Listen to this story
Let’s Talk About How to Build a Brand
While the online space and social media have ushered in access to knowledge previously locked away in library stacks, continuing education classes, and on microfiche, they’ve also opened the door to scam artists and faux marketers who hock five-figure online courses and master classes riddled with inaccuracies.
Business coaches peddle their wares while they have zero experience beyond building an Instagram presence. I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle, but I’m questioning how factors of luck and opportunity (in addition to hard work, of course) can translate to the complexities of small businesses and corporations. What may have worked at a particular point in time may not work for others without understanding the discipline of marketing.
Rampant misinformation is spreading like a pandemic. Five-page glossy PDFs reduce building a brand to picking a logo, font, colors, and writing a diary entry on behalf of your dream customer. That is not how you create a brand. It’s a dangerous, half-baked shortcut that could hurt your business.
Then there’s the issue of access. I’m tired of seeing boldface names brag about seven-figure sales (which isn’t net income), yet their programs are available only to a specific segment of people who have financial resources and time. What about the people who can’t fork over $1,500 for an email-marketing course but desperately want upward mobility?
I have a certain level of disdain for people who have the means to give back but don’t, especially when they dangle the content carrot that is the webinar. Rarely is real, actionable knowledge conveyed through a free webinar. Instead, it devolves into a long, painful advertisement for a course, e-book, master class, etc., that the guru of the moment is selling for the low, low price of $997.
I’ve complained about this online before, but a wise friend told me that complaining doesn’t achieve anything—action does. Hate what’s out there? Forget about the scam artists and put out a counterpoint. Publish the knowledge and information I want people to access.
Learning how to build a brand can easily be a quarter-long MBA course, but I’m going to distill the essentials into a eight-part series, complete with real-life examples and tactical exercises to get started.
I’ve spent over 20 years in marketing on both the brand and agency side. I’ve worked in digital since 2001 and in social since 2006. My work spans industry sectors from retail and consumer packaged goods to book publishing and health care, but my sweet spots are beauty, publishing, media, food, finance, and luxury. Some of the brands I’ve been privileged to work with include HarperCollins Publishers, Time Warner Cable, Mattel, Verizon, Estée Lauder, Calvin Klein, Banana Republic, The National Board of Medical Examiners, IHOP, DeLonghi, David Yurman, and Novartis. Over the past year, I’ve focused on small businesses and startups principally owned and/or operated by women and underrepresented communities. I’ve taught marketing and brand-building to artists at USC , and I’ve been sharing content on this platform since 2014.
In short, the tools and knowledge you’ll get from this series have been implemented successfully in big brands and scrappy startups.
Let’s start with the basics: What’s a brand? A brand is a perception or set of associations consumers have of a business. Those perceptions originate from the story you tell about your business, the vision, the values you hold, the products and services you offer, and how your customers are transformed as a result of using those products or services.
Developing a brand requires defining, articulating, and asserting your messaging and then translating that message into channels where consumers can interact with your business. Creating a brand requires research, brainstorming, data, insights, and a clear vision for your business. The brand guides and drives every decision in your organization.
What I’m saying may all sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people dodge this first, critical step in favor of sexy tactics like social media, video, influencer marketing, etc. They consider brand development an expense, a fluffy PowerPoint presentation, when in fact it is the foundation of their marketing and messaging. It’s like building a house with a straw roof and no floors and then wondering why it falls apart when it storms. You have to take the time to build the roof and floors instead of going straight for the chaise lounge, gossamer curtains, and fancy candles.
In my eyes, a successful brand satisfies four components.
1. Brand Platform Development
Brand development includes the strategic and creative design and architecture of a brand based on the market, customer, and business factors. Consider this the blueprint of your house. You’re creating the foundation, guidelines, and rules before you even lay the first brick. In its simplest terms you’re defining:
- Who you are
- What you do
- Who else does what you do
- Why you do it
- Who you do it for
- How you do it differently or better than the competition
There’s a lot to unpack from each of these seemingly simple questions, and that exploration is the driving force behind the visual and strategic representation of your brand.
You can’t effectively create a visual identity system (the visual tools that an organization uses to communicate a brand, including logo, logo use and application, typography, color palette, imagery, design, and layout principles) without first defining the key elemental components of your brand. I use an eight-step process to develop a brand, which I’ll get into in a hot minute.
A brand strategist/marketer creates the brand platform. A creative director/graphic designer designs the visual identity system. The strategic and creative resources work in concert to ensure that the optical components are a correct, robust representation of the brand. Often, the visual identity system guidelines will lead with vital elements from the brand platform to show the symbiotic relationship between the two.
