What’s your story?
The word ‘brand’ is one of the most misunderstood and abused in all of business. Originally used to refer to a mark or logo, it has come to represent a broader collection of beliefs, experiences and emotions connected to a business. For most small business owners, your job is to find a purpose for your business that intersects with something people actually care about – and then to build a consistent story, offering and identity.
When brands first emerged, they were generally a logo and package design supported with a rational claim (i.e. ‘Be the cleanest on the block with Old Jack’s Super Bubble Soap’). It was a simple way of differentiating one product from another.
Yet larger brands discovered that advertising could build emotional depths to their offering and differentiate it in ways that were often not directly linked to the product. Soda drinks became about a beautiful lifestyle at the beach, moisturiser helped identify you as an authentic woman or a mobile phone network made you feel secure about the future. Yet consumers in the past decade have wised up and increasingly see through such manipulative tricks.
We now live in a time in which people want to understand not just the rational benefits of a product, but insist also on knowing far more about the business behind it. What’s your story? What are your values? How is the product made? Is it authentic? Does the business do harm to the environment or its workers? Today such answers increasingly define a consumer’s perception of a ‘brand’.
Developing your brand strategy
Stick with the truth. What’s real and special about what you’re trying to do? It might be your personal story as a founder or the gap in the market you’ve identified and what led you to it. Are you on a crusade to right a wrong in the world or to bring down a big player? This is all fertile territory.
Try testing it with your audience. Do they find it interesting and compelling? Can they link the story of why you’re in business to the products you create? Imagine a competitor completely replicating your product and experience. Is there something in your brand mythology that might keep your customers loyal as your category gets crowded?
It’s important to consider your vision (where you’re going now and in the future), mission (what your company does) and values (why you do what you do). Beyond the functional – ‘to make money and provide a useful product/service’ – it’s important to look at the intentional; meaning how commercial goals relate to helping people. For instance, something that connects on an emotional level, such as a florist promising free delivery so customers can send a product to loved ones at a low cost. Small brand gestures add up – and can significantly set your business apart from the competition.
For many businesses the internal impact of a brand can be at least as valuable as the external. A great mission and values will act as a compass, helping you and your team stay true in the face of distraction and temptation. Your brand will help you filter what’s right and wrong and will help your team internalise your company’s vision and how you as the founder might act even when you’re not present.
If you’re looking to create strong tone of voice guidelines for your brand, think about outsourcing such a task to experienced copywriters. This is roughly two days’ work for someone who knows what they’re doing – costing from £700 to £1,000.
Nailing your tone of voice
While a visual identity relates to how a business is presented, tone of voice is about how to speak to an audience. Research what sort of stories your customers enjoy. Do they find a media outlet such as Vice abrasive or entertaining? Do they enjoy wading through Guardian long-reads or swiping through meme accounts on Instagram? Next, choose three ‘brand pillars’ – all communication should reflect these.
A yoga brand may be ‘positive but not overbearing,’ ‘inclusive but not patronising,’ and ‘warm but not cheesy.’
For example, a yoga brand may be ‘positive but not overbearing,’ ‘inclusive but not patronising,’ and ’warm but not cheesy.’ A boxing gym could be ‘direct but not blunt,’ ‘motivational but not aggressive’ and ‘confident but not smarmy.’ Whoever’s writing your copy on whatever platform, point them in the direction of this brand bible. That way, any words written on behalf of the business (whether via email, social media, web copy or advertising) will clearly reflect this style. Check out Dollar Shave Club, Barkbox and Farewill to see how their copy stands out from the crowd.
Crafting your visual identity
Once a strategy is in place, determine what immediate visual assets are needed – from a logo and colour scheme to imagery – and how your design will translate across a range of formats, from an app to a print advertisement to a billboard. It needs to be agile. For typefaces, choose timeless over trendy and make sure it’s easily readable. Consider the industry – the font of a medical startup, for example, should reflect seriousness. With colour, the name of the game is emotion: green implies nature and health, red conveys urgency and excitement, whilst blue is trustworthy and relaxing. Don’t over-complicate your palette – stick to two or three colours. Above all, think evergreen: you want your brand to stand the test of time.
For typefaces, choose timeless over trendy and make sure it’s easily readable.
