At the center of every successful business is a kick-ass brand, and these days, the best way to build a brand is through online resources; entrepreneurs have access to more tools, more people, and more options to connect with audiences than ever before, and the ones who take advantage of this access stand to benefit the most.
Branding is the concept of constructing an identity for a business. This identity serves not only to summarize and display the inherent qualities of a company (oftentimes extending beyond basic descriptors into the realm of what are akin to personality traits), but to increase recognition, familiarity, and appreciation in your customer base.
But building a brand isn’t as simple as picking out a logo and a catchy name; instead, you’ll need to extensively research your audience, your competition, and modern branding standards to create the best identity possible for your business.
This can be intimidating, especially to an entrepreneur who’s never done it before. But if you know where to look, you can find the search tools, connective resources, and platforms necessary to help you conceptualize, execute, and support a brand in the long-term. I’ve written this guide as a way to help entrepreneurs find and utilize those resources.
Whether you’re branding a startup for the first time, or you’re trying to reimagine your current brand through a rebranding campaign, this guide is intended to help you better understand your goals and gain access to the tools you need to succeed.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Branding
First, I want to explain some of the basics of branding. You’re already familiar with the concept, but if you’re going to be effective in building and nurturing your brand, you need to know your motivations for doing so in the first place and the general best practices that will help you succeed.
Why Branding Is Important
Why is it that branding is so important in the first place? After all, if a company does a good job and sells a good product at a reasonable price, especially if it’s better than the competition, that business should become naturally successful. Yet we know from various case studies that the power of a brand can overrule otherwise objectively superior consumer choices. So why is this the case?
- Visibility and recognition. Visibility and recognition are related concepts that increase a brand’s capability of attracting new customers. When most consumers encounter a product or a company for the first time, they feel neutrally about it, or maybe even distrustful. However, when they encounter that company many times in similar contexts, they start to recognize the business as a legitimate and trustworthy entity; this is due to the mere-exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them. For example, a consumer may see an apparel logo over and over, in different capacities, and gradually feel like they’re getting to know the company associated with that logo. The consistency factor here also makes it easier to achieve this repetition; eventually, a single symbol or color scheme can represent an entire company.
(Image Source: United Gift Inc)
- Consumer trust and loyalty. Trust is a major factor when it comes to decision making, and it’s a factor that must be earned, gradually, over time. Without a solid brand to tie experiences back to, consumers may have trouble placing and compounding that trust over time. When customers engage with a brand in purchasing or other interactions, they begin to associate those experiences with that brand. They’ll develop an internal impression of the brand over time, becoming more familiar and acquainted with it like they would another person. Eventually, they’ll have a harder time leaving, and you’ll earn higher customer retention rates as a result.
- Marketing and advertising benefits. Branding is also a powerful tool to assist and inspire your marketing and advertising campaigns. Because branding is a set of core identity standards, which include not only visual elements like a logo and coloration but a set of personality traits and values, you’ll have a bank of material to work with when producing your advertisements. It provides a kind of runway for your work, since it’s already been created from your market and competitive research, and it will serve as a foundation for all your marketing and advertising in the future. In the same way that recognition and loyalty build over time, your advertising effectiveness will grow as well.
- Employees and internal benefits. Branding isn’t all about earning or keeping more customers; it’s the central identity of your company, and is therefore at least partially responsible for attracting and retaining top talent as well. Your company culture will be based around your brand standards; for example, a “fun” brand might have more relaxed nature and a fun office space. Showcasing your brand prominently will attract like-minded individuals, and sustaining that internal culture will help increase morale over time. The end result on both fronts is that you’ll get better people working for you, and they’ll have a better time working for you too.
As you’ll see, there are many variables and dimensions to consider in your brand development, and to an extent, the possibilities are limitless; this is your company’s identity, and you can make it whatever you want. However, there are a handful of general principles and best practices you’ll want to follow.
- Originality. Your brand has to be original. If it looks like something else that’s already on the market, people won’t be able to recognize it as uniquely yours. Your company’s identity is like a fingerprint identifier; if you don’t take the time to sculpt something original, you won’t be able to accumulate value over time. That isn’t to say you can’t take inspiration from brands around you—in fact, it’s almost impossible to come up with a new idea without some kind of influence. Instead, you have to figure out some unique angle, or some special twist that sets you apart from the crowd.
- Industry appropriateness. Even though you’ll need to create something unique, you should also be aware that different industries have different standards that help them qualify their brands as belonging to that industry. Because oftentimes, consumers will need to make a flash judgment on a company based on its name and/or logo alone, you need to clue consumers into what you actually offer; adhering to these tropes is the best way to do that. For example, in the fast food industry, red is a prevailing color, because it invokes hunger, and you’ll often find playful fonts with positive, family-friendly imagery. Resisting some of these norms may be a way to differentiate yourself, but make sure consumers can guess approximately what type of business you are at a glance.
(Image Source: Huffington Post)
- Emotional appeal. It’s also a good idea to include some kind of emotional appeal in your brand. This can be difficult, but you have a wide array of emotions to play with. When people experience an emotion, they experience a kind of heightened awareness; they’ll be able to remember your brand better if they associate it with a strong emotion, and you’ll also manage to build loyalty faster this way. What that emotion is depends on your company, your audience, and your goals. For example, you might try to capitalize on nostalgia to attract an older generation, or delight to captivate younger people.
