I was asked by a friend to answer some questions on branding, so I decided that I would write up this post on my thoughts and ideas to creating a strong brand. Building a recognizable brand is more than just spending a lot of marketing dollars to get your name out there. Today, more than ever, building a brand involves community. It consists of establishing a connection with your customers and create a two-way communication to help them to feel as if they belong to your brand. They can identify with it. When I advise companies on their brand strategy, I encourage them to look at their customer personas and how they can most effectively create long-lasting connections with them.
We can look at several different brands and what makes them great. There are several critical aspects of each. If we look at Apple, Harley Davidson, Nike, Chanel, Patagonia, or any other brand, large or small, we are going to see some things that stand out. There are aspects to these brands that are going to attract or repel individuals. Here are a few of the things that I think make great brands.
Brands that relate to their customers the best are the ones that foster a level of identity. To the customer, the brand is part of their overall personality. This is often because of shared values.
In the case of Apple in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were able to attract a customer base primarily through simplicity and design. Their brand identity was a clean design with a bit of rebel feel to it. They were catering to the misfits and outcasts. They were playing the small rebel card against the bigger computer giants out there. Those who assimilated themselves with this identity became lovers of the Apple brand and product lines.
Nike is about aspirations. They cater to individuals that want to aspire to be a big name sports athlete. The Just Do It tagline feeds directly to this notion of aspiration. It is the idea not to let anything hold you back and take the chance and get out there and make yourself great. As Nike has evolved from a core running brand to a fashion icon, it has altered its identity slightly to cater to more of the masses, but it remains a highly aspirational brand.
Patagonia is mission-driven. Their customer base is the individual that loves the outdoors and wants to show that they love the outdoors by supporting a brand that has a mission of conservation behind its name. Patagonia has made steps to sacrifice immediate revenues by cutting certain product lines that did not adhere to its purpose. This is something that their customer can relate to.
I could continue to go on with other brands, but this should give an idea around the attraction to identity.
Make Great Products
This should be a no brainer, but I do see brands out there trying to make a name for themselves with subpar product lines. If you don’t make great stuff, then it is going to be hard to attract customers and especially to keep customers.
In the early days of Altra, we did not make great-looking shoes. They needed some serious design help. But what we had going for us was both differentiators and quality. Through these two aspects, we were able to overcome our lack of design aesthetic and continue to win customers. By having a great product, some things can be overlooked. By coupling great product with a good brand, the story will help you to win the day.
Have a Compelling Story
First of all, this needs to be authentic. If you don’t have a genuine story, then don’t try to fake it. Every brand has some sort of story; you just need to figure out the best ways to tell that story and make it something that sticks. Often this can be associated with the genesis of the brand. It can be the authenticity of the founders. It can be a mission. It can be a story behind the conception of the product design or features. There is something there.
The story should tie into the why of the brand. Simon Sinek states that “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Ultimately, the ethos of a quality brand comes down to a strong why. By establishing why your brand is in business will give it legs for a long time. It will give your customers reasons to come back. It will keep customers even when times are tough. Make your brand something more than just the products. Give it a more profound and richer meaning.
One of the important things for brands to do is to stay focused. Stay focused on the brand message, brand feel, brand story, and brand initiatives. It is essential not to let every gust of wind blow you off of your path. Yes, some things give us cause to pivot and adjust. Learning over time helps to contribute to the overall success of a brand.
When we started Altra, we were focused on winning customers that were interested in minimalist footwear and running technique. This gave us an early stigma as a minimalist shoe company. Releasing a minimal shoe did not help to destroy that stigma, either. Ultimately, we wanted to be a fully cushioned option for all runners out there. We needed to adjust our messaging and target audience to more align with our overall mission. It was too easy early on to get caught up in the hype.
By having a healthy brand guide that is endorsed by the executive team, a brand can better stay on point. Key brands stay on target from the leadership team down to the janitorial staff. Your brand guidelines are as critical as the vision and mission of the company. These should be understood and taught to every employee.
Getting Teams Aligned
I have read many great books on leadership and organizations in the past few years. One of the things that remains constant through most of these psychologists and professionals is the importance of keeping quality communication across the entire organization. Helping every employee become a part of the company at every level creates a greater overall buy-in.
Work together to establish lasting brand guidelines as a cohesive unit, then etch them in stone and live by them in every aspect of the company. These hinge a lot on brand and company culture. If the executive team fails to abide by the company culture, then they are likely to change things in the near future. Consistent branding is vital. It is established within the culture. No matter what is written on an ad or in an email will not matter if the core culture does not reflect it. Build the culture, and the brand will abide by it.
Building a brand is not easy. It takes a lot of work. There are a lot of brands that come and go. The ones that have staying power are the ones that connect with their community and become a part of individuals’ lives. Focus your branding on these principles, and you will be on your way to building something that will last.