Growing up, I went to a small school that ended in 8th grade. This meant that for high school, I headed to a new school, with strangers who didn’t have any preconceived notions about who I was. Since I was entering an all-girls’ prep school in Tennessee, I decided I’d become the ultimate southern prep. Over the summer, I spent my days shopping for polo shirts, buying Lily Pulitzer skirts, and investing in the latest Patagonia pullovers. When I walked in the first day of high school, I wanted it to be clear: I was a preppy person, who would fit in with and be liked by the preppy girls at my new school.
I was, at the time, doing something that every teenager does at some point: trying to figure out how to be liked by her peers. But, I was also taking a fundamental step that businesses do every day: undergoing the branding process – or figuring out a way to communicate who I was to the people around me in order to shape their perception of me — and make sure I was able to build an accepting community of friends. In the business world, the branding process allows organizations to clearly communicate who they are and what they do to the world – in hopes that they draw in the right audience of potential customers and convince them to be paying loyal ones.
What is Branding?
To understand the branding process, it’s important to grasp what a brand actually is. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, once explained the basic idea behind brands very clearly:
“Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.”
A company’s brand is a representation of its values, its purpose, and its passions. A brand creates a picture in consumers’ minds about who the company is and it exists; it ultimately guides the reputation of that company.
A common misconception about branding that many businesses start out with is that a brand is simply built by a recognizable logo. While a company logo is certainly one of the most essential components of brand identity — it is actually just one of many assets that helps build a company brand. I made a similar mistake when I was going through my own high school branding process – simply focusing on a preppy wardrobe. It took me several months into my new school year to understand that my reputation and community were not simply going to be built by the clothes I chose to wear. Instead, I was going to have to focus on a whole lot of other things to define my identity — like the activities I got involved in and the people I surrounded myself with (which is why I immediately joined the tennis team).
In the same way that an outfit clues people into person’s personality and their values, a company’s logo is visual shorthand differentiating it from all of the other companies out there. Behind that logo are many other components of brand identity (including a general visual aesthetic, tagline, content voice, and more, which I’ve outlined below – all of which shape how consumers feel about your company – and all of which are created as the result of a successful branding process.
Why Does Branding Matter?
Branding is important because it shapes the public’s perception of your company; when done right, it can attract and retain the right audience. Still have doubts that branding is essential? Check out the facts:
- 75% of consumers say that brand awareness is a major influencing factor when making purchasing decisions. (source)
- 85% of consumers say they choose known brands over unknown ones when making a first-time purchase. (source)
- Strong brands outperform weak brands by 20%. (source)
- 92% of consumers trust earned media or brand recommendations from friends and family. (source)
- In a 2012 study on branding for B2B companies, McKinsey found that “decision makers consider the brand a central rather than a marginal element of a supplier’s proposition…and that a company’s brand is on par with sales as an influencing factor.” (source)
How to Tackle the Branding Process
If you’re still reading you probably agree developing a brand identity for your company is important – but you may not know where to begin with the brand development process. The following straightforward branding steps and processes can help ensure you develop a company brand that works for your business, and that your audience responds to.
Look at who and where you are right now.
It might be tempting to want to jump into the branding process and do the fun stuff – like designing a cool new logo or coming up with a smart new tagline. However, if you want to make sure you create a brand that really represents and communicates to the world who you are and what you do – you need to understand that yourself.
Start with the intangibles:
- Make a list of company values.
Start to get a real grip on who your company is by talking about what your company’s core values are. According to the Harvard Business Review, your core values are “ the deeply ingrained principles that guide all of a company’s actions; they serve as its cultural cornerstones.” The best companies are clear about their company values; in fact, 80% of today’s Fortune 100 companies regularly tout their values to the public. Determining your core values at the get-go of your branding process will help you create a brand that speaks to an audience of consumers with the same values.
- Define your company’s essence.
If you were to distill your brand down into one core essence, what would it be? For example, Nike’s essence is “inspirational,” while Jeep’s would be “adventurous.” Think of your company as a person, then describe its personality traits. Emerging from your branding process with a word or two that expresses these personality traits will help you define your essence and a common thread that will appear throughout your branding.
- Craft a company mission statement.
Determine and put into words exactly what your company wants to do in the form of a mission statement. This will help communicate to customers the actual value of your brand, and how it is different from other brands out there. For some helpful tips on how to craft a successful company mission statement while undergoing the branding process, check out this helpful mission statement guide by Corey Wainwright at Hubspot.
Then, move to the tangibles:
- Conduct a brand audit.
If you’re a company that’s already established, then your brand already exists. To see what’s working for your brand – and where you’re falling short – you’ll want to conduct a brand audit during your brand development process. According to online reputation management expert Azmat Batool, a brand audit “guides you to align your offerings more accurately with the expectations of customer” and “enables you to get up to speed with the perceptions (positive or negative) about your business.” Brand audits can be executed several ways, but the most important strategies include examining web analytics, polling or surveying customers, and doing user testing. (You can check out the rest of his awesome advice here.) Brand audits will show you what assets you need to focus on during the branding process, and which you can leave be.
