Why do we grab one cereal brand in the supermarket aisle, ignoring a near-identical one? Why is a car brand on everyone’s wish-list one decade and forgotten the next – even if the quality is no different? Why do some great products get bypassed, while less-worthy ones snaffle all the attention?
It’s called perception, and it’s what goes right after you’ve built a solid platform for your brand.
That platform starts deep below the surface – way, waaaay deeper than the logo, brand colour, tagline or anything else – and extends to every interaction with the brand. You know your product or service has a solid brand platform when it’s viewed as authentic, with a story that customers feel they’re part of, and a recognisable emotion felt every time they interact.
This platform should be an important part of your brand strategy – the roadmap of tactics your business uses to address its ongoing challenges and ambitions.
Why does all this matter? Because no matter the sector you’re in, chances are you’re competing against a sea of equally valid competitors. And you’re all pitching to the same highly informed, highly connected customers. These people can describe a brand in a single adjective – ‘the bogan one/the old-school one/the posh one’ – and know exactly how they’ll feel after engaging with it.
What’s worse, to paraphrase someone cleverer than me, none of them woke up this morning wanting to hear from your brand.
Get too earnest, and you’ll bore them away – all your competitors are also claiming to be innovative, dynamic, passionate, sustainable, results-driven and at least 20 other clichés.
Overload on information – your certifications, track records, technology and a great team – and you’re just as dull. A bit like telling a first date what colour carpet you want for the house, after you both get married.
That’s because the decision to buy is more subconscious and emotional than it is logical. Old-school advertisers know this, a recent Harvard survey reaffirmed it, and you’re going to work on this now, by exploring the emotional triggers you can build into your brand platform.
We suggest allocating at least four hours for this work. Two hours to get the broad strokes in place with your team; another hour to test it among your closest stakeholders; and an hour at the end to refine everything.
Let’s start at the beginning with brand differentiation (sometimes also termed brand position, unique selling proposition or a number of other things). Say you are an online grocer. Are you the gourmet’s choice? Perhaps you’re about low-allergen foods? Or your focus is on bulk bargains?
Determine what you want to be known for, even if you do offer some items outside this definition. This article on Entrepreneur.com gives a good simple tool for those working out the differentiation part themselves.
You might also call this brand purpose, mission, vision or the ‘why’ of your brand (thanks Simon Sinek) or something else. Again, different strategists work with different models, because not all of them fit all tasks.
Write down your purpose as a statement, then polish until it’s around three or five words. And no, your reason for being won’t be, ‘Because we can’t think of anything else we’d rather do.’
If you’re still struggling to come up with something meaningful, think about your purpose from a conflict perspective. What annoys you about competitors in this space? What do you fight against every day, to be unlike these guys?
Finally, replace any bigger words with one- and two-syllable words, and you’ll have quite a powerful mantra. There’s a great article on Inc.com explaining how to simplify language for effectiveness.
After clarifying your reason for being, you’ll have a valuable yardstick that will help you make important business decisions under pressure. Should you add that product line, agree to that collab, expand in that area, or upskill your people in a skill? Go back to your reason for being, and you’ll have the answer.
Supporting your brand’s reason for being is a meaningful set of brand values. Can you imagine the vibrant suite of Atlassian products, without the company’s bold commitment to shaking up corporate tech? Or the cheery wink of MailChimp’s mascot, Freddie, if they weren’t first promising to be friendly and down-to-earth?
Your brand values are the principles that will guide such behaviour. To uncover values, you might start with a block of flashcards containing 30 or more possible values. Try this list of 100 possibilities to get you started. Gradually, whittle the number down to the top 10 and then five. Finally, rewrite the values so they reflect your brand voice. (We’ll talk about voice further below).
Brand values help not just externally, to position yourself within the market, but internally to keep teams focused. For example, continuing our online grocer example, having a value such as ‘Be pure’ would prevent the team from adding cheap staples to your gourmet’s catalogue – diluting your authenticity in the process.
Once you’ve confirmed your values, survey your team and some brand fans to find out how your branding and product makes them feel. Do their honest descriptions align with the values you’ve described?
This is about understanding the psychology, lives and interests of your target market, not just their demographics. You’re not just aiming at, say, all professionals aged over 35. You’re targeting urban over-40s who work full-time, watch The Chaser and value ethical farming practices. You can see how that narrower segmentation will inspire much clearer messaging.
How many customer segments should you have? That depends on how big your business is. Our rule of thumb is to only have as many as you can recall in a conversation. Speak with these people regularly, and capture their feedback at every opportunity – social media, post-purchase surveys, targeted offers – to make sure they remain your biggest fans.
You’ve arrived at one of our favourite stages – describing your brand personality. This is also a vital ingredient of defining your brand voice, which we’ll cover next. A useful tool to prod your thinking is the 12 brand archetypes model. Other tools to consider is the analogy approach, where you think about the qualities that certain cars, people or products have that are synonymous with your brand. For example, if one construction firm proclaimed itself the 24-Carat gold Rolex of its category, while another was more like a Casio, the difference in their branding would be obvious – status symbol against everyday workhorse.
There’s lots of other reading available online, to help you decide whether your brand is the coolly authoritative one, the nurturing character, the gutsy tearaway or anything else.
With your brand platform in place, your team can now decide whether the existing brand elements still align with your objectives – whether you need a light refresh, or a dramatically different direction. You’re also ready to develop the brand experience, language, visuals and other content supporting your brand’s core position. We’ll cover those areas in the next few articles, so make sure to check back.