What’s a brand, and how can you get one?

TL;DR

  1. Consistency rules in brand building. 

  2. Invest in building a brand book, early. 

  3. A brand book is a living document and should evolve as the company does.  

Building a brand tends to be an overwhelming and often overlooked task for young companies. It’s a daunting process made all the more intimidating by the lack of a shared understanding of what a “brand” actually is. 

Is it a product? A logo? A feature set? Is it the same as a company vision? A brand isn’t any of these things, but it encompasses all of them. A brand is hard to define because it’s fundamentally personal. It’s the perception, associations, and affinity than an individual has for your product or company. 

The key to building a brand is to make sure that every time a customer interacts with your company or product, their expectations are met. A brand is nothing if it’s not consistent - especially in its earliest days. Consistency breeds authenticity, and authenticity breeds connection, trust, and loyalty among customers - an ultimate goal of any brand.

How to get consistency.

The question then becomes: how do you ensure consistency of your brand? Consistency may be simple in theory, but it’s much more complicated in practice. Think about all the places your brand interacts with the wider world - on support channels and social media, on billboards and Instagram ads, on industry panels and in sales pitches and press coverage, not to mention job descriptions, networking events, and within the product itself. 

How do you ensure consistency of a brand, especially when there are multiple people representing and translating it? 

That’s where the brand book comes in. Some people prefer to call it a brand bible, brand playbook, or brand guidelines but whatever it’s termed, this document is the secret to establishing consistency. It clearly communicates the essence of the brand to employees, partners, and anyone else who is a steward of the brand. Adherence to the brand book will ensure that your brand has a consistent message and maintains a unified look, feel, and voice in every instance.

A brand book crystallizes the essential elements of your brand into a governing document that serves as a central reference for everyone on your team. 

It’s important to note, however, that a brand is a living thing and your brand book should evolve as your company does.

The anatomy of a brand book. 

A strong brand is much more than the sum of its parts. But giving time and attention to developing each of those parts is critical to ensuring a strong brand, especially for young companies. Understanding the nature and role of each essential element is the first step toward creating your brand book.

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Company Ethos (Mission, Vision, & Values)

A strong brand is built upon a clearly defined and articulated company mission, vision, and values system - collectively defined as a company’s ethos. 

Your company’s mission answers the question: What is the company driving to accomplish in the next 5 years? It serves to give the internal team direction and focus. As an example, Airbnb's mission is: 

To help create a world where you can belong anywhere and where people can live in a place, instead of just traveling to it.

Your company’s vision answers the questions: Why do we exist? What’s the essence of what we are trying to do? What’s the ultimate impact of our company’s efforts? Here are some examples of vision statements from successful brands:

To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world. (*If you have a body, you are an athlete.) - Nike

A world without Alzheimer’s disease. - Alzheimer’s Association

Another critical element of the company’s ethos is the company’s set of key values - the operating philosophies and principles that guide your internal conduct and relationships with employees, customers, and partners. These values should infuse your internal culture as well as your brand. 

For example, TaskRabbit’s key values are:

1. Care deeply. 

2. Level up. 

3. Be a better neighbor. 

4. Lead the future together.

Brand Manifesto

Although it’s perhaps one of the most difficult aspects to develop, your brand manifesto is the natural extension of your company’s vision. A brand manifesto describes why your company exists, its purpose, and why people should care about it. Typically a short statement with declarative language, a brand manifesto captivates your audience, connects with them, and persuades them to support your brand. 

At Fuel, our manifesto begins: 

We know what it’s like to start as outsiders. To navigate the gatekeepers, barriers, and ceilings along the way. Building companies and growing brands isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s an endlessly challenging and lonely journey, even more so for those who don’t fit the typical mold.

Read the full manifesto here

Target Persona Development

An important exercise for companies at the early stages is target persona development. The persona is a specific individual who represents your “typical” or ideal customer — a person with a name, a photograph, and real motivations, values, preferences, and dislikes. 

The persona should really bring this person to life; the more detailed, the better. It should explain what makes your customer tick and how and why they make their decisions. The buyer persona takes you inside your customer’s mind and heart, offering insights not only into who they are, but also why they do what they do — and importantly, why they buy what they buy. Below is an example of a persona from a mobile ticketing company.

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This level of detail is essential in making the target customer more tangible and relatable, particularly as employees are developing products, features, and marketing strategies for them. 

Value Proposition 

A brand’s value proposition articulates why customers want to use your product or service vis-a-vis the competition. What unique value does your product or service provide? As an example, below are Nike’s key value propositions:

- Accessibility: Offering customers a variety of styles, sizes, and models. 

