It’s who you are and what you value – as a company
When you are building a business, one of the most critical areas of focus is creating a brand identity – that is, what your company is and what it offers the customer. It sounds simple enough, but it’s layered with complexities. It’s a manifestation of your business’s values, goals, mission. It’s the catalyst that sparks the emotions you want your customers to experience. And it will become your north star – guiding every decision you make, from what design aesthetics you use to the tone of your content to the employees that you bring on to be part of your team.
So where do you start? What are the guidelines to this process? How do you know you are doing it effectively? We sat down with John Durham, CEO of Catalyst SF, and asked him everything you need to know when it comes building your brand identity:
KS: Let’s start with the inherent importance of establishing a brand identity. Why is this so critical for any business?
JD: This is the single most important thing you can do, outside of figuring out what your business model is. Your brand identity is a necessary component to helping your business grow. Because your business identity encapsulates what your business stands for. It’s the purpose, the mission, the look, the feel, the tone and the voice of your company. It’s the determinant of how the audience will perceive you. So many people make decisions about the name, the logo and the colors they use so casually. They are forgetting that each of these decisions should come from the brand identity. There is a science and an art to it. And without it, you will have a difficult time really building your business.
KS: So where do you start? A lot of people have an idea of what they want their business to be, but what is the first step to creating a strong brand identity?
JD: You figure out that you want to be in a certain category and you know what type of business you want to establish. Now go look at what else is out there. Look at what other companies in that same category are doing. What are they saying about themselves? What is their look and feel? I always tell clients to “pictures source.” That is, go through magazines and websites and find what they like, what they enjoy and why. Are there certain color schemes? Are there certain logos or slogans? And what do you see that you dislike? This helps you start to capture the tone and feel of your business.
Now that you have the tone and the feel, start to dig a little deeper. Ask yourself what your philosophy is. What do you want your business to be? And how do you go about doing it? This will help you find your voice, and it will enable you to build a quick structure that can start to point you in the right direction towards building your business.
KS: Is it important to look at how your business sits amidst its competitors? Or do you just focus on who you are internally? How much should you let the environment and market space shape who you are?
JD: We live in a world where you have to understand that there’s no original idea anymore. There are variations on cool ideas and there are variations on products and services. So you have to be cognizant of your competition. Because it’s about the nuances. And to leverage those, you must understand the competitive landscape and know what is out there. If someone is doing something, but not doing it 100% right, and there is a substantial customer base, then it becomes incumbent upon you to really point out the differentiation as to why you are doing it better – even if it is just slightly better, slightly different, and slightly smarter. But you will not be able to do that if you bury yourself and think you’re the only one. Remember, Google wasn’t first to market. In fact, there were a lot of other players in the game. Google just figured out what was missing and took it to the next level.
KS: What is the best tool business owners can use to most accurately determine where they stand in the market and then magnify their positive differentiators?
JD: I’m a big believer in the SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. When we get hired or we get tasked, we’ll sit down and immediately and run through this process for the company. And I will do the same thing for the competitors of any product or service. Because it’s not enough just to understand your own strengths. You must know those of your competition, and then say “Let them do this well. And we’re going to do this well.”
The strengths and opportunities should be on the left, and the weaknesses and the threats on the right. And when you are finished, that left column better be bigger than the right column or you might want to question why you are doing it. But you must be honest with yourself, and also be very clear about what your competition brings to the table. This will help you determine which attributes to magnify and how to best distinguish your brand.
KS: What about core values? Is there merit in establishing those before developing your brand identity?
JD: Absolutely. Aside from focusing on the business model and the financials, one of the first things you need to do is establish your mission as a company. This is especially important in today’s world. People care about what they are buying. They care about products and sustainability. They care about the values that companies offer, and a lot of times they will choose their products and services based on those values. You need to write a manifesto that you can be proud of.
KS: What are your guidelines to writing an effective set of core values?
JD: I like the idea of narrowing it down to about four or five core values, and no more than that. It’s about two paragraphs. The first is about what you stand for. The second is how you want to make a fair profit. People are not bothered by people making money. I think we have to get over that myth. People understand that we operate a business. If you are a for-profit business, then you want to make a fair profit. You want to make sure that the products you sell are high-quality, desirable products. And you want to set standards for how your business is run.
KS: Now that we have a better understanding of how brand identity is derived, let’s move on to what it influences.
JD: I always tell people that when you’re starting to build a brand identity, think about your brand’s personality and find 4-5 key words that describe that. Then, use those words to find your tone, feel and voice. And use that to grow the language you use. Every brand, big or small, can carve that out if they know what their personality is and what they want that personality to convey.
KS: So if marketing, sales and design efforts should reflect your brand identity, what are some questions you can ask yourself to ensure you are doing it correctly? Many small business owners don’t have a team of experts that head up each department. Most wear multiple hats. So whether it’s everyday decisions like the types of images they post on Instagram, or bigger decisions like overall marketing strategy, how do you know you are working in a way that accurately reflects your brand identity?
JD: Be sure to never insult your customers. And to never underestimate their attention to detail. David Ogilvy once said, “Never underestimate the power of the American woman.” She’s the smartest customer we know. I always keep that in mind. And I always start with that point of view. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to assume the viewpoint of this individual. On the contrary; one of the best places to start is to ask yourself what you like and what you want. Some people can be so afraid of making a decision on identity because they don’t want to let their own bias or personal feelings come into play. But we often forget that we, too, are customers. And when you bring that to bear, I think people, particularly small business owners, feel a lot better because more often than not, their business is an expression of who they are as people.
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