Brand Building Guide: 7 Lessons from Creative Entrepreneurs

  •    Anne is a marketing consultant who specializes in content strategy. Before becoming her own boss, she led the marketing team for a Fortune 500 brand.

Entrepreneurs need to learn the ins and outs of nearly every aspect of running a business — and fast! What better, safer way to learn than from other people's mistakes? That's why we've launched this new series — “What I Wish I Had Known" — to share lessons that successful business owners have learned through experience. We hope their advice prepares and informs you for your own entrepreneurial journey. And, if you missed them, check out the first four installments of this series: Building a Website, Prototyping, Financing and Manufacturing. Today we're moving to your business's ethos, its ego, its identity. I'm talking about your company's brand. In other words, the way in which you'll represent your business to the world.

Building a brand takes more than choosing a business name and designing a logo. While you want to keep you brand clear, don't oversimplify your idea of how to get there. Consider how you can best embody your mission and inspire your target audience. We won't lie, this takes real work. But when you get it right, it'll be like finding your soul mate. You'll just know, everything will feel right and your customer base will respond.

But first, let's back it up. If you have a life-changing product or a stellar service, why does your brand even matter? Glenn E. Mueller Jr., president of Mueller Chocolate Co., whose brand is perhaps as well known for its sense of humor as it is for its hand-made chocolates and candies, explains that it comes down to authenticity and individuality. That is, representing who you are and what you do best.

“The marketplace is a very crowded and busy space," he says. “The best way for a small business to stand out is by developing a unique value proposition and a brand that delivers that value, or brand promise." And that's exactly what turned Heather Knight, owner and artist at Element Clay Studio), around on the topic of building a brand. She says that back in 2007, she would have turned up her nose at the idea of branding. Now, though?

“I think about it all the time — my photographs, stickers, business cards, the work itself — how it works together and what it's telling my customers or potential clients," she admits.

“We are basically competing with mega-corporations every day. If you don't stand out, what stops people from just running to Target?" she asks, echoing Mueller. “You have to differentiate yourself from everyone else out there with your branding, so that they will come to you instead."

Okay, have we harped enough on why you need a strong brand? Great, we'll move on to the seven most important aspects of branding – lessons these entrepreneurs have learned along the way, including ones they had to learn the hard way so you don't have to.

Lesson 1: Give your brand a personality.

Know who you are and why you do what you do — then share your story by developing your company's personality.

The embryo of every brand stems from a company's mission statement and a promise to its customers. Without these, you'll be lost when trying to build the components of your brand, from its voice and story to its logo and color palette. You'll also lack the necessary guidepost to best differentiate your brand in the marketplace and share its story. Essentially, you'll be Daniel-san without Mr. Miyagi, Buffy without Giles, Oprah without Barbara Walters… you get the picture.

“Know who you are and what you want to communicate. You need to have a mission statement to keep going back to. You have to ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this?' and 'What do I want people to associate with my business?'" says Knight. “I wish that I would have had a clear mission statement from the beginning."

“Don't confuse your customers by sending mixed signals between what your branding says and what your company provides," Mueller advises, suggesting you keep it simple and get creative to differentiate your company from its competitors. Ultimately, this comes down to a clear brand promise you'll stand behind as well as a brand story that sets you apart.

From there, determine how you want to speak to your customers, your language, tone and values. How much humor will you employ, and what type of humor? Are respectability and dependability important in your brand? Answer these questions to best understand the type of person your brand would be. From there, you'll better understand the type of voice to use and can inject that color into your brand messaging.

In a nutshell: Before jumping into designing a logo, writing a tagline and choosing colors, make sure you have a full understanding of your company's mission and your brand promise. These will serve as the cornerstones of your brand personality.

Lesson 2: Understand and live for your audience.

“Learn who your customers are and how to engage them," says Kimarie Santiago, CEO and founder of SALTOPIA Infused Sea Salts LLC, a leader in naturally harvested gourmet sea salts. “Whatever it is that you are offering, know exactly who your customers are! SALTOPIA sells to a specific demographic, and we target this demographic to gain new customers."

As you hone in on more specific customer profiles, you'll gain a deeper understanding of what matters most to your target audience. Consider surveying them, gathering informal focus groups or seeking feedback on social media.

“I listened a lot to my customers [when developing my brand]," Santiago says. “You can't please everyone, but if you hear the same things over and over from loyal customers, then they may have a good point, so keep your eyes and ears alert!" Once you've identified what customers want and what they love most about your product or service, zero in on those areas in your brand messaging.

“We know our customers like purity and wholesome organic ingredients, so our brand and all our marketing materials reflect this," says Santiago. “

Research where your customers spend time online, where they shop and which websites they visit. This can give you an idea of the complimentary services they use and point you in the direction of your strongest competitors. Take note of which ones have the best look and feel, as well as what their brand stories are.

In a nutshell: While you can't please everyone – and really shouldn't try – you do need to understand your core audience. Take this group's interests and preferences into account in all your branding efforts.

