What Is Brand Marketing? & How to Build Your Brand Identity in 5 Steps
Table of Contents
iPhone or Android. Which do you like better? And would you ever consider switching to the other?
Some people feel so strongly about their smartphone preferences that they wouldn’t even think about trying other brands. Like Stuart from Cincinnati, who, in a survey pitting iPhones against Androids, said, “I don’t wanna be the person in the group making texts green. No one likes that person.”
In the same survey, some people even admitted to having less respect for users of the other type—oof. For better or worse, this level of loyalty speaks to the power of brand marketing.
What exactly is that? Brand marketing is a way of promoting your product by shaping perceptions of your company’s overall brand. This often involves defining your company’s mission, story, brand voice, and design.
With a poor brand, customers won’t want any affiliation with your company. They might see your product as not being worth their money, or worse, a scam. But done well, good branding does the opposite—it makes your product desirable, with customers naturally spreading the word and even lining up for more from your business.
Below, we’ll explain why brand is growth’s secret weapon. You’ll learn about the key components of a successful brand marketing strategy and how to define your own brand for stand-out results.
- Why companies need to invest in brand marketing
- The 4 crucial parts of any brand identity
- 5 steps for building an effective brand marketing strategy
- Examples of strong branding
Why companies need to invest in brand marketing
No matter what product or service you sell, you also sell an experience—and branding is what creates this experience. Think of brand as the sum of all the touchpoints between your company and its customers.
Without a strong brand, it's difficult for startups to grow past a certain stage. Even if they're tapping the right marketing channels, they can only go so far before hitting a wall.
Successful brand marketing helps level up growth. It does this by creating:
- Brand recognition and awareness. Millions of companies compete for consumers’ attention every hour of every day, and only the ones that resonate stand a chance at creating long-term recall.
- Customer loyalty. Strong branding creates an emotional connection, often by telling stories. When we see ourselves in these stories, companies feel more relatable—which in turn makes us more likely to become loyal customers. A good example: The “Get a Mac” campaign told a story about who uses a Mac vs. a PC—and is perhaps partly why some people feel so strongly about Apple.
- Differentiation. Branding gives people a mental shortcut by separating your company from others. Think about how people recognize logos on the roadside as different restaurants and businesses even without seeing their names spelled out. Done well, branding distinguishes your company from others, and even new products from old ones.
Consider how people share photos of their Starbucks drinks on social media. Starbucks doesn’t sell only coffee; it sells a trendy self-image. People order from Starbucks to project that identity.
In many cases, a strong brand makes it possible for an inferior product to win over more customers than a superior product—and even to charge more. In a blind taste test by Consumer Reports magazine, McDonald’s coffee beat Starbucks—but that doesn’t stop Starbucks from being the most popular coffee chain in the world. Neither does its higher price point.
In short, strong brand marketing can amplify your business’s growth. It increases the perceived value of your product and your market’s willingness to pay. And it enhances the product experience. This all leads to higher conversion rates, retention, and customer lifetime value.
When does my company need to focus on branding?
Building a brand isn’t just for mature companies. Every business benefits, especially early-stage companies that are:
- Entering a saturated market. Think of the thousands of retailers selling apparel around the world. Though many sell yoga pants, consumers are drawn specifically to Lululemon’s because of its stylish, community-focused branding.
- Competing against a very established name. When given the option, it’s easier to trust a familiar brand over an unfamiliar one, even if the no-name brand has a better product. Branding gives underdogs a fighting chance. It’s how the investing app Robinhood built an identity around democratizing finance (down to its name!) to challenge long-standing brokerages.
You may wonder at what point companies should prioritize building their brand. We recommend developing your brand identity at three key stages:
- During product development: Since branding influences product experience, you should develop a high-level framework of your brand early on. This should include a rough idea of who your company is and what it stands for.
- While validating your product in the market: You don’t need to do a lot of active brand work in this phase. Instead, use your initial brand concept to guide product tests and collect feedback from users. You may realize that your early brand idea doesn’t resonate with your target market, or that it attracts unexpected segments. If you’re seeing poor results, move back to the product development phase and modify your original concept.
- While gaining early traction: Once your company begins acquiring a small but consistent stream of customers, revisit your brand in more detail. Work on refining your messaging and design.
Important note: Brand marketing is a long-term process. Don’t try to nail down all brand details early on. The point is to develop a rough brand identity in tandem with your product—then focus on testing your product and getting user feedback.
