Ask ten small business owners to give you a good definition of brand, and you’ll get 12 different answers. Branding is a slippery concept even among the best and brightest entrepreneurs. For all the chatter about the topic on business blogs, much about branding seems elusive, contradictory, impractical, or expensive. Many small business owners even think of their brand as little more than their logo and color scheme, something they paid a marketing agency to develop for them a couple of years ago but were never really sure why and then rarely used.
The confusion around branding is unfortunate because the concept itself is critical to marketing, sales, and corporate culture as a whole. Let’s add a little clarity to the discussion here. In some cases, the word “brand” refers to a type of product. For example, you could say that Coca Cola owns several brands such as Sprite and Mr. Pibb. Broadly speaking, however, the term “brand” has come to mean an organization’s collective personality. In the Coca Cola example, the larger brand might be “excitement.” All the labels, colors, fonts, language, images, and audio pick up that brand vib, and the company’s products bear it out.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s define your brand as “who you think you are.”
Early on in your business’ development, you probably sat down with a branding coach or a marketing agency (or maybe with your spouse at the kitchen table) and hammered this concept out. You decided who you were as a company. That’s usually the first step in developing a marketing strategy for your business. (If you haven’t done that, go do it right now. We’ll wait here.)
Define to customers who you are & what you do.
Once you’ve created your corporate brand, there’s another idea closely linked to branding you need to know about– brand identity. In general, brand identity is a little easier to pin down than simply brand. The bigger idea of a brand can get a little abstract while brand identity has its feet firmly planted on the floor. The experts at Hubspot define brand identity as “What your brand says, what your values are, how you communicate your product, and what you want people to feel when they interact with it.”
In case that definition still feels too esoteric, here’s ours: Your brand identity is “who other people think you are.” The key practical difference between brand and brand identity? Perspective!
The two ideas are close, we’ll give you that, and possibly that’s why some people use “brand” and “brand identity” almost interchangeably. But those people are wrong. If your brand is a collection of all kinds of expressions that are associated with your company, then your brand identity is basically the sum of all those parts into a whole. And the whole, as the saying goes, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Brand identity is the clear manifestation that defines to customers, or to any outsiders, who you are and what your specialty is. It includes your verbiage, logo, script, fonts, and everything that makes you you. If your company were an old-fashioned ventriloquist doll and you could pull a string its back, whatever words came out of its mouth would be the brand.
Here are seven steps to narrow down your brand identity, define it for your target audience, and align your view of your company with your customers’ view.
1. Open a dialogue about your brand with your customers.
Want to know how people on the outside of your business perceive you? Ask them!
It’s so easy to overlook the obvious in marketing, but doing something as basic as asking people to tell you who they think you are can reveal vital information about your brand identity. Start with your current customers. Ask them what impression they have of your company, how they think you’re different from the competition, or even what they think your brand’s tagline should be.
Some people despise filling out questionnaires so make it fun. You could offer a reward, turn it into a game, or host a contest. Whatever you do, keep it short and focused.
Just be sure to find out the answers to these questions:
How your customers answer these questions can give you valuable insight into what people think of your company when they look at it from the outside.
2. Take a virtual walk through your company’s website and other content.
Some marketers call this a brand audit. Brian Lischer, founder & CEO of Ignyte says, “A brand audit is a detailed analysis of the current state of your brand and its position in the marketplace. This analysis gives you an understanding of what’s currently going right with your brand and, more importantly, what’s going wrong.”
Start by logging onto your website, and trying to get an objective, bird’s-eye view of the content to see what stands out. Specifically, what do you see on your landing page? Even if you designed the site yourself, the most prominent or recurring elements may surprise you.
The things on your website that leap off the screen, the words and images that keep popping up, and even the general feeling you get from the content, most likely stand out to your visitors as well. These things serve as a good representation of your brand identity.
As you’re doing a virtual audit, look for the following:
Try to review all your content marketing pieces with a coldly objective eye. What do they communicate about your brand? Remember, it doesn’t matter what you say; it matters what your customers hear. Are they hearing the message you want to send?
