Brand has become a catch-all term. We use it interchangeably to refer to brand image (packaging and logos), brand ethos (mission and messaging), and brand-building (community).
And while most aspects of building a business – supply chain, logistics, manufacturing, etc. – are becoming commoditized, brand is an increasingly important differentiator for emerging consumer startups.
But what is brand, really? And how do you build one?
Jeff Bezos once said “a brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by doing hard things well.”
This description has always resonated with me. You can’t tell people what your brand is; you have to show them. In other words, you have to prove yourself.
But I would take it one step further. Brand isn’t just a company’s reputation, it’s a company’s character. And just like a person’s character, it is defined by how one acts when no one is watching.
In the words of legendary basketball coach John Wooden, “be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
In a world where information is ubiquitous and brands are communicating directly with customers, character and reputation are certainly converging, but they’re not quite the same. A reputation can be manufactured, but it’s far less durable. And if consumers determine a reputation is inauthentic, it’s hard to regain trust. This is exactly why some of the larger legacy consumer brands are currently struggling to attract younger consumers.
So the question becomes: how do you develop some character and turn it into a reputation with staying power?
Be consistent. Inconsistency one of the biggest mistakes new companies make when building a brand. Different team members create mission statements, logos, websites, and packaging at different times and in separate isolation chambers.
A strong brand is consistent, a weak brand is inconsistent. Here’s an easy test: ask a handful of customers to describe your brand with just a few adjectives. If the majority give a similar answer, then the brand is strong.
For example, if you asked most consumers to describe Whole Foods or Apple or Nike, you’d probably get a similar answer. Not only could they draw these company’s logos, they would also likely describe the company’s ethos in a similar way.
But remember: a strong brand isn’t necessarily a good brand. Being consistent is just table stakes.
Create a beautiful and unique visual identity. Visual identity – like packaging, logos, and web design – is often used synonymously with “brand”. And for good reason. These visuals are frequently used as a proxy for brand, because they’re the fastest way to communicate brand values. Customers make snap judgments of brands based on their first impressions, so it’s extremely important for visuals, which are generally a consumer’s first touch point, to effectively convey the story and purpose behind the company.
Like anything else, brand designs follow trends. There’s a reason you can’t go five blocks in downton NY without seeing a Millennial Pink storefront. And if you look at the most successful direct-to-consumer brands right now – Warby Parker, Casper, and Allbirds come to mind – you’ll probably notice some similarities. Trends are an indicator of what consumers consider “beautiful” at a given time, so you can’t eschew them entirely, but it’s important for the visuals to stand out from the crowd.
If you’re not a creative or aesthetic person, hire someone who is. It’s nearly impossible to build a consumer brand if you’re not hyper-focused on making it look good. That doesn’t mean you need to do all the brand design in-house – there are a plethora of great resources for hiring freelance designers out there – but there needs to be someone responsible for driving the conversation around design and evolving the visual identity as trends change.
Do hard things well. Back to Bezos’s comment, you have to challenge yourself as a brand in order to stand out, particularly in today’s highly competitive market. Casper is best known for boxing up mattresses for convenient shipping; Warby Parker for enabling at-home and virtual try-on; Allbirds for engineering a new natural sneaker fabric.
These were not easy feats. Tackling these challenges lent credibility to these brands’ ethoses. In Allbird’s case, for instance, that the brand cares about both comfort and sustainability.
Build community. The best way to turn your character into your reputation is by building a community and encouraging customers to talk to one another.
We talk about building community a lot. If you’re not sure what this means, check out the comments on any recent Instagram post from skincare brand Drunk Elephant. You will invariably find followers swapping tips, asking questions about the brand, or making requests for new products. That’s a strong community.
Activating social media, forming a strong customer service team, creating a referral incentive program, and hosting localized events are just a few ways to nurture community.
Have a purpose (but don’t jam it down your customer’s throats). Having a mission beyond your own business can serve as a great rallying point – for everyone from investors and employees to customers and press – that solidifies the brand.
The Honest Company isn’t just a household products business donating a portion of profits to children’s health. Safety for children is a foundational tenet of their brand and the product design itself reflects those values.
But mission isn’t a marketing tactic. There are too many afterthought missions out there now (i.e., too many one-for-one models or donation programs that are irrelevant to the company’s actual business model), so customers are wary.
This is where character comes in. The values need to be so integral that you shouldn’t have to explain to customers how those values fit with the rest of the business. Customers should already know it, because you’ve embedded those values in the way the company is run.
Be patient. Building a brand does not happen overnight. Fine-tuning the visual design, fostering community, and proving your commitment to mission can take years. But in a world where brand equity is becoming increasingly valuable, it’s worth taking your time to get it right.