You’re shaking in your pantalones because you’re the rare unicorn who made the essential, yet oft-overlooked investment in your business — a brand platform. Rarer still because you’ve decided to play the long game in realizing not every action demands an immediate, profitable reaction. You’ve flushed the ROI-or-bust, hustle-speak Kool-Aid instead of drinking it.
Cue thunderous applause and wolf whistles. Feet stomp in time. Allow me to award you this trophy, which bears the inscription: you’ll fail throughout your journey, but not as hard as the kid down the street.
You’re feeling fancy because you’ve built your brand essentials — positioning, benefits, story, verbal and visual identity — but now you have to kick the kid out into the world, which is sort of like dropping them off on their first day of school and making a run for it before they realize you’re gone. Before they barnacle themselves to your legs screaming, but I don’t wanna go!
Because your kid can’t stay at home forever and your brand can’t live in PowerPoint forever. You’ve got to release that fucker out into the world to survive the greatest titan of terror since the womb — your customers. The risk of venturing out is not without heartache and pain on the level of pliers cinching skin. Customers can be cold and calculating, dumping your little one when a cheaper, faster, cuter version hits Amazon. They’re fickle, discerning, and their loyalties lie solely in the palm of their hand in the form of a phantom, plastic limb that transports them anywhere but the present moment.
Even scarier still is the realization that your baby brand is imperfect. Your child is fallible, prone to making mistakes. Big ones. Mistakes that can make your customers bolt, but not before they’ve scattered scathing reviews about you online.
Welcome to the age of choice — a bar where everyone shouts into their phones and at poor plastic Alexa, and nobody knows your name.
Building a brand is hard. It’s a tango of wants — yours and your customers; it relies on a delicate balance of data and experience. You can’t teach brand building in a single course or Medium article — I wrote eight and they barely skimmed the surface. Because once you’ve analyzed the data, gained the insights to design a story and identity that is wholly you, you have to put your work to work. Your brand platform is the blueprint — it’s now up to you to pick up the hammer and nails and build.
Oh, did you think you were going to drop ten grand on a consultant and your brand would magically leap off your PowerPoint slides and do the hard work for you? Bless your heart.
As Madonna so sagely sang, it’s time to express yourself.
Based on your brand platform (i.e., 3-C research & analysis, positioning & purpose, brand benefits, reason-to-believe, anchor & elevator story, SWOT, and personality, voice & tone) and visual identity guidelines, a brand expression is how you communicate those components and bring your brand to life. From customer service scripts, websites, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) and social media ad banners, and brochures, to TV ads, radio spots, and billboards, brand expression is your way of communicating your core elements to your intended audience.
Simply put, it’s about how you show up for your customers, partners, vendors, and anyone who matters.
Let’s consider all the potential places where your brand can show up & how you can express your brand on those channels.
Products & Services
You had reasons for starting your business. Perhaps you were fueled by an urgency to fill a market gap, tend to a customer’s want or need, or maybe you wanted to divine a new market. Charter territories unknown. Change the world or make it a less horrifying place.
You wanted to be better, different, or wholly unique and new.
You started your business with a why, and that why has to extend beyond “I want to make a stockpile of cash.” If that were the case, you would’ve been a hedge fund manager. And your product or service is the ultimate manifestation of that desire to create, build and differentiate.
People buy products to solve for a want or need, to fix a problem, and your product has features and attributes that will benefit your customer. When you developed your brand platform, you outlined your product’s rational and emotional benefits and defined your customer’s reason to believe (i.e., the “why this product,” and/or “why you”). The spotlight’s on you, and it’s time to express these core elements in how you talk about, market and sell your products.
We know your brand and product positioning can differ, and that the product is subservient to the brand. And we know positioning can be rooted not only in the product itself, but also how, when, or where you distribute it or the way you service or package it.
Start the conversation by noting your product’s point of parity to others in the market so your customer has context; your differentiating factors highlight where you fit in that context. For example, let’s say you design a line of vegan sneakers. People relate to the term “sneaker” and you can talk about use, fit and performance that would be in-line with (or potentially better than) your competitors, but your materials are your core differentiator. You’re appealing to people who are conscious about vegan products or their global footprint.
Or, you can speak about your product relative to your brand’s higher purpose— your reason for being, which aligns with your brand’s values, belief systems, mission, vision, or ideal. Think about Patagonia or Everlane and their commitment to sustainability. Or TOMS Shoes in how they transform commerce into impact.
A higher “why” can drive the products you create and how you manufacture and sell them, which can augment your product’s point-of-difference. Your product is the ultimate expression of your “why” — whether it be values-driven or market-driven.