- Innovation: The company maintains the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab at its headquarters, a research facility focused on designing cutting-edge products. 

- Customization: The company enables customization through its service NikeID, allowing customers to personalize various aspects of their shoes. 


Your value propositions are the promises of value to be delivered, and thus set your customers’ expectations. Expectation setting is important because, as mentioned earlier, the key to building a brand is to make sure that every time a customer interacts with your company or product, their expectations are met. Remember, a brand is nothing if it’s not consistent - especially in its earliest days.

Positioning

Another critical element to include in your brand book is your positioning statement. This may seem like an academic exercise but the positioning statement clearly articulates the space you want to occupy in your target customer’s mind. The statement itself should be as simple as: “Company X is the easiest and fastest marketplace for preferred seats, letting fans live in the moment together.” 

Getting to this simple statement requires some academic thinking - the formula below breaks down each component of an effective positioning statement, including: the target customer, frame of reference (i.e., the market or category you play in), the brand’s promise, and the reasons to believe that promise.

For (target customer): Fans of live events.
Frame of reference: Company X is the easiest and fastest mobile marketplace for preferred seats.
That (brand promise): Connects fans so they can live in the moment together.
Because (reasons to believe): Company X does all the hard work for its fans, presenting only the best seats using actual panoramic seat views.
So that (emotional benefit): Fans can make tonight epic.

Personality

A brand’s personality is the way it thinks, feels, and behaves. It illustrates how the brand would act if it were a person. Put another way, how would the brand come to life?  Is the brand loud and energetic and the life of the party? Is it dependable and trustworthy? The personality should be broken down into specific attributes along with a detailed description of each trait. Below are Fuel’s personality attributes as a reference. 

Measured: We are measured; not pushy or heavy-handed. We won’t over-react in uncertain times. Rather, we will be the voice of reason.

Encouraging: We are our founders’ fans, and are in it for the long haul. We inspire confidence because we have their backs - through the good and the bad.

Straight Up: We tell it like it is. We are not biased, we don’t try to sway. We give the facts and then let it be.

Maverick: We are a little unorthodox because we come from the outside. We buck tradition and customs typically seen in the VC world. 


Voice & Tone

The brand’s personality serves as the basis for your voice and tone - how you speak to your audiences. Your brand book should break down the defining elements of your voice and explain how each element translates, like so: 

Voice Element: Crisp and direct

- We’re instantly helpful by being educational

- Honest and trustworthy

- Not profuse 

How this translates:

- Keep copy short and punchy; no fillers or fluff   

- Prioritize clarity over cleverness, ensuring scan-ability and quick comprehension.


These specific guidelines make it possible for everyone producing brand language and marketing copy to do so consistently.

Visual Identity 

The visual aspects of your brand evoke certain feelings and experiences. Things like color palette, font, and even photo choice add up to a cohesive visual representation of your brand's personality. Your visual identity should be closely aligned with the rest of your brand elements. The following components of a style guide should be included in your brand book:

  1. Logo treatment, usage guidelines, and do’s and don’ts

  2. Typography and font guidelines 

  3. Color palette

  4. Photography and imagery guidelines


Since many team members will undoubtedly be creating external-facing content - social media posts, presentations, ads, and sales decks - these guidelines will ensure that all these assets have a consistent look and feel. 

The eight elements above combine to form your brand book - the living document that helps achieve the consistency necessary for a strong brand. If you're interested in learning more about how Fuel can help you develop your brand book, please reach out to me at jamie@fuelcapital.com. As always, I'm available to chat about your company’s brand or anything else marketing related.

Further Learning:

  1. This Brand Strategy Can Make Your Startup Look Bigger Than It Is

  2. The Branding Must-Haves That Don’t Occur to Start-ups Until it’s too Late

  3. Designing a Brand Strategy that Scales within a Startup Environment (Time stamp 12:00)

  4. Positioning: The Battle for your Mind




Workshop: Discovering the Ethos that Powers your Brand

A company’s vision, mission, and values - collectively defined as a company’s ethos - are inextricably linked to its brand. Your company’s values help define codes of conduct, your mission keeps employees focused, and your vision keeps them inspired. In the aggregate, the mission, vision, and values all help employees validate why they show up to work every morning and guide their decision-making. It’s these decisions that ultimately determine how your brand comes to life. 

Since these terms are often used casually and interchangeably, let’s take the time to define them explicitly:

Mission: Your mission statement must answer the question: What is the company driving to accomplish in the next 5 years? This is a more tactical statement than a vision statement and serves to give your internal team direction and focus. As an example, Airbnb's mission is: 

To help create a world where you can belong anywhere and where people can live in a place, instead of just traveling to it.

