“Brand” as a marketing and business term is utterly ubiquitous. I mean, if you look around, if a person is not actively “building” a brand they’re making sure something or other is “aligned” with one or “re-branding” something or other…and if you’re not, are you even in marketing or advertising? 🤔
Yeah, you’re nodding along. But what do brand and branding really mean when it’s done well? How’s it different than a visual identity? A messaging strategy? The words n’ stuff on a website? What does a really fantastic brand look like? Sound like? Smell like? (Ok, they don’t typically smell like much but the overworked combustion of a strategist’s brain cells.) And how do you make one that's useful and worth the time?
In our new series, Brand Chats, Kendra Rainey (Edgar Allan’s VP of Strategy & Content) will let you in on all the details. Today, because most stories work best when you start at the beginning, we’re laying out the basics:
1) What is brand strategy, really?
2) Where do most companies go wrong when it comes to branding?
3) How do you ensure the CEO and board members are aligned?
Since Kendra has built and named brands for every shape, size (and smell) of entity from single-person companies to Fortune 50 brands — and even entire countries – she' is someone that has plenty of nuggets to share about branding. She’s also always here at Edgar Allan, so it was easy to get her on the phone and ask all the questions.
Let’s dig in:
What is brand strategy, really?
Hi, Kendra here.
I think about brand as a thing that has three big components: position, story, and vibe.
And if you nail those three things, like really kill it, you can truly create a brand that resonates.
So, I'm going to go through all of them individually, talk about what they mean, and how position, story, and vibe reflect in your brand:
Let's start talking with position. That's the more formal thing, the thing that people talk about in strategy books and seminars most often. What's your brand position? You’ve heard that, and it sounds like a big, scary deal... But position is just a strategic calculation of where your thing – your product, your company, even your personal brand —exists in the worldof all the other things that somebody might choose to align themselves with, to buy, to love, to be excited about.
And that is inclusive of all the people and other brands that do almost exactly what you do and sell similar products: competitors. But it's also inclusive of other things that take up people's mind space. And you’ve probably heard about a competitive audit (and maybe we’ll speak to that in another conversation)., That’s part of it you want to think kind of broader than just “What are the five companies that do exactly what I do?” Because there are going to be other choices that a person could make that are not just that specific industry, that specific offering. Your thing might be entirely replacing another entirely different product or, often, a hacky thing someone’s settled on because they couldn’t find anything better. In all cases, position Is a strategic calculation of where you exist among all those other things in terms of how they’re presented, how they perform, and importantly, how they solve the problem your product is solving. It’s a matrix you create with an eye for empty space. When you look around at everything else that’s available, and all the things being said about those products or services, what’s not covered? That’s where brand difference lies. And that’s what you want to find.
Now, let’s talk about story. What's the story — the connective, exciting, or heartstring-pulling or pain-point solving narrative — that you want to surround your product with to make your audiences think, “Yeah. This one gets me.”? Big question, right? Well, you start with the result of that positioning. That’s your plot. And then you think, “What’s a way that, if I had to, I could tell someone about my thing, the way I want them to perceive it (position) and make them nod their heads in agreement. Make them say, “I’m all in.” That becomes your story — home base for how you’ll talk about all the different features and benefits and other details you need people to know. It all starts with that narrative and comes back to it.
And finally, let’s talk about vibe. Vibe rolls up all those other squishy parts of brand like tone and voice, ethos, and personality. It’s the feeling your brand puts off. The clothes it wears and the swagger with which it enters a room. ? You’ll want to ask, what does it look like? Is my brand colorful? Is it muted? Does it have a kind of curly, kind of floaty feeling to it visually? Is it, vivid, with eye-searing contrast and bold photography? Or are we all black and white, clean and austere? And you sort of triangulate the chutzpah your thing brings to the party.
So, why is this so hard sometimes?
I think one of the things that I've learned throughout my career is that sometimes brand strategy and brand, in general, can be a little bit of a scary thing. And I think that one of the reasons is that it's a big deal. It's foundational. It feels very heavy. It feels like this is the thing that we have to nail to make sure that our business succeeds and everyone loves us.
To be honest with you, as a brand strategist, I gotta say that's true.
But I think that we've trumped it up to the point where for some companies, especially if they're just starting out or they aren't very big, it’s intimidating.
So we think about brand as less of a foundation, something that's built in concrete, something that is more DNA level. We think of it more as a club that you join, right? So it's more active, it's more alive, it's more a conversation, a thing that shifts and changes with wants and needs of the marketplace, of what you're doing inside your business and of what your audiences are kind of feeling and thinking.
Where do most companies go wrong when it comes to branding?