Not many brands publish their full brand platform online, but here’s an example to give you a sense of the components: NC State’s brand platform.
For visual identity examples, note that some terms are interchangeable and pretty much mean the same thing:
- AT&T’s brand identity system (preview 10 pages for free before log-in)
- Toyota’s visual identity system
- Optus’s brand guidelines
2. Brand Expression
Based on your brand development and visual identity guidelines, brand expression is the external evocation of your brand. From websites, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) and social media ad banners, and brochures, to TV ads, radio spots, and billboards, the brand expression is your way of communicating your brand to your intended audience.
3. Brand Expansion
Expansion grabs a megaphone and shouts your message and assets to the masses in the form of marketing, advertising, and public relations (PR). Consider this the distribution phase of your brand process. In the brand expression phase, you created the collateral; in this phase, you’re distributing it in service of your business, brand goals, and objectives.
4. Brand Authority
This is the phase where you showcase your dominance, provenance, and authority in your particular industry. Brand authority can be an assertion of your market dominance or disruptive difference or the critical accolades or success you’ve gained as a result of your business’s work in your particular sector. Lawyers showcase how many cases and settlements they’ve won on their websites. Industry leaders speak at conferences or publish books on thought leadership to educate or elucidate other professionals in the sector. In short, brand authority is about establishing that you know what you’re talking about from a place of experience and success.
Brand strategy is a plan that businesses create to embed themselves in the minds of prospects and customers. It uses the above four elements to build recognition, sentiment, and preference. When a company is successful at brand strategy, consumers know who they are and what they do as well as the brand’s look and feel, and they’ve also now formed an opinion about the brand.
For the purposes of this entire tutorial, we’ll focus on brand platform development.
Brand Platform Development
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve cobbled together an essential eight-step process for building a brand. Every marketer has their own method of brand platform development, but I’ve found the systematic nature of this process has worked consistently for my clients, from small businesses and startups to F100 companies. How we define a brand is in direct response to the customers we want to target and how we want to differentiate ourselves from the pack. The eight-step process I use includes: 1) customer, market, and brand analysis; 2) elevator statement; 3) signature story; 4) positioning and purpose; 5) benefits and reason to believe; 6) brand personality, voice, and tone; 7) SWOT analysis; and 8) Messaging strategy.
Step 1: Customer, Competitor, and Company Evaluation and Insights
Everything in marketing starts and ends with data. If someone tries to sell you a brand-building course and there’s no mention of analytics or insights, you’re dealing with amateur hour. You can’t build a brand without data—the end. Data lays the foundation. It gives you context. Data allows you to define where you fit without feeling your way through the dark. However, data is directional—it can only take you so far. The trends, insights, and patterns you glean from data, married with you and your experience, are the one-two punch you need to build an effective brand.
First, get to know your customer, because you’ll need to understand their wants, needs, and preferences so your brand and messaging resonate and make an impact. Get to know your market because you can define where you fit and how you stand apart. And then ask the hard questions about your business: What you do, who you do it for, why you’re doing it, how you’re doing it, and is it working? If you have an existing business, this is about evaluating the efficacy of your brand and messaging to determine where you’ve veered off the road, and for new companies, this is about being clear about what you’re trying to build.
If you don’t have absolute clarity, you don’t have customers.
Know Your Customer
Placing your customer on the back burner is where a lot of people screw up. They build their brand, their voice, their content strategy, logo, website—the whole shebang—and they forget about their customer.
Your brand is not in service of you. If that’s the case, what you have is a hobby. Your customer should be at the core of your brand because they’re ultimately going to determine the success of your business. Without customers, there is no business because they are your business. Your customer wants to know who you are, what you stand for, and how you’re going to make their lives better or easier or just plain fun.
Your customer or “target audience” is a group of people whose attention you want to attract, the group you want to cultivate a long-term relationship with. The goal is to find them; get inside their head to understand their wants, needs, preferences, and lifestyle; and ensure that your product or service (and how you talk about it) is relevant.
Remember, your customer isn’t the entire world. You’re going after groups, or “segments,” of people. Otherwise, your marketing will be diluted, generic, and dull. For example, let’s say you have a business that sells bespoke high-end suits for men online. You wouldn’t say, “I want to target every man in the world!” Instead, you might say, I’m interested in style-conscious affluent millennial men who work in industries that still require suits.
