How do you build, maintain, and grow a strong brand? It’s a delicate dance. As you surely know, a brand is not simply a logo or tagline. It’s the composite of many elements.
Although your “brand” is mostly intangible, it is your responsibility to guard. Every decision your company makes affects your brand. And without a unifying vision, you’re likely to dilute or damage it, whether through inconsistent messaging, ineffective marketing, or ill-informed business choices. So how do you effectively avoid common pitfalls and grow into the future? With a documented brand strategy.
What Is a Brand Strategy?
In essence, it’s your strategy for how you (and your team) will build, shape, and share your brand. It’s the articulation of what your brand is and aspires to be, the purpose it serves, and how you communicate it to the world. Tl;dr? It’s a documented plan for brand success.
Why Do You Need a Brand Strategy?
A brand strategy is the plan for how you will connect your company to the people it serves—those who work for it and those who support it through their patronage. This is an important series of relationships, so it’s important to be intentional.
The customer-brand dynamic has significantly changed over the last century—even the last decade. It’s evolved from a transactional relationship based on product features to an emotional relationship based on shared beliefs and principles. According to the 2017 Cone Communications CSR Study, 87% of consumers stated they would purchase a product based on brand values.
For brands to succeed, they must skillfully attract and build genuine relationships with people in an authentic and transparent way. But if you, as a brand, don’t know who you are or how to communicate it, you can’t form those relationships. That’s why having a brand strategy matters.
It’s not just about your customer relationship either. Having a brand strategy also helps you build a healthier business. A 2016 Imperative/LinkedIn study found that 85% of companies with a clearly articulated and understood purpose experienced positive growth, while 42% of companies that didn’t experienced a drop in revenue.
Beyond the bottom line, a brand strategy also helps you cultivate a happier company culture and stronger relationships with your employees. According to the Imperative/LinkedIn study, 73% of purpose-driven employees are satisfied with their job. When you work for a company with a well-articulated brand strategy and a deep understanding of its values and vision, it is easier and more enjoyable to work toward achieving those goals.
(Unfortunately, according to the 2017 State of Branding Report, only 51% of employees were familiar with their company’s brand strategy.)
How to Create a Brand Strategy
Although having a documented brand strategy is so important and so beneficial, not every brand has one. (According to On Brand Magazine’s 2017 State of Branding Report, 21% of respondents didn’t.)
In some ways, it’s understandable. If you’ve done any sort of Googling on brand strategy, you’ll find a million different listicles, diagrams, and thought pieces about what you should and shouldn’t include in a brand strategy.
Frankly, most of them are confusing, redundant, or unnecessarily complicated. (We know this firsthand, as it took us nearly a decade to actually document one.) When time, money, and energy are in short supply, it’s easy to want to backburner a brand strategy. But that only continues the chaos.
If you’re ready to create a brand strategy but don’t know where to start, you’re in the right place. To streamline and consolidate the brand strategy process—which can already feel overwhelming—we’ve created a simplified framework and step-by-step process to walk you through creating your brand strategy, and we’ve included our best tips, examples, exercises, and templates to make the process a little easier.
Before you dive in, though, make sure the appropriate stakeholders are involved from the beginning.
The Elements of a Brand Strategy
To get a sense of what a brand strategy involves, we’ve broken the process down into three main phases. Each builds on the previous to help you think through your brand strategy from aspiration to execution. Here’s what each phase entails, the goal, and the elements you’ll be documenting during the process.
Note: Different brands will have different needs, depending on their goals and brand maturity. The elements we’ve included here are what we consider to be the core structure of a strong brand strategy. You may add or edit, depending on your needs.
Phase 1: Discovery
Before you refine and articulate your identity, it’s important to understand your existing identity and take an objective look at the factors that influence how you present yourself, including your industry, your target customers, and your brand.
1) Audit and Assess Existing Core Identity
Your core identity is the essence of your brand (and brand strategy). It’s the why, what, and how of your company, encapsulated in your company’s vision (sometimes called “purpose”), mission, and values.
- Vision: Why your company exists
- Mission: What your company does
- Values: How you do what you do
It’s likely you already have a version of this documented, whether it’s the general gist or a page-length mission statement engraved on the floor of your lobby. Take a collective look at what you have articulated to determine whether it is accurate and relevant.
Exercise: You’ll articulate and document your core identity later, but for now you want to have a general discussion about your existing identity. What’s missing or ill-defined? What is no longer relevant? What’s emerged organically in your culture but isn’t quite captured? What is most compelling?
This is also a good time to review and discuss any of the content or brand messaging you already have out there. Does this content properly convey your identity? What would you emulate or avoid going forward?
2) Market Research and Competitive Analysis
To help you appropriately identify and position yourself, you need to understand where you stand in the marketplace and in relation to your competitors. Doing so better enables you to carve out a niche for your brand—and do something original that will connect with your current and future customers.
