A Comprehensive Guide to Brand Strategy for Entreprenueurs
In this guide, I outline a comprehensive step-by-step brand strategy framework and process for entrepreneurs — and dispel the common myths about branding along the way.
My entire livelihood is built around my personal brand and it has been the single most important contributor to my success as a business coach and entrepreneur.
I also work closely with entrepreneurs, small business owners, coaches, and creatives to help build their digital presence and online reputations, establish credibility and thought leadership in their field, and be the face and voice of their business.
From this experience, as well as my past career overseeing digital brand strategy for iconic brands, I’ve come to realize that there’s no consensus when it comes to what branding is, why it’s important, and how to do it right.
Some perceive branding as a nice-to-have exercise but not really something you need to devote much time or energy to in the grand scheme of things.
Others deem it as important but place it squarely in the “design” category and completely disregard the need for strategy.
There are many misunderstandings and misconceptions that prevail as it pertains to branding. I want to dispel these myths and give you a complete play book so you don’t downplay or mismanage a process that can catapult your career or business to new levels.
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Brand Your Business Slow and Mindfully
Before you start the branding process make sure you go into it with the right mindset.
You may be familiar with the slow movement with its “do it well instead of fast” philosophy that has permeated dozens of industries from food and fashion to education and travel.
However, if you Google “slow branding” or even “slow marketing”, the meager, outdated results make it clear that the application of the concept to these critical business functions never got the same traction.
As entrepreneurs we are admittedly under a lot of pressure to perform and we often end up in a mad dash to make money, drive traffic, and get social followers.
In the midst of the frenzy we've forgotten the art of cultivating a loving and loyal community.
From "MVP to growth hacking to going viral", the tools and terminology we use to build businesses are all about scaling quick. As a result, half-baked, low-quality products and services are rapidly released into markets already oversaturated with subpar offerings.
On top of that customer service is fickle and unreliable and measured by the number of Instagram likes instead of impact and value.
And the idea of iconic brands that have legacy and longevity seems almost obsolete given the number of one-hit startup wonders — a media darling gushed over in Fast Company last year may not even exist this year, and no one cares because no one remembers.
I’m not advocating moving your business at a glacial pace — just at a more thoughtful and reasonable speed. Commit now to trading in vanity metrics and get rich quick schemes in the short-term in order to build a brand that you and your consumers or clients will fall in love with over the long-term.
Instead of random tactics and transactions, understand the value of creating a solid brand strategy and enjoy the process of creating and crafting vs. just fixating on end goals. Isn’t this why you decided to start your own business in the first place?
Don’t be afraid to take the time to think, get theoretical, and have intellectually-stimulating discussions about your brand. You can use my slow branding principles to start: priority, quality, loyalty.
Set your priority and spend enough time on it so that it results in a high quality outcome that has the best chance of garnering loyalty.
Having worked for or advised dozens of brands — from solopreneurs and small businesses to iconic Fortune 500s — I've seen that one of the biggest barriers to achieving success is being stretched too thin.
Big brands fail when they try to do it all and forget about their relationship with their core audience. As a small brand you might stagger before you even make it on the map, because you start off trying to be everything to everyone.
The most mindful way to approach branding, no matter where you are in your business cycle, is to be focused. Determine your target audience, figure out what matters most to them, and then ruthlessly cut any projects or activities that aren't relevant.
Competition in most consumer, lifestyle, and professional categories is stiff. Many markets are oversaturated with a plethora of options and sometimes the only way to differentiate your business is via a brand image that is deemed as relevant and reliable.
When you prioritize it enables you to direct your attention to creating highly beneficial products, services, experiences, and content for your target audience. You also put your business in a better position to be agile and responsive to the needs and desires of your audience going forward.
The ultimate goal in all your branding efforts should be to achieve loyalty. Once you establish a strong relationship with your target audience they become committed to and supportive of your brand in ways you can only imagine. However, you can only win (and retain) the hearts of your consumers by being consistent.
Your brand is nothing more than a promise: a promise to be who you say you will be to the audience you claim you serve. My most critical advice is to stay true to your promise.
Being an entrepreneur is risky and nothing guarantees your success. However, being mindful about what you are delivering, and going about your branding activities in a deliberate way, puts you in the best position to benefit from those serendipitous moments that may take your brand from nothing to something.