- Subtlety. A good brand is one that manages to suggest a number of concepts and unique identifiers without beating you over the head with the concept. If you go the blunt approach, with a matter-of-fact name and a logo with simple typeface, you aren’t going to be memorable. On the other hand, if you go too ambiguous, with an ethereal name and a logo that looks like an abstract art project, people won’t have any idea who you are or what you stand for (unless that’s the exact effect you’re looking for). It’s hard to strike this balance, but it’s important if you want to be recognizable and memorable.
- Personality and identity. Your brand should also strongly showcase the “personality” of your company accurately. You’ll want to appeal to your target audience, adhere to some basic industry standards, and follow other best practices, but don’t be afraid to show off what makes you “you.” There needs to be a degree of sincerity in your brand, and the best way to accomplish that is by putting a piece of yourself into your brand. Your company’s identity should come to life, becoming a character in its own right, and that character should permeate every other dimension of your branding.
There are a number of areas where your brand is going to manifest.
Names and Taglines
First, you need a name for your company. This should represent what you do and who you are in one simple word or phrase. If you go too blunt with this, you run the risk of being unmemorable (with the exception of being starkly ironic, such as with Ron Swanson’s Very Good Building and Development Company).
A modern trend is to come up with new, made-up words, or combinations of words and syllables that don’t ordinarily go together; this accomplishes the subtlety angle, giving users a suggestion of what the company is about, but also ensures that the name will remain unique. Your name should also indicate something about your personality; for example, the name “Google” has a bumbling playfulness about it.
You’ll also want to consider coming up with a tagline, though this isn’t strictly necessary. A tagline is especially helpful if you’ve made up a word to describe your business, giving users a glimpse at what you actually do. For example, today, Uber is an immediately recognizable brand, but in its first few years of development, the name “Uber” wasn’t associated with driving services.
Uber made up for this with a concise, descriptive tagline: “everyone’s private driver” which has since evolved to “get there.” Put some thought into your tagline and use it to best represent your brand in the smallest possible space.
Mission and Vision
Your values as a company are going to be important not only to your customers, but to your employees as well. While you might have a list of formalized core values and a general concept for what you want to accomplish and how, the best modes to use in clarifying and promoting your values are your mission and vision statements.
While similar and often mistakenly interchanged with each other, your mission and vision statements are actually unique constructs. There are actually a few differentiators here, but the main one is their relation to time; a mission statement is about a reason for a company’s existence, while a vision statement is a prediction or projection of where the company will be in the coming years.
For example, a mission statement might be something like, “Our business exists to help more busy adults find health meals while on the go,” while a vision statement might be, “In 5 years, we hope to improve the diets and lives of more than one million adult U.S. citizens, with plans to expand internationally.” Mission and vision statements don’t get as much attention as things like logo design and tagline writing, but they’re just as important because they provide a framework for who your company is at its core.
Logos and Coloration
When most people think about branding, logos are the first thing that come to mind, and it’s no mystery why. A logo is the most minimalistic representation of a company you can have; most major company logos are recognizable even when reduced to a tiny thumbnail, and many can be easily drawn or sketched from memory due to their basic shapes.
Yet all of them are recognizable, unique, and convey a message about what the company does to someone who is unfamiliar with it. That’s a tall order to accomplish even if you’re a professional logo designer.
There are a few ways to go about designing a logo. For example, you might think up a symbol that best represents what your company does, choose a kind of mascot, illustrate your services in some abstract way, or just use your company name at the center of it. There’s no right or wrong way to go about the process, but at a glance, your logo should illustrate something unique about your company, and still stand out as memorable and recognizable.
By extension, you’ll also want to consider the colors that will be associated with your brand. These are heavily influenced by industry factors; some industries use certain colors more predominantly than others, and you might suggest the wrong idea if you use colors that are traditionally associated with something else.
Voice and Personality
Logos and colors get lots of attention in branding, but it’s just as important to consider the brand voice and personality you want to display. The reason for this lopsided emphasis is a matter of tangibility and definition; it’s easy to define a company color, then pick that exact color out when designing something new. It’s easy to replicate a symbol because you can copy and paste it.
But when it comes to personality traits for a brand, things become much harder to define or replicate. If your brand is “casual,” how can you apply that to new ads, exactly? If your brand is “approachable,” how can you bring that trait into your web copy?
The best exercise for development here is to imagine your brand as an actual person (or as a fictional character). You’ll start by pinpointing unique traits and characteristics that define that person, which should give you a solid starting point, and then you’ll start imagining how that person would engage with others.
Old Spice has successfully branded itself with a wildly successful video ad starring a character that oozes of manliness and confidence titled “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.”
Execution and Consistency
So far, I’ve stuck to explaining a brand on a conceptual level, helping you think through exactly what components of your brand you’ll need to consider, and how to define those components in a practical and formal context. But the most important element of branding isn’t coming up with the idea—it’s executing it.
I’ll be going into a little more detail about the channels and strategies you’ll use to promote your brand in my section on ongoing support near the end of this guide. For now, understand that your brand will need to be present in all your channels—from your website to your ads and everything in between—and it needs to be consistent.
Any deviation from your central brand standards could result in confusion, reduce familiarity and loyalty, or could even damage the image and reputation of your brand. The true power of branding comes from consistency, so keep your emphasis on maintaining that consistency no matter what.
The only exception here is if you’re undergoing a rebranding campaign. Over time, brand standards and design best practices evolve (as do customer relationships with your brand). After a few years, it may be in your best interest to reimagine your brand for the new era; this is a common move, even in larger companies, but when you do it, you’ll need to retain at least some elements of your past iterations to keep people familiar and loyal to your brand.