Vision: Your vision statement answers the questions: What’s the essence of what you are trying to do? What’s the ultimate impact of the company’s efforts? What’s the driving force? The vision inspires your team and informs your strategic direction. Airbnb’s vision is: 

To belong anywhere.

While a mission statement guides the actions that your team takes each day, a vision statement guides your strategic direction.

Values: Values are the operating philosophies that guide internal conduct and the company’s relationships with customers and partners. For reference, below are Airbnb’s values:

1. Champion the mission (by living the mission)

2. Be a Host

3. Simplify

4. Every frame matters

5. Be a “Cereal” Entrepreneur

6. Embrace the adventure

The value of ethos-setting:

Johnson & Johnson provides a quintessential example of how a strong corporate ethos can have a direct impact on a brand. Crafted in the 1940s by a member of the founding family, J&J’s Credo is the company’s moral compass. The Credo explicitly defines the company’s priorities and operating philosophies and sets clear guardrails for how to interact with customers, fellow employees, and the broader community. With all these principles clearly defined, the Credo has been instrumental in defining the J&J brand - guiding how J&J shows up in the world each and every time.


The Credo also ensures consistency - in particular, consistency in internal decision-making. As mentioned in the post “What’s a brand, and how can you get one?,” a brand is nothing if it’s not consistent, particularly in the early days. Consistency breeds authenticity and authenticity breeds connection and loyalty among customers - the building blocks of a revered brand.  

A strong brand is built upon a clearly defined and articulated mission, vision, and values system. It’s critical that the components of a company’s ethos be cemented at the company’s earliest stages. It’s the company’s ethos that powers so many aspects of the company - from the brand to how decisions are made to how you engage with employees and partners. It’s the ethos that determines how the brand shows up in the world. 

A step-by-step guide to your first visioning workshop: 

So, how do you go about formalizing your company ethos? A visioning workshop is my tried and tested approach. While a 4-hour workshop may sound daunting and frivolous for a young company, there’s incredible ROI. The result of this exercise will: 1) Provide direction and inspiration to the team in the form of the mission and vision statement; and 2) Serve as the foundation for all branding work.    

Here’s how to approach the visioning workshop:

  1. It’s important that the founder or CEO drive this process to signal the importance of the work. I also suggest bringing in an objective third-party to facilitate the workshop itself. (If you are interested in having Fuel arrange a facilitated session with your team, email jamie@fuelcapital.com.) 

  2. Limit the working team to 5-6 executives or members of the founding team. While this team will do most of the heavy lifting, it’s important to provide transparency to the rest of the organization so they have some insight into the process. You may want to solicit feedback from the team to ensure buy-in from the broader team. 

  3. Start with a half-day workshop (best done off-site to limit distractions) to run the team through a series of exercises, individually and as a group. This should be an interactive workshop where all members are actively participating.  

  4. The goal of the workshop is to start to define themes and commonalities among team members. Does there seem to be consensus around certain aspects of the ethos? The generative exercises provided below will surface the language, discussions, and ideas that will eventually lead to your ethos. 

  5. After the workshop, the facilitator or someone designated by the team should develop a draft of the mission, vision, and values based on the themes that came out of the workshop. 

  6. The draft should then be shared with the working team via a Google doc or similar format. The team should then react and provide feedback. There should be a few rounds of edits and discussions with the working team. 

  7. Once the ethos are fully defined, I recommend rolling them out formally to educate other employees. Finding highly visible real estate for your mission, vision, and values is a great way to provide a constant reminder of your new operating philosophies. At TaskRabbit, we had our four values displayed prominently on the walls of our office.

My go-to exercises for generating your brand ethos: 

Exercise #1: Deceivingly difficult, this one’s great to start with as it tends to inspire productive conversation. Ask the team to complete the sentences below using five words or less (that is, five words in addition to the words already in the statement). I suggest having each team member work individually on this exercise. Give them 10 minutes to develop their responses and then come together as a group to discuss for another 20 minutes. The intent of this exercise is two-fold: The first phrase (“Your company is…”) helps derive your company’s mission or potentially positioning, depending on where people take it. The second phrase (“Your company will…”) helps derive your company’s vision - the ultimate impact you’re trying to achieve.

Working individually, complete each sentence adding 5 words or less:

My company is…. 

