Branding is key to a successful product. It can sound vague and fairly daunting, but it’s one of those marketing concepts you need to understand. Not just in terms of what branding means, but how to apply the elements of good branding to your own company.

You might think of your product as your brand, but in marketing terms, they’re two different things. Your product is what you sell, whether it’s something physical or a service. It’s likely that there are other similar—if not identical—products on the market. But your brand should be unique.

man stood in front of yellow backdrop with branding plan
Illustration by OrangeCrush

Join us to explore the following areas to help you understand what is branding—actually though—and the power it wields for your brand:

  1. What is branding?
  2. How branding can help your business
  3. Four things every good brand needs
  4. How modern markets have changed branding
  5. Branding for different industries
  6. How to build and communicate your brand identity
  7. Engaging customers with your brand
  8. Refreshing your branding
  9. Branding and design

What is branding?

Branding is the overarching idea or image of your company that is associated with your product and might define it in the eyes of your customers. Your name, designs, logo, and any other features that are unique to your company’s personality are all part of your brand. They will appear on and around your product, setting it apart from other similar products in the market.

brand guidelines
After developing your brand you should be left with a set of brand guidelines. By jkane via Dribbble

A well-developed brand will trigger emotional cues in your audience that lead them to favor your brand over others. Different audiences want different things, you’ll find that numerous brands selling almost exactly the same things will have found a way to differentiate their niches to attract specific people to buy their products instead of competing brands’.

An example of this is shampoo brands. Haircare manufacturers face a broad audience, and tough competition, since almost everybody buys shampoo. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of brands in the shampoo market. So it’s of utmost importance for each one to carve our their niche and to speak to their unique audience in a way that they will find appealing and secure their loyalty.

For example, LushCosmetics markets themselves to an ethical audience that likes the natural, independent feel of their brand and products. Kerastase markets their collection as professional-level haircare for those who want salon-quality treatments from home. Herbal Essences is positioned as an affordable shampoo for those interested in natural ingredients. While Head & Shoulders is thought of as a more science-led product for specific hair needs. Each brand fulfills the need of a different type of audience, all of which use and buy shampoo.

A Lush Cosmetics advert
Lush market their products as fully natural and ethical
A Kerastase shampoo advert
Kerastase is a known high-end hair care brand
A Herbal Essences shampoo advert
Herbal Essences uses fun branding and bright colours
A Head & Shoulders shampoo advert
Head & Shoulders is known for its science-backed formula

How to create your brand

At its core, a brand is influenced more by how it is perceived by audiences than what the people who make up the brand itself believe it is. It’s all very well thinking that your brand is the most scientific and fact-based on the market. But if consumers consider your brand to be inauthentic and less factually informed than your competitors then it might be time to consider your positioning. This is why brand research, which includes asking existing and potential audiences how they perceive your brand, plays a key role in brand development.

You’ll probably have noticed for yourself how some brands seem to boom or fade away depending on how the public perceives their image. It’s the same thing that happens with celebrities or TV shows: as soon as the feeling towards you and your brand changes, your popularity can rise or fall in an instant. For this reason, it’s important to be transparent, consistent, and reflective.

What associations do people make with your brand? Are they the associations you’re happy with, or would you prefer for your brand to be perceived differently? If you’re not happy with current perception, why is that? If it’s because it doesn’t accurately reflect your brand, what can you do to change that? These are just some of the factors to consider as you begin to develop your brand.

an advert for a simple banking app
How does your brand stand out from the competition? By Ashlee McKay via Dribbble

There will be external elements, like reviews and word-of-mouth comments and recommendations, that are out of your control. They could be positive or they could be negative, but they will influence the perception of your brand. That’s why it’s so important to have a full and comprehensive understanding of your intentional branding—so that you can actively promote the messaging you want audiences to associate with you.

And it begins with defining your product.

Defining your product

If a brand can be defined by associations and perceptions, then the product can be defined as the specific output of that brand. The product, as well as the company itself, will benefit from the associations that the brand makes, helping the business, or product, to become both trusted and distinctive.

Your marketing, company culture, advertising, and design can all influence how well your brand performs. And they can all influence how well your product performs on the market, too. So using your brand to define your product, for example using fonts, colors, and slogans that set it apart from others on the market can boost its performance and even lead consumers to pay more for it than they might for other brands that aren’t perceived as premium.

a Supreme X Louis Vuitton cap
Louis Vuitton’s brand is always recognizable, even when used with another brand’s style and logo. By Mario Wahl via Dribbble

Louis Vuitton is an example of a brand that has developed a clear perception of itself as a premium retailer of luxury goods. Their distinctive LV logo, rich brown tones, and well-known diamond-shaped patterns are a known mark of the brand’s quality. So while there are thousands of brown handbags on the market, customers are willing to spend a significant amount more for a Louis Vuitton design.