Companies typically go wrong in two ways:
1. By not doing any brand thinking at all. You would think at this point that brand strategy is a well-known enough kind of construct out there that everybody would be like, "We need a brand.” And they may say that, but I think a lot of time people don't know what that means. We still work with clients where we say, “Okay, so how's your brand shaping up? Have you done a refresh recently? Do you have a sense of who you are? Do you have that documentation?"
They'll say, “Yes!”.
We'll say, “Great! Let's see it.”
And they will hand us a one-sheeter with a logo and some colors. (Sad trombone. The saddest.)
So we have to educate them then that there's a lot more that we're going need to know, or perhaps more importantly that you should probably know about themselves and their audiences to create a compelling message or to present them in a way that's gonna be enticing to an audience or at least differentiate them.
So, the first way they go wrong is just not doing it at all or not knowing that there's more to it than just designing a logo and picking some colors and having a photography style. that there's a story behind that. There should be a pretty significant look at, you know, that position. There should be a pretty significant exercise into how we sound and look and behave in the world that's unique to us, right? And having that down on paper or digital paper.
2. By not being able, as a company, to see from its audiences’ perspective. The other way that things can go wrong is when a company is stuck being inward-facing instead of outward-facing. This happens a lot in larger companies, where a marketing organization is caught up in the politics of what the CEO wants, or shouted down by a chorus of folks who aren’t aware that they’re not the target audience. And so they’re just kind of stuck there, or in some cases stuck in their own... terminology or in their own world. It's shoegazing, And breaking people out of that is something that we do a lot. We help companies look from the outside in.
How should you ensure the CEO and board members are aligned on the branding?
I think that the first thing that we try to do is get them involved in the conversation very early on. Those people often have a lot of big ideas and a lot of ambition and a lot of forward-thinking for the company itself. And getting them in the room to be a part of the initial workshop is key. We always start brand positioning jobs by getting them into a Zoom room, on the whiteboard, in the physical room with a big Post-it note sticky pad, to talk through their thoughts and their ideas.
Also, we want to have them in the room with some other people who hopefully aren't afraid to not dissent openly, but at least say, “Hey, I don't see it that way. I'm on the sales floor and maybe I hear a lot more of X.” It helps discussion and helps if everyone can hear everyone else’s perspective. In that way, discovery sessions are great for us and the clients.
They're wonderful for us because we get to ask a lot of really great questions and dig into the guts of a brand and also the guts of the personalities that are sort of running the show on the client side, but also gives a lot of times clients in a team an opportunity to talk about things that they've never talked about openly together.
And so, whereas they're working, marketing's working in its silo, sales is working in its silo, customer success is working in its silo, the CEO is over here sort of trying to kind of drive the show. But nobody's talking about what they're seeing out there and what's real. So it's an opportunity to get everybody in the room and talk about those things in a non-confrontational and often kind of fun and active way. So that would be my first my first piece of advice.
My second piece of advice: if they can't be a part of that, try to do an individual interview with them. And at the very least, have them be involved and give feedback all along the way because being heard is often the key, right? Even if we don't implement absolutely every piece of advice that they give or everything, most people are pretty satisfied to just say, hey I said my thing and y'all, you know, hopefully, and when it works well, they say, hey you guys are the experts, let's take your recommendation. Often it's a compromise, but we at least try to start strong.
What does working on a branding project with EA look like?
Clients come to us in all phases of brand development. We are equipped to take all comers. I think that one thing that makes us unique as a digital agency and as a Webflow agency is that we are full-service in that way. You have me and my team on the front end able to take a company that literally might come and say, “We have zero. We have some good thinking, but we've not put anything down on paper. Lead us through this project all the way to creating an actual brand and then help us with the website.”
Or, a client might be working with a branding agency but need help creating a website. We actually have three clients right now that work with another agency and they'll say, “We have this brand work from this other agency, what can you use it to create a website?” And we can say, “Absolutely.”
And I think that even in those cases, we are very well equipped to do that work because we understand the brand part. We're not just consuming it, we can look at it in a more, kind of in-depth way that maybe a company that doesn't do brand. We're not just taking a book and then applying it. We're saying, okay, we understand sort of the emotional underpinnings here. We get the story. We can see where this came from. We're gonna get a little more information from you. And then we're gonna make sure that is honored all the way through to the end of the website project.
So the answer is we can do anything from clients that come to us and say “We have nothing and we need help from ground zero,” to clients that say, “We have a fully formed brand and we're ready to like implement it,” and then clients that are somewhere in between.
Most of the time, honestly, clients come to us when they are in the between stage. They have some stuff that's thought about or it's 10 years old. And they have a place that we're starting from but want help to rethink it. And so that's probably the people in the middle are the ones we encounter most often.
Thanks to Kendra for sharing so many useful points about brand strategy there.
Interested in working with Edgar Allan on a project? Contact us here to explain what you need and how we can potentially work together!