A strong brand is essential in expressing the values and personality of your business.
It’s your identity, holding together all aspects of your company. And when done right, it ensures that every department is acting in tandem to achieve the same goals.
What Makes a Brand?
For many companies, establishing their brand goes only as far as adopting a logo and writing a slogan. While these elements are key, they certainly don’t form a complete picture.
Think of “brand” as meaning anything your companies does, says, or presents that would be seen by your audience. Yes, anything and everything.
It’s not just your logo—it’s your entire visual appearance, including your website, social media feed, PPC ads, business cards, etc. Some companies go as far as branding their internal documents.
It’s not just your slogan—it’s the copy on all your sales and marketing materials, the way you answer your phone and emails, and how a C-suite presents at a conference.
As a solopreneur, establishing a brand may be of little or no concern. But it should. Although YOU are the brand, establishing WHAT your brand is will help you stay consistent in communicating your skills, niche, values, and expertise. Without guidelines, we are apt to let our current mood influence our language, voice, and sometimes visual decisions. This will be confusing to your audience, no matter its size.
Why Brand Matters
Take books for example. Back in the day, a bookseller’s main concerns were stocking books people wanted and setting up shop in an area without a lot of competition. Amazon changed all that. They made buying books more convenient, more informative, and cheaper. In turn, they’ve wiped out a lot of independent bookshops.
The smaller shops that have survived all have one thing in common. Better branding.
You’d think that one of the world’s most powerful companies would be able to out-brand a small mom-and-pop shop, but Amazon will never be able to create a competing atmosphere. The rows and rows of physical goods, the smell, the knowledgeable employees full of recommendations, the community events like poetry night and guest speakers—they are all elements of a shop brand.
People are looking for brands with which they can align, ones that they see themselves in and that reflect their values, views, and sentiments.
Good branding establishes a company’s identity.
Great branding separates it from the competition.
Excellent branding builds an atmosphere and gains trust.
As the number of solopreneurs and freelancers grow, so does the importance of a self-brand. When potential clients are considering your services, they’ll be looking for consistency and reliability. They may not know it, but they’re looking for your brand.
As a freelance writer, I take a lot of meetings with clients in coffee shops. To help reinforce my personal brand, I make sure that the shop is independent (never Starbucks), quiet, offers excellent drinks, plays good music, and if possible, is slightly off the beaten path. Unique, attentive, high quality, eccentric—all things I want to convey in my personal brand are represented in the places I propose to meet. I always leave my potential client with a business card that matches my website in fonts and color schemes, details that build upon one another to create a complete picture of my professional identity.
Branding in Action
Most businesses don’t offer an innovative product, like Roomba, or an innovative business model, like Dollar Shave Club. Most of the time, a successful business is spurred by it having an attractive brand. In most industries, you see brands that, for the most part, offer identical products—even in the same stores and on the same shelves. So how do they separate themselves from their competitors?
The tool aisle in Home Depot is a prime example. In the cordless drill section, you’ll usually find three different brands competing against each other—all selling the same variation of drills. These companies have mastered their brands, knowing exactly who makes up their audience and what their needs are. It breaks down as so:
Ryobi: Homeowners with slight DIY tasks or hobby projects, looking for value over performance.
DeWalt: Tradespeople and heavy home DIYers. Looking for a balance between value and product performance.
Milwaukee: Highest quality and price point. Strictly marketed towards trades people who make a living with their tools.
Now that’s not to say that the higher-end brands ONLY find customers in professionals. They’re also speaking to the DIYer who wants to feel like a pro, while the lower-end brand, Ryobi, is going to find plenty of professional customers who are budget conscious. Their goal isn’t to isolate an audience, but to speak loudly to either the needs or aspirations of anyone perusing the drill isle. This positioning carries throughout ALL of the products these brands offer, not just the drills. Examples like this can be found in any specialty store. Next time you go to the grocery store, pick any isle and look at the way each similar product is positioning itself against the direct competition.
Staying on Point
I’ve sat in on dozens of brand strategy sessions where clients mention Apple as the paramount example of a well-executed brand. But Apple is so big that it’s easy to poke holes in its branding, messaging, and execution. So forget about Apple when searching for an example of a great brand, and bring your attention to Warby Parker.
In all honesty, I am a Warby Parker loyalist. They are my go-to eyewear provider for a few different reasons, all of which have to do with how well and consistently they’ve stayed on brand.
First, they disrupted an industry in dire need of it. They’ve cut out the many middlemen of the eyewear supply chain, delivering quality prescription eyewear at a very affordable price. They have single-handedly forced an entire industry to adapt and rethink their model for the benefit of its users—or in this case, wearers. As someone who wears glasses, I appreciate this immensely. They’ve made me feel like they’re on my team.