Exercise 1: Market Research
Identify how big the market is, what the opportunities are, and how these things are changing and expected to change over time.
Some high-level information and insights can be found online for free, such as industry associations, trade publications, and major research organizations. But many of the gold nuggets of insight come from thoughtfully structuring your own research, from informal user/audience polls to more scientific survey design.
It’s most important to take the time up front to hone in on the specific questions you want to answer about your market. But don’t get overwhelmed by focusing on the entire industry. Just focus on your Total Addressable Market (TAM).
Exercise 2: Competitive Analysis
Identify who the other players in your market are, and how they are similar or different from you. Focus on surveying brands you currently compete with and brands you aspire to compete with.
Competitive analysis tends to be a lengthier process to work through, but it’s worth the time spent. As you research the competition, notice how they present themselves, how they talk about their products and services. What do you perceive to be their strengths? Their weaknesses? Put yourself into the mind of one of your potential customers. What might lead them to choose you over a competitor of yours, and vice versa? It’s very eye-opening stuff.
Use this template to document your analysis (pay special attention to key themes used in your space). Then you can grab a whiteboard and plot your competitive set on perpendicular spectra in a Cartesian chart. Whiteboard a few different ways to plot them (axes can include polarities like traditional vs. contemporary, people-focused vs. automated/scalable, niche vs. comprehensive, etc). Example:
Even if you don’t readily see how your brand differentiates on the grid, it’s valuable in itself to see where the “white space” is, or where none of your competitors currently play. Remember: This is the whole exercise of brand strategy—defining or redefining how your brand will differentiate going forward.
Depending on your size and your budget, you may want to hire an agency to do this work for you. If you are a smaller and/or newer brand, you may have to do this work yourself. Even If you are able and willing to pay someone else to lead this work on your behalf, you should still remain highly involved.
3) Persona Development
Personas are an articulation of your target customers, a demographic and psychographic mapping of would-be customers: who they are, how they operate, what they care about, and the problems they need solved.
This is a crucial element of brand strategy. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, your communication will get lost in the abyss or come off as tone-deaf—or both. (Shockingly, only 47% of respondents in the 2017 State of Branding Report said their strategy includes a deep understanding of personas.)
That said, crafting personas doesn’t mean only collecting demographic data. The goal is to gain a sense of what makes the people you’re trying to connect with tick. For example, Column Five’s personas include details about everything from what keeps people up at night to what podcasts they listen to (e.g., career stagnation and NPR’s Marketplace podcast).
Exercise: To get this info, you’ll need to ask would-be customers a robust set of questions via in-person chats, emails, surveys, etc. Follow our step-by-step guide to create personas, which also includes the question template we used to build ours.
Note: Approaching this exercise with empathy is crucial. Listen to what they need before you focus on what you want to say.
If you want to succeed as a brand, it’s important to be honest—even if it’s painful—about how people perceive your brand. (It’s like developing a plan to get out of credit card debt. Step one: Find out how much credit card debt you’re in.)
By conducting both an internal and external perception audit, you’ll start to notice similarities and discrepancies in perception. These insights will help you understand the gap between where you are (or have been) and where you want to be.
Exercise: At this stage, you’ll distil and document your past, present, and future perceptions.
- Past: If you’ve been around for a while, you should know what people used to think of you, whether it’s through customer emails, Yelp reviews, etc. This should be easy to articulate.
- Present: To find out what people think of you right now, survey your customers and employees. (Note: Include both happy and unhappy customers in this survey. You can also kill two birds with one stone by including these questions in your persona interviews.) Simply ask these two questions:
- What do you think of when you think of [brand]?
- Why are you/would you be a customer of [brand]?
- Future: The insights from your perception audit should help you identify opportunities to improve and articulate what you aspire to be.
For example, here are some things we learned from our own perception audit (internal and external):
- Past perception: Very affordable, youthful, doing new shit that somehow works.
- Present perception: Creative, strategic, fun to work with, reliable, affordable.
- Future (aspirational) perception: Industry-leading, best-in-class, can’t believe we didn’t start working with them earlier.
Phase 2: Identity
With an understanding of your place in the world, it’s time to do some of the toughest work—identifying and articulating who you are, what you do, and how to communicate it.
5) Define (or Refine) Core Identity
Based on your initial core identity audit and assessment, you should have a consensus about what you want to communicate for your vision, mission, values. Remember, this is something that reminds your team who you are and why you exist, and functions as a compass to guide your decisions. Without this clarity, building a strong brand is nearly impossible.
Again, you want to clearly articulate and document your:
- Vision: Why your company exists
- Column Five example: “To build a world where everyone can live a happy, healthy life.”
- Mission: What your company does
- Column Five example: “We do good work with good people. Through trusting partnerships, we build and distribute powerful visual content that educates, engages, and inspires.”
