The 10 Commandments of Branding
So you’ve got a great idea and want to start a business. You just… start, right? Not so fast. If longevity is what you’re after, you need to work on branding.
Branding is a general term that encompasses many moving parts relating to your business. It establishes your identity beyond just the products or services you sell. It gives your customers something to remember you by, something to engage and connect with. It’s what makes your company memorable and stand out among the competition.
There are so many things to consider when it comes time to brand a business! It can be overwhelming, with so many do’s and don’ts out there. I’ve put together my 10 commandments of branding to try and organize all the best advice I’ve heard and learned by experience.
1. Thou Shalt Not Put the Cart Before the Horse.
Before you think about designing a logo or coming up with a catchy tag line, you must identify your brand’s core. This is typically made up of the following parts:
- Mission/Purpose—What the brand aims to accomplish for its audience
- Vision—The ideal world the brand is trying to reach for
- Values—What the brand believes in and stands for
This core is the underpinnings of your brand culture and should guide everything you do. (No pressure, right?) You should be considering your core when creating your visual identity, defining your brand voice, and creating any content moving forward.
When creating your core, make sure you consider your organization’s past, present, and future to make sure you’re positioning correctly. You don’t want to create a brand now that you will outgrow later. (Design is one thing; you can always “rebrand” visually. Your mission, vision, values—those should be long-term and lasting.)
It’s perfectly OK to let emotion guide your core! The best brands take a firm stand for what they believe in and uphold their promises to their audience. Studies have shown that people are more brand loyal to those that share their values, so be clear about what exactly that is.
After your core is defined, it should be much easier to find your unique selling proposition (USP). This is what sets you apart from your competition and encompasses the benefits and value you bring to your audience.
2. Thou Shalt Keep It Real.
Instead of putting on a show and trying to be something you’re not, you need to strive for authenticity in your branding. This means walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. I know it’s scary—wearing your heart on your sleeve is a sure way to get it crushed. But top brands know that people want genuine connections instead of salesy, immediate-best-friend vibes.
A big part of authenticity is making sure everyone involved in your brand understands the core mission, vision, and values and embodies those principles. If you walked into a Patagonia store and someone was wearing leather pants and drinking from a single-use water bottle, there would be a major disconnect.
Think about Disney World, for example. Every experience on a Disney property is carefully constructed to seem magical. Every employee is chosen to continue this experience, no matter how small the interaction is. Cast members are never to be half-dressed in front of patrons. All this makes sense when you find out their brand core principles:
- Mission: The mission of The Walt Disney Company is to entertain, inform and inspire people around the globe through the power of unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the iconic brands, creative minds and innovative technologies that make ours the world’s premier entertainment company.
- Vision: To be one of the world’s leading producers and providers of entertainment and information.
- Values: Optimism, innovation, decency, quality, community, and storytelling.
That magical experience is a form of storytelling, which entertains and inspires people en masse. And you want to talk about community? How many people do you know who are die-hard Disney fans? They meet someone else wearing a Disney shirt or with a Disney bumper sticker and immediately know they’ve found a kindred spirit.
Being authentic goes beyond the customer experience, though. Your brand’s interactions should be genuine and positive for your employees, too. Without their belief in the brand and participation on its behalf, the company will not be able to pull off the type of customer loyalty brands envy Disney for.
3. Thou Shalt Not Try To Please Everyone
Being all things to all people is impossible, and trying is going to make you spin your wheels with no traction. You need to identify your potential customers, aka your target audience. These are the people you need to relate to, speak to, and identify with.
Some questions to help you identify your target audience:
- Who would benefit from my product or service?
- What are their pain points (problems they need solved)?
- What are their characteristics and demographics?
- Are they formal or casual?
- Do they take a long time to make purchasing decisions, or will they hop on to a trend?
- Where do they hang out online (or even IRL)?
The best way to relate to your target audience is by conducting market research. This can be difficult if you don’t know where to find your potential customers, but do as much investigating as possible.
Once you’ve identified your target audience and learned all about them, it’s time to figure out what kind of relationship you want with them.
4. Thou Shalt Have Personality
Don’t know what a brand voice is? It’s your brand’s personality and the way it speaks and relates to your audience. Is your brand quirky, like Dollar Shave Club? Is your brand formal, like De Beers? Is it comfortable, like Ikea?
Timing-wise, establishing your brand voice should come after you define your core and define your target audience. But make sure you figure it out before you release messaging—and probably even before creating your visual identity. All branding elements are tied together, so you need to show your personality throughout.
Whatever your brand’s personality is, make sure you choose messaging and content formats that convey it clearly. For example, I doubt De Beers is on TikTok… it’s not a formal platform and doesn’t scream “luxury” to me. (Yep, just checked and they do not have an account.)
On the other hand, Dollar Shave Club has a quirky and hilarious TikTok channel with relatable—did I mention funny?—videos. Sure, they promote their products, but they do it in an entertaining way that keeps their brand’s voice and personality on center stage.
Don’t forget to incorporate your brand’s personality into all aspects of the customer experience! Even if it’s a transactional email like a receipt, these are touchpoints where you can interject some fun details that show who your brand is.
5. Thou Shalt Not Operate In a Vacuum
In a perfect world, every business would only have to worry about themselves and their own strategy. Since we live in the real world, you cannot make the mistake of ignoring your competitors! You MUST assess other companies in your space and figure out how you fit into the industry.
This is not permission to get hung up on your competition and try to copy everything they do, though. You still should be doing your own thing, but you need to take into consideration what else is being offered, promised, and delivered by others.
