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A company’s success depends on the strength of its brand. Brand campaigns have the power to turn people into lifelong customers, to build engagement, to garner earned media and bolster the bottom line. But no branding activity can exist without, well, a brand. There can be no brand strategy, no brand campaigns, no brand partnerships, until there is a brand identity.
Establishing a brand identity is generally the first step in any branding process, which makes it unfortunate that it’s so challenging. Thankfully, it’s also an exciting an enriching endeavor, and one for which there are well-defined steps and best practices.
Before we go into how to find your brand identity, let’s first establish its definition. As with many brand-related concepts, brand identity is somewhat abstract, and is best explained through analogy: if your personality is your “brand,” all of the things you do to express that personality to the world — your clothes, the jokes you make, your hobbies, etc — are your “brand identity.”
For a company, that means things like your tagline, your logo, your colors, your social media persona, and more. Essentially, it’s how you show the world who you are through concrete assets and communications. It’s the things that make you recognizable to your customers, that forge connections and build trust and loyalty.
It’s important to understand that the product or service you offer is related to, but quite separate from, your brand identity. Take Burt’s Bees as an example. On the most basic level, they are a cosmetics company — but because of their brand identity, they would never be confused with any other company offering cosmetics.
Burt’s Bees consciously chose to distance themselves from the flashy, glamorous brand images generally associated with the type of products they sell, instead creating a brand identity that comes off as down-to-earth and low-key, emphasizing sustainability and responsibility. A Burt’s Bees customer would never choose, say, a L’Oréal product instead. For this reason, creating a strong brand identity is essential.
When you set out to find your brand identity, you’re faced with a blank canvas. So how do you start to fill that canvas with the brushstrokes that define your brand? Let’s get into it.
You know what you’re selling. You can describe the features and advantages of your product or service. But if you’re going to build a successful brand, you need to be working toward something more than just meeting your sales goals. Your brand needs to have a greater purpose that reflects who you are and why you exist.
For example, the brand Oatly sells oat-based milk, yogurt, ice cream, and other dairy alternatives, but their mission statement transcends these products. Their mission is “to make it easy for people to turn what they eat and drink into personal moments of healthy joy without recklessly taxing the planet’s resources in the process.” Like Oatly, you need to understand why your company exists, and then put it into words in a clear and direct mission statement.
While mission and values are related, they’re not the same thing.
If your mission is what you want to achieve, your values inform how you go about achieving it.
They’re the guideposts that steer each decision and shape your trajectory as a company, and they will also be reflected in concrete elements of your products or service. For instance, a company that values sustainability would use recycled packaging materials, and a company that values simplicity would have streamlined and minimalist designs. Get together your branding team to come up with a list of values — no more than five — that guide the company's behavior.
Before you establish who your brand is, you need to have a clear understanding of who your target audience is. Think carefully about the type of customers you want to reach, and then learn everything you can about them:
What are their demographic characteristics?
What are their desires and challenges?
Where do they hang out online?
How do they speak to one another?
What do they want and expect from brands?
While you shouldn’t completely conform your brand identity to consumer desires — your brand should be a living, vibrant entity that’s true to itself — you need to make sure that the brand you’re creating will resonate with the people you’re creating it for.
If your brand is going to stand out and be remembered, it can’t be like every other brand out there. Successful brands have key differentiators that set them apart from the competition and that create loyalists who would never accept a different brand, even if the actual product or service is comparable.
To accomplish this, you need to become familiar with the competitive landscape, researching brands who offer a similar promise to consumers and figuring out why someone would choose you over them.
What will set you apart from them?
How are you unique?
Look at the current market and pinpoint where there are gaps that your brand can fill. These gaps can become your particular niche, and this niche will inform the story of who you are as a brand.
Now it’s time to get into the real fun part of brand identity. Just like with a person’s identity, a brand’s identity includes specific personality traits. To establish these traits, branding teams often use “personality sliders”, a strategy tool where two opposing personality traits are put at different ends of a line, and you determine at which point between them your brand sits.
For instance, is your brand more “friendly” or “authoritative”? More “approachable” or “elite”? You can also simply brainstorm on a whiteboard, working with your team to write down adjectives that you associate with your brand, then narrowing it down to 3-5 core traits.
Once you’ve figured out who your brand is, you need to know how you speak. What sort of words do you use? How does your language adapt to different mediums (ie, Instagram vs. Facebook vs. email newsletters vs. website copy vs. search ads)? It can be helpful to describe your brand language and also provide “do” and “don’t” examples.
For instance: “Our brand speaks with bold, cheeky language. DO say “The only workout you’ll ACTUALLY like,” DON’T say “We think you’ll really love our workouts!” Your brand’s language plays out in brand voice and tone, which are key attributes that reflect brand identity. Learn more about how to establish your brand’s voice and tone here.
When your brand identity reflects who you are as a company and resonates with the right target audience, your brand will thrive. Of course, the work doesn’t stop once you’ve found your brand identity — but with a solid sense of who your brand is, you’re equipped with a clear roadmap for how to navigate the brand challenges that lie ahead.
Would you like to get step-by-step guidance on how to get started with documenting your brand identity? Get our free Brand Book and Style Guide resources!
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