Secondly, Warby Parker knows their audience. They saw that young people were growing increasingly aware of and interested in fashion, but at the same time were subject of the effects of a crashing economy and bound by student loans. They hit two customer pain points at once by offering stylish, high-quality glasses at a fraction of the cost as other designer glasses. They also operated entirely online, allowing customers to try on glasses at home, covering the shipping both ways. By assuming trust, they gain trust. And they didn’t stop there.
They identified the most important values of their audience—style, intelligence, social engagement and awareness—and made sure their brand spoke to them. When they opened retail locations, they fashioned them after boutiques, libraries, and mid-century office buildings. They surround their display glasses with books and notepads. They give away Warby Parker engraved pencils. And with each pair of glasses a customer purchases, they donate a pair to a child in need. Their social feeds are a combination of lifestyle, social causes, designer collaborations, and employee input. It is, as far as I’ve seen, and near perfect execution of a brand.
Develop Your Brand
For solopreneurs and small businesses, developing a brand usually just means deciding to focus on your qualities that already exist. The exercises below are to help you to start thinking about your brand values and voice, and to uncover what is both authentic to you, and valuable to your audience.
List Your Values
Write down all of your traits and attributes that make you both likable and valuable. Ask yourself:
- What makes me, my approach, or my business unique?
- Is it an innovative approach?
- Do you use higher-quality material?
- Do you deliver it faster than your competitors?
- Do you get the job done more effectively?
- Do you save your customers time?
- Why do people want to hire me?
- Are you more available?
- More versatile?
- Do you have a strong background in this field?
- Do you have access to better tools?
- Do you have a vast network of resources?
- What do they like most about working with me?
- Are you more personable?
- Do you have faster turnaround times?
- Are your prices better?
- Are you able to set them at ease?
- What problems or pain points do I solve?
- Do you empower your customers?
- Do you save them energy and time?
- Do you give them more options?
- Do you give them a sense of enjoyment?
- Do you give them a sense of relief?
- How do I solve these pain points?
- Delivering top quality?
- Using locally sourced ingredients?
- Equipping them with tools to accomplish their goals?
- Helping them stay organized?
- Making them stronger, smarter, or happier?
- What compels me to do this work?
- Do you want to help people accomplish their goals?
- Do you want to make the world a safer place?
- Do you want to see the arts flourish?
- Do you want kids to succeed?
- Do you want people to be financially independent?
Write down anything that comes to mind. Let your brain process and work through these questions freely. Then, once you feel tapped of any further responses, go through your list and pick out the answers that are the most authentic and valuable. What you picked are the building blocks of your brand. In order to develop any further, you need to have your foundation solidified. These will be used to inform your voice, especially mission and vision statements.
If you are a solopreneur, try talking through these questions with a friend. When asking these questions in discovery sessions with clients, I often find the best information not in the answers, but in the conversation that happens when trying to determine the answer.
Define Your Visuals
Admittedly, this step can be difficult if you are not a designer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put in your due diligence to help. With your established values, think about how they would manifest visually.
If you are an innovative tech startup, you’ll probably want to think of visuals elements that support forward momentum and a sense of discovery.
If you make organic soaps and lotions, think about how to convey nature, cleanliness, nourishment.
If you are a freelance writer or marketer, how would you express thoughtfulness, communication, or storytelling?
And don’t just think about logos. Think about color pallets, fonts, document layouts. Remember, everything visual will be part of your brand identity. Keep all of your decisions handy in a document so you can easily reference them. Use tools like Canva, Stencil, and Piktochart to build consistent layouts, using your colors and logo, to create consistent visual posts. This is particularly handy for creating brand-centric social media feeds.
When it is time to approach a designer, you will save yourself a lot of time and money to already have a sense of what you’re looking for.
Find Your Voice
The way in which your company speaks to, and about, your audience is crucial for brand consistency. You might have noticed a lot of companies and personal brands are referring to their audience as their “tribe.” Why? Because “tribe” is more inclusive than “audience” or “customers” or “fans.” It’s welcoming, if not overused.
List all the aspects of your company. Your product, your employees, your audience, your management, your process, etc. How does your brand refer to each of those elements?
- Is your product…
- A tool or resource or solution
- A game or app or interactive story
- Shoes or footwear or a lifestyle
- Are your employees…
- Your team
- Is your audience…
- A community
- A network
Referencing your established values, put thought into how you want to be heard. Create a vocabulary bank in your brand document so that any new employee or person you may hire to communicate on your behalf can do so consistently and on brand.
Branding never ends. Society and culture are always changing with the times, demanding new features and attributes from companies. These exercises above will help get the bones of a brand together quickly, but by no means is it the end of your development. Just like people, brands should learn and grow from their mistakes and adapt to their changing surroundings. You can always dig deeper into the aspects of what makes your brand. The beginning is always the hard part—that’s where you have to make decisions.
Be honest, be authentic, and trust in yourself.