3. Ask yourself: “What is missing?“
Do your customers repeatedly complain about the same things? Do they seem to believe a few consistent elements are missing from your business? That is not just an indicator that you should consider adding something to your product or service, but it could also signal a larger problem with your branding. Your customers’ motivation for complaining about this missing feature or that product could actually reveal something about your brand identity.
The fact that they are disappointed that you do not offer this specific thing shows that they expected it to be there. That means that, to them, your brand identity tells them that this item should be something you would naturally provide. It’s worth considering why people may have a different idea than you do about what your company is supposed to deliver.
Are you promising something you aren’t delivering on?
4. Check your CX score.
Customer Experience (CX) is topping the list of things business people want to talk about these days. CX is getting more popular than content marketing or big data. That’s because entrepreneurs and corporate leaders are starting to realize that CX trumps them all. Forbes said, “Today, 89% of companies compete primarily on the basis of customer experience – up from just 36% in 2010. But while 80% of companies believe they deliver “super experiences,” only 8% of customers agree.”
CX is a big part of branding. People don’t remember your logo or your color scheme (unless it was truly awful) but they will remember how your website or other branding tool made them feel. Did they feel like their experience with you was fast? Accurate? Professional? Easy? After having an encounter with your company, how would a customer describe their experience? If you are guessing at the answer to that question, you’re part of the 72% of companies Forbes was talking about– the folks who say they deliver “super experiences” but their customers don’t agree.
Don’t be delusional about this. Don’t assume anything. And don’t believe that because you love you, your customers will also love you. They won’t. They will only love you if you provide a terrific experience for them. Your customers’ experience with you is your brand’s reality. And it’s more important than any branding guide your creative team could put together. Don’t slip up on this one.
5. Avoid common mistakes when creating buyer personas.
You’ve created your buyer personas, right? Those are the personal representations of your ideal customer. For example, you could say Carla Customer is a mom with kids at home. She lives in the suburbs of a midsize city, and while she owns a nice home, financial pressures prevent her from taking a vacation or doing much to keep up her social, emotional, or spiritual health. Carla holds a college degree and finds most of her information online especially on Instagram.
If you have not created a few of these personas for your business, stop reading, go do that, and come back. We’ll wait. If those personas are hanging on your wall and helping guide your branding and marketing, that’s fantastic! But if you’re like most business people and those personas are languishing in a file somewhere, dig them out and spruce them up. You may have made some common mistakes when creating them such as not thinking about negative personas or relying too much on one individual. Don’t worry; these are easy to fix.
Hubspot made an awesome guide to creating and using buyer personas that could be really helpful to you.
6. Think about your customers’ aspirational identity.
Donald Miller made this idea popular in his book Building a Storybrand. He said, “If we position our products and services as anything but an aid in helping people survive, thrive, be accepted, find love, achieve an aspirational identity, or bond with a tribe that will defend them physically and socially, good luck selling anything to anybody.”
What did Miller mean by “aspirational identity?” He meant you should find out who your customer wants to become. What kind of person do that want to be? Align your product or service with that. Appeal to their best selves, the image of the person they hope to become, and what they hope their friends say about them when they’re not around.
Too much of marketing is about problem solving and pointing out what’s missing. It’s negative. Let’s point toward the positive person others want to become and show how we can help them get there.
7. Create a style guide and stick to it.
Yes, we’ve knocked style guides a couple of times. That’s because they aren’t the most important pieces of brand identity. But after you take care of the bigger issues, working from a style guide will help you move from small-time branding to the big leagues.
Most companies hire an agency to help them put this guide together, and in general, that’s a good idea. Agencies have teams of writers, designers, branding experts, and creative directors who know how to work together. A good agency will spend a lot of time getting to know your brand before developing anything remotely resembling a style guide. So it takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it.
Once you have that guide in hand, make sure your team sticks to it. Doing so will create a consistent look and feel for your communication pieces, and that will go a long way toward fashioning a powerful, accurate, and believable brand identity.
Brand identity is not always a top priority for small businesses, but it should be. Knowing your customers’ expectations can help you concentrate your efforts on what they really want to buy from you. As with most aspects of running a business, you have to do some critical thinking and research on the matter to gain a real understanding of how people identify with your company. But the first step is simple: Ask your customers what they think. Then go from there!
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