How to Build a Brand From Scratch
You know what a brand is, so I’m not going to bore you with a standard definition. You might already have a brand, but are unhappy with it, you might be starting a company without a brand, or you might have a brand but simply know nothing about it.
In any of these scenarios, your brand requires attention. It’s one of the most important elements of your business since it permeates not only your corporate identity, but also every sales and marketing campaign you ever launch. If you’ve got a brand already, you can work on it by trying to understand its function (and maybe upgrade it to a more modern aesthetic), but otherwise, you have one, admittedly daunting option: building a brand from scratch.
This guide will walk you through this complex, yet stimulating process, helping you to find the perfect set of brand characteristics for your organization—and challenging you along the way.
Why is a brand important?
Before I dig into the details, let’s establish why it is a brand is important in the first place.
Take a look at these options.
(Image Source: The Benjamin)
Which one do you think tastes best? Second best? Unless you’re deliberately manipulating your answer, the stronger brands with the higher prices look as though they taste better. Yet, according to blind taste tests, there’s no inherent advantage one brand has over the other (for the record, Pepsi won consistently during the Pepsi challenge—but biases in the type of test used have been called into question).
The point is, a noteworthy brand will immediately seem like a better product, service, or business than one that is unknown, or objectively weaker. Strong, consistent brands have immediately better appeal, tend to encourage more customer loyalty, and end up performing better than their counterparts. If you can develop your brand enough, it will come to speak for itself in terms of quality—the way powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, and Amazon have today.
So how can you build a “strong” brand on your own? That’s the purpose of this guide.
Simple tips to establish the right mentality
First, you need to set yourself in the right frame of mind. Building a brand isn’t a simple, easy, one-step process like choosing a gas station to refuel at. It requires an investment of time, effort, and in many cases, money. If you start with the right mentality, you’ll be prepared for all the challenges to come your way:
- Don’t skimp. This is one of the biggest investments you’ll make for your company. You wouldn’t buy a house that was falling apart just because it was cheap, nor would you spend $100 for a car that probably wouldn’t get you anywhere. Branding is not the place for frugality, either financially or in terms of effort. Be prepared to give it your all.
- Think it through. If you jump and run with the first idea that pops into your mind, you’ve done yourself a disservice. First drafts are always terrible, so take your time, sort through multiple ideas, and only walk away with what sticks.
- Be ready for your brand to be everywhere. Brands aren’t just something you slap on the front door and push into the corner of your website; by necessity, they are present everywhere. They’re in your ads, in your social profiles, and even in your company’s office. Your brand will define you.
- Get everyone on the same page. Because your brand is present everywhere, it’s important that every member of your team understands and accepts the rules of your brand. Any break in consistency could compromise its overall effectiveness.
- Don’t separate yourself too much. As a founder or company owner, try not to make your brand too much of a separate entity—throw your own thoughts, values, opinions, and personality into the mix. It will make your brand seem more personal, which as you’ll see, is always a good thing.
- Don’t be afraid to get help. Branding is a serious, intensive endeavor, and not all entrepreneurs or marketers are capable of doing it alone. If you find your own experience and capabilities are limited, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
Now that you’re mentally prepared for the challenge, it’s time to start building a brand.
Ingredients of a Successful Brand
A brand is more than just a logo; it’s an entire character in its own right. It’s an attempt to personify everything your company is and hopes to be, which as you can imagine, is a monumental challenge. There are three main outlets for your brand to exhibit itself.
Logo and colors
When most people think of a brand, they think of its logo and colors—two defining signatures that, when present, can color the impression of an entire ad or sponsorship. Think about the subtle power of the Nike swoosh on a headband, or the ubiquitous and familiar FedEx logo on trucks and packages. It’s more than just a name or an iconography—it’s a symbol of an idea.
Ideally, your logo and colors will stick with you through the ages. Even as your brand requires updating, your customers will still be able to recognize the core. Take Shell, for instance, which has updated its logo many times without ever alienating the original concept:
(Image Source: Logo My Way)
It’s hard to communicate a personality through a shape and color scheme, but that’s what the other elements are for. The logo, colors, and even the tagline merely serve as quick identifiers for people to pick up on.
Image and character
Your logo and colors are all about making a fast impression, whereas your image and character require some investment—they need to be built over time. There are many potential applications and signatures here; for example, your company’s mission and vision statements can speak volumes about who your company is and what it does. Your choice of social media platforms, advertising, and the type of building you occupy can also tell consumers (and employees) what type of company you are.
These are intangible, hard-to-define qualities, which makes them a challenge to pin down. But take a look at this Doritos ad:
(Image Source: Deseret News)
The lunacy in this ad, independent from the logo’s presence and the tone of voice (which I’ll touch on next), is something you wouldn’t find in an ad for Wells Fargo or Rolex. It’s a brand of a different character altogether.
Finally, there’s the voice you use—and that voice isn’t limited to written messages. Your brand’s voice should flow in every piece of content you produce, from your blog posts, infographics, and videos, to internal memos, to social media channels. Take Taco Bell’s casual, down-to-earth, surrealist voice as an example:
Can you imagine if Taco Bell wrote something like, “Tacos are an inexpensive way to satisfy your hunger. Ours are prepared fresh. Learn more: (link)”? It doesn’t seem to fit.