Consider Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most famous companies. It spends $4 billion per year on advertising to maintain its brand name and keep it top of mind.
Once you’ve developed traction for your company, continue investing in brand work. Its effects will trickle down to your conversions and click-through rates, transforming customers into repeat buyers and brand ambassadors who are eager to share their experience.
The 4 crucial parts of any brand identity
From your company name to its tagline and more, there are a lot of components to branding. Companies shouldn’t get bogged down in the details, though. Instead, we advise focusing on these four foundational elements:
- Mission statement
- Brand story
- Brand voice
- Brand design
1. Mission statement
Your company’s mission statement is a short description (usually no more than one sentence) of its main goals. It serves both an external and internal purpose:
- Externally, it communicates what your company cares about to better relate to customers.
- Internally, it guides strategic decisions about your product, business model, ideal audience, and acquisition channels.
Here are a few examples of companies’ missions:
- Slack: To make work life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.
- Allbirds: To prove that comfort, good design, and sustainability don't have to be mutually exclusive.
- Tesla: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.
Notice how Slack’s mission doesn’t mention a “messaging app.” Similarly, Allbirds doesn’t say anything about footwear or apparel, and Tesla doesn’t refer to its electric cars or solar panels.
The takeaway here: Your mission statement should be a concise, high-level statement. There’s no need to get into the weeds of the products or services you create.
Think: How are you contributing to your community or world? Not: What are you selling?
2. Brand story
Think of your brand story as a detailed expansion of your mission statement. It’s a narrative about how your company came to be and why it does what it does.
The most effective brand stories stir emotion. As humans, we’re drawn to stories because they engage and inspire us. They help us process information in a much more memorable way than simply reading a list of statistics.
Based on our observations, there are two common approaches for framing a brand story:
- Origin: This approach focuses on how a company came to be and the people behind it. It’s best for those with interesting or unusual backgrounds. For instance, a broke dumpster diver named Sophia Amoruso opened an eBay store for her vintage finds—which eventually became the Nasty Gal fashion brand.
- Consumer-focused: This approach places customers at the center of the brand story, describing how they inspired a product or how a product fits into their lives. These stories work best for companies that have more straightforward origins, e.g., you saw an unmet need and created a product to address it.
Neither approach is better than the other—they’re simply different storytelling methods. That said, both approaches should tie your company’s success to the customer in some way.
Here’s an example of an origin story from the eco-friendly toilet paper company Who Gives A Crap:
Using the origin approach, Who Gives A Crap tells the story of how its founders were appalled to learn about poor sanitation around the world—which led them to create a crowdfunding campaign. The story addresses its customers by noting how the company’s supporters have helped build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. So despite initially focusing on its founders, Who Gives A Crap’s story positions customers as a part of its success.
Companies that don’t have an emotionally compelling history might struggle to create an origin story that feels authentic. In that case, it’s better to write your brand story using a consumer-focused approach.
Here’s an example from the ballpoint pen company BIC.
Notice how BIC describes itself as giving consumers “the power of creative expression.” The story revolves around BIC’s goal to “answer a fundamental consumer need” rather than details about its founders. It’s inspiring without being over the top.
Regardless of how your company got started, your brand story shouldn’t just be about getting your product onto more shelves. Give it some emotion so it can resonate more deeply with your audience.
Consider these questions:
- How does your product serve customers?
- What value does your product provide?
- Why should customers choose your company over a direct competitor?
One last note: Your brand story doesn’t need to be long. Who Gives A Crap’s is 235 words; BIC’s is 140. Aim for under 250 words. Keep it simple.
3. Brand voice
Your brand voice is how your company would sound if it were a person. It comes across in all your company’s communications, including its:
- Website: blog, site popups, product pages, even error pages
- Emails: promotional messages, newsletters, order confirmations
- Customer support interactions
- Social media posts
A single adjective like “casual” isn’t enough. You should specify more details like your brand’s tone of voice and the vocabulary it uses.
Two good examples of defined brand voices: Dove and Old Spice, two companies in the personal care space.
Both have casual brand voices, but their personalities are very different. While Dove focuses on empowerment, Old Spice leans into absurdity. Given Dove’s mission to help women develop a positive relationship with their appearance, it shouldn’t use the same voice as Old Spice.
4. Brand design
Brand design revolves around the visual elements that represent your company. Compared to the other branding components we’ve highlighted, it can be the most expensive. That’s because brand design requires a high level of both skill and creativity.