(Image Source: Melody Rose Milton)
Personal Branding Considerations
I also want to mention the concept of personal branding in this overview of branding in general. A personal brand is much like a corporate brand—you’ll go through the process of developing an identity and showcasing that identity in a number of different contexts—except this is applied to an individual, rather than corporation.
Typically, personal brands are used to support and enhance a business, almost as “assistant” brands that revolve around a central hub. They may make new connections, syndicate content, or otherwise draw more attention and find more opportunities for the core brand. There are several advantages to this approach:
- Expanded reach. Every personal brand you create and develop will have the potential to create its own audience. Given enough time and personal brand outlets, this could easily multiply your potential audience many times over. For example, let’s say your corporate brand has 5,000 social media followers, but you have 3 personal brands, each with 3,000 followers; cumulatively, if you syndicate your latest article across all these platforms, you’ll be able to reach up to 14,000 people, almost 3 times what your corporate brand alone could have reached. There will be some overlap in your followings, of course, but this is just an illustration.
- Greater publishing opportunities. As a general rule, external publishers are more likely to accept new content from individual writers than they are from corporate brands. This gives personal brands a distinct advantage when you’re trying to get your brand featured in new publications; a must for SEO link building. Off-site guest posting is a critical component in link building, so if you’re looking to boost your brand’s search visibility, this is a practical necessity. Over time, as the personal brands related to your corporate hub gain more authority, your core brand will gain authority by proxy, and will have greater potential for publication in its own right.
- Higher trust. People have a natural distrust for businesses and corporations, which is unfortunate but understandable. Businesses have a strong incentive to turn a profit, and they often attempt to do this through advertising, which is designed to manipulate—or at least persuade—readers into taking action. Individual people, however, aren’t automatically assumed to have this incentive, and therefore tend to start with a greater degree of natural trust from consumers and followers involved. This means they have an easier time making new connections, building a following, and even syndicating content and generating traffic.
- Employee incentives. Asking your employees to put their efforts into personal brands may seem like you’re overburdening them, but the reality is there are tons of personal incentives to personal branding as well. If you become known as an expert in your field, you won’t have to be tied to a specific company to reap the benefits of that reputation. In fact, a strong enough personal brand can be used as a resume in search of future opportunities. There’s a chance this may incentivize your employees to leave your company, but it’s more likely they’ll stick around if you let them develop their personal brands even further.
Research and Planning
At this point, I’ve managed to outline the general idea of your online brand, and what you’ll need to keep in mind when developing it. But how can you actually go about this process? What steps do you need to take, what tools can you use to gather more information, and what research and planning do you need to do to become successful?
Questions to Ask When Building Your Brand
Let’s start with a few questions you’ll want to ask when building your brand from scratch. These are important pieces of your brand framework, which will guide you in your research efforts in a number of different areas:
- Who do we want to be? This is a painfully broad question, but its ambiguity is somewhat intentional. Some businesses might answer the question by describing their financial structures or how they plan to sell in the future. Others might describe the nature of their customer relationships. Still others might forgo these two visions and simply focus on the core identity of the brand, or its personality. All of these answers are valid, and while it’s good to be as thorough as possible, it’s also a good idea to zero in on one or two main areas of development to serve as your main goals or focal points.
- What does our audience want? In some ways, your company’s brand is about you—it’s about the company you wanted to create and the personality and passion you put behind it. But even more importantly, it’s about your audience, as your audience members are going to be the ones interacting with it, and the ones distributing the value in response to your efforts. Accordingly, you should be asking yourself what your audience wants in a brand like yours. Are they looking for a certain value? Do they currently have unmet needs in this niche? Are there certain angles or characteristics that current brands in the industry just aren’t able to offer them?
- Why do we exist? This is another intentional broad, vague question. You could exist for a number of reasons, both internally and externally focused. For example, you could have a vision to change the world with your products and services, or you could merely want to offer a slightly cheaper solution for a problem that already exists. Knowing your motivation in existing—beyond your personal motivation in starting the company—is key for developing things like your company mission and vision statements, and coming up with a list of key values that represent your brand. This is one question you’ll have to rely on your inner voice for.
- What makes us unique? This question is solely focused on finding the reasons your company is different from any other company on the market. Why would any customer choose you over one of your competitors? Even more importantly, how could they distinguish between the two of you? There are many potentially right answers here, as long as they’re unique identifiers that you can prove. For example, you may offer a unique range of products and services, or you may have a certain attitude to your brand that sets you apart from the pack. If you can’t define this quickly and succinctly, you need to keep looking for a way to position yourself in a competitive context.
- How do we maximize our reach? This is another pivotal question for your brand. It’s not enough to have a brand that accurately represents you; your brand needs to be able to sell your company on your behalf. It needs to be present on all your marketing and advertising materials, and it needs to represent your company in total, using only a handful of symbols, colors, or words.
For each of these questions, you probably already have a gut-response answer, or some idea in your own head about how each question plays out. However, I encourage you to hold off on these assumptive conclusions. Instead, I want you to challenge these presumptions by researching them thoroughly; either, you’ll find objective information that confirms your suspicions or you’ll find evidence that points you in a more accurate, valuable direction.
The first type of research you’ll need to pursue is market research. Put simply, this is your way of getting to know your target audience better. Remember, your brand is going to take shape at least partially in response to what your audience’s needs are, so the better you understand your target audience, the more completely your brand will be able to conform to their needs.
