Think of a strong brand that you know – what makes them stand out above the rest?
It might be their brand story, their emotional impact, their social media presence, their products or any of a number of other factors. What it all adds up to though, is an effective brand strategy.
A defined strategy helps you to tell your story, to market your brand effectively and to attract the right target audience. Your long-term growth prospects may hinge on your ability to craft a strong branding strategy.
Small businesses often look at larger brands and think “but I’m not like them.” Of course you’re not, and that’s part of what makes your particular brand unique. Brand strategy is just as important for you as it is for the big guys, so how can you develop one effectively?
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What is brand strategy?
A brand strategy encompasses several different elements that go into creating a brand identity for your business. This means crafting the perception that your target market has of you and differentiating your brand from competitors.
A strong brand strategy is memorable and attractive to the target audience for your products or services. It defines what you stand for, your voice and your value proposition.
When people think of a brand, they often consider memorable logos, such as the McDonald’s “golden arches” or Apple’s fruit logo. While logos, colors and slogans are part of branding, they are simply the creative elements, not the entire branding story. A strong branding strategy goes much deeper, through the steps we look at below:
#1. Start with your target audience
Who is the target audience you need to reach with your brand strategy? A successful business generally starts with some kind of problem that they can solve better than others – that problem is solved for someone who represents an ideal customer.
If you were to skip considering your target audience before defining your brand strategy, you are unlikely to reach the right people. What if Apple had said something like “play music anywhere” instead of the iconic “1000 songs in your pocket” when they launched the iPod? The first statement is much less impactful, while the second is likely to grab the attention of a certain market.
It’s a matter of understanding who you are targeting and what will appeal to them. This means you need to define:
- Audience demographics – Age, gender, marital status, religion etc.
- Psychographics – Values, beliefs, personality, lifestyle…
- Their industry or business
- Geographic areas.
A successful brand knows their target audience very well first because they can then craft the brand strategy for that audience.
#2. Look at competitors’ branding strategy
In most cases, even companies with the most innovative ideas will have competitors. Understanding how those competitors operate is an important part of market research for your branding strategy.
First of all, you need to identify who your competitors are. They may be direct competitors (selling something substantially similar to what you sell), or indirect competitors (they sell an alternative method or product that will satisfy the same consumer need). In any case, their target audience will be substantially similar to your own.
One thing to pay attention to in your market research is the keywords that brands are targeting and getting found for. Who is targeting the same keywords as you? One clue that you need to re-evaluate is if companies that have nothing to do with your industry are winning on the keywords you’re using. This can indicate that the language you’re using isn’t a match for what your customers search for. Also look for keywords that your competitors use that you’ve never thought to target.
To assess your competitor’s brand strategy, look at their overall:
- Brand positioning – How their brand is perceived in the marketplace
- Marketing strategy – The channels and strategies they use to engage an audience
- Brand messaging – The language and messaging style they use.
You’re not doing this to copy competitors, but to make an overall assessment of what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and how you might compete as a brand.
It’s also worth noting that this shouldn’t be a one-time exercise – “competitor audits” are often a regular exercise for successful brands. You might conduct competitor research when you have a new product coming out, or when there have been significant industry changes, for example.
#3. Establish your brand identity and values
Now that you understand who your target audience is, what will appeal to them and how you might develop a brand identity to be competitive, you can establish what that identity and your brand values will be.
To borrow a definition from HubSpot:
“A brand identity is made up of what your brand says, what your values are, how you communicate your product, and what you want people to feel when they interact with it. Essentially, your brand identity is the personality of your business and a promise to your customers.”
Your brand values help you to make an emotional impact and establish customer loyalty. People like to support brands that share values they identify with. These could be almost anything – quality, integrity, value, innovation… Choose your top five that you’d like to communicate in your messaging.
#4. Define a voice for your brand messaging
Brand messaging is about what you say as well as how you say it. Your brand’s tone of voice might be professional, fun, irreverent, classy, casual, passionate, quirky… The point is that your voice needs to be consistent in all of your marketing channels and appealing to your target audience.
Your voice determines the type of language you will use on any branding materials. For example, let’s say a company with a professional voice and one with an irreverent voice share the value of quality:
- Professional – “We take pride in delivering the highest quality widgets.”
- Irreverent – “We take quality widgets seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously!”
Consider some of the most enduring brands – Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Apple… They all have a strong brand voice that is delivered consistently in their messaging. Over time, they have developed “brand equity” – value derived from a recognizable brand name. Consumers will gravitate to them because they know the name and recognize their branding. If they had changed their voice or branding constantly, they wouldn’t have developed that brand equity.
#5. Develop your value proposition
Successful brand strategy requires a clearly defined value proposition (or propositions). These are the main selling points of your brand that help to distinguish you from everyone else.
An effective value proposition should:
- Tap into the needs of your target audience
- Describe how the benefits of your product or service are valuable
- Differentiate your business as the best/preferred choice.
Your value proposition taps into the problems you want to solve for people. It is different to a slogan or tagline because it identifies why you are better than the rest. It may even hint at the reasons why your competitors are lacking. Here are some examples:
- Uber – “Uber is the smartest way to get around. One tap and a car comes directly to you. Your driver knows exactly where to go. And payment is completely cashless.”
- Unbounce – “Build, publish and A/B test landing pages without I.T.”
- Target – “Expect more, pay less.”
#6. Set brand management guidelines
Your brand guidelines help to ensure that you maintain order and uniformity in your marketing messages. These can encompass every aspect of your brand identity, including visual guidelines (images, colors, fonts and logo usage), key messaging and the platforms you will use. It helps to have these guidelines documented so you can easily share them with others who need to understand them.
Here are some of the things you might include in your guidelines:
- Examples of the types of images that represent your brand
- Guidelines for where your logo should be used and in what size
- Your brand story – a simple summary that gives people insight into your brand
- The users of your brand and how they are to use it (for example employees, partners and agencies)
- Your key messages and voice
- Your color palette
- Your typography
- Your voice
- Your website guidelines.
#7. Cultivate a consistent marketing strategy
With your overall brand strategy and guidelines in place, it’s important to cultivate a consistent marketing strategy. This includes any online marketing strategies along with what you do offline.
Every business needs to be seen consistently – if you’re a small business establishing a brand identity, it’s probably even more important for you than for the big brands. Developing a marketing calendar and sticking to it can help. For example if you’re producing content marketing, this should be on a very regular schedule. The same goes for your social media marketing efforts.
Plan out campaigns throughout the year that will help your brand to cement your positioning. You might not be a large company, but you can generate good growth by staying on-message and being consistent.
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As a final note, while it’s important to maintain a consistent brand identity as a whole, that doesn’t mean that everything should remain static. Keep an eye on what’s happening in the market as well as any customer feedback you get – you may need to tweak certain elements as you go (your value proposition/s, for example).
Brand strategy should be clearly defined by businesses large and small. It may be your competitive advantage – not all companies have gone through this exercise. What may your competitors be missing?