Need to Brand Your Business? Ask These Questions First.
There's a preparation process you should go through before you start branding your business.
I've worked on dozens of branding or rebranding exercises for startups, small businesses, and even multi-billion dollar Fortune 500s. As a result, I have noticed that how you approach your brand work will ultimately determine the outcome.
A common misconception is that you need to hire an agency, throw several hundred thousand dollars at them, and then a few weeks later they'll emerge from a black hole with the perfect plan in place.
I've also noticed that startups and small businesses in particular seem to take to heart a lot of similar myths about what branding is, its importance, and the development process.
In order to create an identity and strategy that truly embodies the essence of your brand (and that connects with consumers) you must have the right process and frame work in place.
Whether you outsource or conduct the work in-house, here are five questions you should ask before getting started.
1. What is 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 guides out there and can be a great tool to assist with this question.
2. Why is Branding Necessary?
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 strategic plan and should be able to justify the exercise with both quantitative and qualitative impact.
Yes, you read that correctly. Branding is both an art and science.
Established companies consider rebranding when there are fundamental shifts in vision, USP, and/or target audience that have been brought about by significant market threats or irresistible market opportunities.
If a company has to change directions in order to recapture or gain significant market share then rebranding could be necessary to support and communicate the new positioning.
If you are a startup or small business, however, you may be tempted to focus just on perfecting and launching your product or service without putting much thought into branding.
Outside of lifestyle businesses (fashion, beauty, decor, etc.) branding is often treated like an unnecessary exercise. However branding is key to establishing relevance and could be the most effective way to differentiate in an oversaturated category.
Moreover, defining your core brand elements will help ground and focus your team around a common vision.
Anecdotally, some startups I've advised have actually come to me after potential investors put pressure on them to get their branding in order as a prerequisite to funding.
What once was deemed as a nice-to-have is rapidly becoming a necessity in the startup world. It's up to you to decide what's right for your company but don't weigh this lightly.
An excellent HBR article, "Startups Need a Minimum Viable Brand" by Denise Yohn, discusses a lean approach to branding that is more suitable for startups and is a good read to jumpstart deeper thought into this question.
3. What Resources Are You Ready to Deploy?
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.
We'd have a fruitful and inspiring conversation about their vision and how I can help them bring it to life. Then when it's time to get down to business (i.e. talk about my rates) things turn awkward.
This is always disappointing as usually the business is in dire need of the work and they do not have the skill set to carry it out alone.
And don't assume this is just a startup or small business issue either. At some of the most prominent brands I've worked for, discussions around funding for branding-related activities were tricky.
At one company the VPs of Brand Marketing owned no budget of their own. They had to pitch and rally various other departments to raise funds for major brand campaigns.
Regardless if you are a startup or a seasoned brand, you need to put your money where your mouth is (if you have funds) or be prepared to get scrappy (if you don't).
If after answering question #2 you don't consider branding an absolute must-have, then stop now. Going into this half-heartedly will be a waste of time and lead to subpar results.
You must see this as a critical need to prioritize, and you must fund this much in the same way you do product development.
Don't skimp on branding. It's just as important, if not more, than the actual product or service itself.
Get the calculator out 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 business.
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 strategic and creative 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.
You can use Ask Your Target Market or Google Surveys to launch an affordable poll to hundreds or thousands of people. You can find top designers and copywriters (people who have worked at world class brands) on the likes of oDesk and Guru if you are willing to sort through the ruff.
Even with limited 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 schedule.
4. What is Your Vision?
They made a terrible fuss about it and I had to explain that it's not that I didn't have the time or resources to take on any new work. It was their project in particular.
They had no vision and had put zero thought into the basics of their business. They didn't even have a hypothesis about the folks that they were targeting and why their brand would resonate with them.
They just wanted to throw the baton to me to blindly build a brand on their behalf with no foundational elements in place.
And when it failed? They'd have a scapegoat.
The vision needs to come before the branding. Repeat that three or four times. Your vision must inform your branding.
This step is of particular relevance to lifestyle startups where branding plays such an important role in influencing the consumer.
I cringe at the thought of brands that jump head first into photography, packaging, and beautiful web design, before the building blocks are in place.
Yet, if you ask them who their consumer is they will naively but enthusiastically answer with some generic like "Millennials! So we're going after a Warby Parker look and feel." Yikes.
Within a legitimate branding framework there is a fair amount of research, analysis, and testing that needs to take place before you even get to the development of voice or visual identity.
You have to get granular with your mission, specific about who your consumers are, and detailed about how you deliver unique value.
All of that comes before you can start picking out cute fonts and pretty colors.
The Jim Collins "Vision Framework" is the gold standard on the topic. I'd highly recommend perusing his website, jimcollins.com, for an incredible selection of books, articles, and other tools that will help any entrepreneur or seasoned executive build the basics of their business.
5. What Branding Framework Will You Use?
Lastly, but most importantly, you need a proper branding framework and process in place to guide you.
If you are working with an agency or consultant this should be the first thing discussed.
Inquire about their approach and ask how will it lead to a stellar outcome. If they immediately want to jump into a creative brainstorm then back out and find someone else.
If you are going at it alone, then you need to follow a carefully crafted process and be sure you refer to credible sources for guidance as you consider the steps to take.
I was "classically trained" at the founding father of brand management (P&G). However, I have also worked with many young companies, and understand the realities of their high-growth and limited-resource businesses.
The combination of these experiences has allowed me to build a simple but effective approach that I believe is comprehensive but flexible enough to work for startups. You can learn more about it here.
Why are the above questions so important?
Because 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 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.