“Brand” and “Branding” are over-used and often misunderstood concepts in business, sales, and marketing. Depending on who you ask and what part of the business they work in, you will likely get a very different answer. Some might say it’s the product, some the logo, and others say it’s the company’s hiring practices. And although none of those answers captures everything, they are all accurate.
What Is a Brand?
According to HubSpot, “a brand is a feature or set of features that distinguish one organization from another.” The word “brand” encompasses all of the reasons why someone might choose one company, product, or service over another. It’s basically a company’s personality. That applies to existing or prospective customers and existing or prospective employees. Brands are not just a logo and corporate colors. Like people, companies have a unique history, appearance, way of speaking, motivators, values, and strengths. Those sometimes nuanced characteristics are what make companies unique, and give them a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. In fact, 64% of women and 68% of men say that they have felt an emotional connection to a brand. Creating an emotional connection with customers and prospects is how businesses are successful. And there are a lot of ways to do it.
Elements of a brand include, but are not limited to:
- Positioning (mission statement, vision, core beliefs, brand pillars, archetype(s), value proposition)
- Visual Identity (logo, colors, typography, photography, illustration)
- Messaging (tone of voice, content, public relations)
- Product (purpose, UI/UX, functionality, technology)
- Culture (hiring practices, values, DEI, benefits, internal comms, office/location)
When first starting out, it’s easy to overlook a lot of these. And for most companies, it’s ok to prioritize. What is essential is to be aware of all of the choices we make on a daily basis (sometimes without much thought) that have a significant impact on shaping a brand. Without reflection, strategy, and attention, your company could develop a brand that doesn’t accurately reflect the company’s purpose, resonate with consumers, or attract the right talent.
That’s why we always suggest leading with a laser-focused positioning strategy rooted in consumer insights and authenticity. It’s too common to have a great product and move straight to a logo and simple website so teams can start selling as soon as possible. The fact is that positioning drives everything, including how you sell your product/service, how you scale the business, which industries you target with sales, and what kind of people you hire. That’s hugely important because brands that are consistently presented see an average revenue increase of 10–20%.
Brand Positioning Is First
There are a lot of different ways to develop comprehensive brand positioning but we have seen the most success with starting from the elevator pitch and the reason why the product or service was created in the first place. Even if that isn’t always clearly articulated, there’s usually a strong purpose behind the product or service that can be refined, broadened, and recrafted into a mission statement, which speaks to who the company is and why they exist (beyond profit).
We worked very closely with ASTERRA to define their positioning upfront, which informed a lot about their visual identity and primary messaging. Check out the ASTERRA case study.
It is also crucial to start conversations with existing or prospective customers to understand as much as possible about what challenges they face, how they purchase, what they value, and how they might use your product or service. It’s surprising how insightful those conversations can be if you just ask the right questions. All of the information that gets collected in those conversations will be used to create buyer personas. This is how you ensure your brand engages with your audience in a relevant and effective way.
Once you have a thorough understanding of your mission and your buyer personas, you can start to develop things like a vision, brand pillars, core beliefs, and brand archetypes. All of those have a huge impact on every aspect of how you express your brand with things like a logo or a copy style and how you scale the business with future product developments or hiring practices. With a focused, authentic, relevant, and differentiated brand positioning in place, you can start to develop how your brand looks.
Brand Identity Stems From Positioning
Design is about a lot more than combining visual elements into something that is aesthetically pleasing. Designers are not artists—they are communicators. Just like a writer needs to know what they are writing about, designers need to know what they are designing for. Without goals and objectives for what is trying to be communicated to whom, design becomes decoration. Positioning is what provides designers the insights, strategy, and direction they need to make informed decisions about the logo, typography, color, and graphic elements. It’s also important to consider what the brand is being applied to. If the product, and most of the marketing, will be digital, that can help steer color schemes, fonts, and even the logo.
Brand identity is about a lot more than the logo. While working with Mapp, we changed everything except their logo and it still had a huge impact on how they are perceived by customers. Check out the MAPP case study.
Ensuring your brand has a set of unique and relevant brand visuals is critical because people remember it. Your collection of visual elements is the face of your brand, and almost always the first way that people experience your company. 60% of people recognize a brand by its visual style, and that number is even higher for logo recognition. If you can create a positive association in their mind up front, you have a much better chance of sticking in their mind when they are ready to move forward with a purchase. That applies to repeat purchasers too.
Messaging Style Creates Brand Differentiation
Once a company knows who they are, what they make, and what they look like, it’s important to figure out its communication style. Everyone has their own way of speaking, which is driven by where they are from and who they are speaking to. The same applies to brands. Brand archetypes influence a lot of brand thinking, but we’ve found them to be particularly beneficial for crafting a unique tone of voice.
When we rebranded VSSL, brand voice was a major way that we created differentiation from our competition. Check out the VSSL case study.
It’s also important to never forget about all of the insights you’ve gained about your customer from the positioning phase. What kind of tone resonates? Are customers looking for something formal? Or educational? Or casual? Do customers want thought-leadership content? Or life hacks? Or entertainment? Do customers make decisions based on industry news publications? Or influencers? Or reviewers?
Brand Is the Product’s DNA
Branding is how companies foster emotional attachment from customers but at the end of the day, what customers are purchasing is the product. It’s so common for companies to invest time and money into making a really beautiful brand for marketing purposes but fall short when translating it into their product. It can be so disappointing and jarring for customers to have a completely different experience with marketing and product. It calls into question a brand’s positioning, and whether or not the personality they’ve established is authentic. As Clearcode writes, “Think of your application like a car – a person can recognize the Mercedes brand by its logo, of course, but they can also recognize which brand it is by its design – your application needs to encompass the same design qualities.”
When redesigning ASTERRA’s customer portal, it was imperative to ensure that the brand experience was consistent with their product and marketing.
Positioning will also be an essential tool for the design of your product because thoroughly understanding your customers and how they will use the product has a huge impact on how it works, looks, feels, and functions. Any UI/UX designer would attest to that being one of the most critical steps toward creating a successful product. Let that understanding and what has been established for the visual identity guide choices of fonts, colors, and other visual elements. If the product is a physical one, look for shapes, textures, and colors that lend themselves to the brand work that has already been done.
Brand Creates Culture and Vice Versa
The last piece of branding is the internal brand and culture of companies. Hiring practices, values, DEI programs, benefits, and events are all the final expressions of your brand. And while it would seem obvious that potential candidates are the only ones paying attention to how a company treats its employees, customers care about that too. As stated by the Harvard Business Review, “If your culture and your brand are driven by the same purpose and values and if you weave them together into a single guiding force for your company, you will win the competitive battle for customers and employees, future-proof your business from failures and downturns, and produce an organization that operates with integrity and authenticity.”
A couple of years ago, we created values for VSSL. We involved the whole crew to make sure they weren’t just aspirational, but accurate to who we are. We then made sure that the visual and written tone matched our brand.
Brand guidelines bring it all together
We’ve written a lot about the importance of brand guidelines because we see how they serve as a rule book to guide every expression of a company’s brand. This is the essential last step because documenting everything that’s been discovered in the branding process is going to ensure consistency in the future. And consistency is critical—studies have shown that there is a 23% increase in revenue for brands that are presented consistently.
At VSSL, we are passionate about what a thorough approach to branding can do for your business. It’s not just about making something cool or disruptive. We’ve seen how it has real financial benefits to companies in B2C and B2B. It’s not just about your product or logo. It’s an entire ecosystem of characteristics, actions, and beliefs that manifest in different ways to provide a unique personality for your company.