In today’s age of social media, all human beings have a personal brand whether they admit it or not. We define ourselves by a set of aesthetics and core values, which isn’t all that different from the way branding works in the world of business. Whether you’re trying to grow an Instagram following or crafting a full-on brand strategy for your small business, a positive brand image is vital to success.
Yes, you need a great product, but branding is the one thing that will set you apart from the competition and help you reach your target customers. A good brand with a strong brand image is easily recognizable and unmistakable. A poor brand with a muddy vision sinks into the background. You cannot have brand awareness if nobody recognizes who or what you are.
According to a survey by CBInsights, about 14% of startups fail because of poor marketing, while another 13% fail because they lose focus. This is where strong branding helps, especially because it’s hard to lose focus when you have a clearly defined set of brand values. Whether you’re launching a new brand or rebranding an old business, certain branding guidelines can help you craft a brand strategy that leads to lasting success.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Almost every successful business needs branding in order to stand out in the target market.
What Is Branding?
When you think of Coca-Cola, what do you see? The image of the brand’s classic red can with its white script typography probably comes to mind. This a famous example of excellent branding, but branding goes a lot further than color palette and logo design. We see it in Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline, which inspires people to get up and make their dreams happen, and we see it in fast-food chain Taco Bell, which encourages its customers to “Live Mas,” or live life to the fullest.
At the heart of it, branding is the way you establish the image of your company as it is perceived by consumers. This includes establishing both a visual identity and a set of core values. The values are what help potential customers form an emotional connection and feel like they’re part of your brand’s community. Strong branding helps consumers view your business as a friend or family, which in turn increases customer loyalty and word-of-mouth promotion.
Start by Understanding Yourself
Brand building starts with a vision. For example, Apple founded its company on a set of values that includes innovation and passion. This is reflected across all brand operations, from frequent product launches to its “Think Different” advertising campaign.
Similarly, when we think of Disney, we get an unshakable feeling of childhood nostalgia. That’s deliberately crafted. There’s a reason it rereleases its classic animated films every decade and markets Disney World to adults and children alike.
In order to craft a brand strategy as defined by huge companies like Apple and Disney, you have to truly understand what and who you are as a business. Ask yourself:
- What do we do?
- Why do we do it?
The answer to these two questions should help you define your mission statement, a clear set of core values and a target audience. This is the foundation on which a great brand is built.
What’s in a Name?
It goes without saying, but a brand name is one of the most important parts of branding. It’s almost as important as the products and services you offer. A brand name that people can’t easily spell or understand when they first hear it won’t have the sticking power of something simple and unique, like "Google" or "KFC."
To create a good brand name, do the radio test. If people were to hear your company’s name on the radio, they should be able to look you up and find you right away.
Nail Down the Aesthetics
Aesthetics are like a one-stop shop for brand awareness. We know Apple by its pristine white apple logo. We know McDonald’s by the classic golden arches. Even Instagram influencers create recognizable personal branding by using the same filter on all of their grid posts.
Your company’s aesthetic should suit your brand name and vision. For example, a death-metal band probably wouldn’t have a pink logo in a frilly, cartoonish script. Similarly, a news publication would probably be viewed as less credible with the type of highly stylized handwritten logo that makes a fashion blog stand out.
Colors are a big part of aesthetics, especially because they evoke different feelings. Blue is one of the most popular, showing up in about 33% of logos from the top 100 brands. Red is a close second, but overall, 95% of the top brands use only one or two colors.
- Red: Evokes passion, energy and excitement. It’s also an attention-grabbing color. There’s a theory that so many fast-food restaurants use red in their logos because it increases people’s appetites, but that’s not necessarily the truth.
- Purple: This evokes royalty, sophistication, nostalgia, mystery and spirituality. It’s great for brands that revel in elegance or have magical elements (think: a luxury alcohol brand or astrology blog).
- Blue: This is the most common choice for popular brands, and we see it largely in popular tech brands like Twitter, Facebook and Dropbox. This color is thought to put people at ease and has associations with trust, security and confidence.
- Green: This is popular for healthy or environmentally friendly brands. It gives feelings of serenity, safety, freshness and wealth. Think of BP’s green logo rebrand after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which made it appear committed to the environment, or H&R Block, which uses green to subtly indicate that it is helping you save money on taxes.
- Yellow: Yellow is a color of hope, optimism, motivation, warmth and happiness.