The first phase of this is making sure you’re targeting the right audience in the first place; there are a number of different niche demographics you could target, and the first one you choose may not necessarily be the best. The second phase is learning more about that target demographic, including their wants, their needs, their profiles, and of course, their buying habits.
These are some of the best online resources for the job.
- Marketer’s Almanac. The Marketer’s Almanac is actually a section within Think with Google, which is a great resource all on its own. Think with Google is a platform for digital marketers to exchange ideas with one another for inspiration, research, or troubleshooting and development purposes. The Marketer’s Almanac is geared specifically toward understanding specific buying cycles as they occur throughout the year, charting patterns of consumer behavior as they change with the seasons and years. You’ll find tons of information here, but typically it will be in article format, like a regular news site. If you’re looking for better-indexed, encyclopedic style data, there are superior choices on this list.
(Image Source: Marketer’s Almanac)
- American Fact Finder. One of the best tools this country has used to gather information on its people has been the Census Bureau, and fortunately, all the Census’s information is public record. In fact, you can go to their website, American Fact Finder, to look up almost any facts you want to about the American public. In a way, this serves as a perfect complement to the Marketer’s Almanac; the Almanac will give you lots of practical information and tips, whereas this will give you hard facts. The only problem here is that because there aren’t any conclusions—only raw data—the burden of responsibility is on you to ask the right questions, look at the right pieces of data, and walk away with the right conclusions (which can be trickier than it sounds).
(Image Source: Census Bureau)
- Nielsen’s MyBestSegments. It’s possible to chart your demographics in a general sense, isolating single variables like gender or age and running with it, but it’s much more valuable to dig into a highly specialized niche. Not only will this help you distinguish yourself from the competition, it will also help you target your audience more effectively, because you’ll be able to speak more specifically to them. Nielsen’s MyBestSegments is an ideal solution to uncover and learn more about these target audiences. Here, you’ll be able to figure out exactly which segments are most appropriate for your brand, what they’re like, and how you can find them.
(Image Source: Nielsen)
- Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center is a nonprofit organization and think tank headquartered in Washington, DC, dedicated to facilitating and providing open data in a number of important areas. On its site, you’ll find a constantly refreshed lineup of articles and information with the latest findings in a number of disciplines. Some of its most important areas of study include social trends, demographic trends, and social opinions that are shaping the country, making it an ideal resource for learning more about your audiences. You may have to do some digging to find the precise data you’re looking for, but it’s full of interesting and valuable bits of information.
- Typeform, Survey Monkey, and Other Survey Options. If none of the above options are suitable for learning more about your target audience, or if you’re just hungry for more information, your best course of action is creating a survey to distribute to members of your target audience. After all, what better way is there to find an answer than to ask the question directly? SurveyMonkey is probably the most popular form of survey creation and distribution software out there, and it’s pretty accessible and easy to learn, with drag-and-drop functionality and recommended templates. However, I personally recommend Typeform due to its degree of simplicity, better analytics, and more reasonable price point. Whatever option you choose, you can make your surveys as light or as in-depth as you want to, but make sure you’re randomly distributing it and collecting your information as neutrally and objectively as possible.
Collectively, these resources should provide you with all the answers you need about who your target audience is, what makes them tick, and how to target them appropriately.
With your market research out of the way, your next most significant research investment will be in competitive research. Here, you’ll be looking at all the other competitors you’re facing in your industry, discovering what tactics they’re using and how effective they’ve been in reaching your shared (or related) target audiences.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, you’ll get a kind of testing ground for your own ideas; you’ll get to see which branding tactics work and which ones are falling flat. Second, you’ll have a chance to draw inspiration; if you aren’t sure what industry standards there are for branding, your competitive research can tell you. Finally, you’ll be able to find a framework for your industry’s normalcy, so you can find a way to differentiate yourself.
- Google Alerts. Your first stop is Google Alerts, which is going to be handy for you both in competitive research and in your ongoing content marketing campaign (in fact, I almost included it in the content tools I list in an upcoming section). Through Google Alerts, you’ll be able to set up notifications for any time new content emerges on a given subject or about a given keyword. In the example below, you might choose anything from “lung cancer” to “Game of Thrones.” It doesn’t really matter what you choose; I recommend selecting a series of keywords and phrases related to your industry. Then, Google Alerts will notify you whenever that subject is significantly covered, giving you direct access to the modern authorities on the subject and a view on how well their branding and content strategies are performing.
(Image Source: Google Alerts)
- SocialMention. Next up, we have SocialMention, which works quite similarly to Google Alerts, but in a more searchable context. Rather than being set up for alerts, you can do active scouting here. Plus, it taps into a number of different social media platforms, so you’ll be casting a wider net for whichever subjects you want to cover. As a side note, you’ll be able to gauge the relative strengths of different topics against each other, but remember your main goal here is to learn more about the competition, and what lessons they can provide you in your own branding campaign.
(Image Source: SocialMention)
- SpyFu. SpyFu is a platform so named because of its ability to help you “spy” on your competition. The first two tools on this list were ideal platforms for helping you identify key competitors, but here, you’ll need some competitors already in mind. You’ll enter the URL of your competitors, one at a time, and review a detailed analysis of their position and performance over time. You can learn what they spend in advertising, what keywords they rank for in search engines, and tons of other useful information. It’s useful in helping you figure out the best way to target your audience, and how you might be able to differentiate yourself.
