When you hear the word ‘branding’, you’ll probably automatically think of a logo. That’s even where the word comes from, originating in the old Norse word ‘brandr’ meaning ‘to burn’ and referring to burning a mark to demonstrate ownership of livestock. The golden arches of McDonald’s, the iconic red Coca-Cola script or the simple outline of Apple—these are all instantly recognizable brand marks. However, a brand is so much more than just a logo and to build a strong brand you’ll need a comprehensive branding strategy.

The brand mark started out as way to mark cattle. Logo design by DIX LIX MIX.
McDonald’s signs
The movie The Founder tells the story of how businessman Ray Kroc wanted to make the golden arches as iconic as a church cross. That’s some pretty powerful branding. Via Pixabay.

More than just your name and logo, your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. It lives as a concept in the ‘hearts and minds’ of your customers. That doesn’t mean it’s not in your control, because you can and will shape that brand with your actions, your messaging, your communication, how you interact with your customers, and so on. But for your efforts to be successful you need a plan. Here’s how you can develop a solid branding strategy.

Why is branding important?

Why bother to think about building a brand? Why can’t you just put out your products and services and let them speak for themselves?

Well, branding will…

fun pastel brand design
A good brand design like this one by designer Shwin will make your brand look like a million bucks.
  • allow you to differentiate yourself versus competitors: Building a brand above and beyond your products and services will ensure that you are more than just a commodity. It will allow you to communicate what you really stand for and how you’re different to competition in a meaningful way.
  • help you win loyal customers: Creatives around the world will go straight to Apple when they need a new device rather than waste time on researching different computers. A powerful brand will create a community of fans who will always choose you over competitors.
  • let you charge higher prices: A strong brand creates a greater perceived value and fans will willingly pay more, even when the product or service is no better on paper than another generic or less attractive brand.

Why do you need a branding strategy?

Okay, so you get that branding is important. Why do you need a formal branding strategy?

brand identity for L'experience
A solid branding strategy will lead to a consistent brand presentation, like this one by top level designer wilndr.

A robust branding strategy will…

  • guide your business decisions: It will help you to work out what products and services you should develop and how to present and market them, the tone of voice you should be using in your communication, what kind of content to put on your website, and so on…
  • keep the team on the same page: Even if you’re a ‘solopreneur’ and you don’t have any permanent staff, you’ll still be working with freelancers, designers, and so on and if your brand only lives in your head then it’s unlikely that you’ll get the best work from them.
  • help you be coherent and consistent: Each interaction with your brand is another piece of the puzzle and a strategy will make sure that you create a consistent brand image in the hearts and minds of your customers—and that the image is what you want it to be!

How to develop a branding strategy

Before you start

brand identity pack for Four Kids by Kids
This brand has a clear purpose—“stimulating the minds of children through positive life-changing experiences”—and a bright color palette that tells the story that it’s ‘Four Kids By Kids’. Brand identity pack by torvs

Your brand strategy will need to be aligned with your overall business objectives as well as your target audience or ideal customer. Make sure you have these in place so that you can develop an effective branding strategy that will work for that customer and help you achieve your overall business goals.

The 5 key elements of a branding strategy

Apple computer
Apple is officially the most valuable brand in the world and is always used as a best-in-class example of an effective brand strategy. Via Pixabay.

There’s no one branding strategy template that every brand uses around the world (well, wouldn’t that be boring?) but there are core elements that most people would agree should be included in an effective branding strategy.

The five key elements we’re going to look at here are: (1) brand purpose, (2) values, (3) brand personality, (4) positioning and (5) brand identity. Here’s how you can go about developing these branding elements for your business.

1. Find your purpose

TESLA mission
Tesla’s mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.” This is translated into products that go beyond just electric vehicles to include energy solutions like solar roofs. Via tesla.com.
IKEA vision and business idea
Your purpose doesn’t have to be some grandiose social impact. IKEA’s purpose is simply “to create a better everyday life for the many people”. Via ikea.com.

As Simon Sinek said in his now-famous Tedx talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” It’s all very well that you have some amazing product or service but communicating a bigger vision for what you’re trying to achieve will attract people who believe in that same vision and ultimately will be more likely to buy from you. Your purpose is the reason why you exist, why you get out of bed in the morning and get to work and why anyone should care.

You may have a very clear idea of why you started your business—because you wanted the freedom to make your own decisions and the flexibility to spend more time with your family, for example—but you’ll need to think about the bigger picture in terms of the result you’re trying to help your clients get, or the impact you want to have in the world. Call it your ‘purpose’, your ‘mission statement’, or your ‘why’—but you need to have a clear idea of your reason for existing (and it can’t be “to make money”!).

Customers are also getting more wary of brand’s exaggerated statements of purpose and there’s more and more distrust—so make sure you can genuinely deliver on what you promise.