And as confusing as it sounds, you also have to consider who COULD be your competition in the future. Take Corning, for example. It’s a glass company that is known in households everywhere for their bakeware. Guess what they provide now, though? Touchscreen glass. They saw an opportunity when screens were becoming ubiquitous and acted on it. No one could have predicted that move, but other glass manufacturers probably wish they had seen that opportunity earlier.
You also have to be able to recognize trends in the marketplace. Trends become that way because they seem like a good idea, so everyone jumps on. Do you want to be a pioneer of trends, or a follower? It’s OK to follow a trend as long as it upholds your brand core. However…
6. Thou Shalt Consider The Consequences
You have to be careful with trends! There is a bigger picture, and you have to consider all angles.
The key is to remain consistent. “But wait, you just said it’s OK to join trends?” It is possible to join a trend while remaining consistent with your branding. Take the “debranding” trend that’s happening now. Major brands are updating their logos to be more streamlined and simplified. Everyone from Burger King to Burberry has been removing details, shading, and unnecessary elements from their brand identity.
Ben Schott of Bloomberg says that this is in part due to the need for mobile-first design. When you’re looking at a tiny screen, all those details just muddle your logo. Simpler is often better.
To ensure consistency, make sure everyone in your organization knows your brand’s mission, vision, and values. Creating a brand handbook is a great way to keep these top of mind. You can add guidance on visual identity, a glossary of terms and phrases to maintain your brand voice and personality, and tips for keeping your messaging on point. Circulate it to your marketing staff and beyond, keeping in mind all those brand touchpoints across departments.
Even when you have consistency across your brand, you still have a lot of flexibility. As long as everything points back to your brand’s core, you’re free to try out trends—or create them!
7. Thou Shalt Keep It Simple
Anytime content is created—whether it’s your logo design, website copy, or a slide deck—it’s tempting to go overboard with details and information. The thing is, people can’t absorb too much information without tuning out completely. Keeping it simple is always the best way to go.
Just look at Apple’s logo throughout the years. The very first Apple “logo” can’t even be called a logo. It’s a full, detailed image in an old etching style. This didn’t even last a year before the Apple that we all know was launched. Sure, it’s been multiple colors and stylized differently, but that Apple outline with a single bite missing has been iconic for over 40 years. It’s easy to spot and represents the company so well that anyone who sees it immediately knows what to expect.
Other examples of keeping it simple visually are Nike’s “swoosh,” the McDonald’s golden arches, and even Lacoste’s alligator. But simple isn’t just a visual principle. You should aim to be clear and concise in all your messaging, no matter what medium or platform it’s released on. Take a look at the examples below:
- Granola’s ingredients are sourced from the highest mountains of Andalasia, untouched by any chemicals. Our products are for the discerning citizen who aims to live their best life in a tiny house by the beach and grow their own patchouli. Granola is the best choice for anyone who wants their food to taste like cardboard!
- Eat clean. Live simple. Choose Granola.
Obviously, this is an exaggeration! But the point stands: keeping your copy unfussy and to the point is the key to winning your audience’s attention.
8. Thou Shalt Not Over-commit or Overshare
There are two points in this commandment, and both are firm no-nos. Don’t spread yourself too thin, and don’t be annoying with your content.
First, let’s discuss over-committing. It’s so tempting to be everywhere at once, isn’t it? The minute a new social media channel pops up and becomes trendy, people are curious and want to join. But if you have a marketing team of two people and you’re managing 5 other channels (not to mention all the other duties the marketing department has), will you be able to start a new channel AND do it well?
There’s something to be said for those who can learn to say no. Not to brag, but I am particularly proud of myself for not joining TikTok as a creator. I seriously considered it, but I already have an Instagram account and realized that I don’t have the bandwidth to maintain both. I focused on creating more reels and publishing more consistently on Instagram and I’m staying off TikTok for now.
You don’t want to half-ass anything because that’s just not a good look. Be selective and choose to show up purposefully wherever your audience can be found instead of being everywhere just for the sake of it. Write and develop quality content that speaks to your audience and publish it where you can be—you guessed it—consistent.
Next point: There’s a fine line between being authentic and oversharing, and it’s called having a filter. It’s not likely that every single thing you do in a day is relevant to your brand’s core, so there’s no need to tell them every detail. Each piece of content you publish should be furthering your mission, underlining your vision, or representing your values.
Behind-the-scenes content is a popular way to humanize a brand. An business owner who is also a mom might share some snaps of balancing her work with parenting to relate to her values. She wouldn’t (shouldn’t!) share a photo of potty training her toddler, though. Oversharing is taking things one step too far, and if you have to ask yourself then you probably shouldn’t share it.
9. Thou Shalt Not Make False Promises
This was important enough to include as a commandment, but it should be pretty obvious and not need much explanation. DO NOT overhype your company or its products/services. If you make promises you can’t keep, you’re killing your brand’s reputation. In the age of social media, word of mouth spreads faster than ever before. Reviews speak volumes and there are plenty of platforms for people to make their experiences with you known.
10. Thou Shalt Keep Calm and Carry On
Part of the fun of marketing is being able to experiment with tactics, channels, media, and messaging. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s OK! I was just telling my daughter earlier tonight that everyone makes mistakes, but we should learn from them and not repeat them.
If you make a mistake that requires an apology, deliver it promptly and sincerely and then move on. If it’s a mistake that affects the company’s bottom line, make sure you analyze the numbers so that you know what not to do next time. The most important thing is to act responsibly, and everything will work out.
Even if you do (or don’t do) all these things and execute perfectly, you can’t expect instant results. Building an audience takes time. Generating leads takes time. Bringing in revenue takes time. Be patient, stay true to your brand’s core, and have fun with it!
What do you think of my 10 commandments? Are there any that I forgot? Are there any you disagree with? I’d love to hear from you!