(Image Source: SpyFu)
- Open Site Explorer. Moz’s Open Site Explorer is one of my favorite online tools, but its main function is to help you analyze your own inbound link profile. Designed as a kind of search engine for links, when you enter your domain here, you’ll generate a list of all the links you currently have pointing to your site (well, at least the ones that have been indexed by Moz)—and for SEO purposes, this is great. However, it’s equally valuable as a competitive research tool. Enter a competitor’s URL instead of your own, and you’ll get a breakdown of each one’s domain authority, as well as the existing relationships they have with other sites on the web.
- SEMRush. SEMRush, on the other hand, is a tool designed specifically for improved competitive research in the online marketing realm. You’ll need your competitors’ domain names for this tool as well, but if you have them, you’ll be able to pull up tons of information about their online performance, including their top ranked keywords and an interactive competitor positioning map that can help you better understand where each of your competitors fit in the broader landscape of your industry.
(Image Source: SEMRush)
- Good Old-Fashioned Hunting. Of course, you don’t have to use these sophisticated tools to accomplish all of your competitive research. It’s also possible, and even beneficial, to go out and do some on your own. This is a hunt-and-peck style of gathering information on your competition, and while it’s a bit time consuming, it also helps you learn about your competitors from a ground level. You can make a list of known competitors, or search for terms related to your industry; either way, scope out your competitors’ sites one by one, evaluating their brands in terms of concept, image, voice, presentation, and overall execution. Even if you’re not a branding or design expert, you’ll be able to walk away with some key takeaways on where your brand might fit.
When your competitive research is complete, you should have plenty of new ideas about how to differentiate yourself, how to appeal to your target audience, and an appropriate balance of fitting into your industry standards. Combined with your market research, this should form a strong foundation for the remainder of your brand development.
All that’s left at this point is the actual design of your brand, and this is going to require some research as well. Depending on what resources you’re using to facilitate your final brand design (more on that in the next section), you may be doing this research yourself or deferring to another party. Either way, there are some very important reasons to research design before creating anything:
- Inspiration. For starters, design is a creative process, and the best way to maximize your creative capacities is to find a way to get inspired. Inspiration isn’t a tangible asset, and it’s not something you can force, so you’ll need to rely on a number of different sources to feed your creative faculties. Of course, the trick here is to get inspired—seeing different elements that allow you to produce your own visions—rather than finding something to copy. Differentiation is still key.
- Latest trends. Following the latest in design can also help you stay abreast of the latest trends in the industry. Branding and web design trends cycle in and out like fashions on a regular basis. For some industries, it’s better to capitalize on these short-term trends, while in others it’s best to avoid them and focus on something more evergreen and traditional. Either way, it pays to know what those trends are, so you can navigate them however is best suited for your brand.
- Best practices. Best practices for branding haven’t changed drastically in the past decade, but they do change on occasion, and it never hurts to brush up on the basics. Reading design news and authoritative sources regularly can help you stay plugged in to the best possible approaches for your brand development.
With those central goals in mind, there are a handful of different sources I recommend consulting in the process of your brand brainstorming and creation, whether it’s you or a designer taking charge of the matter:
- Branding Served. Branding Served is a section of Behance that collects and presents some of the best work of the artists there. It’s a great all-purpose source of design inspiration, no matter what kind of business you have.
- Adweek. Adweek is a general source for the latest news and information in the marketing and advertising industry. Here, you’ll find articles written by designers and marketers on subjects related to branding, advertising, and marketing, as well as case studies of successful branding campaigns that can help you identify best practices for your own execution. Overall, it’s better for finding tactics and ideas than inspiration or overall research.
- Designerfix. Designerfix is a great all-around stop because it offers so many different resources at once. Here, you’ll be able to find news, trends, and information, but you’ll also find best practices and tutorials, and on top of that, great branding examples you can use as inspiration for your own work.
- Creative Overflow. Creative Overflow is a general design blog, but you’ll be able to find some great information and potential new directions for branding here as well. Browse through the archives here, and you’ll inevitably find something to be inspired by.
- Identity Designed. If you’re looking to think outside the box or push the limits with your own brand, Identity Designed is an ideal source for you. Here, you’ll be able to review identity- and brand-based designs from all around the world, so you’ll get a sample of many different cultures, helping you avoid some of the tropes and clichés of your own culture.
Design research is more about finding inspiration and ideas than it is trying to pin down specific numbers or tactics (like with market or competitive research). Keep that in mind as you peruse these sources.
Assets, Platforms, Tools, and Assistance
With all that research out of the way, you’ll be thrust into the process of formally creating and finalizing your brand. Unless you have extensive design experience or knowledge, I highly recommend relying on outside support to help you through the process. Your brand is one of the most important elements of your business, and it’s not an investment or creation you should take lightly.
The Importance of a Strong Foundation
As I’ve mentioned before, the true power of branding comes from the repetition and consistency of displaying your brand prominently in a number of different contexts, including your marketing and advertising campaigns. But you can’t exactly adhere to that ongoing work unless you first have a strong foundation. Your first priority should be building a core brand, complete with guidelines and formalized assets you can use in other capacities. Once you have that, you’ll have a better toolbox that you can use for all the other areas of your business’s development.
But what exactly do you need to have a strong foundation? What checklist items do you need to cross off before your brand is considered “complete”? This question grows more complicated when you realize the fact that most brands do evolve slowly over time (in addition to potential rebranding efforts). But for now, let’s focus on some of the basics you’ll need to get to consider yourself more or less “in place”—and how you can go about getting them.
