Everyone knows brand building is an essential component of building a company. “That’s not on brand,” you hear people say. Or: “This is going to be great for our brand.”
There’s brand essence, brand style, brand ambassadors, brand story…. But, when it comes to defining what a brand is – let alone how you build one – things start to get a little murky.
Part of that stems from a confusion between two similar, related, yet distinct terms: branding and brand.
Your company’s “branding” refers to the collection of visual and verbal assets associated with your company. That includes things like your logo, color scheme, messaging platform. These are the cues that signal to customers that they’re interacting with your company.
Your company’s brand, on the other hand, is how people experience your company and your product. That includes elements like your logo and your messaging, but ultimately, it’s much more expansive than that.
Your company brand is the sum total of the thoughts, opinions, associations, and experiences people have with your company. As Jeff Bezos put it, “Your brand is what people say about you after you leave the room.”
“Your brand is what people say about you after you leave the room.”
Put that way, it might seem like your brand is something you as a Founder have very little control over. After all, how can you control other people’s thoughts and associations?
But the truth is that, as a Founder, you’re uniquely positioned to influence your company’s brand strategy. Every decision you make – from who you partner with to what your social media presence is like to how you handle customer service – has a direct effect on how your company comes across to customers and the world.
David Good sums it up perfectly: “When it comes to your brand, it’s important to realize that every single word, action, etc. carries meaning,” he says. “In a culture that is so fast-paced, every decision matters.”
So how do you go about building your company’s brand strategy when every decision you make matters? It starts with building a strong foundation.
“The first step is deciding what are you all about,” says iResearch Founder & CEO Darshan Mehta.
Darshan offered a classic example of a company with a laser-sharp focus on who they were, what they stood for, and what they wanted customers to think when they thought of them: Volvo.
Years ago, Volvo set out to be known for safety. “Their entire being was focused on safety,” Darshan points out. Everything Volvo did, from their advertisements to their sales pitch to their customer service, revolved around this core principle of safety, and Volvo’s commitment to building the safest vehicle on the roads.
Flash forward to today, and that laser-sharp focus has paid off in spades. When the vast majority of people are asked what brand of car they associate with safety, chances are Volvo comes to mind.
When you start your brand building initiatives with a rock-solid conviction in what your company is – and what it’s not – all the other pieces start to fall into place. Hone in on the values you want to define your company, whether it’s safety, reliability, convenience, fun or freedom. Then, let every decision you make – from how you message to how you distribute to who you partner with – flow from those core values.
It’s not enough to know what you are – you have to know why you are. Every brand building initiative – from branding to messaging to product development – needs come from a firm foundation in why you do what you do.
To go back to the Volvo example: the story isn’t “We make safe cars.” It’s “We make safe cars so that you can have peace of mind that you and the ones that matter most are safe.” Finding that bigger idea – the thing that comes after “so that” – is an indispensable part of defining your brand strategy.
As Kevin Ball points out, the “why” of your company isn’t necessarily a static thing: “Knowing why you exist is ever evolving, and based on what you learn in each of the subsequent steps you may want to come back to it and re-evaluate,” he says. “When you learn something from creation and experimentation, that may highlight a dimension you had no idea about, or a new competitor you hadn’t found, so then you might come back to the research phase.”
As with so much else about starting a business, getting to know your customers is absolutely essential to building your company’s brand strategy. To quote John Russell, “The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.”
“The more you engage with customers, the clearer things become and the easier it is to determine what you should be doing.”
As we’ve discussed in the past, the best way to get to know your customers is by talking to them – and really digging into who they are, and what they want from you. “You need to do consumer studies on your target audience and figure out what values in life are important to them,” says designer Ashley Christie. “Then, you work on emulating how your brand/product/idea can positively impact that value in their life.”
When looking to make that gut connection with customers, it can be tempting to reach for capital-v Values – ideas like Sustainability, Empowerment, Change, or Equality. That’s especially true now, as studies show that consumers – particularly those in the 35-and-under demographic – increasingly look for brands that reflect the values that are important to them.
But proceed with caution, because hitching your brand wagon to these Big Ideas can backfire. Just ask Pepsi, whose attempt to align itself with ideas of Justice and Equality in a protest-inspired TV spot starring Kendall Jenner backfired in a big way.
If you’re planning to align your brand with these ‘capital-v’ Values — you better make sure you have the goods to back it up. Otherwise, you run the risk of your brand coming off as inauthentic. And, if there’s one thing that kills a brand like no other, it’s inauthenticity. Which brings us to our final point…
The reason that stabs at aspirational branding like the Pepsi commercial fall flat on their face: because the brand’s followers could spot the inauthenticity a mile away.
“Consumers are smarter than they have ever been,” observes David Good. “They’re tired of rhetoric and words and ideas that have lost their meaning.”
Too many companies want their brands to reflect some idealized, perfected image of themselves.”
David points to words like “innovation” or “holistic” as examples of the kinds of brand “boosters” that customers today can see right through. “In my opinion, they have been used so many times that they actually mean the opposite,” he says. Attempts to align with big values when that alignment isn’t earned fall into the same category.
But despite the increasing savviness of consumers, a surprising number of companies are scared to let their guard down and just be honest with their customers. To quote business icon and Virgin Wireless founder Richard Branson:
“Too many companies want their brands to reflect some idealized, perfected image of themselves. As a consequence, their brands acquire no texture, no character, and no public trust.”
The good news: when the vast majority of brands are playing it safe and keeping their cards close to your chest, the few brands who are willing to take the chance and be real with their customers stand out that much more.
Kevin Ball offered a great example of a brand strategy that does a good job keeping it real: Southwest Airlines.
“I associate Southwest in my mind with friendly, funny, down to earth, and just far more human than any of the other airlines I have traveled,” he notes. “I think the reason is that they empower each of their representatives to truly be themselves while representing Southwest. Every flight has a unique (and often but not always quirky/funny) pre-flight, and interactions with folks throughout the system simply feel more like interacting with people, not just a brand.”
Contrast Southwest with a certain other “friendly” airline that has found itself in its fair share of hot water lately, and it’s easy to see how it pays to be upfront with your customers.
With brands, as with people, the worst thing you can do is to try to be someone you’re not because you think that’s what people want you to be. The cracks are bound to show sooner or later, and keeping up the charade is more trouble than it’s worth. It’s miles easier for you – and your team – to just be yourselves. And in an age where people are starving for authenticity and realness, it pays to be yourself, too.
Know who you are. Know why you’re here. Know who your customers are. Be honest, and be yourself. Put this way, the rules of building a kickass brand strategies seem incredibly simple. But, as any Founder can attest, building a truly authentic brand that connects with customers is anything but.
When your team is in the trenches, moving at a mile a minute, being bombarded on every side by decisions that need to be made and outcomes that need to be driven, it’s easy to get distracted and lose sight of the big picture. That’s why it’s important to take a moment with every decision and ask yourself, “Is this who we are? Is this what we stand for?” Your brand rests in the balance.
Ready to start conveying your brand to customers?
Check out Alice Lankester’s advice on Marketing Your Startup.
Curious about the intersection between brand and social media strategy?
Hear Crystal Lee talk about Social Media & Branding.
Want more insight about brand authenticity?
Read Darshan Mehta’s tips on How to Create a More Human & Authentic Brand.