Though it can encompass a lot, here are the most important components:
- A unique and recognizable logo design
- A defined color palette with 2-4 colors
- 2-3 complementary fonts as your company’s typography
- Company iconography (these are the graphic symbols that represent specific actions, like a shopping cart, messaging bubble, etc.)
- Custom imagery that illustrates your product, its benefits, etc.
- A cohesive website that uses all of the above assets
These design pieces matter because you’ll need them in your marketing campaigns. But while you can develop your company’s mission statement, story, and brand voice internally, brand design often requires outsourcing.
That can get expensive—as much as $50,000-$150,000 if you go with a high-quality agency.
So we recommend working on your mission statement, story, and brand voice yourself and spending no more than $5,000 on brand design. If you’re on a tight budget, use 99designs, Upwork, or Fiverr and focus on a logo, brand colors, typography, and iconography. These platforms won’t give you the best assets, but they at least offer a “minimum viable brand.”
There’s no need to prioritize getting a custom website and images because there are cost-effective solutions like website builders and stock photo sites. Consider investing more in brand design when you can afford it.
5 steps for building an effective brand marketing strategy
Earlier, we laid out the three key stages when companies should invest in brand work: during product development, product validation, and early traction.
But how exactly do you go about creating and executing a brand marketing strategy? Below, we cover five important steps:
- Research your target market
- Study your competitors
- Develop brand guidelines
- Invest in content marketing
- Track how consumers are responding
1. Research your target market
Branding can’t succeed if you don’t take your target audience into account—who they are and what they’re looking for.
Remember, brand shapes people’s perceptions of your company. So if your branding doesn’t consider the market, you might alienate potential customers, or even offend them.
Here are a few ways to do market research.
- Survey or interview different groups of people. Don’t focus only on who you believe your customer persona to be. Collecting responses from different people may reveal new insight about who your target market could include.
- Do field research. Depending on your product, there are lots of ways to go about doing this. If you’re creating and selling a dog toy, for example, you could visit local dog parks to see what items owners bring for their dogs to play with. You might even ask around to find out what toys their dogs like best.
- Review existing customer data. If you’ve already launched your product and made some sales, look through your customer data for any noticeable trends. Where are most of your consumers based—in cities, suburbs, or rural areas? And how old do they tend to be? You might then consider shaping your branding to attract others that fit the same profile.
Be sure to do your research during product development. It can uncover insights about how to establish a stronger emotional connection with your target customer. You can find out their values, preferences, and the channels they interact with most—and then build your brand marketing plan accordingly.
2. Study your competitors
Besides your target audience, your brand strategy should also account for your competitors.
Although you can’t tap into their data, there are plenty of other research methods you can use to study their brand image and how people are responding to them:
- Look at their websites and sign up for their newsletters.
- Create a private Twitter list of your competitors to track their tweets without following them. Also take a close look at their other social media accounts.
- If your competitors run ads, chances are you’ll get retargeting ads after visiting their sites. You can also use Facebook Ads Library to see their Facebook and Instagram ads.
- Interview or survey people who use competitors’ products. Use Slack, Facebook groups, etc., to find them.
- Look up reviews about your competitors on YouTube and sites like G2 and Trustpilot.
We suggest studying your competitors alongside your target market during product development.
Pay special attention to competitors’ brand positioning—how they differentiate themselves from other brands and products. What are the key value props they emphasize? What do their brand voices sound like? And how are customers engaging with them?
The goal here is to study how competitors are appealing to your customers—and find opportunities for differentiation.
3. Develop brand guidelines
Establishing a cohesive brand voice across all your marketing materials is tough, especially if you work with multiple writers and content creators. To get around this challenge, create a set of brand guidelines for your team.
Brand guidelines lay out your company’s voice and design details, like your brand colors and font. Since they may change over time, we recommend creating rough guidelines while validating your product in the market. If your early brand concept doesn’t strike a chord, iterate on them. Refine these guidelines further as your company gains traction.
For some inspiration, take a look at these select phrases from three major companies’ guidelines.
- Mailchimp: “We speak like the experienced and compassionate business partner we wish we’d had way back when. We treat every hopeful brand seriously. We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them.”
- Tripadvisor: “We don’t boss you around, or confuse you with jargon—we just make it easy for you to find what you need, when you need it. … We share our enthusiasm in an authentic way that balances the positive with the pragmatic.”
- Dell: “Speaking with the frankness one would expect from a friend, the tone of Dell is engaging and candid. We are bold enough to let the facts speak for themselves.”