- Orange: Orange is playful, outgoing and fun. It’s a cheerful color with a friendly feeling.
- Brown: This is an earthy color that evokes feelings of strength and stability, but it also reminds people of dirt, so proceed with caution (unless, of course, you’re selling fertilizer).
- Black: This is classic and sophisticated. It signals power and prestige while remaining timeless.
- White: This represents simplicity, purity and cleanliness, making it a standout choice in the health care sector.
You should create a color palette of two or three colors that represent your brand. Use these colors in your logo, your web design and all advertisements and visual imagery your brand produces.
Create a Voice
Even in a small business, numerous people may be representing your company on various platforms. This goes for whoever writes the marketing materials, answers customer service inquiries and posts on social media. Unfortunately, different human beings have different voices, but this muddies a brand image. People want to know a brand like they know a person, so you need a unified voice.
Your brand’s voice should suit the target market. For example, a baby boomer may unsubscribe from a brand that’s constantly lobbing internet humor at them in marketing emails because they just don’t get it, whereas a company geared toward professional solutions for millennial women would be more relatable to consumers if it spoke like an informative gal-pal.
Whatever type of voice you choose, it must be consistent. Integrate this across the board, even in the way you answer your phones and sign your emails. This gives your brand an emotional feel.
Carefully Seek Collaborators
Branding isn’t just about what you look like and what you do. You are the company you keep, which is why you should associate with like-minded organizations and collaborators. This includes the charities to which you donate, which helps the public understand your core values. The wrong associations can leave you with a poor brand image.
For example, internet users called for a boycott of the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A after the company was discovered to have a long history of donating to organizations with alleged anti-LGBTQ beliefs. This was a bad look for a brand whose image revolves around delicious fried chicken and Christian values (they even close on Sundays for this reason). In 2020, they amended their donation strategy to focus on local community food banks and fighting hunger.
When you’re building a brand, you want to create a community. To do this, you can:
- Work with influencers in your target market
- Guest post on like-minded blogs or publications
- Donate to charitable organizations that support your brand’s core values
- Hire employees who share the same values
- Create social media campaigns that encourage engagement from like-minded audience members
Don’t Change (Or at Least Think Hard Before You Do)
Rebranding can be a great way to inject life into a failing, stagnant brand. You should be able to tell when your company needs a rebrand because sales will be lagging and the online conversation will be practically nonexistent. Sometimes, brands also want to do this if they’re changing their mission, changing their product line, expanding or running from the disastrous type of bad press that can bankrupt a business.
As a rule, change is a bad thing when it comes to branding unless you are changing for a clearly defined reason. The most recognizable brands — like Nike, Coca-Cola, Ford and GE — have more or less remained the same throughout the years. This is what makes them so recognizable.
If you do want to update your brand, you can always adopt a sleeker take on your current logo (think: Walmart and Facebook's recent logo changes). Small tweaks are OK because they help a brand remain relevant in an ever-changing market, but complete rebrands should be treated with extreme caution. Consistency is key.
Do Market Research
If you want to be successful, your customers have to like you. This is why market research is a huge part of branding. You need to make sure your choices help create a great customer experience and resonate with your most loyal customers. This requires some extensive research, and you may want to ask your customers what they think by using:
- Online surveys
- Social media
- Focus groups
- Online chats
It’s also important to look at your industry climate as a whole. What is your competition doing with their brand? How do customers best recognize them, and what perceptions actually hurt their image? You can also look at industry publications, databases and consumer research studies to help get a grasp on what works and does not work in your industry.
Bring in the Professionals
Branding agencies are there for a reason, and you may find great value in hiring a professional to at least get you started or help kick off a rebrand. Someone who is well-versed in branding will think of angles you have not, down to the tiniest details. For example, how does your pricing represent your brand, and what about your product releases? How do you create a cohesive brand voice and company culture?
The best branding agencies have already done the market research. They know what your target market wants, and they know how to push your unique selling proposition in a way that makes your company unmistakable, from the logo and voice to the customer experience and community culture.
- CBInsights: The Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail
- Adobe Marketo Engage: What Brand Colors Can Reveal About Your Business
- Business Insider: Here's Why All Fast-Food Signs Are Red
- Investopedia: How Do Brand Image and Marketing Affect Market Share?
- Vox: Chick-Fil-A's Many Controversies, Explained
- Forbes: 11 Branding Tips For A Better Company Image
- Entrepreneur: 9 Tips for Creating an Awesome Brand
Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.