Lesson 3: Identify your niche and rock at it.

This takes us a bit further than developing a specific target audience in Lesson 2, though that will fit into how you find your niche. This is about where you position yourself in the marketplace. Santiago has seen too many small businesses lose their original vision when struggling to make it in the early stages. Often, they'll start to sell nearly anything to become a one-stop-shop that their original customer base never wanted, she says, which ultimately compromises their brand.

“Focus on who you are and what you're looking to achieve. Be the best at it," she urges, noting that at SALTOPIA, they only sell pure gourmet sea salts. “We do not sell water bottles, t-shirts or anything else. I don't want to confuse our customers. You can't be everything to everyone, so don't try."

In a nutshell: Stay focused, remaining true to your mission and your target audience. Then be the best at what you're offering.

Lesson 4: Avoid legal battles. Do your homework.

Mueller stresses the importance of researching whether your intended brand elements infringe on any other companies' intellectual property. If not, great! Now trademark it. Why are these steps necessary? I'll let Santiago answer that. She learned the hard way.

“If I had to choose, my one major piece of advice would be to trademark your brand before you start building it," she says. “No one told me this and, after I ended up in a heated court battle over a single word in my brand name, I was forced to change it! A waste of money and time. I had to change all my packaging, labels, brochures, catalogs, photography — any place where that one word lived."

In a nutshell: Research and trademark every possible aspect of your brand before committing to it.

Lesson 5: Be consistent.

All three business owners agree: when it comes to branding, be consistent.

Remember how Mueller urged against confusing customers in Lesson 1? The same applies here. With today's interconnected world, branding goes beyond a storefront and your logo, fonts and colors on printed materials. It must encompass all your physical and digital properties from your social channels to your website, blog and, yes, printed materials like packaging and business cards.

Ensure that the visual aspects of your brand as well as its voice and personality carry across every representation of your company in every medium. How? Develop brand guidelines and communicate them to each person in your company. Mueller suggests working with an outside marketing firm or designer if you don't have someone in-house.

“I hired a design firm to take what was in my head into the physical world," he says, saying this helped him make sure that his web and social properties all adhered to his brand guidelines. “Not only the look and feel, but also the domain name and social handles should all be cohesive."

In a nutshell: Make a holistic audit of all touchpoints your brand has with customers. Pay attention to even the smallest details, like your packaging of shipped items. “Make sure your visuals are on point and consistent across the board," Knight advises. Santiago agrees, “I never change how we present our brand. Our logo, our fonts, our imagery – all remain consistent."

Lesson 6: Respect the importance of visual branding — especially in when it comes to social sharing opportunities.

Mueller is no stranger to missed opportunities. When Mike Tyson tweeted a photo of his business's chocolate ears, cleverly adding the caption, “Happy 'New Ears,'" the tweet received tons of attention – a business owner's dream come true: positive and free publicity! But nothing in his photo indicated where he'd gotten the confection.

And when another celebrity shared a photo of the company's work, lauding its awesomeness, the pic lacked nearby signage or any other peripheral branding. To make the unfortunate situation worse, a competitor took credit. Cue the Twitter battle! Thankfully, in the end, justice prevailed, and Mueller Chocolate Co. got credit for its work, but Mueller learned a big lesson that day.

“People take and share a staggering amount of pictures on their smartphones, which has changed how I look at branding," he says. “If pictures are taken in your store [or of your product], is your logo visible in the background? All around are missed opportunities to be a part of our customers' social experience." Knight agrees.

“Where we are culturally dictates that the most important thing about your brand right now is its visuals," she explains. “Everyone is always on their phone and social media, so have your website, photography and promotional materials on point for when customers look you up on Instagram or Google you. Make sure they that what they find is on-brand and will captivate them."

In a nutshell: Opportunities for brand ambassadors are everywhere, so set your business up for success. Consider brand-friendly photo opportunities in your store or as part of your product packaging, and make sure this packaging and any other promotional materials let your customers know how to find you on various social channels.

Lesson 7: Know when it's time to evolve.

As your customer base – and society – evolves, your brand may need to as well, especially as new marketing channels emerge.

“My audience has changed over time due to social media, so now I am looking at making changes to accommodate a much younger buyer than in years past," explains Knight. “It's keeping me on my toes as I try to see the patterns in my business and follow them."

Mueller's take: “It all comes down to diligence and discipline. You have to keep an eye on the world around you, your competitors and your own team. Branding requires a narrative. A consistent narrative requires a motivated team, and a motivated team requires a happy culture. It requires constant presence, nurturing and investment."

In a nutshell: Stay alert to market trends, your customers' needs and how they interact with your brand. “Keep refining, refreshing and perhaps reinventing as needed," Knight says. “Really tune in and listen to what your customers are telling you – not just through their words, but also their actions."

Building a brand is hard work, but it will pay dividends if you get it right. Stay true to your vision and the customers will follow.