You’ll attract customers on the periphery, but if you only wanted to target men, you couldn’t create a brand or distinctive messaging that spoke to your target’s wants, needs, and lifestyle.
If you market to everyone, you’re marketing to no one.
Once you’ve figured out who you want to reach, get to know them. Now you have to become a CIA operative. The idea is to create a fully realized person—because who develops relationships with a data set and a PowerPoint presentation? First, get basic demographic info (i.e., age, gender, income, marital status, geography, education, career). Then, get to the good stuff: psychographics and behavioral data.
Behavior: Who are they? What do they want and how do they act? What are their habits? Are they formal in communication or do they use emojis? Are they online? If so, what sites—social media, blogs, forums, etc.—do they visit? Go deep. Learn everything about your customers from the magazines and TV shows they consume to when and how often they use their smartphone.
Motivation: What prompts them to act? Why would they come to you? What experiences have they had with products/services in your sphere? How have your competitors served them? Consider the six C’s of consumer motivation: content, cost reduction, choice, convenience, customization, and community.
Influences: Who do they trust? What resources do they use to search for and vet information? What sites do they visit and rely on for objective opinions? For example, travelers look to TripAdvisor as an authority they can trust because the site is composed of third-party reviews from people who’ve put down money on the places they’ve visited. And the data backs this up. According to TripAdvisor, 79 percent of users will read six-12 reviews before selecting a hotel, and 83 percent will “usually” or “always” reference TripAdvisor reviews before booking.
Pain points: What keeps them up at night? What do they need to make their life easier or better? When they complain, what do they complain about? Identify your customer’s core challenges and struggles—when, how, and why they experience them.
Journey: Get a notebook and write down their complete experience before, during, and after engaging with your product as a diary entry. Research and talking to your customer will help with this. This also leads to a smart exercise that allows you to take baby steps to visualize their journey: the empathy map.
The empathy map is a great tool that gets you in the head of your customer, and it’s also a preliminary step in crafting their journey. It helps you understand the following:
- What do your customers know about the business you’re in and the products you sell? Are they shopping the competition?
- How do they feel? How do they want to feel?
- How do your products get them in their feelings?
Okay, at this point you’re probably overwhelmed and wondering how you’ll access all this information about your customer.
You can conduct primary research (focus groups, interviews, and observations) and/or secondary research (industry news, third-party studies and analysis, websites and social networks, and internal resources). Google can deliver a gold mine of secondary research resources, and I wrote a great quick and dirty how-to on using Amazon and YouTube to learn more about your customer.
To get you started, here are some free/inexpensive resources:
- Market research websites: Pew, Nielsen, Comscore, Econsultancy, Statista, Google Trends, Think With Google, IBISWorld, Forrester, Mintel, GfK Insights, GlobalWebIndex Blog, JSB Market Research, SBA.gov Business Data + Statistics, U.S. Census, DataUSA.io, Federal Statistics, GreenBook Blog, Market Research groups on LinkedIn, Trendwatching, etc.
- Here’s a list of 17 excellent research tools from Hubspot.
- Industry-specific trade publications, associations, and research hubs. For example, I recently did an audience segmentation analysis of physicians’ digital behavior by generation. I downloaded research and data from the AMA, NCBI, JAMA, Medscape, etc.
You can also do some quick customer research on SurveyMonkey or Google Forms. (We’ll get into segmentation in another tutorial. I’ll show you quick and dirty ways to do it and how to get fancy if you have the resources.)
The more you know about your customer, the more effective you will be at creating a narrative that resonates. Customers care about personalization, relevance, and context. If you’re not speaking to them about your business in a way that relates directly to them, they won’t care or listen.
And it doesn’t hurt to do some sleuthing on how your competitors are talking to their customers. How, where, and how often does your competitor speak about their business? Are they successful? Are there any gaps? Is your customer talking back, and if so, what are they saying? What insights from this can you employ for your business?
Once you’ve done all your research, you need to talk to your customers like they’re real people instead of segments or random data points plotted on a whiteboard. Consumers have expectations of you, and your job is to understand what they want and how to make that the center of their experience.
Know Your Competition
Context is crucial, and you can’t define your place and point of difference in your industry if you’re not aware of the overall size, health, players, and trends in the marketplace. No brand is created in a vacuum. Before you started your business, you probably did a lot of research on the market including:
- Market size and CAGR (compound annual growth rate): How big is the market, is it growing, and at what pace?