2. Identify your core values

Virgin brand values
Virgin Media’s brand values are “providing heartfelt service, being delightfully surprising, red hot, and straight up while maintaining an insatiable curiosity and creating smart disruption”. Via careers.virginmedia.com.
Google brand values
Google’s “Ten things we know to be true” include “6. You can make money without doing evil.”, “9. You can be serious without a suit.” and 10. Great just isn’t good enough.” Via google.com.

Your values are right at the core of your brand: what you want to stand for. As with the brand’s purpose, communicating clear values will attract customers who share those values. Those values will also guide your business decisions and help you make strategic trade-offs. You can’t be everything to everyone, so clarifying your values will help you with decisions like whether your website should be simple and easy to understand or detailed and comprehensive; whether your products should be made of the very best quality materials or you can compromise on quality because affordability is more important; and so on.

Remember that your branding strategy is around differentiation versus your competitors. What qualities can you own and really embed in everything you do? What are your greatest strengths? What values do you bring to your work consistently and without fail?

These values should be meaningful and also actionable. It needs to be clear what this means for how you run your business and work with your clients. Of course you value ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’, ‘good customer service’—otherwise you shouldn’t be in business. Don’t be generic and don’t try to be noble for the sake of it.

3. Create a brand personality

Mr Mellow stickers
What personality would your brand have? Character design by Shallu Narula

If your brand were a person, what kind of person would it be? This one is a bit less obvious but can really help to guide your choices when it comes to how you communicate, the kind of content you share and the tone of voice that you use with your audience.

Would your brand character be a wise mentor or a rebellious teenager? A doctor who prescribes medication or a personal trainer who partners with you to achieve the results you want? A supportive parent figure or a flirty friend? This doesn’t mean that you need to incorporate a mascot into your logo or your brand materials (although you can if you want to!).

Try to be as descriptive as you possibly can. Is the brand down to earth and informal or lofty and sophisticated? Traditional or cutting edge? Fun and quirky or conservative and reliable? The clearer the image, the more useful it’ll be.

4. Pinpoint your positioning

Your positioning is all about standing for something specific and meaningful to your customers, something that is different to the other players in the market. You want to be crystal clear on the benefits that your products and services provide. For each of these benefits, you also need a ‘reason to believe’—some way of proving your claim or establishing your credibility.

Dollar Shave Club
When Dollar Shave Club came onto the scene, Gillette was the market leader. The cheeky start-up launched with a hilarious ad that specifically mocked the expensive, high-tech Gillette razors and offered a cheaper but still high-quality alternative. Via youtube.com.

Make sure you include the basic requirements of the category as well as the special benefits that will set you apart from competition. For example, let’s say you owned a laundry detergent brand. A basic benefit, a requirement that you simply have to meet, is “cleans clothes”. Above and beyond that, you’ll need to find ways in which you can be meaningfully different to, and ideally better than competitors—maybe your detergent allows people to wash their clothes at a lower temperature, or it’s more concentrated and so lasts longer and provides better value.

You should also consider both the functional benefits and the emotional benefits. As a virtual assistant, you might provide accurate bookkeeping, efficient email management or streamlined scheduling services—these are functional benefits—but you are also providing peace of mind and allowing your client to focus on the things that are really important—emotional benefits.

5. Build your brand identity

logo and brand identity pack for Jeffrey’s Cafe Co.
The typography, the style of the cards and the packaging all tell a cohesive story of a local, handcrafted coffee brand. Logo and brand identity pack by Agi Amri.
Pringles website
The elements that make Pringles so instantly recognizable include that mustachioed face, the red color and, above all, the unusual tube-shaped packaging. Via pringles.com.

The final part of your branding strategy goes back to the Old Norse ‘brandr’ again. These are the tangible design assets that customers will directly see and experience and will include your brand name and logo but also any tagline, color palettes, typography, shapes, jingles, and so on.

Your objective here is for your customers to be able to recognize your brand in all your communication—even if you cover up the brand name! That means being strategic and consistent in how you bring to life your brand purpose, values, brand personality and key benefits across your brand materials and touchpoints.

Choose carefully and consider things like color meanings and color psychology, how to make sure you really have a unique logo and how to develop the right packaging for your brand and customer. Read more about all the elements that go into the brand identity here.

Take the next step

brand guide design
A brand guide like this one by top designer ludibes can help you pull all your branding details together for a consistent look.

If you’re missing some or all of these elements, then try to set aside some time to reflect on what they would look like for your brand. You may be impatient to get started with putting your work out there but doing this strategy work upfront will save you a lot of time, money and frustration on inconsistent and ineffective communication!

Once you’ve developed your branding strategy, go ahead and review all your existing touchpoints—your website, your ‘about’ page, your social media channels—to make sure that everything is aligned. It’s not just about the visual materials either: make sure that you’re living and breathing your purpose and your values in everything you do.

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