From the components that house your product to the pitch deck that showcases your services, the packaging is the wrapper for your products or services. View packaging as prime real estate to showcase your positioning (i.e., we’re the only, better, best, latest, newest, alternative to, etc.), product benefits (i.e., how a product solves the customer’s problem and how it makes them feel as a result), or reason to believe (i.e., how many products sold, awards and certifications earned, claims tested and verified, testimonials, endorsements, and reviews).
For example, check out RXBar’s packaging. Through a minimalist approach and a simple, wholesome ingredient list, they’re conveying their products deliver the essentials you need for energy (positioning) versus the other energy/protein bars on the market.
Notice how Propercorn uses its packaging to tell its founder story while The Ordinary centers on clinical authority and brand integrity in a beauty space rife with false claims and promises. From spouting units sold to science-backed claims and KOL (key opinion leader) endorsements, there are unlimited ways to communicate your brand’s point-of-difference and brand platform through its packaging.
Brand Digital/Print Collateral & Assets
Your collateral is the physical and digital representation of your brand, products or services. Collateral can include everything from business cards, stationery, posters, uniforms, signage, retail end-caps, and brochures to branded staff/product/lifestyle/conceptual videos, photography, illustrations, and iconography.
You can easily express your visual identity on all collateral by ensuring your materials adhere to your brand standards with regard to colors, fonts, and typography, logo usage, photography, illustrations, etc. Your materials should also reflect your verbal identity in terms of brand voice, tone, and personality. For example, if you’re a medical device company, you won’t likely have emojis in your brochures.
Depending on the document, usage, and distribution, you have the ability to utilize many of the core elements of your brand platform. For example, if you’re creating brochures, this is an opportunity to showcase your product features and benefits, positioning and purpose, the reason to believe, and your story. If you’re creating branded video, you could utilize all the above as well as customer and expert testimonials and third-party reviews/accreditations.
Physical Workspaces & Storefronts
Years ago, Target was one of my agency’s clients and we had the opportunity to visit their headquarters in sub-zero Minnesota. Apart from Mattel, I hadn’t witnessed a business so committed to imbuing their brand in every physical manifestation. Their offices looked like a Target pop-up shop complete with life-sized bulls-eye plush pups.
From the interior and exterior design of warehouses, retail locations, pop-ups, department store counters to headquarter and satellite locations, your physical spaces should evoke your brand’s look, feel, tone, voice, and vibe. From the music you play to the art and posters you hang on the walls to the lighting, layout, smells, and sounds your spaces should be the physical embodiment of your brand and what you want your customers, vendors, and partners to experience as a result of being exposed to your brand.
Years ago, my agency partnered with another creative shop, Mother New York, and I was floored by their office space. Photographs of the staff’s mothers festooned the walls, and the vibe resembled the care and warmth of a home. Even the catered meals they served reflected comfort foods we remember from our childhood. When I left their offices, I felt their brand as one that was centered on maternal warmth, creativity, whimsy, passion, and love.
Consider your website the sandwich board of your brand. Sure, you start with ensuring that your site’s look and feel aligns with your visual standards and your logo is prominently displayed. However, you can convey your brand’s values, mission, vision, and positioning on the non-commerce pages of your site (i.e., About, Company, etc.).
Think about Patagonia’s commitment to the environment and how they evoke their vision and mission not only on the pages of their website but in all their marketing and advertising campaigns. That, in and of itself, sets them apart from brands like Dick’s Sporting Goods or even REI.
One is not better than the other — just positioned differently. You know REI is all about adventure and the outdoors whereas Patagonia sells similar products but their messaging leads with impact.
But your brand is not rooted solely in storytelling — it also shows up in your product detail pages in the models you choose, how you describe and showcase your wares. Think about the image that a sustainable clothing brand like Elizabeth Suzann evokes with not only creating a line of products made in the U.S., but a line that size-inclusive and features women of all shapes, colors, and sizes modeling their premium clothing. Compare that to the French brand, Sezane’s bone-thin, predominately white models. Both brands make expensive clothing for women but the products they sell and how they sell them are markedly different.
For your prospective customer, your website is one of the first ways in which they encounter your brand and they make snap decisions based on everything from seamless site and device navigation to the products you sell, why and how you sell them.
Customer Service & Experience
You know how certain brands are known for how they treat their customers — the good, bad, and violently ugly (read: airlines, cable companies)? Consumers may not remember all the products they purchase, but they do recall distinct experiences surrounding those purchases and make value judgments on brands as a result.
Your brand doesn’t press pause on everything before a prospect buys your product or service — it’s present for the entire customer experience and in-between points of purchase. It’s the way your reps show up on social media when they respond to customer rage blackouts or how sales associates greet people when they enter your shop.