- Market health and sustainability: Is your industry stagnant or booming? Lately, we’ve seen the emergence of “blue ocean” brands. These are companies that carve out a new business model or way of communicating within an existing market model. Think about how NEST, Warby Parker, Everlane, and Casper have changed the way we thought about home heating systems, eyeglasses, cashmere sweaters, and mattresses. Are you forging a new path or competing in an existing one?
- Do you operate from a standard business/operations model, or do you have a new way of working? For example, Everlane and Cuyana stand apart from online retailers because they sell directly to the consumer and are transparent about manufacturing and operations.
- Do you have an expertise or insight difference or advantage?
- Competitors: Who are the major and minor league players? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do they differ from you? What works/doesn’t work about their products and messaging? How are they talking to their customers? Are they doing an excellent job of it? Mainly, you want to analyze your direct competition while also keeping an eye on adjacent competitors—those companies that hover around your industry but don’t directly compete in it. They’re speaking to a similar customer and they have the potential to enter your market. For example, let’s say you’re a bank that offers lending products to its customers. An adjacent company could be a fintech (financial technology) startup like SoFi that offers similar online and mobile financial products and has the potential of getting into direct lending.
- Product life cycle: Introduction, growth, maturity, and decline compose a brand’s product life cycle. Where is the market right now and where do you fit? Are you introducing a new product in a mature market? Do you dominate a niche of the market? Are you a specialist or a generalist? The Ansoff Matrix helps you define where you sit in the market structure and your potential for growth, which would impact how your brand is positioned and messaged. The matrix is a strategic planning tool that helps businesses map their growth strategy through four possible market combinations.
- Are you a market veteran? Do you have years of trust, reliability, and expertise? Are you a new player? Are you looking to redefine the industry? Or, as the tech kids say, “disrupt” it?
- Key customer segments: This is a slight variation on the customer analysis you performed because you’re looking at the industry writ large and understanding the larger pool of customers instead of the segment you directly want to appeal to. Think about Forever 21, Eileen Fisher, and Versace; they’re all apparel, but they’re capturing different audiences based on demographics, psychographics, and affinity. Once you determine where you fit, you’ll have a more refined understanding of your base.
- Innovation and market trends: Who’s driving change in your sector? Is your industry prone to innovation or is it stagnant? Where do you fit in the trend spectrum? Are you forward thinking? Are you a first-to-market or a cautious conservative? It’s essential to keep pace with customer and industry innovation and evaluate where your business falls on that spectrum and when/how you should adapt.
- Barriers to entry, ease of exit: How easy is it to enter and leave your market? Are you the Hotel California of brands? If your business is harder to get into, you can use that to your advantage, like how blue ocean brands are giving their business some breathing room.
All of this research and analysis is also important when it comes time to develop your positioning and purpose. It forces you to consider where you sit on the industry curve and which factors define you and make you stand out.
Know Your Company
The hardest part of building a brand is being honest about your business. We love our children even when they’re hurling sharp objects in our direction. We tolerate the tantrums and missteps, and we’re probably the least objective person in the room when asked to list their worst flaws and weaknesses. But in business, that kind of love could be your ruin.
Remember that time when you sat in your manager’s office and they proceeded to review your annual highlight reel—the good, the bad, and the areas that could use a little improvement? You learned about the tools you needed in your professional toolkit to be competitive and grow. An annual performance review gives a clear sense of how you’re viewed and valued in your organization.
When you’re building a brand, no one is peering over your shoulder and evaluating you. No one is objective about your unique selling points and product benefits—except your customers. Most CEOs view success through the lens of profit, and anything that doesn’t contribute to that profit picture is an expense. And we all know how businesses see expenses.
Many people mistakenly view the brand-building process as a nonessential cost. You can’t get a direct ROI (return on investment) or ROA (return on assets) from positioning and messaging, but you also can’t make real decisions about your business if you’re on shaky brand ground. How do you sell more products if you don’t even know how to talk to your customer, what words to say and when and how to say them? How do you stand out if you don’t know what makes you unique? Why should prospective customers believe your claims and promises if you’re unclear on why they should believe? No business can be successful without the brand fundamentals crystalized. Period.
Often, we’re caught up working in our business instead of on our business. The part of the brand development process that forces you to be objective and honest about your products, purpose, positioning, promise, message, and customer is critical for long-term growth. Introspection, honesty, and self-discovery are essential, whether you’re a startup or an established brand.
Take a deep breath and get surgical about your brand with the following three exercises. They are an orderly way for you to evaluate your business, customer, products, competitors, and market position—all of which are powerful when building brand fundamentals.
