If you had to figure out your brand strategy right now would you be able to do it? Would you know which steps to follow to get to a coherent brand that is easy to maintain for you, and attractive to your ideal clients? If your answer is “No”, or “Maybe”, or “Uhhh, I’m not sure...” that’s OK, because today we’ll get that confusion out of the way.
A while ago, someone asked me a question about branding that I expect a lot of people to have:
I'm struggling with branding so much I don't even know what to ask. I tried creating a board with colors and fonts yesterday, but there are so many options I don't know where to begin.
I think the real problem may be that I can't settle on what my brand is. Where do I begin?
Does this sound in any way familiar? That’s a very common struggle among all business owners – yes, even those of us who do branding for a living.
Here’s my answer to this question.
You begin with you.
Starting with a visual brand moodboard is putting the cart before the horse. The visual brand is designed to communicate the essence of your brand to your target audience. You need to know what you're trying to communicate first, in order to start working on your visual brand.
I’ve created a branding framework specifically for service-based businesses and artists called The Human Centered Brand. I've found that the way corporations and start-ups approach branding usually doesn't work for service businesses, because of the essential difference in the business model. (You can use this framework to design your own brand by getting my book or following this free class, and it’s especially useful if you’re not primarily a visual creator.)
This approach consists of 5 brand elements that are defined in the exact order, since each step is built on the previous one. This concept is best illustrated with this pyramid-shaped graphic:
We're building our brand strategy the same way we're building a pyramid: first the foundations, then the lower levels, and then the higher levels. As you can see from the image, the visual brand is the very last step. You can only determine the right colors, fonts, photos, illustrations, your logo etc. after you’ve completed all the previous steps.
I’ll explain in more detail how you can go about discovering your own brand values, qualities and finally, your visual brand.
1. Core Values
Your core values are inherent to you as a person, and this also makes them inherent to your business. The very reason you’ve started your business was likely that you wanted to bring in more of these core values into your life, because your previous career wasn’t doing it. However, most people don’t consciously think about their own values, and aren't even aware of what they are. This is a critical mistake, because shared values are how you connect to your ideal clients. Those clients that have the same core values as you appreciate your unique approach to business, and your personality as well.
How do you identify what your core values are? It takes some (okay, a lot of) introspection and thinking back to your childhood, school years and early career. Answering questions like "What motivated me to start doing this?" and "What kind of emotional fulfillment am I getting from my creative work?"
Another helpful question to answer is "What values would I never want to compromise, no matter what the reward?" (This is drawing a line in the sand of what you're willing to do in your business in order to live in integrity.)
Think about why you do the things do, and how you do them, and what are the main qualities you’re expressing through that.
For a more in-depth view into your core values and how to find them, read my post Why you can't separate “business” and “personal” – Introduction to Core Values.
2. Unique Value Proposition
The unique value proposition (or UVP) is what makes your offers different from the offers of your competitors, or any other businesses that are trying to solve the same problem for the same people you are.
Think about what you do best: what problem you’re solving that your competitors aren’t, or what you’re doing differently that makes you stand out in a positive light.
If you really don’t know how your service differs from that of your competitors (and you think it doesn't), focus on your core values and examine how they influence your work. A freelance writer with the core values of “freedom, creativity, spontaneity” has a different unique value proposition from one whose core values are “trust, compassion, depth”. One of them may be more suited to write for travel magazines, while the other may find a niche in a field like health or human rights – their core values make them the perfect candidates to write on the topics where their approach fits in best.
I wrote a more in-depth post on this called What is a unique value proposition & how to create one, since it's one of the most difficult elements of your brand strategy to define.
3. Brand voice
What I mean by “brand voice” is the topics you cover with your content, and the style you use when you talk and write. It’s important to bring it out of your head and actually define and write down what is the topic you most want to be known for, and how you naturally express yourself.
Your brand voice can have different qualities such as uplifting, intellectual, metaphorical, deep, empathetic, humorous etc. Look back through examples of your own best writing (something you personally consider best, or the content that your audience responded to very well). Try to find what all these pieces of writing have in common, and make note of any qualities that jump at you as those that are essential to your style of expression.