5 Big Misconceptions About Branding
Now that you are in the right mindset, I want to take a moment and dispel the myths about branding yourself or your business as an entrepreneur so you don’t go into the process with biases.
Myth 1: You know exactly what branding involves
Odds are you don’t.
Most of my business clients come to me with strong opinions about what they believe they need to do to build their brand. It only takes a 15 minute conversation before they realize they are overly fixated on a small part of a much bigger picture.
Branding is not just throwing a website up, having business cards designed, or organizing a photoshoot. These are merely tactical elements that, in the absence of a thoughtful strategy, won’t help you package and present yourself in an effective way.
There are actually two core parts to branding yourself or small business branding:
1. Life Vision
As an entrepreneur, branding starts with yourself. You’ve probably heard me say this many times but business growth and personal growth go hand-in-hand.
Most business owners skip over the personal development process that’s an integral input into their brand strategy. But you need to see yourself in your business — particularly if you are running a one-person or small business.
Going through the process of finding yourself and having a clear vision for your life (and life’s work) is key. In fact, I bake a life coaching program into my business coaching services to ensure that my clients don’t overlook this critical step.
2. Brand Strategy
I call this the 4V framework because it entails developing your Vision, Value, Voice and Visuals which I’ll discuss in-depth later in this guide.
When walking through the 4Vs you will immediately see why you need an overarching life vision before you start branding yourself or business. Your life vision feeds the 4V framework and the outputs of this framework are used to build your brand guidelines.
Your brand guidelines are the strategic reference point for how you implement your brand. Whatever you do going forward — from building a website to designing stationery — is based on these.
This is why strategy is so important. Without it you are blindly working on disjointed one-off projects. With a strategy, everything you do is cohesive and collectively communicates the essence of what you want to present to the world.
Myth 2: You don’t really need to brand yourself or your business
If you care about your reputation then you do.
We live in a time where information — be it fake, real, true or false, is easily accessible to all — via the internet. That means that your reputation is built almost entirely on what is accessible online.
Unflattering information — or even worse, complete lack of information — can work against you, especially if you are trying to position yourself or establish your business in a competitive field.
You may have a personal aversion to this but it doesn’t matter because it’s the reality of the world we live in. You have to, at minimum, create a legitimate digital presence to build credibility in most fields.
My entire business is fueled by my personal brand and the most important element of my brand is my portfolio of articles (on this site as well as my other business websites).
I write useful thought pieces that I push through my social channels and that’s how all my clients and customers find me. My livelihood would be nonexistent without this.
Some of my clients come to me out of frustration because they struggle to make progress against their goals but keep seeing peers obtaining high profile sponsorships, rapidly growing their clientele and customers, and getting press mentions, etc.
When I investigate, it almost always comes down to a stark difference in how those peers have positioned themselves online. When you have little or no digital presence then your reputation is at the mercy of the random links or images that pop up in a search on your name.
Your online presence is the first, and sometimes only, impression that people have of you. This is a very important component of your brand strategy and the most pressing of many reasons why you shouldn’t put it off.
You can brand your business yourself
You can do-it-yourself but it’ll probably be easier if you sought professional help unless you have both the relevant strategic and creative skills.
It doesn’t matter if you enroll in an online course or hire a brand consultant, the whole process will be swifter and easier if you get some sort of assistance.
The first reason for seeking help is because you need a process to follow. If you have no experience in branding then you probably have no clue where to start. Without guidance you will likely make the aforementioned mistake of working on random tactics that don’t really add value.
The second reason, which you can get from working directly with a business consultant or coach, is that you need an objective perspective. Often times we look inward or turn to friends and family for advice, but this is a process that benefits from unbiased input.
As a business coach and consultant I’m hired to help my clients accomplish what they haven’t been able to achieve on their own: start a business, earn more revenue in their business, etc. As amiable as I am, it’s my responsibility to be honest about what will or won’t work in achieving those goals.
The third reason to seek help is that you can get guidance on how to maximize your investment. Not everyone has unlimited time, energy, or money to put into the branding process. Knowing where to allocate your resources, especially when it comes to implementation, is the difference between a mediocre and stellar outcome.