Early-stage companies might not need such a detailed style guide. Still, it’s helpful to put together a doc outlining your mission statement and brand voice. These two components are critical for guiding content creators in making marketing collateral that accurately reflects your brand.
4. Invest in content marketing
Content marketing is often the strongest lever for brand marketing. Why? Content is all about messaging. You can use it to convey your company’s brand voice and tell its story.
The hardest part is creating great content. Companies generally have two options:
- Manage content projects internally, generally through in-house marketers and content creators
- Outsource content projects, often to freelance writers, agencies, or consultants
Once your company begins to gain some early traction, we recommend hiring at least one dedicated content marketer.
Why? Someone needs to fully own all your brand’s content marketing efforts and be invested in using content to grow your company. Freelancers may be juggling competing priorities, especially if they’re working with multiple clients. Even with well-developed brand guidelines, their work may miss the mark—or require a decent amount of editing.
Later on, you can grow that single content marketer’s role into overseeing a team of full-time writers and/or freelancers. Or make them the point person for working with an agency.
5. Track how consumers are responding to your marketing efforts
With every new marketing campaign you launch as your company grows, you should check your audience’s temperature. That is, see how they’re responding on public channels like Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms.
This temperature check should include both direct interactions with your brand—like when users comment on your YouTube video or tweet at you—and brand mentions you’re not tagged in.
A few ways to do this for free:
- Use TweetDeck to monitor specific keywords and hashtags related to your company, industry, and product.
- Find out mentions of your brand, CEO, product, etc., using Twitter’s advanced search feature.
- Set up Google Alerts for your brand, product, and topics related to your niche.
How your audience is responding should guide your future brand marketing efforts as well as your product’s direction. When companies ignore consumers, they risk losing their customer base.
Case in point: When Disney World announced its new paid Genie+ service, which offers line-cutting, it got 13 times as many dislikes as likes on YouTube (before YouTube made dislikes private). This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Leading up to Disney’s announcement, employees and customers alike had been vocal about the theme park’s greedy reputation for years. The service—yet another cost to pay—just re-emphasized that reputation.
Examples of strong branding
Examples of corporate branding are everywhere—but they don’t all land the same. So which companies should you look to for inspiration?
For starters, we can think of at least three from different verticals that take brand marketing to the next level. Find out more in our bite-sized case studies below.
Dasani. Evian. Fiji. Smartwater. It might surprise you how many bottled water brands exist. Given this competition, it doesn’t seem like an easy industry to enter.
That didn’t stop Mike Cessario, though. After testing a video ad to gauge market interest, he started the canned water company Liquid Death, which began selling to consumers in January 2019.
Within the next two years, Liquid Death raised more than $100 million in funding and began selling in major supermarket chains.
There’s no doubt that Liquid Death’s success comes in part from its branding. Its product offers a fresh take—canned water instead of bottled—but it also leans into an edgy and ironic image.
“We’re just a funny water company who hates corporate marketing as much as you do,” Liquid Death’s about page reads. “Our evil mission is to make people laugh and get more of them to drink more water more often, all while helping to kill plastic pollution.”
The company’s dislike for corporate marketing certainly comes across in its own marketing campaigns. In its first viral video, a professional actor waterboards an executive, complaining that marketers have “tricked you into thinking that water is just some girly drink for yoga moms.”
The video’s dark humor is reflected throughout Liquid Death’s branding. Consider its tagline, “Murder your thirst.” Or its skull-themed rewards program.
In keeping with its overall brand, Liquid Death rewards its customers with skulls whenever they buy, share, or promote the product.
Though Liquid Death could simply focus its marketing on its canned water, it’s gone further and expanded its product offerings to include:
- Branded merchandise: Liquid Death tees, hoodies, hats, even belt buckles
- Cutie Polluties: Cute stuffed animals with a grotesque spin—they’re ocean animals “mutilated by single-use plastic”
- The Murder Head Death Club: 6,666 severed head NFTs, each “an exact replica of a thirst that has been savagely murdered by Liquid Death”
In doing so, Liquid Death has become a lot more than a company disrupting the bottled water industry. Its brand is the product. And people proudly associate themselves with Liquid Death because of this image—you can find them on the company’s Instagram.
Liquid Death is a great example of how a company can challenge the status quo at both the product and brand level. It makes an otherwise mundane product a thousand times more entertaining and rallies a strong community around environmentalism in a fresh way.
