ask yourself these questions again with every piece of content you need to produce. When you have this foundation on which to build design and marketing systems, it saves you time, money, guesswork and all sorts of hassle.
Step 2. Every brand is shaped primarily by one of four motivations.
- Providing a sense of order in a space that feels chaotic, confusing or unsafe.
- Supporting a desire for freedom and reinforcing individuality by sharing knowledge, encouraging dreams or exploring new territory.
- Promoting change or mastery over a situation or state of being. Fighting apathy or status quo with innovation, interjecting provocative thought or visions of what could be.
- Creating a space to belong. Promoting an idea of equality, relationship and connection.
Every brand has one of these themes at their core, and their messaging sprouts out from there. When you have a clearly defined motivation as your anchor, it becomes much easier to develop your messaging and your look and feel.
This is the first step that I recommend people take to bring more definition to how your brand can develop in a more tangible way. When you think about your audience, what perception do you want them to have of your brand? Which of these four core motivations resonates most with your company and the audience you serve?
Step 3. Market research. You can’t build your company in a vacuum and hope it succeeds. Customer interviews, surveys, and research into forums, keywords and other company’s product reviews provides a load of helpful information so you know what people want or feel is missing from their current options.
Step 4. Competition analysis. Having competitors is a good things because it means that there is demand for what you’re selling. Sometimes your competitor is a company and sometimes it’s a DIY solution. Sometimes, your competition is inaction — your audience doing nothing. They might not be interested enough in taking that first step. Understanding what you’re fighting against is significant so you can position your company and show clearly how your company is different and is working to resolve the pain points you learned about during your market research.
Step 5. Define your brand values. What philosophies drive how you or your team think and approach problems? What does your company stand for? To be of any value, your brand must stand for something.
Step 6. Identify your brand personality. Once you understand which of the four primary motivations is driving your company, your brand values, and where you fit in the market, it’s time to work on defining your brand personality. This is where things start to get a little more tangible. Your brand personality will influence the way you express ideas to the world — is your brand authoritative, precise and knowledgeable? Or, is it more provocative, intense and dramatic? Make a list of adjectives like these and start narrowing down the right vibe for your brand taking into consideration what you’ve learned in your research, and who you are. At this stage, some people can feel conflicted about whether they should be the face of the brand or not. We won’t cover the pros and cons of that in this video, but it’s important to recognize that there are pros and cons to building your company’s brand strictly around your personality or personal values. A simple answer is that if you’re intending to exit your company at some point, it’s best to create a separate brand that doesn’t center around your name and face.
Step 7. Make your brand tangible. This is where a lot of companies start and end their branding process. Your logo, color palette, fonts and aesthetic are only meant to serve as reminders of the company they represent, not as the only part of your brand that you think about. By defining your brand values, brand personality and position in the market before you tackle your aesthetic, you have the opportunity to build deeper meaning and significance into your brand that helps you cut through the noise and capture the attention of a discerning audience.
The last thing to note is that your company’s brand will need to evolve over time. It takes time to find your stride and decide how to scale it to meet demand. Ideally, your brand is maturing as you learn more about what resonates with your audience so you can develop richer content. As markets change and cultural themes and technological innovation emerge, your company will need to continually adjust aspects of your messaging and products to remain relevant.
Your company’s brand isn’t something you can ignore — it already exists. Be intentional.
To explore your brand personality, and learn how you can use it to shape your message and visual design, take my brand personality “quiz” here: http://bit.ly/LeanPersonalityQuiz