I work with clients to prioritize one or two tactics that will create momentum behind their specific goals instead of giving them generic or trendy advice that will do nothing but whittle away their limited resources.
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Myth 3: You have to invest a fortune to brand your business
Not true at all. However, I know where this myth comes from.
I've worked for or advised a range of brands — from iconic Fortune 500s to startups — that would drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on brand agencies. I’ve even approved a couple of million dollar agency budgets myself.
When I saw what that money ultimately bought I was appalled almost every single time. Usually it was not worth it. And I see why there’s a general perception, when it comes to branding yourself or a business, that it’s ridiculously expensive.
Yes, some people are out there spending fortunes on subpar work, but you don’t need to be that person. Quality doesn’t come free and a skilled business coach or consultant is going to charge according to the value they can add. So you’ll need to make a reasonable investment but it should not be outrageous.
Myth 4: Once you build your brand it’ll maintain itself
Your brand is a significant component of your overall personal and professional development plan. In doing so you’ll come to appreciate the journey instead of being fixated on an end destination.
You are always evolving as a person (as is your business) and will likely go through many phases and changes that alter your vision. As this vision evolves you may need to make adjustments to your brand strategy so it stays in sync.
As a result, your brand is dynamic not a one-time build that stays static. It should be firm enough that it helps you clearly communicate who you are and what you stand for. But it should also be fluid enough to adapt to inevitable changes in your personal beliefs, ideals, and goals as well as market dynamics and trends.
A business coach should help you craft your strategy in a way that balances the need for clarity and consistency with the need for fine-tuning down the line.
Questions to Prepare for the Branding Process
So now that we’ve alleviated the myths, let’s explore the pre-work needed prior to jumping into the branding framework.
You need to be efficient with your time and resources and ensure that you end up with a brand that resonates with your intended audience.
Ultimately, you want the end product to set you apart from other businesses in your category, and to influence consumers or clients to gladly choose you over the plethora of other options.
To get to that point you need to go into the branding process empowered with the right tools and the correct frame of mind. Here are 5 questions that will help you do that.
Question 1: What is your definition of a brand?
Some say it's a "unique design, sign, or symbol" while others state it's a "product, service, or concept." Still some go further and define it as "a promise" to consumers.
My definition is that it's a mechanism for choice. Or even better, a combination of emotional, societal, and functional cues and elements that consumers use to decide whether or not they self-identify with a product or service and deem it worthy of choosing over another.
But that's me. How do you define it? Whatever your definition it needs to be well-informed so there is no confusion and you don't skip important steps, during the branding process.
Digging into the basics will be worth the time spent. The classic book 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries is still one of the most useful starter guides out there and can be a great tool to assist with this question.
Question 2: Why is branding necessary for your business?
I discussed this a bit in the myths section, but want to recap some main points so you can answer this question clearly for yourself before starting the process.
There are certain challenges and opportunities that warrant branding while others do not. You need to have a clear view into how branding (or rebranding) fits into your long-term business plan and should be able to justify the exercise with both quantitative and qualitative impact.
You may be tempted to focus just on perfecting and launching your product or service without putting much thought into branding.
But what once was deemed as a nice-to-have is rapidly becoming a necessity — even in the small business world. It's up to you to decide what's right for your business but don't weigh this lightly.
Question 3: What investments are you able/willing to make?
You have to be real with yourself about the tools that you have at your disposal and adopt a resourceful mindset so you can maximize their use. There are three main resource categories to evaluate - money, talent, and time.
I learned the hard way that you can can’t build a business — even a small business — without being able to invest funds into it.
The reality is that you get out what you put in and money is a component. You don’t have to spend a fortune but you need to be willing to put your money where your mouth is.
So pull out the calculator and figure out what you have to play with, and then commit to it with the same conviction as you put into other areas of your life.
There are many ways you can significantly cut down on the costs associated with branding, particularly if you are cash poor. One of those is by tapping into your available pool of talent and by looking at less flashy alternatives to agencies to source assistance.
You have a friend that's a brand manager for a reputable company? Ask if they can help you with the strategy portion for a fraction of their current hourly rate.
Have a bunch of folks in your network who seem like they could be in your company's target audience? For the cost of wine, beer, and snacks, you could easily pull together a fun and informative focus group. Even with limited monetary resources the possibilities are endless.