Brand Exercise #1: Brand Evaluation and Assessment
I. The Essentials
Give short answers to these questions.
- What do you do? [category]
- How do you do it differently/better than your competitors? [positioning]
- Who do you do it for? [audience]
- Why are you doing it? [pain point solving/solution providing]
Goals and objectives: What is success to you? Please describe your short- and long-term. Goals should be SMART goals and straddle qualitative and quantitative:
- Business objectives and goals
- Brand objectives and marketing goals
- What metrics have you used to benchmark and measure brand health and growth? What metrics do you feel are important for the long-term health and viability of your business?
- Revenue, number of sales, average order value, site traffic, conversion rates, social media engagement, press/influencer coverage
II. Brand Questions
What are your vision, mission, and brand values? Stumped on what these terms mean?
Mission: Describes the purpose of your organization and how you’ll achieve that purpose. For example, Patagonia’s mission statement is “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
Vision: An aspirational statement that outlines your long-term objectives and goals over time. For example, Patagonia’s vision statement is “We’re in business to save our home planet.”
Values and belief system: Your values and beliefs are the guiding principles—that which matters most to you—that drive every aspect of your business. It’s your moral compass and core and gives you and your employees a sense of purpose and direction. For example, Patagonia’s stated values are the following: 1) Build the best product. 2) Cause no unnecessary harm. 3) Use business to protect nature. 4) Not be bound by convention.
- What are the rational and emotional benefits of your product or service?
- Do you have any existing research about your customers?
- Who is your current customer? Do you have any demographic information? (For example: age, gender, geography, education, HH1, marital status, home ownership, device ownership/usage, etc.)
- What about buyer behavior? Where, how, and when are they buying your products?
- What about psychographic information? Psychographic information can include the following: 1) any attitudinal information regarding how they would use your products? 2) media consumption habits: What are they reading, viewing, listening to? 3) Who influences their decisions? Where do they go for decision validation? 4) What are their pain points? 5) What motivates them to seek out your product? What are the steps they take when getting your product or service? 6) Think about your ideal customer. Who, generally, do you want to serve? 7) Think about the customer you want to repel. Who don’t you want to service? 8) How do your customers perceive your brand or business? Is there a disconnect? Does your brand have weaknesses? If so, how would you like your brand to be positioned? 9) Who are your main competitors? Include direct competitors and perhaps companies in adjacent industries. 10) How do you believe your presence compares with your competitors? What are you better at? What are your competitors better at?
Outline your products/services: What do they do? What are their functional and emotional benefits?
Do you have a hero product/service? Do you have product lines/other services?
What are your primary sales channels? Do you have channel partners? Or do you sell directly to the consumer? Direct to businesses?
How is your product different from, or better than, the competition? Do you have a competitive edge (i.e., patents, research, distribution, supplier advantage, IP, resources, experience, product innovation, etc.)?
What results are you promising? What outcomes will your customers experience if they use your product or service?
Why you? What makes you an authority on the products/services you sell? Why should consumers trust you versus the guy down the street?
Brand Exercise #2: Brand Reflection
Taking the time to answer the following questions will be critical when formulating the remaining components of your brand platform:
What are you most passionate about when it comes to your brand and business? What change do you want to evoke or create in the industry you’re in?
What is your purpose?
What are you good at? What’s your brand’s core genius?
What makes you different from the pack? Do you have any advantages that make you stand out? Specific areas of expertise? Specific methodologies, i.e., ways of doing things that differ from your competition?
What do you want to be known for?
What are you offering in your business? What are your services? Be as detailed as possible. Write this as if a client has contacted you and asked what you offer.
What services do you not want to provide?
What services do you plan to offer in the future?
Why did you start your business? What was missing in your industry? What gap are you trying to fill?
What problems are you trying to solve for in your business? What solutions do you hope to provide?
Describe your ideal customer. Who are they?
What’s your client’s biggest problem? What do they need you for?
What kind of transformation do you want your customers to experience?
Step 2: The Elevator Statement
The elevator statement is the “cocktail party conversation” part of your brand. It’s the answer to the question: “What does your company do?” The elevator statement doesn’t need to be sexy; in fact, fluffy copy can distract from your offering. The goal is clarity and brevity. It’s not the whole of your brand, but it’s the elevator, the one-to-two-minute description. The elevator statement and the signature story you’ll get to in the third step lay the foundation for your positioning and clear direction for your creative copy and visuals.
