Brand First — Then Everything Else

Branding is confusing, sometimes scary, and you have to do it.

As a designer who pushes “branding” as step one on a regular basis, I’ve encountered resistance to the idea. I’m ok with that. The process of creating a brand strategy should be uncomfortable, and exciting. You are figuring out your company. Sometimes if that company is just you, you are figuring out yourself, and what exactly you want to be as a professional.

What is branding? Your company’s brand is the perception people have of you. As Marty Neumeier puts it in his book, The Brand Gap, “A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.”

How can you have any control over what people think of you? It comes down to three steps:

  1. Focus / Differentiation
  2. Voice / Message
  3. Consistency

There are plenty of tools out there you can use to start tackling your very own brand strategy. To start, let’s break it down to the most basic parts you need to figure out and how it helps. There is always more you can do, and these steps can be broken down into plenty of more steps to understand and solidify your brand. But starting with the basics will help you when you need to dig deeper and come up with a brand strategy.


You need to narrow your focus. Consider what your business does, who it does it for, and why they should care. Another way to think about it is what makes your business different. Really, really different. The more unique and interesting this differentiation is the better. Remember that you can’t be everything to everyone. If you try to be, you will simply water down your message. Having a narrow focus helps make your message clearer and focused.

This is definitely the hardest part. If you are stumped, I’d recommend thinking about why you do what you do. In his TED Talk “Start with Why,” Simon Sinek explains that, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” The reason you got into business in the first place can often be a compelling differentiation between you and your competitors.


Think about brands you like and respect. Chances are you like those brands for a few reasons, but one of them is you can relate to their voice or personality. Yes, brands can have a personality, and brands are most successful when that personality connects with the beliefs and sensibilities of their target customers. Again, there are plenty of exercises you can go through to thoroughly define your brand archetype, voice, or personality, but a simple way to start is to look at brands who share your brand’s ideals. How do they talk to their customers? Are they fun, serious, playful? What do your customers really want to hear from you?


Consistency builds trust. Sounds simple — everyone wants their customers to trust them. If you are choosing a mechanic, a lawyer, or a grocery store, you are always going with the one you trust the most. That trust comes from providing a consistent message and experience. Consistency needs to be there across every little thing you put out into the world. That’s why branding is so important. Once you know your focus, what makes you different and how you want to tell your customers, you will have the power to keep it consistent and build that trust.

If your company doesn’t have a brand strategy in place, you may want to go back to the drawing board. If you hire a designer or a marketing company and they begin creating content for you without your brand being properly defined, they are then creating your brand as they work. Possibly without putting much thought into it. Remember that your brand is about customer perception, and consistency protects your brand. With a brand strategy in place you should be able to confidently release things out into the world, whether it’s a product, an ad campaign, or a single social media post. When you release something into the wild you can ask yourself, “Does this match our brand?” and happily answer, “Yes it does.”

Article Originally Published by CBS Small Business Pulse 6/7/17

Chris Fredricks is the creative director and founder of OPEN co. a design studio focused on building and managing brands in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The studio is structured around the idea of being “radically open,” by having a remote workforce, encouraging employee side projects, and a focus on social and community responsibility. Chris started OPEN co. after four years of working as the art director for the sun care company Sun Bum. He is also an adjunct instructor in the Graphic Design department at Kendall College of Art and Design.