You have to be able to devote an adequate amount of time and energy to this process — regardless if you hire outside help or not. It doesn't matter if you jumpstart the process by DIY-ing over a weekend or hire a skilled consultant to lead the process for you.
Even with a lean approach, proper branding takes time. Take a look at your calendar and find a way to allocate time for branding into your weekly schedule.
Question 4: What is your vision?
As discussed in the myths section, this includes both life vision and business vision. Without a vision your brand strategy and visual identity will feel off to you and your target audience.
Take the time to get granular about what you personally want out of life and then determine and how this translates to your business mission, values, and goals.
My 4V Brand Strategy Framework & Process
Now it’s time to get into the actual detail of what a brand strategy entails. I call it the four 4Vs framework: Vision, Value, Voice, Visuals.
It’s important to go through the exercise of articulating the strategic vision for yourself or your company before get into other parts of the branding process. Your vision must inform your entire strategy.
A strong vision communicates why you exist and what you stand for, and how that drives the specific goals you want to achieve in the future.
Tagline — short but powerful sentence that conveys your brand's essence.
Purpose — why you exist, what you’ll accomplish, and how you’ll achieve it.
Values — the core principles that will guide all of your activities.
Your value is what you have to offer that is unique, important, and relevant in the eyes of the consumer. It should specifically address the most pressing consumer needs, problems, or desires and it gets at the heart of why you or your business should be chosen over others.
USP — your unique selling proposition or differentiated value add.
Positioning — how you stand apart from competitors in your space.
Promise — who you are (and aren't); your role in the consumer’s life.
You should be purposeful in your manner of communication by focusing on what you say, how you say it, and the feeling it conveys. It's important to carefully craft a distinct prose that engages, inspires, motivates, influences, and establishes trust.
Persona — the demographic and psychographic profile of your target.
Personality — the personification of your brand and relationship with your target audience.
Tone — the words and phrases that make up the style of communication.
The visible elements of your brand impart a symbolic meaning that goes beyond what words alone can express. Your visual identity sets the foundation necessary for your brand to be distinguishable, recognizable, and relatable.
Style — guidelines on the overall aesthetic (look and feel) of the brand.
Identity — the brand's core style elements (fonts, logos, colors, imagery).
Collateral — the marketing and other material (website, etc.) that your audience interacts with.
In addition to the 4Vs framework, there's a very specific process you should walk through in order to ensure you are approaching your brand's development in the most ideal way.
There are important questions, inputs, and exercises that increase the likelihood of you establishing a personal brand or small business brand that strongly resonates with the intended audience.
Educate — a set of preparatory steps and questions you should ask before you start your branding work.
Audit — the research, analyses, and other inputs you should collect to help inform your brand.
Ideate — brainstorming sessions to generate ideas that will eventually establish the building blocks of your brand.
Create — the process of developing the 4Vs (as specified above)
Test — validating and verifying your 4Vs before finalizing them (especially if you are a business).
Design — once your 4Vs are final then moving on to the design of your visual brand identity.
Your Business or Personal Brand Statement
Once you complete the branding process you’ll have a set of guidelines that you can reference in all of your visual and written communication.
You should be able to distill those guidelines into a succinct brand statement that briefly states your brand promise and unique value. Below is a template you can use so your statement flows clearly:
I am [description of yourself or your business] and I’m on a mission to [insert your personal or business purpose]. I promise [insert description of your ideal client or customer] to deliver [insert your value] through my [describe products or services] that will help them [insert the client/customer pain point you solve].
Here’s an example of my statement below:
I’m a life coach and business coach on a mission to help fellow and aspiring independent spirits — entrepreneurs, creatives, and coaches — make a living doing work they love. I believe personal growth and business growth go hand-in-hand and promise to help my clients find freedom, fulfillment and financial success through my coaching and consulting programs.
This framework for branding yourself or your business has been carefully crafted and refined after working on dozens of branding projects for professionals, executives, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.
You can build a best-in-class brand from scratch, without spending a fortune, if you understand the basics. By being efficient you'll end up branding yourself or your business in a way that resonates with your intended audience, distinguishes you from your peers, and drives business revenue.
If you need help with the branding process for yourself or your business explore my life and business coaching program and set up a free coaching session.