Framing your elevator statement is easy when you use the be/do/have technique:
- Being: This is your “why.” What characteristics do you bring to your business?
- Doing: This is your “what.” Define your business.
- Having: This is the outcome your client will experience as a result of working with you.
For example, a millennial legacy planning and coaching company created this elevator:
- Be: As socially conscious female millennial wealth recipients, we’ve experienced familial mortality moments, premature loss, and tough transfer conversations — all while trying to define our identity, how we fit in the world, and how we can evolve corporate and financial success to service and significance.
- Do: At Company A, we arm the next generation of ambitious and intentional female wealth owners with the tools, resources, and frameworks they need to transform their family’s financial success to personal and societal significance.
- Have: Our method transforms women of multigenerational wealth families from asset recipients to confident, compassionate leaders. You’ll have stronger communication and negotiation skills, confidence, and stronger relationships.
Step 3: The Signature Story
The signature story tackles both the big questions and the minor ones. Why did you create your business? What motivated you? Who do you want to serve and why? Is there a glaring gap in the market that you can fill? What’s your “why”?
But let’s make it plain and simple.
You meet someone at a party. You hate parties because people and apparent feelings of awkwardness and psychological despair. (Oh. Is that just me? Okay.) You make small talk and then you exchange the superficial, “So, what do you do?”
You wouldn’t blurt out a manual or copy from a sales funnel page, right? No, you’d tell them about the business you created and why you did it. Maybe you’d talk about your vision and mission. Not everyone’s in it for the money, and perhaps you want to leave your mark on the world in a particular way. What bolts you out of bed and keeps you up at night? What struggles are you discovering along the way?
You tell this story in your own words and voice; it’s unique because it’s from you. You might speak super fast and become animated when you get excited, or maybe you’re thoughtful, measured, and speak from a place of experience and perspective. But there’s a story you want to tell, and it comes from inside you.
We understand others not by thinking, but by feeling. We feel first, think second. Scientifically, we home in on “mirror neurons”—creating words that simulate your customers’ actions and the thoughts and feelings behind their actions. They feel like you’re talking to them, about them.
The Science Behind Effective Stories
According to Bluesumac, this is how parts of our brains respond to stories:
- Dopamine: The brain releases dopamine when it experiences an emotionally charged event, making it easier to remember and with greater accuracy.
- Cortex activity: When processing facts, two areas of the brain are activated (Broca’s and Wernicke’s area). A powerful story can engage other areas, including the motor cortex, sensory and frontal cortex.
- Neural coupling: A story taps into parts of the brain that allow listeners to transform the story they hear into their own experience.
- Mirror neurons: Listeners will experience activities similar not only to each other but also to the speaker/storyteller.
A good story is made from a few key ingredients. First, authenticity is important. A real story is more powerful than you think. We forge connections with people who proudly wear their vulnerability. Real stories attract the people you want to serve and empower you to communicate with them. Serendipity is how your business launched as a result of a coincidence, an accident, or simply the lucky stars. Specificity adds value. Use specific images, words, and cultural signifiers that your customer relates to and understands.
The signature story and elevator statement drive your brand story in the way you combine the emotional with the practical. Your story highlights your values and belief system as well as what you do, why you do it, why clients should trust you, and how they ultimately benefit. All of this is key to forming your positioning statement as it zeros in on what makes you a special snowflake. And it’s so important to center your customer because you’re creating a brand in hopes that it will attract the people you want to serve.
The point of the signature story is to make your story their story. The signature story is about you understanding their challenges and coming up with a solution. Most brands fail because they only talk about themselves. Customers are selfish—they want to know why they should care and why you matter to them. It’s a nuance in messaging, but an important one. Browse website homepages. Within 15 seconds (or less!), can you gauge how you directly benefit from a product or service, or have you just read a paragraph about the company? It’s the difference between these two statements:
All about the customer:
Are you lying awake at night in terror over the fact that you’re giving birth in a few months and you haven’t even planned for your nursery because who has the time, money, and Instagram-worthy style? Are you nervous about finding safe, nontoxic furniture and bedding for your newborn? If you’re overwhelmed by all the options, we have your solution. With over 15 years of experience, we design, source, and create full nurseries for new moms on a budget.
All about the business owner:
Hi! I’m Jane and I have over 15 years experience in nursery design. My work has been featured in Vogue, Town and Country, Parenting, STFU Parents, etc., and I work with all the celebs. I design nurseries that are ‘gram worthy without robbing your wallet.