There’s a tendency for many modern brands, particularly Instagram-friendly direct-to-consumer startups, to adopt uniform or very similar visual cues – modern fonts, fun packaging, quirky copywriting and millennial pink. Think of ‘challenger brands’ such as Glossier, Recess and Hims and you’ll get the idea. While there’s often a benefit of blending in (you immediately convey to a customer that you’re part of a certain ‘crowd’), be aware: it’s also easier for that customer to confuse you for someone else.
Prices for full visual identity development vary wildly but a bigger agency would generally charge £50,000 (or more), while smaller studios may consider £8,000 to £10,000. Freelancers – one-person-shops – are a lot less. Most importantly, any branding team should take time to thoroughly understand your product and audience. Whatever path you choose, it’s worth paying for a lump-sum of assets to call your own.
It’s often hard for even experienced brand marketeers to work on their own brand. Proximity to the day today means a founder might struggle to get ‘out of the weeds’ and see the bigger picture.
Consider engaging a brand strategist consultant or a friend who may have worked in the industry to ask difficult questions and test your assumptions. Several days’ time of an experienced helper can work wonders for brand positioning.
Co-Founder, Sonder & Tell
‘Our base for building a strategy is to get the brand narrative straight by asking a series of questions that relate to the elements of a traditional story. Who is the reader? (That’s your target audience – what excites them, what do they care about, what else are they reading?). What’s the setting? (Where is your brand located? What environment does it engage with?), and so on.’
‘Find a small community that you understand. Dig deep into their hopes and fears. Understand what pisses them off and what makes them happy. Craft your values in line with theirs. Make your mission about empowering them.’
‘Words make a difference, and you can measure that impact – concretely in terms of conversion rates, as well as with things like customer satisfaction and team culture.’
‘If Patagonia, The Wing and WeWork walked into a bar you know what they would be wearing, what they’d order, who they would talk to at the bar, and who would be the last one standing. The brands that have nailed branding are barely brands anymore. We think of them as humans.’
The branding of subscription box startup FabFitFun is consistent and recognisable with vibrant colours to imply happiness, and custom artwork pertaining to the season. They employ an incredibly diverse group of models in their branding; sometimes even their own employees. While boosting brand awareness, these strategic decisions have also directly affected sales. ‘The art itself has been so popular we’ve produced and sold out of full capsule collections featuring prints on tees, coffee mugs and keychains,’ says co-founder Daniel Broukhim. Its huge success can be seen in its popular Instagram feed, filled with lifestyle images of travel and products. It currently has 761,000 followers.
“Mailchimp just joins all the dots – it saves me so much time”
Genevieve Sweeney, started her east-London contemporary knitwear label in 2015, and still runs it as a one-woman-enterprise, with Mailchimp as her trusty sidekick.
Over the last four years Genevieve has built a loyal following among customers. She puts it down to her fusion of traditional artisan skills and innovative design. Plus being sincere and authentic in her support for the UK manufacturing community that sustains her business.
“My friend built my website and introduced me to Mailchimp at the same time. I remember that moment of realisation (which I think a lot of entrepreneurs have just after you ‘go live’), after working on something in your own head for so long – no one actually knows who you are. So I started doing pop-ups in my local area, and lots of people I met wanted to stay up-to-date through my email list.”
“That became one of my main ways of growing – showing my brand at events and communicating afterwards through email. And running little competitions to win a pair of socks on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The list built up really quickly – and lots of those people are still opening and clicking on my newsletters today, which makes me really happy!”
“I’ve always put my values into marketing – talking about traditional techniques, contemporary aesthetics, and being really open about the ups and downs of making things in the UK. But I knew I had created a really strong brand following when one of my suppliers, a clothing factory, suddenly had their rates increase and risked closure. All their employees faced unemployment within a few weeks unless they received new orders.
I decided to talk about it on all my marketing channels. It was astonishing – I was watching on Mailchimp how many times the email was forwarded, tweets retweeted, and people engaging on Facebook and Twitter. We raised an order that kept the factory open for another two months or so, giving the employees time to start looking for work. That felt so positive.”
Since Mailchimp introduced the new features, Genevieve runs almost all her marketing from there – Facebook and Instagram marketing, email, and website analytics. “It’s just so easy to have everything in one place, especially when you’re segmenting your audience based on tracking certain behaviours, or trying to grow your audience by targeting like-minded people on social media. I used ‘lookalike’ audiences in Facebook before, but I much prefer the Mailchimp route. It feels like I’m reaching the right people, because its building from my current email list data. When you’re running a business on your own, this kind of ease and the confidence it gives you is just priceless.”
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