Welcome to part 2 of a 9-part blog series to serve as a marketing resource for entrepreneurs and other stakeholders of startups and small businesses. In The Intro to the series, I offer links to many resources that include lessons learned from companies that did not make it to their 3-year anniversary, as well as best practices from top performing companies. The primary takeaway from The Intro was to share industry stats showing the primary reason businesses fail is because they do not identify a market need for their product or service. They assumed if they build it, the buyers would come. My blog series offers 9 strategies that are deeply rooted in market need identification. Part 1 of the blog series kicked off with marketing strategy #1, Begin with the End in Mind. Before you execute your goals, all stakeholders should have a consensus of what is to be expected. Define success for everyone, early. This mitigates any confusion and helps to ensure everyone is rowing in the same direction. In this blog, I will share insight about the importance of owning a brand and keeping it consistent for a certain period of time. But first, let’s level set on the definition of Brand. Despite what many may think, a company’s brand is more than just colors and logo. Your brand is how the market perceives you, or how you want to be perceived in the market. It also serves a north star for your internal team when they are drafting goals and objectives. It helps to recruit the right people. It is your company’s identity.
Your Brand = Your Reputation
A logo is an important visual piece of a brand. It is how your customers, prospective customers and industry players recognize you in a very noisy market. Once your customers trust you, one of the ways they evangelize on your behalf is by wearing or displaying your logo. As a marketing geek, I am a part of an elite group of people who are intrigued, dare I say infatuated by creative company logos. For example, I am a fan of FedEx’s thoughtful logo – can you find the right facing arrow? Business Insider offers a fun article challenging readers to identify the brand with the logo stripped out. There are also highly rated games in the AppStore that are focused around getting the player to identify logos. Successful visual brands are those that are recognized even when the name is stripped from the logo such as:
But what if you are a startup without an established reputation? If that’s the case, come up with the characteristics that describe your ideal reputation. What words do you want to come to people’s minds when they think of your company? According to Search Engine Journal, “The brand is the set of expectations that stakeholders associate with [your company] and services. At the core of every brand is a pledge to those you serve – a promise to consistently do or offer something in a way they come to expect.” By the way, if you didn’t recognize the image above, it is the shell of HP’s logo.Now, that we are all on the same page of the definition of Brand, let’s transition to ways a startup can develop their own brand, or establish how they want to be perceived in the market.
- If you are a sole proprietor, you can get started today! Otherwise, the first step is to get as many stakeholders involved as possible. Brand strategy sessions shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. The different perspectives are extremely valuable and makes the output that much sweeter.
- Agree on a Mission, Vision and Value Statement. If you already have these elements, focus more on the other elements such as Key Messaging, Target Audience, Personas and Value Propositions. Harvard Business Review offers a matrix of topics and questions that executives can use to extract this valuable information. The typical output from this phase is a Brand Brief, not to be confused with a Creative Brief.
- Select a Visual Identity System that includes a logo, font type, color palettes, tone of voice and media types. The visuals should support the Brand Brief – or at least not contradict it. For example, if your service includes angelic prayers, you may want to stay away from the color red and avoid images that resemble pitchforks. Just sayin’.
- Establish guidelines and governance for use. A Brand Guideline is the typical output. This is something that companies share with anyone they do business with, including vendors, advertisers, partners…etc. If you contract with a web developer to build your website, sending them your Brand Guideline will take a lot of the guesswork out of the initial part of the project saving on project costs. It also gives people outside of your company guidance on how your logo should and should not be used. Because invested so much time in building a Visual Identity System, you don’t want someone else to break the consistency. Consistency is a driving force behind a successful corporate brand.
If you are a more established company, the key difference with the process is Step 1. Established companies should begin with auditing their existing branding. Small businesses typically have the benefits of clients they can leverage to validate how the market perceives their brand as well as help with the rebranding. Clients can validate whether a change is warranted at all.The duration of this process can depend on a variety of factors including the number of participants involved in the brand strategy, the complexity of the target audience and the skillsets involved in the project. I have found it to be very beneficial having a 3rd party facilitate some of the key discussions. A 3rd party facilitator will help protect everyone’s time by creating and sticking to a strong agenda. They will make capitalize on the output of the meeting by making sure all stakeholders are contributing and deliverables are managed. There are many rabbit holes to go down when you are having intimate conversations about your business and it is important to stay on track. I have participated in 3 major corporate brand strategy processes. Two were with medium-sized companies (annual revenues between $10MM – $90MM) and one was a rebrand with a global conglomerate. Interesting enough, the rebrand with the global company was less intense than the other two. The more mature companies tend to rely on their marketing departments to manage these initiatives assuming the appropriate non-marketing stakeholders are pulled in as needed. On the other hand, the small to medium companies tend to have more stakeholders who have personal connections with the company and can be highly sensitive to its physical attributes. In either situation, the discussions that were a part of the brand strategy process were invaluable. In defining the pillars of the company’s identity, key stakeholders had highly valuable conversations, sometimes heated, that ultimately enhance working relationships because ambiguity is significantly minimized. Stakeholder meetings to progress this initiative could span 6-9 months. Luckily, this is a project that can be infused in your normal business activity. For example, increase recurring leadership meetings by 1-2 hours to include certain topics that will advance your branding initiative. Because of this duration, you may find yourself staring at colors and reciting tag lines numerous times before it is even shared with the public. In fact, by the time the public hears/sees it for the first time, you may be tired of it. But, fight the urge to make changes too quickly. In most cases, companies should maintain their branding elements for at least five years. While you may be immersed in the branding visuals on a daily basis, your target audience is still getting accustomed to it. Believe it or not, our customers don’t think about us all day. So, resist the urge to make changes too soon. If you feel your visuals are getting stale, poll your audience. This is worth repeating – Poll Your Audience. Don’t make changes in response to the comments of a few. The worst thing you can do is compromise the existing loyalty between your brand and your fans. This threat was almost realized with Gap’s Rebrand Disaster. The retail giant invested in a multimillion dollar corporate rebrand only to have their market resist it forcing Gap to revert back to the original visuals.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me to quantify the value of establishing a corporate brand, I could buy all the tea in China. So I will answer that question with a question…. If a person wears a suit to an executive job interview and they get the job, was it because of the suit? Probably not. But if they didn’t wear a suit, they likely would not have received a job offer. Having said that, I couldn’t find one company on the Fortune 1000 list who didn’t have a strong brand. If I were to tie this to Part 1 of this blog series Begin with an End in Mind it is also important to establish how success is defined at the onset of the project. Success can be defined by the output of a Brand Brief or Brand Guideline. Success could be the creation of a Mission and Vision Statement that is endorsed by the entire leadership team as well as a logo and color system. Over time, you can measure the success by testing Brand Awareness. When you attend events, you should always gauge how familiar people are with your company. Include it as a question on any surveys. I began this post by stating that your brand is your reputation. And just like your reputation, you are going to get one whether you want it or not. People are going to form their own opinion about your company and they are going to associate certain images with your company. The question becomes do you want to maintain control of how you are perceived to the market?