Brand Strategy: 4 Key Principles to Keep in Mind

With mass layoffs continuing to make headlines, your small or new business might think—at first blush—of saving cash and manpower by defining and activating its brand strategy in-house. Or perhaps you feel confident enough to completely press pause on any branding work. You’ve already figured out your vision and how to set yourself apart from the competition, right? 

While any businessperson can appreciate the instinct to protect your bottom line by supporting initiatives with a clear ROI, if you have a great product or service but no one knows about it or connects with it, your business will be unable to stay afloat. Or worse, be DOA.

Brand strategy principles you need to know

So here are four brand strategy principles to help your small or new business make an impact with your target audience and stand out amid a sea of sameness.

1. Differentiate between branding and marketing.

Anyone outside the marketing department will likely loop these two concepts together, but wellness brand strategist Natasha Maxwell thinks it’s important to understand they are not one and the same. “Branding is how the product or service makes you feel, whereas marketing is the tools you use to inform people about the product/brand.” 

Take the brand Lululemon, for example. How do you feel when you’re wearing their apparel? Yes, the brand is about working out and being healthy, but it’s also looking and feeling good while doing so. The marketing of Lululemon, however, is the tactical ways they introduce their activewear, such as social media, newsletters and e-commerce.

2. Determine what’s underneath the aesthetic.

Before she contracts with potential clients, Maxwell conducts a 30-minute consultation and asks questions prior to meeting regarding primary issues, competitors and a company’s perception of their brand. Armed with that information, she’s able to better assess the company’s needs.

“The work I do as a strategist is so much about asking questions,” she says. “Who are you? What’s in it for an audience to purchase your brand?”

Maxwell often finds many companies aren’t clear on these answers, or address questions initially by discussing logos and colors.

“While that’s part of it, I want to understand what’s underneath the aesthetic—what is the deeper answer?”

Maxwell then determines what exactly the company needs and their expectations of working together, continuing to push for answers or offer her expertise where appropriate. 

“I’ve had potential clients say they want to go viral, so I ask why,” she says. “They respond ‘then millions of people will like the product,’ and I’m able to point to research that shows that going viral or having millions of followers doesn’t necessarily equate to more sales.”

Maxwell also asks companies to share their current digital media engagement numbers.

“That can help us determine where there’s a slowing down or a decrease, which for an established brand can provide more information on what you need to refresh to improve those numbers,” she said. “It might not be the entire brand, but maybe the content, the aesthetics or an e-newsletter.”

3. Brand strategy is not always about ROI, but more about relationships.

Building trust, loyalty and credibility takes time, but it’s a crucial component of a business’  success.

“With social media, consumers get exposed to new brands every day,” Kristopher Jones, founder of LSEO, wrote in Forbes. “This can be great for consumers who have plenty of options and are able to do research to find the best one, but it makes it harder for businesses.”

Which is why, despite the squeeze on budgets and threat of further layoffs, companies can’t afford to take brand strategy lightly.

Maxwell already sees many companies cutting back on one of branding’s greatest awareness tools—social media—or letting their traditional marketing team, who are not well-versed in branding or social media nuances, take it over.

“A lot of companies aren’t able to see the direct connection between social exposure and sales, so they decide to cut it, but social media is not about the direct connection,” she said. “It’s about building relationships and community and visibility. All those can lead to sales.”

4. Illuminate pain points and opportunities with an outside perspective.

So now that you realize how integral brand strategy is to the success of your company, you might be asking yourself, is this an initiative I can handle internally? Consider this truism: When you’re so close to something, it’s easy for emotions to cloud potential solutions. 

“Getting a fresh set of eyes to look over ongoing problems in your business can be just what you need,” Syed Balkhi, founder of WPBeginner, told Forbes in an article highlighting how outside consultants can offer impartial opinions and mitigate tunnel vision.

If possible, Maxwell encourages companies to not only hire a branding strategist, but also one that has specific niche experience.  

“I had the privilege of hearing and having conversations with wellness brand consumers on the ground level as a personal trainer and nutrition coach,” she said. 

Now she’s able to use those experiences and the deep understanding she gained of that target market to provide better counsel to her clients.

Photo by garetsworkshop/Shutterstock

Jill McDonnell is a Chicago-based content writer and communications professional. She has a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in public relations and advertising from DePaul University. She is currently at work on a psychological thriller novel.

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