General Tools for Finding Help
I’m going to assume that you aren’t designing your brand by yourself. You might have a handful of ideas about where your brand can go—especially after doing all that research from the previous section—such as a key symbol you want incorporated or colors you’d like to see used. But the actual design work should be left to a professional. Where can you go to find these professionals?
- Internal and External. The first big question you’ll want to answer is whether you want the work to be done in-house or by some external agent. There are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. If you go the internal route, you’ll be forced to hire someone in some extended capacity. This can get expensive, but may be worth it if you’re going to have a lot of design work in the future. If you go the external route, you can generally either hire a design agency or opt to work with freelancers. Agencies tend to be more expensive, but offer more reliable, higher-quality work. Freelancers are less expensive, and are more of a mixed bag—you might be able to find an extraordinary freelance designer, but you also might get one who cops out of the gig at the last minute. Doing your research in advance and hedging your bets is a good way to avoid this.
- Agency Research. There are hundreds of design and marketing agencies out there, so if you decide to go with an agency, make sure you do plenty of research in advance. For example, bigger agencies tend to offer better work at higher rates, while smaller agencies offer decent work at more affordable rates—and quite possibly a more personal experience. You might also seek an agency with experience in your industry already, as they’ll have some idea of what brands work well for your niche. If you’re interested in pursuing a marketing firm for services other than branding, you should consider this as well and seek an all-in-one firm you can partner with for the long haul. Your best options to find options here are searches and referrals.
- Upwork and Other Freelance Sites. If you’re looking for a freelancer, there are now some amazing platforms designed to help bring freelancers and companies who need them together. Upwork is a fine example of this, though there are dozens (if not hundreds) of other sites that use the same model. Essentially, through Upwork, freelancers can sign up and offer their work of specialty. You can hire these workers through the platform for specific gigs or ongoing work, then review them later for their performance. You can find freelancers based on proximity, cost, area of expertise, and ratings—so hypothetically, you can find the perfect freelancer for your needs. The only downside is a slightly higher cost and the restraints of working within your platform of choice.
(Image Source: Upwork)
- 99Designs and Similar Platforms. If your only goal is to create tangible assets for your brand, enlisting the help of a single designer may not be the best option. There are now crowdsourcing platforms that allow you to outsource your design work to multiple designers at the same time; the advantage here is that you’ll have many options to choose from, increasing the chances that you’ll walk away with a design that perfectly suits your brand. 99Designs is one site that follows this model; with a competition, you can receive dozens of different mockups for the logo and brand you envision, but you’ll only pay for the one you like best (aside from a general fee to begin the contest).
(Image Source: 99Designs)
- Job Postings. If you’re averse to using platforms to find freelancers, or if you prefer to hire someone in-house for the work, you can always resort to basic job posting boards. Sites like Monster, Indeed, and even Craigslist are still viable ways to attract workers. Be as detailed as you can when describing the work you offer, and don’t cut corners; it may take you a while to find a high-quality designer who can work within your price range or accomplish what you’re setting out to create, but it’s worth holding out for the perfect fit.
With your workforce in place, next you’ll need to document and formalize the main “pillars” of your brand to serve as your foundation.
Your logo is important because it’s going to symbolize your brand in a single image. You may have multiple variants of this; for example, you might have a symbol next to your company name, but a version with just the symbol, or a “stacked” version that organizes your words and symbol vertically. You may have a full-color version, a one-color version, or even a black and white version depending on your preferences. It’s all up to you, but when you work with a freelancer or agency, make sure you’re getting all the assets you need at the same time. There will be room to make corrections, adjustments, and new assets later, but you’ll want to iron out as much as you can in the early phases of your branding efforts.
There’s no rule that says your brand needs to have a logo, but it’s a common practice, and there are a lot of advantages. Once complete, you can use your logo anywhere—throughout your website, at the footer of your letterhead, on your social media platforms, and in your advertising—to show that whatever you’ve produced is distinctly yours. Make sure you have files available in every available format, including EPS, JPG, GIF, and PNG.
You’ll also want to put together a formalized “brand guidelines” document. Much like a business plan, there’s no hard rule for what this must include, but there are some generally agreed upon priorities on what it should include. If you’re getting your branding done through a professional design agency, they’ll probably include a brand guidelines document by default.
If you’re dealing with freelancers, however, they may not think to create this for you. This is especially true if you’re working with amateurs, or if you’re working with a designer for only a logo or similar single asset. In any case, you should go out of your way to create this document if you haven’t already gotten one; this is going to serve as the shared, mutually accessible resource that keeps your team in alignment and keeps your brand consistent across multiple channels.
Your brand guidelines should specify even the simplest assumptions, such as who your target audience is, your mission and vision statements, and your directives in creating the brand. It should explain what your logo is, how to use it, how to use different versions of it, and appropriate use of colors in various materials.
It should also include key characteristics of your brand and differentiators that set you apart from the competition, and how to write in your signature “brand voice.” This is going to serve as the master template for using your brand, so make sure it’s flawless, and have it completed before showcasing your brand anywhere.
Your brand should also be present throughout your website, as your site will serve as the anchor point for your online branding campaign. It’s where all your external channels will point back to, and where your visitors will be making their purchasing decisions. Every page of your site should give your users a taste of your unique brand experience, as illustrated in your color choices, layout choices, font choices, copy, and other design elements.
It’s common practice these days for new entrepreneurs to opt for template sites, like WordPress, which are inexpensive and easy for even an amateur to build, and I highly recommend going the WordPress route.
