Branding is a journey, not a one-off project

Published by Nela Dunato on at 07:37 in Branding, Thoughts

Branding can be overwhelming for business owners, regardless of how much experience you have. The more you learn, the more you realize there is a whole lot more to learn and do.

As if that wasn't enough, there are different “schools of thought”, which are more or less appropriate for corporations, personalities, or small businesses, so you're always required to weigh how relevant something is for your particular business model, approach, and worldview. (I explained some of the differences in my article Human Centered Branding: Filling the Gap between Personal & Corporate Branding.)

Even though it's hard, it's possible to create a great brand for your business. You just need to be patient and persistent.

Branding is a journey, not a one-off project
Photo from my cycling trip in Istria

What does it mean to have a brand?

Some people might think that having professional headshots, a logo, a website, a business card, and social media presence equals having a brand, while not having either or all of those things means you don’t have one. This is not true.

Here’s how I define the term “brand” in one short sentence:

A brand is a collection of impressions the audience has about an organization, a product, or a person.

We can see from this definition that our brand relies on what other people think and how they feel about us, not just what we want them to think and feel. We can affect their impressions, but we can’t entirely control them. These impressions may be positive, negative, or neutral, and all of them make up our brand.

So who or what has a brand?

If there are people outside of your immediate social circle that you've never met, but they've heard of you and have formed an opinion about you, you have some kind of a brand—even if you don’t have a website yet.

If you do have a website that no one ever visits because you didn’t tell people about it, you don't have a brand. If no one is talking about you to their community, you don't have a brand, regardless of what brand strategy documents you’ve written and what graphics you’ve designed.

Having a brand requires communication

Your brand needs to be witnessed by people outside of your organization, preferably by your target audience.

Networking, word of mouth, and social media communication are all powerful engines that drive branding. Pick one or all three, invest time into building relationships with people you want to help, and sooner or later you'll find yourself surrounded by people who are saying great things about your work without you having to pay for the privilege.

The role your headshots, logo, social media channels, website, and business card have is to look professional and welcoming when those people start sending potential clients your way. Your image and your reputation need to line up and tell a coherent story that your audience will believe in.

It's all about the story, really. What story is your brand telling, and who is listening?

Developing a brand is a never-ending process

Anyone who's tried to create a brand on their own knows this. A brand is never “perfect”—it’s on a trajectory towards perfection, but it will never reach that point. Of course, being closer to that perceived “perfection” is better than being far away from it, that’s why we even bother doing this work, fully aware that we’re in it for the long haul.

Imagine a business owner that's starting a new company and wants to do everything “right”, so they hire a brand designer (like myself) to create their brand identity. We go through the entire design process, and at the end of it we come out with a logo that carries meaning, a detailed brand identity guidelines document, and some additional graphics they need. After that they go about their work, and keep anything branding-related on autopilot.

They don’t examine how their core values fit into the current marketplace, so they’re not able to make a statement at this challenging time when people want to buy from and support brands with a purpose.

They don’t refine their unique value proposition, so their offers are indiscernible from their immediate competitors.

They don’t create original content with a distinct point of view, so their reach is limited to word-of-mouth. This misses out on the opportunity to develop a strong brand voice, and places the outcome of the first impression into the hands of people who are not trained to be their brand ambassadors.

They don’t identify the traits of their most valuable clients, so they don’t adjust their marketing and sales process in order to attract more of them.

Years after investing the initial effort into their brand, it has not evolved at all. They’re just another business offering the same kinds of services that other similar companies offer, for basically whoever is willing to pay their fees.

Do the right things in the right order

I prefer working with consultants who have been in business for a while (or at least have plenty of experience as employees of other companies), because they know the answers to all the important questions that I need to ask them. Knowing this information, I’m able to advise them to make the right choices, which results in a robust and long-lasting brand identity.

Typically new business owners, especially those who are transitioning into a new field, make assumptions that are not based on real-world experience with clients. Life will put those assumptions to the test, and many of them will break apart.

A few years down the road when biz owners figure this out, it will be time to realign their brand, completely rewrite their website copy, and possibly even update some design elements so that they better match who they really are as a professional, instead of who they thought they would be.

When is the right time to work on a brand?

In my talks and workshops I share this graphic:

When to focus on branding – flowchart

As I’ve explained in my article Rebranding 101: Why & how to update your existing brand, the moment you’re starting a business from scratch may not be the best time to invest a lot of money in branding.

The reason for this is that during the early stages of your career, you might find yourself pivoting often. Changing your mind on what kind of services you offer, which clients you want to serve, whether to focus most of your efforts online or in person... Each pivot might disrupt the assumptions you’ve been working under, so you’ll be forced to adapt your branding as well.

Wait until things have settled, and you have enough information to plan for the next 3–5 years. Then focus on defining a brand that will meet your present needs and grow with your business.

In the meantime, there is a lot you can do completely on your own for very little money. My book “The Human Centered Brand” and the free bonuses that come with it can guide you through that.