Although dating apps are presumably meant to set up couples, many people criticize them for creating a casual, anti-commitment dating culture. In 2015, Vanity Fair even published an article decrying apps like Tinder for creating a “dating apocalypse.”
Hinge launched in 2012, the same year as Tinder. Initially, it used the same swipeable model as its rival. But alarmed by the Vanity Fair article, founder Justin McLeod felt compelled to take action.
“It was the first among many realizations that Hinge had morphed into something other than what I originally set out to build,” McLeod wrote in an email to Vanity Fair journalist.
So McLeod and his team worked on redefining both Hinge’s brand and product—and after nearly a year of dedicated research, the app relaunched in 2016. Moving away from swipes, the new interface focuses on user “stories,” giving people opportunities to build out their profiles with more information than before.
This change is also reflected in its branding. Here are a few ways Hinge now differentiates itself from other dating platforms:
- It calls itself “the dating app designed to be deleted.” To cement this identity, Hinge even brought its app icon to life as a character named Hingie that dies whenever a couple sparks a relationship.
- Wanting to emphasize the science behind its app, Hinge points to its “acclaimed Nobel-Prize-winning algorithm” and team of “love scientists.” For anyone in search of lasting romance, this gives Hinge a lot more credibility—and it also underscores the app’s mission.
- While one might expect the emphasis on algorithms and research to make dating more robotic than magical, Hinge avoids this by calling out its brand values. According to its mission page, “relationships are at the core of everything” Hinge does.
Compared to its competition, Hinge stands out because of its earnest dedication to matchmaking. And the proof is in the pudding: One study shows that although Hinge earns a little more than 10% of Tinder’s revenue, it’s responsible for 78% as many engagements.
There’s a chicken-and-egg effect here—does Hinge actually create better matches because of its algorithm? Or is there a self-selection bias because its branding attracts more serious daters?
Either way, Hinge’s rebrand strategy has no doubt played a big role in setting it apart from its competition and attracting users. While many dating apps tout themselves as the place to find a match, Hinge goes a step further with its sincere branding. It welcomes anyone looking to make a genuine connection and emphasizes the quality and depth of its connections over sheer quantity.
The customer service SaaS company Zendesk stood out when it first launched in 2007 with its bright green color palette, Buddha mascot, and playful messaging—a far cry from stiffer and more formal B2B companies. Its mission: help businesses deliver exceptional customer service.
It was attention-grabbing, but Zendesk’s team realized the limitations of their branding over time. For one, the mascot risked being perceived as offensive or disrespectful—and trying to build a story around the character felt “weird,” according to one of its founders. It also clashed with their mission to create good service.
So in 2016, Zendesk rebranded. It shifted to a simpler geometric brand design, even creating mini-logos to represent each of its different services.
As a result, Zendesk could:
- Show off its expanded product offerings. Its previous motto, “Love your helpdesk,” was replaced with “Relationships are complicated”—pointing to the different ways Zendesk can help with customer service.
- Better connect with customers. Since Zendesk’s team had avoided creating stories around their old mascot for fear of offending people, getting rid of it meant new storytelling potential.
Throughout the rebrand, Zendesk’s voice remained the same. It continued its playful and conversational messaging, but with a new aesthetic that aligned better with its mission.
Brandland, the company’s detailed style guide, emphasizes the importance of communicating in a charming and “humblident” (that is, humble yet confident) voice. Zendesk doesn’t talk down to users, and it tries to avoid being hyperbolic. In fact, Brandland specifically advises against repeatedly calling Zendesk “the best.”
Here are a few examples of how this voice appears on its website:
- “Champions of awesome free trials” (homepage)
- “As a company, we roll up our sleeves to plant roots in the communities we call home.” (about page)
- “This is your gateway to the magical land of Zendesk, where we help you improve relationships with your customers.” (demo page)
- “Our sale just got Suite-r” (homepage)
Like Hinge, Zendesk shows how brand identities can evolve over time. With its rebranding, it could better appeal to users without offending them, all the while continuing to differentiate itself from traditionally stuffy B2B branding.
Brand marketing campaigns aren’t quick and easy. They may require intensive research and lots of planning. But done well, they can cultivate a winning image and reputation—one that customers ultimately remember and develop brand loyalty toward.
Long-term brand management is a must to build these customer relationships. But starting out, we advise focusing on your mission statement, company story, brand voice, and design. Hire at least one team member to lead the charge in content marketing. Then check back with your customers regularly to see how your brand efforts are landing.
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