Your main topic and your style of expression also relate to your core values – they are the lens through which you view your profession, and you can use them to spin the boring topics all your peers cover and come up with something refreshing and original.
4. Ideal clients
A lot of brand strategists and marketers will tell you to start here. My opinion is that you cannot start defining your ideal client until you’re clear on who you are in your business (which is what the first 3 steps are for).
As service providers, we spend a lot of time with our clients and we can't afford to work with the wrong people. Identifying your right people – those who need what you offer the most, who are willing to pay for it, and who want to work with you specifically – is crucial for the success of your business.
Your ideal clients want the unique value you can provide, share your core values, and appreciate your personality and your brand voice.
All of these must be true in order for someone to qualify as an ideal client. Friends who like you as a person, but don’t have the budget to buy your services are not your ideal clients. People with the right needs and budgets who think you’re too quirky are not your ideal clients. This doesn’t mean you’ll never work with them (although I would advise to avoid it if possible) – it means that you’ll be focused on attracting the clients that are ideal for you.
Identifying your ideal client is a process of elimination. First you start with the general world's population (or a specific geographic area if your business is local), and then you narrow it down based on questions like:
- Are these people in a certain stage of their life or career?
- Have these people already tried some alternatives that didn't work?
- Do these people need to have a certain minimum income in order to afford your services?
As you answer these questions, you'll get a better idea of what your ideal client's concerns are, which provides plenty of ideas for marketing, as well as creating more offers that provide better value for them.
And finally, we get to the last step...
5. Visual Brand
Your visual brand serves as a bridge between your brand essence and your ideal clients. The visual brand communicates your core values and your unique value proposition, and is aligned with your brand voice, so that the message that your audience gets on a conscious level (using words) is the same message that they get on a subconscious level (using colors and symbols).
For a non-visual creator this is a challenging assignment, which is why many business owners decide to hire a professional to design their visual brand. However, I get that many aren’t yet in a situation to afford one, and there’s an exercise that you can use on your own to find the qualities of your visual brand: creating a brand moodboard.
Your visual brand moodboard is a collage of different graphics that represents the colors, textures, atmosphere and style of your visual brand.
Online services such as Pinterest or Moodboard are often used to do this, but you can just save images to a folder on your computer you’ve named “Brand Moodboard”. (You're allowed to use images that other people have created in your moodboard, but you're not supposed to directly copy these graphics, as that would be a copyright violation.)
Include the following in your moodboard:
- photos and other graphics that portray your core values
- photos and other graphics that portray your unique value proposition
- photos that carry the “atmosphere” of your brand voice qualities
- photos and graphics that describe your ideal client – what they’re like as people, and the problem they want to solve
Try to find 30-50 different images at a minimum so you get a good sample for your next step. I recommend spending at least an hour on collecting your source images.
After you’ve assembled your moodboard, examine it carefully and start looking for patterns:
- What colors are repeated throughout the visuals?
- What atmosphere dominates the visuals? Is nostalgic, or romantic, or wild, ...?
- What style dominates the visuals? Is it minimalist, or hand-crafted, or vintage, ...?
Your brand moodboard can then guide your choices of colors and fonts that are aligned with all the other brand elements we've talked about. (I go into more detail on how to do that in the free class.) Once you have a great foundation for your brand, this process becomes easy and fun.
Do you have to go through the whole thing if you already have a brand you want to change up a bit?
This 5-part framework still works no matter whether you're starting from scratch, or reworking a brand you already have. If you think some of the elements of your brand haven't changed since you've first decided on them, you can keep them in place and work only on the parts that have changed. However, a change in the bottom levels of the pyramid will trickle out to the upper levels, as I've explained in my article: Rebranding 101: Why & how to update your existing brand.
Create a resonant, remarkable & sustainable brand
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In the book, I lay out my best advice for creating a lasting and memorable brand and provide clear steps you can take to make progress immediately. It's written specifically for service based businesses and creatives who want to grow authentic relationships with their clients and their audience. Find out more about the book.
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