Developing the brand in the right order

The Human Centered Brand Discovery Pyramid, a graphical representation of the brand strategy framework I’ve developed, has 5 levels:

The Human Centered Brand Discovery Pyramid

I’ll give a brief overview of how those elements are related to the process of evolving as a business owner. If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve explained the elements in more detail in my article: Struggling with your brand strategy? Start here.

The first level of core values describes who you are as a human being, on a very deep level. This is related to, but not limited to your career. If you’ve done a lot of personal growth work, you probably have this level covered. You know what your priorities are, and how your business fits into those priorities. People who are not clear on their values and priorities may end up on the wrong career path, and no amount of marketing or branding can fix that.

The second level, your unique value proposition relates to the practical way your business delivers value to its clients. If your offers are not sufficiently unique, it will be difficult to set yourself apart in a saturated marketplace. Experienced business owners have usually figured this out through testing, collecting and analyzing feedback, and continually refining their offers.

The third level of brand voice is developed by frequently communicating with your audience. If you don’t communicate with people regularly, you won’t have a chance to refine your brand voice qualities and come up with a point of view that helps you stand out. Authentic brand voice is not something you can make up on the spot and be done with it. It can take years of writing or speaking to get comfortable with it.

The fourth level, ideal client, can be somewhat confusing for new business owners, and the one where we’re most prone to assuming things that are not true. If we focus on the wrong type of clientele, we may realize that the people we’re trying to attract do not really understand our offers and aren’t prepared to pay the fees we charge.

I’ll share my own experience. When I started freelancing in 2013, I called my ideal clients “creative business owners”, because they’re the people I love to hang out with (including writers, painters, jewelry and fashion designers, and makers in general). Over the years of working with various people and organizations, I’ve realized that my actual dream clients were consultants—creative or otherwise. I’ve found that on average consultants had more business experience, clearer and more refined offers, were better organized, more punctual, easier to communicate with, and they charged more for their services so they understood the value of my work. My assumptions on who would be a great fit for my design services were wrong, and I was able to correct them only through vigilance and willingness to change.

The fifth level of brand identity design is the pinnacle of the branding process: it’s the frosting on top of a layered cake. It's quite disappointing to be served a piece of utterly tasteless cake that looked gorgeous on the outside. Sadly, many brands are like that: they give a flashy first impression, but the overall customer experience leaves us dissatisfied.

Tasty cake versus good-looking cake
Credit: Images from No-longer-here, WikimediaImages and la-fontaine on Pixabay

The opposite is a cake that tastes delicious, but looks quite plain on the serving plate. Many businesses go through this “awkward brownie” phase because they’re either too busy to deal with the aesthetics, or don’t understand the impact it has on their sales. Ideally, your business should be the equivalent of a cake that both looks and tastes delicious. The interior substance comes first, and the decoration is added as a finishing touch.

Wrapping your mind around all that can be overwhelming.

There are so many theoretical and practical pieces to branding that it is impossible to figure it all at once, and do it right. I want you to know that you don’t have to do it all at once.

Really. You don’t.

I didn’t do it all at once for my own business (exhibit A, exhibit B), nor for any of my other projects.

In fact, this very article that you are reading now is clarifying something important that I forgot to clarify in all my years of writing about this. I realized that this point of view was missing from my message, and I’m correcting that now. 7 years into this business, and I’m still correcting and clarifying things. Did I mention that it never ends?

My clients don’t do it all at once, either.

You’d think that someone with a budget to hire a branding professional has it easy, right? Well... easy is not the word I’d use. Sure, a lot of weight is lifted off my clients’ shoulders when we work together, and I’m able to guide them through a forest of information that would be difficult for lay people to navigate. But I can only do so much.

Business owners are the real decision makers. I can ask questions and make suggestions, but they’re the ones who need to take action. If a client refuses to take action because “it’s not a priority” and they’re “too busy”, I can’t push things forward faster than they’re ready.

A big part of my job is patiently waiting until people are ready.

Be patient with yourself.

Seeing other businesses with terrific brands can make us envious and self-critical. Why can’t I do this? Why is it taking so much time? Why am I constantly running behind my peers?

I used to promote my free Human Centered Brand Workbook under the name “Revamp Your Brand In One Day”. I believe that one day of focused research and planning can give visible results. But that one day is just a start, it’s not enough to create a good brand on its own.

Don’t expect instant results.

Everyone gets excited when we embark on a new branding project. I’m thrilled by the opportunity to create something new, and my clients are intrigued by my creative process and anxious to see what will come out of it.

Once I deliver the graphics and my client starts using them, the excitement lasts for a bit longer as they get compliments from their clients and colleagues. After that it dissipates, and we’re back to business as usual. The graphics are no longer new. Their brand strategy document is sitting on their hard drive, and no one ever opens it.

If the client doesn’t immediately get a slew of new buyers, they might start thinking that their brand isn’t working. Aren’t we supposed to get more sales now? Don’t we look all professional and distinct from our competitors now? Aren’t inquiries supposed to start rolling in?