Look at who looks at you.
The next step in the branding process is determining who you are creating your brand for. For businesses, it is a crucial part of the brand development process to specifically lay out both who will be encountering your branding assets and who is most likely to make purchases from you.
When describing who your target market is, you should be specific; in fact, marketing experts like Neil Patel believe that the more specific you are when describing the type of people you believe will be customers of your company — the better. To create detailed, helpful buyer personas to build brands, Patel recommends the following:
“Open a document and start writing the description. Include things like:
Go into extreme detail. Talk about the daily tasks the person does at their job. Talk about what they do on the weekends with their family and friends. The more details you can include the easier it will be for you to target this person as you implement your personal brand strategy. Go as far as including a photo of the person. If it’s a real person, find their photo. If it’s not a real person, find a photo online that fits your vision and include it in the profile.”
Look at your competitors and determine how you are going to be different.
One of the key components of a brand is how that brand differentiates your company from other companies doing the same thing. I learned this lesson quickly as a high schooler; while it’s nice to fit in and have friends – it’s no fun to be thought of as a follower. I had to learn that having my own unique traits or interests was extremely helpful when trying to make new friends — and not just wearing the same clothes and doing the same activities as everyone else.
In the same vein, in order to define your brand, you need to determine what it can offer customers that other organizations can’t. For a better understanding of the market you’re in, you can do something called a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) Analysis. When doing a SWOT analysis, you make a chart of your company’s internal strengths and weaknesses, then a list of external threats and opportunities. A SWOT analysis can help you see the advantages your company has over others, and what holes or niches you may be able to fill.
Create your brand assets.
Once you’ve determined who you are, who you want your customers to be, and how you are going to be different than your competition, you can get started designing your brand assets. Tackling branding can be a big job since there are so many components of brand identity (basically everything you put out into the world that the public can see!), but the following places are good spots to start infusing your unique company brand.
- Logo: The logo is the preppy clothes of the brand identity. As mentioned above, it is the visual element that clues people into what a company’s about, and it eventually becomes a symbol for all of the associations a person has with a company. According to branding experts Gist Brands, “a logo serves as a visual shorthand or the organization’s signature. You can think of the logo as the “brand box” where people can mentally store all that perceptual information (both positive and negative) for later recall. It’s a means to filter and organize memories, messages, and data points over time so that ultimately a fairly simple and abstract graphic logo can embody a whole story or history.”
- Tagline and mottos: Taglines and mottos are an important part of the brand development process, and they are a good, succinct way to use words to communicate your company’s main mission. They can also be used to get at your audience’s emotions: (e.g. L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it.” ) and get stuck in their heads (e.g. Nike’s “Just do it.”).
- Consistent visual aesthetic: Part of a company’s brand is the visual aesthetic they choose. This visual aesthetic should be consistent everywhere your potential customers encounter your brand: marketing materials, website, blog, e-mail newsletters, product packaging, social media profiles, logo, and more. While the elements of a visual aesthetic can be nebulous, some important ones to consider in your branding process are: color, font, design style (minimalist vs. retro vs. classic, etc.)
- Voice: One of the most essential components of brand identity is voice. Voice makes your brand recognizable even when your logo is around. The voice of a brand should affect all wording you use in association with your company – including on websites, blogs, landing pages, newsletters, print advertising and more. It should also be consistent throughout your social media pages. To create a brand voice, think about how the audience you’re appealing to would want to be spoken to. Also, think about the vocabulary you would use to build trust amongst your audience. According to Erika Herald of Content Marketing Institute, “A brand voice…is about being consistent with the voice you are creating – positioning yourself as an easily identified and authoritative source for your area of expertise. Similarly, a consistent brand voice and vocabulary are essential to implementing localized content and intelligent content strategies effectively.”
- Content: Not to be biased, but as a content writer, content is one of my favorite components of brand identity. Content marketing is a vital part of drawing in customers, and the type of content you choose to create and share helps communicate something about who you are. For example, a company that chooses to post Buzzfeed-style roundups comes across differently than a company that distributes in-depth, instructional weekly newsletters. Content doesn’t just build brand through voice – but also via format, design, and subject matter, too.
If you’re a brand new company just starting out, the branding process is an essential step in building the right audience – and it’s also a good way for you and your team to get to know your company, inside and out. The branding process is also something you’ll probably repeat again and again, as your company grows and your audience shifts. I can tell you from personal experience: once I finished high school and grew into a more self-aware and mature version of myself, I got to experience the branding process again – and I haven’t worn a Polo shirt in years.