This is also a critical opportunity to hone your copy; even though each page of your site may only have a handful of headlines and paragraphs, the tone and wording of this material can have a huge impact on your visitors’ impressions (and eventually, whether or not they convert).
Your brand (and any personal brands you’re using) should permeate your ongoing content marketing strategy in the months and years to come—but to start, you’ll need a decent bank of content to give your users a taste of what they can expect.
Choose a handful of impactful titles you feel best represent your brand’s mission (and best appeal to your target market), and fill your blog with them. Then, work on a few high-impact pieces you can use as anchor points for your brand and content strategy, such as whitepapers or eBooks. You can write these yourself or work with a content specialist (you can find content writers through similar means as designers).
Now, when people come to your site and experience your brand for the first time, they’ll have a deeper, more accurate vision of what your brand truly is meant to be.
Of course, if you need help planning and launching a content marketing strategy in general, that’s another subject entirely—check out my guide on that very topic for more info.
Building an initial brand presence on social media requires careful attention to a few key areas:
- Social profiles. Take the time to claim your presence on as many social media platforms as possible. You don’t necessarily have to use all of these as ongoing social networking opportunities, but you should at least have a token presence there. Fill out your profiles with as much information on your brand as you can, leaving nothing blank, and make sure you include some images, copy, and initial posts that you feel best represent your brand. Generally, a logo is included as a profile picture, but you’ll also have header and background images to populate.
(Image Source: Facebook/Coca-Cola)
- Engagement opportunities. When you first start out, you won’t have much of a following, so it’s a good idea to attract at least an initial base of followers to support your brand in its earliest stages. The best way to do this is to engage potential new users by posting amazing content and reaching out to them, possibly on an individual basis. Get involved in discussions related to your brand or involving your target audience, and stay as active as possible to increase your visibility. Eventually, you’ll want a massive following so your brand reach can grow, but for now, start attracting some inner circles.
- Influencers. If you want a good shortcut to increasing your brand’s visibility and reputation, influencers are the best resources to help you do it. You can find influencers using BuzzSumo, or some of the competitive research and social listening tools I listed in the preceding section, or simply search for them yourself—they won’t be hard to find because of the reputations and visibility they already enjoy. Work with them on some collaborative material, or do them favors—they’ll likely respond in kind, giving you a huge boost in visibility and a leg-up in your brand development.
With these strong anchor points in place, your once-conceptual brand can be considered to formally exist. Everything is in place for you to promote and develop your brand further in your marketing and advertising campaigns.
You’ve come a long way since the beginning of this article. With the help of the online (and some offline) resources I’ve suggested and the guidelines I’ve outlined for you, we’ve gone from having only a foggy conception of what your brand should be to a steady, expandable foundation. Now, it’s time to turn toward the process of ongoing support and development.
100 Percent Branding
If you want your brand to be successful, you’re going to have to commit to it 100 percent. This is a theme that has arisen a number of times throughout this article, but you’re most liable to drop the ball once things are actually in motion.
Your brand will be subjected to a number of different variables and circumstances, so if you aren’t ready, it could really compromise your efforts. Here are some of the most important principles to keep in mind:
- Cross-medium appropriation. Your brand is going to be present in multiple mediums, both on and off your website. Sometimes, it’s difficult to make the jump; for example, it might be easy to write a tweet in your brand voice, but not a press release-style news update. Or it might be easy to display your brand colors on a website, but difficult to match them on physical assets like brochures or pamphlets. There are a number of potential weaknesses that could arise here, so work proactively to remain as consistent as you can.
- Team considerations. One of your biggest vulnerabilities is going to be your team. Each member of your team will be representing your brand in a different capacity; some will be obvious, such as the members of your marketing team working to create new assets and opportunities for your brand. But some will be subtler, like your customer service representatives representing your brand to your customers. You’ll need to support your team with training, or at the very least controlled access to the formalized brand guidelines that should serve as the “Bible” of your brand.
- Internal branding. You’re going to spend so much time and effort making sure your brand is visible and accurately portrayed to your audience and your customers that you might neglect the fact that your brand applies to your workforce as well. Your corporate documents, training manuals, and other materials should all be consistently branded as a way to help employees and partners stay firmly within your brand’s mindset. You can also facilitate a more consistent brand environment by hanging different types of artwork, or including other office design elements that showcase your brand.
Ongoing Content Marketing
Your ongoing content marketing strategy is one of your biggest key areas for brand development, as it’s going to serve as an inbound marketing opportunity, and a tool to build brand loyalty over time. There are a number of things to keep in mind here:
- Brand voice. Every post you create should be written within your brand’s voice—at least to an extent. If you’re using personal brands as authors for your individual posts, you can be a little looser with this; each author should loosely stay within the boundaries of your corporate brand voice while also staying consistent and sincere within his/her own voice. This may seem like a difficult balance to strike, but try not to overthink it. Instead, go with what seems natural so long as you don’t alienate any of the signature qualities that make your brand unique. The more sincere you are, the more you’re going to resonate with audiences.
- Audience targeting. Another big part of your success in branding on the content marketing side of things is how well you’re able to speak to your audience. On the surface, content marketing may seem like a monologue; after all, you’re developing content to which audiences rarely respond (at least not with more content). But content marketing should be seen more as a form of dialogue; if you’re imagining your brand as a fictional character, then imagine your target customer as a fictional character too, and consider how you would speak to this fictional character. This will help you create more meaningful content and forge deeper connections with your audience members.
