Branding gets its name from the 16th Century practice of “branding” livestock to confirm ownership. Later, brand marks were used to identify a product’s company of origin as a way to set it apart from competitors and copies. Today, branding has evolved way beyond being just the visual identifier, it has come to represent the whole of a business or product in the public marketplace.
Brand is your reputation, and reputation is your brand. Visual design is an important part in this age of instant communication, but the visual design is only one part of the overall brand strategy. Without a good strategy, your brand is out of your control, and your business may suffer for it.
Small business owners may say, “Branding is expensive and really only necessary for the ‘Big Guys.’” Not true. If your business is fortunate enough to have a great reputation and no competitors, then maybe you don’t need to be concerned with the public’s perception of your brand. But, if your business is to have any kind of profitable impact in the marketplace, then branding is essential. Let’s take a look at some simple key steps to developing a brand strategy.
Understanding the business
Whether you are a business owner, or a marketing executive, it goes without saying you must understand the business and its position in the marketplace. A good place to start is with a SWOT analysis. I won’t go into a lot of detail here on how to do that, typically you start by making a list of the business’ Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities (for growth or improvement), and Threats (competition, changing trends or technologies, etc.). After that, take the time to understand the business’ “personality” or public perception. Identify if it’s bold or subtle, playful or serious, masculine or feminine, modern or classic, etc. Put into writing the mission statement for the business. You should have a clear vision of what your business looks like before moving to the next step.
Understanding the audience
Who are your customers, what is the target demographic you are trying to reach out to, and most importantly, what needs do they have that you can fulfill? Don’t make the mistake of trying to reach EVERYONE. If you cast your net too wide, you’ll end up reaching no one. Develop a model of your ideal customer(s), give them a name and face, and delve deep into their aspirational and emotional needs. What do your customers do for a living (and how much do they make), what is the marital status, educational level, what do they value, and how does your business fit into their lifestyle? Once you understand your business, your customers, and the relationship between the two, you are ready to create a Brand Strategy.
Modeling strategic ideas
Here is where the magic (and fun) begins. We’re ready to develop and test some brand strategies. There are four key ideas to keep in mind as the brand is being developed.
- Differentiation: what sets your business apart from the competition? How do you highlight that difference?
- Credibility: The brand needs to reflect the business’ culture and personality. In this era of instant, worldwide communication, you cannot create a false caricature of your brand. Don’t try and be the “fun, hip” accountants (unless, of course you are the fun/hip accountants).
- Relevance: What are you offering that your customers want or need? Is it strictly functional, or is there an emotional or aspirational element to your offering? Don’t think people will buy your offer just because you are offering it. Steve Jobs could get away with “giving people what they want before they know they want it” only because Apple Computers already enjoyed a strong brand. The rest of us have to demonstrate the relevance of our offer before anyone will buy it.
- Innovation: Be proactive, your brand is not an end unto itself, but it should be nimble and ever evolving to fit the need of an ever changing demographic.
Refine the brand strategy
Before we can implement the new brand strategy, we need to distill it down to an easy to understand and communicate Brand Statement. The brand statement (also called “Brand Promise”) may or may not be the business’ tag line, but it functions in much the same way. Some examples of brand statements are:
- InvisionApp, “Question Assumptions. Think Deeply. Iterate as a Lifestyle. Details, Details. Design is Everywhere.”
- IKEA, “Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people.”
- Southwest Airlines, “The short-haul, no-frills and low price airline.”
Developing and launching the creative
The visuals, including the brand identity guide, photography, graphic design, and social media, all need to reflect the new brand strategy. The key to a successful brand launch is consistent execution. Make the brand statement available to every employee of the business, not just the marketing department. Follow through and deliver on the brand statement. If your brand claims you are the “friendly” company, then your line employees need to reflect that friendliness. Genuineness is rewarded with customer loyalty.
Evaluating the effectiveness of the brand
Remember the part about “innovation” above? After launching a new brand strategy, you may need to refine your position. Maybe the target demographic has shifted, or a new competitor has forced change. Stay aware of what your customers are saying about your brand on social media. What are your front line employees saying about your business? View criticism as an opportunity to improve the brand and be transparent about those improvements.
Hopefully, this essay helped provide some understanding of branding in today’s marketplace. As much as I would like to create for you a new logo, it is vital to understand that branding goes way beyond just the logo.
This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive treatise on brand development, but it can serve as an outline to get you started on creating a new brand initiative for your business. Feel free to put you questions or remarks in the comments section of my blog.