Four things every good brand needs

Branding is a vast and often vague area of marketing, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as you aim to tackle your brand’s persona, messaging, design, and everything else that falls under the branding umbrella. So to help simplify this mammoth task, we’ll focus on the four key elements that will kickstart your branding strategy.

1. Do you understand your brand?

Touched on in the ‘How to create your brand’ section, there is no next step in your branding mission if you, and everyone that works for your business, doesn’t understand exactly what your brand is and what it stands for. Whether you’re launching a brand, reassessing an existing brand, or repositioning your brand to target a different niche, understanding of who you are and how that fits in with the needs of your audience is vital.

brand values
How can you present your brand’s values? By Sean Brice via Dribbble

What do you offer? How is it different? Why are you doing it? How can it best be presented to appeal to its target audience? These questions can apply to any business, in any industry. And they’re the cornerstone to understanding your brand. The answer to these questions will define how your company operates, from its customer service to its marketing communications to the way your website looks.

Once your brand is out there, it immediately becomes the face of your product and consumers will begin to build their associations with it. So it should be consistent across your product, your advertising, and all of your communications.

2. What’s your vision?

Your brand’s vision isn’t just about your proposition and how you see the world (although that does come into it). But it’s also about the future of your brand, and how you fit into people’s lives in the long term. It could be as simple as adapting to meet new and unprecedented needs, or it could be about tackling practical issues to offer your product in a totally new way. Whatever your vision for the future you should be clear on the end goal so you can set up systems to help you achieve it.

An example of a brand that understands its vision is Patagonia, whose vision statement is “We’re in business to save our home planet.” It doesn’t get clearer, or more future-facing than that. It highlights the brand’s mission to help save the environment and limit ecological impact by creating timeless and long-lasting products that will either last for generations or be recycled to create new materials.

Patagonia’s brand values
Patagonia are always clear about their sustainability values

Patagonia donates money, time, and services to support environmental causes and has built a clear brand around its vision to give back to the planet. This appeals to its existing customers and, in a world that’s becoming ever more aware of the need to halt climate change, it’s attracting them new audiences too.

3. What values do you hold?

Creating a set of values that’s completely unique to your brand can be challenging. A survey by The Research Business International found that the majority of businesses share the same ten values: quality, openness, innovation, individual responsibility, fairness, respect for the individual, empowerment, passion, flexibility, teamwork, and pride. And when we consider these fairly obvious values, it’s not hard to think of the brands that embody them well, and the brands that seem disingenuous when they try to push these messages.

That’s why it’s the communication of your brand values that’s actually more important than the values themselves. For example, if sustainability is one of your core values then the ways in which you explicitly and implicitly communicate that to your audience will impact the way they view your brand. So if you’re a clothing brand pushing sustainability messaging and it turns out your supply chain isn’t so ethical, then your brand’s value will seem as disingenuous as a multi-billion dollar oil firm claiming sustainability values.

a healthy chocolate bar branding
Your branding should be consistent across your website, advertising, and product packaging by vitalfuerze

So it’s important to pick genuine values that can be authentically supported by your brand’s mission and practices, and communicate them in a natural way. For example, this brand’s healthy chocolate bar has consistent color design, logos and fonts, and fun graphics across their product and adverts. Just from seeing this advert consumers understand that they’re healthy – thanks to the name – but still fun and tasty unlike many health bars can be.

4. What’s your personality like?

Your brand’s personality comes down to the tone, design, and language you use to present your brand externally—and internally, too. Your personality could be expert and professional, playful and humorous, or relaxed and friendly.

Your personality should appeal to the kinds of people that make up your target audience, and should be almost like another person that they would be able to relate to in real life. It doesn’t need to be reflective of the personalities within your business, but hiring employees that fit the persona will help to influence all your outward communications in a more natural way.

freelancer website with reviews
Customer reviews are now a big part of how your brand is perceived. By raazcse via Dribbble

These four pillars should help you understand the kind of brand you want to build, and how it can be used to appeal to certain types of people. Simply understanding the values, vision, and personas that underpin your brand will help you to develop more successful communications with your audience.