- Personal branding. I already alluded to the importance of personal branding in a preceding paragraph, but there’s much room for development here. I highly encourage you to leverage personal brands in the scope of your ongoing content marketing efforts, and the best way to do it is to think of them as brand ambassadors. You can even incorporate personal brands from the outside (guest posters) so long as they’re adding value to your site.
- Agencies, mills, and freelancers. You’ll have a number of options for your content marketing campaign, and you can look online to find any of them. For example, you might hire a full-time team member to oversee the execution of your strategy, you could put an agency on retainer to handle it on your behalf, you could take your chances with a content mill (though I don’t recommend this for SEO-related reasons), or you could build and tap a network of freelancers. You could even mix and match these opportunities to best suit your business. Whatever you choose, make sure you work with your executors directly to ensure they remain in compliance with your brand standards.
With those general principles and considerations in mind, there are a handful of online tools and resources that can help you produce the best content within your brand requirements:
- Feedly. There are many online reader tools and programs, but I consider Feedly the best. Completely free, you can create an account easily and list any number of different topics and subtopics that you’re interested in. Feedly will use these topics to generate new content and material for your consumption, pulled from blogs and sites all over the world. As a general rule, you should consult Feedly (or the platform of your choice) daily; this will help you find new ideas for blogs, and if you set it up to monitor your competitors, you’ll be presented with fresh ideas on how to differentiate yourself and stay ahead of the competition.
(Image Source: Feedly)
- BuzzSumo. BuzzSumo is another great tool for monitoring content performance and coming up with new ideas. Here, you’ll be able to plug in any topic you like and generate a list of some of the top-performing content in that area (as it’s currently trending), including statistics on its performance across various social channels and mediums. This is great for evaluating the strength of your ideas against those of your competitors, and finding a voice for your brand in an otherwise crowded marketplace. Think: what is it that makes these top-performing posts unique? How can your brand take it to the next level?
(Image Source: BuzzSumo)
- MailChimp. MailChimp is a support platform for your content marketing efforts, giving you another way to reach your customers and maximize your overall visibility. It’s free to sign up and use some of its basic features, but even its Pro plans aren’t expensive. Here, you’ll be able to organize and manage your email lists, and send out regular newsletters with your latest (and/or greatest) content to keep your readers hooked. Its analytics section will help you understand how your readers are engaging, why they’re engaging, and how your brand can do better—so use it as a resource to improve your brand’s presence in content.
Advertising and Syndication
You can also support your brand with more outreach, either in the form of pushing your content to new audiences (such as syndicating it on social media) or creating advertising to communicate your message more clearly and immediately to a buying audience. Generally, I prefer and recommend allocating marketing budgets toward long-term organic strategies over paid advertising strategies, but it’s often a good idea to leverage both.
- PRWeb. If you’re interested in using press releases to promote the existence of your brand (which I recommend for landmark events and other newsworthy developments), PRWeb is one of the best platforms out there. It’s relatively inexpensive, easy to use, and with a few clicks, you can connect your press release to thousands of major news outlets throughout the country. It’s on you to make sure that press release is worthwhile to pick up, however, so adhere to best practices here.
- Google. Google is hands-down one of the best online advertising platforms on the web, and it’s a great place to start if you’re new to the field. There’s a bit of a learning curve to the AdWords platform, but you can get started pretty easily, and if you ever need help, they have a great help and tutorial section. The only major difficulty here is trying to represent your brand as concisely as possible while still compelling users to click—with Google ads, you get a small, finite amount of space to work with.
- Social channels. Your social media platforms will be some of your greatest brand assets, as you can use them to promote your brand directly or support other materials (like on-site content) through ongoing syndication. Completely free to use organically, one of your best methods for success is to pick two or three platforms most relevant to your brand and build an audience there. Most modern platforms also offer advertising functionality, so check it out if that’s a strategy you’re into.
- Hootsuite. If you want to make the social media posting and scheduling process a little easier, Hootsuite is one of the best “standard” tools for the job. It will help you schedule posts in advance, coordinate your team, and evaluate your post performance over time. You can also use this as a centralized gauge for how well your team is doing staying within your brand guidelines—and what effects it has on your customers.
- Buffer. Buffer is another social media management and content analysis tool I can recommend. It has a host of features somewhat similar to Hootsuite, but with more in-depth analytics and more functionality for connecting your team members to each other, which will become more important as your brand scales upward.
- SocialOomph. Finally, there’s SocialOomph. There are a few neat tools to support your brand here, including follower analysis, but the big draw is its bulk upload feature. With it, you can upload and randomly schedule as many posts as you like—even thousands—to keep your brand active without needing to check in directly all the time (though it’s still important to stay in the moment whenever possible with live updates).
It’s important to keep in mind that your brand shouldn’t remain stagnant as you continue to support it in all your marketing and advertising endeavors. You should be experimenting, gradually, to see what new angles and techniques can better reach your audience.
You should be learning from your mistakes and refining your approach, allowing experience to guide you to better performance. And you should be adapting to new technologies and new trends, keeping a pulse on the interest of your key demographics and trying to stay one step ahead of your competition.
Building a brand is a daunting accomplishment, and keeping a brand consistent is an even bigger challenge, but it’s a necessary one if you want your company to be distinguished among the competition and with your target customers. I hope these resources, tips, and recommendations have been helpful to you in finding your brand’s identity and forging ahead in accomplishing your long-term customer acquisition and retention goals.
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