Setting the Foundation
Now that you have an idea about what your brand should cumulatively entail, it’s time to start building the foundation for your work. We’re not going to build your brand all at once; this is just the infrastructural work that we’ll need for modifications down the line.
Research the competition
Your competitors are going to be a rich source of information for you as you develop your own brand. You’ll learn what to do, what not to do, and how to distinguish yourself from the crowd—and with these tenets, you can start constructing the pillars of your brand.
- Find the industry standards. Certain industries have cross-company brand standards that don’t generally apply to others. For example, most educational brands have an air of professionalism and conservatism, while most kids’ breakfast cereal brands are cartoonish and playful. Figure out what all your competitors have in common, from a general perspective, and consider adopting similar qualities for your brand (we’ll work on differentiation later). All in all, brands within an industry aren’t that far apart from one another:
(Image Source: Strategy Business)
- See what does and doesn’t work. Even if you’re not a branding expert, you should be able to find out some things that do and don’t work for other brands in your industry. Do people react negatively or positively to certain elements?
- Learn what you do and don’t like. Once your brand is built, you’ll be stuck with it for a long time. Don’t waste effort building something you don’t like from the outset. What would you, personally, like to see in a brand? Make a list, and don’t be afraid to let these qualities influence your decisions down the road.
- Analyze the degree of difficulty. The level of competition will help you decide what route to take when it comes to brand development. For example, if you’re in a relatively new industry with few challengers, you can build almost anything you want. If you’re in an industry with a handful of massive corporations at the top, you’ll need to be risky by defying old standards and making yourself stand out.
Find your unique value
Speaking of standing out, your brand must if it wants to survive. There must be at least one factor, preferably more, that no other brand in your industry possesses to make yours seem unique in the crowd. To find this quality, you must look at what your brand offers; what unique value can you give your customers? Is it your excellent customer service? Is it your friendly atmosphere? Is it your underdog status? Is it your novel approach?
Try to pin down as many qualities as possible, and integrate those into your preliminary brand identity. For example, if one of your key differentiators is your game-changing app, emphasize your break from the mainstream with an edgier brand personality. If you’re trying to emphasize value, make your brand more logical and calculating.
Identify your target demographics
It’s not enough to identify your competitors and how you stand out in the crowd. After all, there’s only one thing that matters when it comes to the effectiveness of a brand: how your customers accept it. Accordingly, before you go any further in your brand development, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about your target demographics.
- Who is buying your products? Hopefully, if you’re building a business, you already know the answer to this question. Think about them in terms of their critical identifiers—the qualities that your buyers have, but your non-buyers do not have. For example, are they educated? Are they a specific age or gender? Do they live in one specific geographic location? Make a list of these traits, and keep them in mind when you ask the following questions.
- What do they need? What does your target demographic need to feel comfortable? A young man, for example, might feel pressured to have the approval of similar young men before making a decision—demanding a “cool” or approachable brand. An older professional, on the other hand, would value and trust a company with a strong history and a sense of tradition.
- What do they like? This may seem like just a softer variant of the preceding question, but there’s much less at stake here. What would be appealing to this person? For example, a farmer in Iowa would probably appreciate a simpler personality than an urban yuppie, who might crave something sleek, modern, and elegant.
- What makes them loyal? This may be the most important question of all. What factors will influence a person to stay loyal to your brand once they’ve become a customer? For VISA, as an example, it’s the consistent reassurance that their credit cards are accepted everywhere:
(Image Source: Adweek)
Characterization and Refinement
Okay. At this point you have a tenuous grasp on what your brand is, at least at the center of its identity. If it helps you, make a list of all the qualities you wish your brand to have and keep them as a point of reference for this section. Here, I’ll introduce you to a number of different strategies and exercises you can use to take those qualities and flesh them out into something more comprehensive and substantial.
Your brand as a character
When you look at your list of key brand qualities, it may look a little bit jumbled. You may see lots of words on the page, but no clear identity shining through. This exercise will help you create a more approachable identity for your brand, one that transcends the words you’ve written on the page, and may help you find new qualities to introduce or manage.
Instead of thinking of your brand in the colorless term of a “corporate identity,” instead, think of your brand as a human being—a fictional character. What would this person be like in real life? How would they talk? What would they look like? How would they dress, walk, and act in different situations? Can you see this person making a good impression with your target demographics? Why or why not? Make adjustments accordingly, and sculpt your character as you would for a character in film or literature.
Some brands have actually attempted to do this literally. Remember Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads?
(Image Source: Business Insider)
They’ve done the work of characterizing Apple as the hip, young, easygoing man while contrasting it against his stuffy, mediocre counterpart. It says a lot about the brand as a whole, and you can almost see these characters’ identities emanating in their different brand environments.