How modern markets have changed branding

Over the past decade, a revolution in digital communication has transformed the marketing landscape. Not only has it changed and introduced new platforms that brands use to advertise their products. But it’s also given the consumer a higher level of control. From customer reviews to near-instantaneous expectations of customer service, social media and the internet as a whole have increased the voice of audiences and their power to influence other consumers.

a selection of brand logos
Your logo will be the first thing many potential customers know about your brand. By Omnium via Dribbble

It’s also given rise to new brands that are better equipped to navigate the modern, digital landscape than other, bigger brands that remain stuck in the past. And though Apple and Google remain two of the world’s most influential companies due to their place in the tech world, people and celebrities are beginning to rise up as brands themselves.

Now, consumers are more interested in what other consumers have to say about brands, rather than what brands say about themselves. It’s greatly impacted the advertising world and has put pressure on brands to deliver on their values and visions. In the world of Twitter, Tripadvisor, and TrustPilot, no brand is safe from public scrutiny—and rightly so. The internet holds brands accountable, but you can use this to create a truly genuine brand that understands the power and expectations of digital audiences from the get-go.

Branding for different industries

Many of the rules of branding apply to all businesses regardless of industry or sector. However there are some elements, like the values you choose to amplify, that will be more relevant for some industries than others. Similarly, the type of business you’re running will have an influence over your branding and how you choose to communicate with different audiences and sectors.

1. Startups

Starting a new business comes with its challenges. But one benefit for your brand is that you get to assess the existing landscape and find the niche where your company slots in. You can review the existing brands and where you think they’re getting it right and wrong, and decide how your brand can speak to a specific audience in a way that’s better and more engaging than the competition.

As well as the power to adapt, start up brands can be bold with their ambition. Nobody has any expectations or associations with your brand yet, so if you say you’re empowering or premium or people-focused then audiences will be more inclined to believe you.

2. B2B

How your brand is perceived isn’t only important for consumer-facing companies. Business-to-business brands still need to market their product in the same way, just to a different kind of consumer. The principles of branding are still just as relevant, since the person deciding whether or not your business is the right fit for theirs will still be susceptible to the same associations and preferences as a regular consumer.

a minimal candle brand
The way your product looks is part of your brand, by Project4

In these instances it might be more useful for your brand to frame itself as professional and expert rather than friendly and humorous, but you’ll still need to find your market niche to appeal to other companies you’d want to work with.

3. Public sector businesses

Branding for public sector organizations is more focused on public image and brand management. For example, a council scheme, government agency, or police force don’t need to attract sales like commercial brands do. But they need their audience to understand who they are, what they do, and what they stand for.

Though public sector organizations should always have clear branding in the form of a slogan, logo, and design details like fonts and colors that are instantly recognizable, a lot of managing public brand perception comes down to campaigns. So if a police force were running a campaign to crack down on a certain type of offense and they wanted to raise public awareness and support, that campaign would have to clearly include all their existing branding alongside strong messaging about their values and vision.

4. Services as a product

If customer service is a big part of your business—for example, if your offering is a service like insurance, or you have brick and mortar stores with service staff like a bank or a grocery store—then your brand needs to extend to how your service is provided.

For instance, if your brand is proud of its laid-back and friendly persona then your service staff should match this rather than being overly professional and serious, and vice versa. Similarly, if you talk about the top-quality service your brand provides then all service staff should be highly trained in how to provide this to customers.

In this kind of industry, many brands find it useful to hire employees with experience in customer service over those with experience in the specific field of business. Once they’re with your brand, employees can pick up the details of what you do. But delivering a great service is harder to teach to those who might not feel adept at being the face of a brand.

How to build and communicate your brand identity

urban puppy branding
Your brand identity should always be clear. By CrossTheLime

So you’ve developed your brand and it all seems obvious to you. But how will your audience and potential new customers understand what you’re all about? They’re going to need to understand how you’re different from your competitors, and they’re going to want to know that you’re credible before they switch alliances.

One of the best marketing techniques for getting brand image across to the public is through storytelling. You can tell your story with a logo or slogan that represents what you do. You could pick brand colors that have cultural connections, for example, green for fresh or environmentally friendly goods. And you can use your website and other platforms to literally tell your story.

oatly packaging
Oatly via The Dieline

Oatly oat drink, for example, tells the story of the company on the side of the bottle for customers to read while they wait for the kettle to boil. Airbnb on the other hand leaves the storytelling to the hosts and visitors themselves. Their reviews section is one of the leading elements of each page, so the hosts and homes that make up their service explain exactly what they have to offer. This marketing video by Airbnb is a great example of brand storytelling that helps viewers understand exactly what the company offers its customers, beyond their product. Storytelling should just be about the background of your business, but how everything you do feeds into your brand’s—and your customer’s—values.

branding guidelines
A booklet of branding guidelines by John Baiatul

This kind of storytelling is also a good example of how to build your brand’s credibility. Reviews are one of the most trusted sources of information that customers look to before making a purchase. So if you’re upfront about the quality of your product and service, you won’t mind putting reviews of your brand front and center.