- Values: How you do what you do
Exercise: The challenge of this exercise is to use simple, succinct language to articulate your core identity. Imagine each word costs $1 million dollars. Naturally, you want to be as economical as possible. Remember: Brevity makes it easier for your team to remember.
Once you have it articulated, you’ll want to share it with your team. To remind us why we exist, we added our vision, mission, and values to an office wall, making it the first thing we see when we walk into work each day.
6) Brand Positioning
Your brand positioning is an articulation of what differentiates you in the marketplace, or how you are different from your competitors. It’s important that your team has a firm grasp on where you are positioned (especially folks in leadership, sales, and marketing, as those efforts are meant to reinforce this position).
You can encapsulate your positioning in a one-sentence description that explains what you do better than everyone else.
Exercise: There are many different formulas to find your positioning. Here’s a simple prompt from branding pro Marty Neumeier that helps identify your specific positioning:
For example, we articulate ours as “Column Five is the only creative content agency that is focused on helping brands tell memorable stories at scale.”
7) Value proposition
Your value prop is a succinct explanation of both the functional and emotional benefits your product or service provides to customers. It’s not just who you are and what you do differently (aka your positioning); it’s also how you solve their problem and why they should choose you over the competition.
You can also think of it as the promise of what they’ll receive if they buy from you. (It’s important that you have this question answered for yourselves before anyone asks.)
Exercise: To craft a compelling value prop, try Steve Blank’s XYZ template:
For example, “Column Five helps brands (X) build and manage scalable content operations (Y) so they can (Z) consistently tell high-quality, memorable stories that elevate their brand—one story at a time.”
The tagline is an extension of your brand position. (This term is also used interchangeably with slogan, which serves as a rallying cry.) It is often an interpretation of the value prop as well. Most likely, your tagline will complement both your position and value prop, yin-yang style.
For example, Column Five’s tagline is “Best Story Wins.”
9) Messaging Architecture
When it comes to content and communication, you need a uniform way to talk about your brand, both internally and externally. Messaging architecture helps you do this, giving you the language, words, and descriptions to communicate what you do, how you do it, and what makes you different.
Luckily, as you move through this brand strategy exercise, you are organically building your messaging architecture from the top down. To complete it, you just need to identify brand stories that support your overall messaging.
Exercise: Choose three significant brand stories (aka talking points) that reinforce your value proposition, and include supporting points for those stories. For example, a cookie company might use “healthy ingredients,” “unique recipes,” and “distinct flavors” as their three main brand stories.
Your brand stories are particularly helpful to inspire new content ideas or tailor your messages to different groups of people, channels, etc. Every element of communication, from your blog posts to your employee orientation materials, should reflect your messaging architecture in some way.
For example, this snippet of homepage copy on our website is inspired by our messaging architecture:
Phase 3: Execution
Once you know who you are and what your brand story is, the challenge is to effectively communicate it, particularly through marketing.
10) Brand Guidelines
Brand guidelines are the culmination of all of your previous work. It is a document that serves as a playbook for how to use your brand, specifically in the content and communication you create. (This is especially important if you work with freelancers or outside agencies.)
Your brand guidelines should include enough direction that anyone who references it has the knowledge to create work that strengthens the brand instead of weakens it. Remember: A brand’s strength is determined by its consistency, or lack thereof. (You can take a look at our brand guidelines here.)
Brand Guidelines Checklist
Include direction for both your visual and verbal identity.
- Verbal guidelines
- Brand positioning
- Value prop
- Messaging architecture
- Voice and tone
- Anything else helpful or relevant
- Visual guidelines
- Logo use
- Fonts and typography
- Data visualization
- Interactive elements
- Video and motion
11) Content strategy
There are different views on the relationship between brand strategy and content strategy. Some believe they’re separate things; others believe the latter is part of the former. The truth is probably somewhere in between.
For the sake of simplicity, we prefer to think of content strategy as part of the larger brand strategy. Brand strategy informs marketing goals, and your marketing goals inform your content strategy. The content you create (following brand guidelines, of course) is how you pull people in, instead of trying to aggressively hawk your products and services. Your content strategy dictates how you share your brand.
This is why having a documented content strategy is so important. It’s how you make good on your company vision and ensure you’re moving the brand forward.
Exercise: A content strategy includes everything from personas, to distribution channels, to ultimately, the editorial and creative direction of your content. Follow our 2-step process to craft and document a solid content strategy.
How to Learn More About Brand Strategy
Building a strong brand is an endlessly fascinating topic. Obviously, there are a ton of resources out there. If you want to dive in a little deeper, we’re particularly fond of the book The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. He’s informed a lot of our thinking and terminology, and the book is a pretty quick read.
In the meantime, we’re always interested to hear about your experiences with branding. Let us know if there’s anything on your mind, anything that’s unclear, or any tips you’ve found particularly helpful. Leave us a comment, or get in touch.