Branding, marketing, and sales work in tandem.

If you get all three right, you can expect great results. Focusing only on one of them is unstable, like trying to sit on a one-legged stool.

Ideally, you were selling your offers through word of mouth, even before you started working on your branding and marketing. Getting your offer in front of people who have a need for your services is a way to acquire paying clients, and also to get valuable information you can use to improve your offers further.

As you get your brand assets in order, your sales process can become even more effective:

  • You know how to explain the value of your offer in a compelling way.
  • You vet your prospects better, because you know how to recognize your most valued clients.
  • Your sales communications (web pages, proposals, emails) leave a better impression, because of more effective language and professional graphics.

Branding has an even bigger impact on marketing:

  • Your messaging is more on point, because you know exactly who you’re talking to, and what they care about the most.
  • Your website, social media graphics, and brochures look professional and appealing, so everyone that sees them finds you more trustworthy.
  • People remember your company more easily, because the colors, typography, photos, and your logo remind them they’ve seen your content or ads before.
  • Your clear point of view differentiates your content and ads from your competitors, so people pay attention to them.

These are just some examples of how making a small amount of progress in several areas cumulatively adds up to results you can measure.

I never promise my clients that branding will solve all their business problems, and I hope that most of them are well aware of that. But it is a way to get better results out of your sales and marketing.

How long will the whole thing take?

As I’ve mentioned, it depends mostly on how ready you are to move forward.

If you know what you want to achieve and have enough experience to make realistic plans about the future of your business, the entire process can take around 3–6 months. This process includes:

  1. Defining a brand strategy for your business.
  2. Designing the brand identity (logo, brand identity guidelines, and business documentation).
  3. Creating content for your new website (text, photography, video).
  4. Designing and developing your new website.
  5. Designing additional graphics for web and print.

If you’re still unclear, or your budget can’t cover all these things at once, this process can be stretched out to a year, or even several years.

Websites are especially prone to change, since technology and trends change often. What looked fresh and current a few years ago, might look outdated now.

Take a deep breath, and then focus on the next step.

It’s good to know what lies ahead and plan for it, but there’s no point in postponing everything until you can do it all perfectly.

Many of us have renovated an apartment at some point in our lives (either our own, or rented). Renovation is inconvenient and messy, and it costs a lot of money for contracting fees, construction materials, and new furniture. Sometimes your budget doesn’t allow for renovating more than one room at once. But at least when you fix up that room, you’ll be enjoying it every day going forward. Even if things are not perfect, you’ll still be happier that you’ve done some of the work.

My home office is around 80% done after my big renovation project last year. I had a wall torn down, got new flooring installed, and bought new furniture. I’m still missing a big ceiling LED panel and a few more shelves. There are boxes on the floor of my storage area, and I’m not happy about that. Nevertheless, it looks amazing compared to what it used to look like. It has taken many steps to get here, and it will take a few more to finish it, but I’m feeling good about it.

Studio before renovation
My studio before renovation

My studio storage before renovation
My studio storage before renovation

Renovated work area of my studio
Renovated work area of my studio

Renovated storage area of my studio
Renovated storage area of my studio

It takes time to get it near-perfect.

No one likes to hear this, but it’s the truth: good work can’t be rushed.

Sometimes you need to search for information to make the right decisions.
Sometimes you need to save up money.
Sometimes you need focus on strategic homework, while serving your clients at the same time, and the day only has so many hours.

Every gorgeous and wholesome brand you see out there took years to become that way. They have also struggled, stumbled along and learned from their mistakes. We each have our own path to travel to reach that unique place of near-perfection.

Want to go on this journey with me?

Over the years I’ve led many clients down this path. Some of them sprinted through my design process, while others took their time.

If you feel ready to take the first step towards creating a remarkable brand for your consulting business, check out my brand strategy and identity design services, and get in touch. I'd love to get to know you and help you reach your right people.

Nela

Nela Dunato

About Nela Dunato

Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.

On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...


Your comments

  • Cherry Jeffs

    Cherry Jeffs
    2020-11-22 at 10:58

    So true! Not just about branding but about websites in general. They’re always a work in progress. And profiles! I’m forever updating mine. Perhaps it all comes down to our fixation with ‘arriving’ and crossing things off our list? We are constantly evolving our businesses and so our brands have to evolve to match. Loads to think about in your article as always Nela :)

  • Nela

    Nela
    2020-11-23 at 22:51

    Oh absolutely, websites are never done :) I'm tweaking mine almost every day! Always rewriting important pages when I figure out something new. And the profiles, it's so hard to keep up with everything we've put out there over the years!

    It's great to feel accomplished for a day. Crossing of a task that was weighing over your head is so satisfying, and we need to celebrate those big steps! But eventually, the time will come to revisit that task again, armed with new insights :)

Leave a comment

If you're new here, please read the commenting guidelines before posting.