Engaging customers with your brand

How you communicate with your end-user is one of the easiest ways you can differentiate from other brands in the same industry. Finding ways in which you’re able to stand out from the crowd—like a strong, relatable tone of voice—will engage customers and keep them interested in what you’re doing. A brand that does this well is Innocent smoothies.

a deck that represents a brand’s design and persona
Innocent Smoothies are known for their fun and distinctive branding, by Kevin Monticone via Dribbble

It’s a market that’s saturated with offerings from big supermarket brand names to smaller indie retailers. But Innocent’s sense of humor and fun stands out across their initial smoothie products and has crossed into the marketing for their soups and savory bowls.

Refreshing your branding

No matter how long your brand has been around or how well established you are, keeping your branding fresh and relevant is vital. You’ll have noticed many big brands change their logos, color schemes, and messaging as the years go by and if you’d ever wondered why, this is the reason. It’s not about completely overhauling what they do, but rather adapting their brand to fit the way their service, values, and vision have evolved over time.  Even a brand as big as Coca-Cola have changed their logo, bottle shapes, and even their colors. So don’t think your brand has grown too big or well-known to make some much-needed refreshments.

smoking swines BBQ branding
Your brand’s design should be consistent throughout your communications, by Kyle Anthony Miller via Dribbble

Another major element of branding that you might decide needs a refresh is your name. Of course, changing a company name isn’t a decision that should be made lightly. But if your vision, values, and service have changed so greatly over time that your old name no longer represents who you are or what you do—or has developed deep associations with something that your brand no longer relates to—then it might be a plausible option.

In a market that’s saturated with so many competing brands, picking a name should come down to ease of understanding. It should represent exactly what your brand does without feeling confusing or hard to remember. After all, if your competitor’s name is easier to say or spell, it’s more likely to be front of mind when consumers come to need that product. For example, Wizz Air, Pedigree Petfoods, and The Body Shop.

Branding and design

Though your brand is defined by a lot more than just your logo, design does play a major role in your identity. It’s the top level of your branding that many people will see before they even know what it is or who you are. Think of some of the biggest brands in the world—McDonalds, Nike, Apple—and their logos spring to mind almost in sync with their name. So while the deeper levels of your branding strategy are what will attract and retain your audience, your logo is the element that has the power to stick in people’s minds.

red, pink and orange sunshine logo for cafe
Design by Aleksa

Think of your brand design as the connecting factor between your less tangible brand motives, and how you communicate them with your audience. However, your brand logo isn’t the only identifiable design element that your brand should focus on. In developing a brand book for all designers across your company to use, you should also consider the following branding elements:

  • Colors: think of PayPal’s three shades of blue
  • Shapes: do you want to be sharp like Volkswagen, rounded like Target, or somewhere in between like Starbucks?
  • Typography: Supreme’s typeface is so iconic, it’s still recognizable when it’s replicated with other brand names
  • Values: how can your design represent what you stand for, like Tropicana’s leaf that represents fresh produce
  • Sounds: think HBO, EA Sports, and Intel

Once you’ve settled on how each of these branding elements will look, feel, and sound for your brand you can ensure that they’re implemented across all your marketing and communications. Your brand guidelines can also include your verbal and personal brand instructions, as touched on in our section on service companies.

Final thoughts on branding

So, once you’ve understood the difference between your brand and your product, defined your idea, and mapped our your vision, values, and persona, you’re well on the way to owning your unique brand. It should talk directly to your target audience, feel more relatable to them than the competition, and fit a market niche based on quality, tone of voice, service, or any other aspect of your brand that you feel sets it apart.

Your values and vision should be instilled in your team so that your company culture can embody what the brand stands for. This will enable your brand to present itself more effectively and authentically. Don’t forget that your branding should inform the way you communicate across every platform, and your messaging and design should always be consistent to ensure continuity. It sounds complex, but when you understand your brand inside out—including when it needs a refresh—you can’t go wrong.

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This article was originally written by Deanna deBara and published in 2019. It has been updated with new examples and information.