The grab bag
You’ve currently listed a number of qualities you want your brand to have, but how many adjectives have you used? Come up with a giant list of adjectives—and you may need help for this—that may or may not describe your brand. Randomize them, and start evaluating them one by one. Ask yourself: does this describe your brand? Why or why not? This will lead you to new and different perspectives on what your brand truly is. You may even find some new words that describe qualities you’d like your brand to have that you hadn’t thought of before.
What your brand isn’t
Sometimes, it’s even easier to define what your brand is by defining exactly what your brand isn’t. Take the time to generate a list of qualities that are the antithesis of your brand, and play them out in hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios will serve as a counterpoint to whatever strategies and qualities you do come up with. For example, if you want to be a brand that’s youthful, playful, and down-to-earth, come up with some ad taglines that are the opposite of your intention, such as ones that speak to an older generation, or put on airs. Then, come up with an appropriate version of the message that fits in line with your target brand characteristics. Seeing them side-by-side will help you illuminate and pinpoint the key areas of differentiation.
Applying your brand to different areas
When you put your brand in place, you’re going to be featuring it everywhere, so try experimenting with your brand in different areas. What kind of advertising would your brand produce? What kind of voice would it have for a blog post or an ongoing content marketing campaign? How can you structure your customer service emails differently, or change the way your sales team approaches new deals? Run isolated test scenarios as a kind of sandbox for your working brand platform. If you run into an ambiguity, or don’t know how your brand can change or influence something, it means you’ve overlooked a key element of your brand and you may need to return to a former planning stage.
Experimentation and revision
You aren’t going to get it perfect the first time. Or the second time. You can’t think of everything during the brainstorming and initial outline phase. The only way to uncover every possibility is to put your brand in place, and make adjustments as you come to encounter new challenges and situations. Don’t be afraid to make mild adjustments to your brand along the way, as long as you aren’t compromising the main pillars that you’ve already established.
Putting It Into Practice
It’s up to you how you want to finalize your brand. Most companies opt for some kind of “brand manual” or guidebook that explains everything there is to know about your brand, including color requirements, taglines, characteristics, and specific applications. If you’re working with an external marketing firm, they’ll almost certainly supply you with such a tangible handbook. The key is to come up with something tangible and accessible among your entire staff that recaps everything you’ve established thus far in a formal and concrete way.
Make an announcement—or don’t
If you’re releasing a new brand for your company, it may be beneficial to make a formal announcement on social media and through press releases. The extra attention will give you an initial boost in visibility, and will help to “finalize” the change, especially if you have current clients. This can be as grandiose or as innocuous as you wish it to be, and you certainly don’t have to make a formal announcement (especially if you’re a new company that has never released a brand to begin with). Judge the advantages and disadvantages for yourself.
Practice, practice, practice
Much like any other marketing strategy, you probably aren’t going to be good at it without some kind of experience. The first few times you go to write up a press release, or respond to a customer via email, you may find yourself struggling to frame it in a way that’s consistent with your brand. Don’t worry—this happens to even the most seasoned brand experts, and it’s a natural part of the process. As you get to know your brand better, just like you would a person, you’ll more easily access and understand the characteristics you need to harness—and of course, how to actually harness them.
If you’re concerned about how you’re implementing the brand, spend some time practicing your brand standards on your own. Write out a handful of simple sentences such as “I want to eat ice cream” or “my dog is running fast and I can’t keep up,” then try to rewrite those sentences with a flair and intonation that matches the brand you’ve imagined.
Use a cheat sheet
You may already have a handbook or formal set of guidelines, but consider going a step further and creating simpler “cheat sheets” for you and your staff. These cheat sheets should consist of a single page, and include some of the most important highlights about how to use your brand. These may include examples, illustrations, or questions to ask before sending a message like, “does the message convey a sense of friendliness?” or “is there a way to make your message more formal?” This will help your staff keep things straight until they’ve all had the chance to develop an intuitive grasp of your brand.
Don’t forget there’s also an internal element to your branding efforts. The qualities you’ve created for your brand shouldn’t just permeate all the outbound messages and ads you’re sending; they should dictate the type of environment you’ve created for your partners, workers, and clients. For example, if you want to be an energetic, hip brand, your office should be energetic and hip. If you want to be classy and worthy of respect, your office should be sleek, and your dress code should be stringent.
Look at any major brand, and you’ll be able to see elements of their brand personality in their corporate headquarters. Just take a look at Google as an example:
(Image Source: TIME)
Congratulations! You’ve officially created a brand, entirely from scratch, and you’ve put it into complete practice in your organization. Now for the hard part: keeping it consistent! Consistency is one of the most vital parts of your branding strategy—even the best brand will fall apart if you aren’t consistent in applying it.
However, don’t ever feel like your brand is totally locked in. Over the years, you may find yourself offering different services, targeting different demographics, or maybe even falling behind in terms of technology and competition. In these cases, it’s more than permissible—it’s necessary—to update your brand. The key is to keep your brand consistent enough to avoid alienating any of your previous followers, while making enough changes to present a new identity. It’s not easy, and it’s not that simple, so I may cover it in a future post. Until then, stick with the brand you have, and embrace it for what it is—a singular encapsulation of your organization.
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