The first story addresses the mindset of the customer head-on and then poses a solution from someone who has the experience and goods to back up the promise. Consumers want to know that you’re thinking about them 24/7.
The second story is a bio that centers the person behind the business instead of the customer. You can (and absolutely should) have this kind of bio, but it should be the antecedent to the customer. You (the business owner) serve as the back-up dancer for your customer, Beyoncé.
To make story magic happen, you need to inspire your customers’ imagination. Identify their problems and solve them. Make them sit up and pay attention. Give them something they didn’t expect — especially since everyone else’s offering is mass-market. Associate your brand with your fresh take. Project that freshness, imagination, and intrigue onto you.
Humans aren’t necessarily attracted to the allure of the new, as much as we like to see things we’re already familiar with in a new way.
— Google’s Engagement Project
Step 4: Positioning and Purpose
Brand positioning is defined as the territory you occupy in your customer’s mind relative to your competitors and whether they believe that you’re the best option to meet their needs. How can your company address your prospects’ desired outcomes in a way that no one else can? You won’t find positioning statements on a package, website, or store shelf. Rather, it’s an internal exercise that drives all the key decisions in your organization. It defines what you say, where you say it, how you say it, and to whom you say it. It guides what you produce and how you market and sell it. Effective brand positioning relies on competitive research and analysis, consumer insights, and an honest evaluation of where your business stands and fits in the marketplace.
You create positioning through the target, category, benefit, and evidence:
- To (target): Start by addressing the audience you’re serving directly. Specificity is key. For example, you wouldn’t refer to all millennials in your positioning, but might be focused on African-American millennial women.
- Your brand is the (category): In which industry do you operate? Your category or market gives you a point of reference that helps define the space in the marketplace where you compete.
- That is the (benefit): Define the promise you’re making to your audience. What are the main benefits you’re delivering?
- That’s because (evidence): Why should your customers believe you? What support points, evidence, and claims can you use to back up the benefits?
Your positioning is driven by your market, customer, and brand insights, and it speaks directly to your customer with clarity and confidence. Consider the following questions when crafting your positioning:
- Does it set your brand apart in a way that puts people on pause?
- Is it agile enough to allow for long-term growth?
- Does it speak to your customer in a way that’s clear and direct?
- Is it consistent across all aspects of your brand?
- Can you own it? Is this statement exclusive to you or could it be reflective of every shop on the block?
Example: Amazon used this positioning statement back when it almost exclusively sold books: “For World Wide Web users who enjoy books, Amazon.com is a retail bookseller that provides instant access to over 1.1 million books. Unlike traditional book retailers, Amazon.com provides a combination of extraordinary convenience, low prices, and comprehensive selection.”
The purpose is the business’s reason for being, not selling. It’s human and puts the consumer at the center of the brand. The most successful brands build their positioning into their purpose—shifting from, Where do I stand? to What do I believe? What are my values? What are my vision and mission? Why did I start this business? What keeps me going? What sustains it?
Brand purpose is your brand’s philosophical heartbeat.
So you’ve finished the industry and customer research part of your work. Now, it’s showtime. Sometimes even big brands aren’t able to succinctly or articulate what makes them distinct. The next few exercises will help you when establishing your positioning and purpose.
Exercise 1: Fast on Your Feet
This exercise invites you to list the first three things that come to mind when thinking of your brand. Single words, not sentences. They can be nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. But pick three things and don’t overthink it. Take two-three minutes to complete this exercise.
Exercise 2: First, Only, and Best
Fill in the blanks:
We are the first to _____________
We are the only who ___________
We are the best at ______________
Exercise 3: Find Your Promise
A promise is a thing you are telling a customer you intend to do for them. It’s the reason they should buy from you. But getting at a great promise means understanding both the functional and emotional benefits you impart. Jot down as many as you can think of for both, knowing that ultimately you’ll need to be able to pick the top benefits that surpass the pack.
Step 5: Benefits and Reason to Believe
Brand benefits are the tangible and intangible value that your customer experiences as a result of using your product or service. There are two types of benefits: rational (or functional) and emotional.
Rational benefits relate to the specific performance of the product or service, i.e., what the product does and how it performs to expectations. For example, a Dyson upright vacuum purports to offer superior suction compared to other vacuums on the market, with the lowest maintenance (i.e., no bags, no filters to clean).
Emotional benefits relate to how your product or service makes customers feel. What results or outcomes do they experience as a result of using your product? Let’s stick with the Dyson vacuum. Superior suction and low maintenance mean you save time and feel content that you have a tidier home.