Some industries center on customer service (e.g., hospitality), but the way you treat your customers is a direct reflection of your brand, values, and strategy to keep your customers away from the competition.
Customer experience is about how you’re present and attentive throughout their purchase journey. It’s about how you field their questions on social media, the content you publish in your newsletter, the offers and perks you award them for purchase and repeat purchase, and how you communicate with them before, during, and after their purchase. You have to consider all the ways in which they want to reach you (e.g., website, chatbots, social and messaging apps, email, phone, in-store) and how you consistently show up and represent your brand across channels. You can have a stellar product, remarkable marketing, and lux packaging, but if your brand fails to cater to your customers they will walk.
The people you serve are the core of your business, and the CIA-level investigative research you’ve done on them should inform how you connect, communicate, convert, and care for them between points-of-purchase.
How you care for your customers is a direct expression of the care you took in getting to know their pain points, preferences, behaviors, habits, motivations, and influences during the brand development stage.
Digital & Social
From the newsletters and the content you publish to the podcasts and branded entertainment you broadcast, your digital and social properties humanize your brand and give it a voice and personality. And they need to be consistent in look, feel, and tone whether you’re posting on Instagram or shooting branded videos for YouTube. Remember all the mood boards and content pillars you created? This is you putting your paper to work.
Consumers buy products to fulfill a need or solve problems, but they buy from brands whose values, beliefs and personality align with their own. First impressions matter. When people land on your website, it takes mere seconds (specifically .05) for them to determine whether they’ll stay or bounce. Another study revealed that it takes 2.6 seconds for a user’s eye to settle on the area of your website that drives their first impression.
Mirror neurons help formulate perception. Does this brand understand my dilemma and can they resolve it? Are they speaking to me? Do they know my language and buying behavior? Does this brand have what I need? Can I purchase and return products easily? Do their values and vibe coincide with my own? Customers are not even aware that you’re asking these questions, but they are. They arrive at a brand’s digital and social channels feeling first, thinking second.
This is another moment where the pragmatic elements of your brand collide with the sensory ones. Are you publishing content your customer wants to consume or are you adding to the noise? Are you delivering your content in a manner and way that reflects your brand’s verbal and visual identity? Do you have the expertise and experience to convince your customers that your products are worth considering? The content you publish on your owned properties should not only demonstrate your values, beliefs, and vibe, but they should also drive home why you’re the best option on the block.
Public & Media Relations
Brand stories, fact sheets, founder bios, and Q&As, and new launch releases are key to currying favor with discerning editors, gate-keepers, KOLs, and third-party media. PR and media relations pros are bold storytellers and they need the facts, figures, and feelings in their arsenal. Once again, we’re uniting a founder’s “why” with the efficacy and impact of the products produced to convince tastemakers that your brand is the one they should evangelize to their audience.
Broadcast, Print & Online Advertising
Advertising (or paid placements) is meant to drive brand recognition and recall and conversion. Words and images that capture, seduce and convert are the ingredients for an effective ad campaign whether you’re running radio and TV spots, or print and online advertising (e.g., PPC, display, retargeting, social) campaigns. Consistency and continuity in everything from prominent logo placement to compelling positioning benefit and claims copy crafted in a voice that evokes your brand and compels your customer are key in advertising campaigns.
We live in such a disconnected age where people are more tethered to screens than touch, that forging in-person connections through conferences, trade shows, markets, fairs, and speaking is more important in creating a memorable brand than ever.
We’re not walking product packaging, promotional swag, and business cards — when we meet our customers or influencers in person, we become adept storytellers. Sure, consumers can touch, feel, smell, taste, hear, and test-drive your products in person, but when you’re one of thirty booths they’re trolling your story matters. Communicating your value and difference is tantamount so they can discern how your brand stands out from the pack.
We have so few opportunities to connect face-to-face with our customers so it’s important to lead by being human and sparking a conversation around the products we sell and the people who make and sell them.
When someone is tempted to ask, “what’s the ROI of my brand platform?” your response should be the long-term health and success of your business. Your brand is rooted in data and experience, heart and mind and it informs all the decisions you make from the products you sell to how, where, and when you sell them. And, more importantly, to whom you sell them.
Your brand platform is the blueprint for your house, but it’s up to you to build it, brick-by-brick. It’s up to you to furnish and decorate it. It’s up to you to populate it with the people with whom you want to surround yourself. And it’s up to you to tend to it, repair it, and when the time comes, extend it. Grow.
Where does your brand go? Everywhere. But the way it shows up and the form it takes depends on the medium and how the audience prefers to consume information in that medium. What’s important is that you show up consistently, honestly, authentically, and be receptive to feedback and change.