The reason to believe (RTB) is, simply put, why your customer should believe you. What makes your claims and promises credible and trustworthy? Your RTB could be anything from your experience in the field, proven results and testimonials, products backed by extension research or science, etc. Your customer is skeptical because they’ve heard the promises before. Their clarion call is: Prove it to me.
Step 6: Brand Personality and Tone of Voice
Remember that people buy from people not brands, and the more you can bring your brand to life, the more abundant, meaningful connections you can cultivate. Our vibe is all about how we show up, behave, and engage. You’re making a deliberate act of personal expression and staking your claim on your verbal and visual style—effectively, stamping your signature.
Claim your words, vibe, visual aesthetic, lingua franca—this is your first mighty step in your content and channel strategy. How do you want your customers to perceive you? What adjectives would they use to describe you?
Personality in this case refers to the human characteristics, emotions, and attributes embodied by a brand. It’s a brand made human by the Dr. Frankenstein of marketing departments, although far less nefarious. Your personality is how you show up and act in front of your customers. Your personality is composed of your tone of voice—all the elements that make an individual unique and establish their identity.
Brand Tone of Voice
Tone of voice is the expression and embodiment of your personality, beliefs, and values — the person behind the brand. Your tone is not only about how you speak, but it’s also the words you use and how you use them (i.e., the cadence and rhythm, velocity, and length of your speech). Think of the voice you use every day. It exists and is part of your personality and energy. Think of the words you use and how you use them. Think of the images, colors, and fonts you cleave to. Consider the tenor, pitch, and velocity of your voice. Claim your words and -isms. Establish your style.
But remember, you’re not limited to adopting the voice of your owner. What might work for a small business would be an epic fail for a multinational corporation. Imagine the CEO of Taco Bell’s voice all over social media? I shudder to think. You could be you, a character, or the creation of the voice of your brand—it all depends on the size of your business, the industry you’re in, and what feels right and natural to you.
For example, do you speak fast or with a drawl? Are you loud and bombastic or quiet and reserved? Do you speak in long, ornate sentences or are you punchy and to-the-point? Do you use emojis? Do you use industry jargon or plain English? Are you cashing in on all your 50-cent words or are you keeping it simple?
Your guidelines should include:
- Examples of your voice in practice: Give examples of what would be “on brand” and “off brand.”
- Brand as individual; create a mood board of your brand as if it were a real person.
- Real brands and people you can channel.
Step 7: SWOT Analysis
SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It’s a way to evaluate your business in the context of market conditions.
Strengths: What are you good at? What unique skill sets do you have that put you at an advantage? What do others (e.g., customers, partners, vendors, competition, etc.) think you’re good at?
Weaknesses: What are your weaknesses? How do your competitors have an edge? What do others perceive as your vulnerabilities?
Opportunities: What trends or business or market opportunities on the horizon could positively impact your business? Is it a geographic opportunity? A more affordable vendor or acquisition candidate?
Threats: What are your competitors doing that could negatively affect your business? What’s shaky about your business that needs resolution? For example, do you have enough funding or cash flow? What impact do your weaknesses have on your threats (they’re often inextricably bound to one another)?
Step 8: Messaging Strategy
Your content strategy brings all of the brand’s puzzle pieces together. Now that you have a fundamental understanding of your customer, landscape, company, and brand message architecture (i.e., story, positioning and purpose, brand benefits, and RTB), you can design a messaging strategy for each of your customer segments, media, and B2B (business-to-business) partners. Then you expand the core messaging strategy to create essential content pillars—the fundamentals of your content strategy.
Each step builds and expands upon itself. You started at a simple place of talking about your product and evolved into a sophisticated matrix that predicates what you say, where, how, and when you say it. Your message becomes expansive and specific, knowing that the messages you use in product copy will be different from an Instagram Story.
Building a brand takes work. It’s a marriage between your passion and experience and a world of data available for the taking. At the end of the day, You’re creating your own personal Frankenstein—something that is so close to being a person in the flesh. And if making a brand was as easy as buying fancy fonts and getting someone on Upwork to create your logo, we wouldn’t see so much convoluted mess in the marketplace.
Getting your business off the ground requires you to be scrappy, agile, and surgical about your costs, but this is the one investment in your business that will save you in the long run. Don’t sidestep the brand development process in favor of other investments because, without this process, when it comes time to go to market, you may not be clear on what it is your selling, why your customers need it, and why you should be their first choice.