My company will… 

Exercise #2:  Good news: There are no word restrictions with this exercise. I suggest that the team work individually on this exercise. Give them 10 minutes to develop their responses and then come together as a group to discuss for another 20 minutes. This exercise focuses on your company’s vision. What’s the ultimate impact you hope to have on the world? You’re looking for consistency and themes between this exercise and what was derived in Exercise #1. 

What would the desired end state be when your company is successful?

A world with… (Ex: “A world with more opportunities for students to learn.”)

A world without… (Ex: “A world without hunger.”)

Exercise #3: This exercise is intended to derive the company’s values. What are the operating philosophies that guide the employees’ interactions with customers, partners, and the wider world? Have the team go through the five questions below and answer them in turn. I suggest that the team work in groups of two for 20 minutes. Then, have the group come together to share their answers.  

  1. Think of a large company you personally spend money with - what characteristics do you admire about that company? Think of a large company you won’t spend money with - what don’t you admire about them?

  2. Think of the last time you had a true win - what factors or traits did you bring to the table to contribute to that win? Think of your last true loss - why’d it happen?

  3. Think of the most competent, capable person you’ve ever worked with - what qualities did you admire about them? Think of the least capable person - what qualities didn’t you admire?

  4. Think of a leader you admire, what qualities do you admire most about her or him? Think of a leader you don’t admire - why not?

  5. Think of a fictional person you admire, what qualities do you admire most about her or him? Think of a fictional person you don’t admire - why not?

Exercise #4: Remember Mad Libs? Well, this exercise is very reminiscent of that game. Have the team go through the paragraph below and complete the sentences using strong, declarative language. I suggest that the team work in groups of two for 20 minutes. Then, have the group come together to share their answers. I like to end with this exercise since it incorporates all aspects of the company’s ethos - vision, mission, and values. Hopefully, you’ll hear some of the themes you heard in earlier exercises. 

Here’s what we know for sure ___________; We believe __________; We believe ___________; We believe__________; We are committed to ___________; We will always ____________; We will never ____________; We want to live in a world where____________; We want to show the world _________________; We are fueled by: ______________; We intend to _______________; We want _____________; We are___________.

If you’re interested in having Fuel arrange a facilitated visioning session with your team, feel free to email me at jamie@fuelcapital.com. As always, I'm available to chat about your company’s ethos and its impact on your brand or anything marketing related. 


On leveraging human psychology in marketing and brand development

Humans can sometimes seem irrational, can’t they? A person who drives a $75,000 car but won’t pay $2 to park it for an hour. Parents who feel less guilty when they have to pay a “fine” for picking their kids up late from school or daycare. People who prefer to wait in long lines yet they become exasperated when waiting in a short line. This behavior starts to make a lot more sense when you look at it from a human psychology perspective. You quickly come to realize that we all act unpredictably at times given our unique experiences, perspectives, emotions, and inclinations. 

With this lens, seemingly irrational behavior can actually become quite predictable - which is great news for those of us hoping to make sense of the purchasing decisions of our current and future customers. Psych-savvy marketers know to leverage human psychology when developing their marketing strategies. Every marketer should strive to understand the reasons consumers act the way they do and which factors shape the way they think. To get started with this human-centric mode of marketing and discover the rationale behind the irrational, you first have to understand some of the fundamental principles of human psychology that impact consumer behavior. Here are the big three:

1. Customers don’t like to make decisions. 

In general, customers tend to seek the path of least resistance. This looks like asking a friend which dishwasher they purchased or where they sent their kids to school so they don’t have to make these hard decisions on their own. 

Understanding this human behavior can fundamentally impact your product and marketing decisions and encourage you to prioritize three major actions: First, focus on developing a product experience - in particular, an on-boarding process and check-out flow - that streamlines decision-making. Second, develop tools for customers to share the product with friends to expedite the referral process. Third, develop content (email, social, ads) that’s relevant to their needs and wants so that decision-making is as simple as possible. 

2. Cognitive dissonance is an enemy. 

Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort or stress experienced when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered when a person's belief clashes with new evidence received. Rather naturally, people try to find a way to resolve the contradiction to reduce the discomfort when presented with contradictory information. 

Cognitive dissonance can occur when consumers’ expectations are not met. When a consumer expects a certain experience and gets something different, this can result in stress and discontent. One critical aspect of a marketer’s role is to ensure that customers’ expectations are met. This requires that messaging in the sales process be consistent with the product or service. Avoid over-promising and exaggerating in your marketing.

3. Emotions matter. A lot.  

There are six primary human emotions - anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Humans tend to make a lot of decisions based on how they feel in the moment.

Interestingly, a study conducted by Georgia Tech and Yahoo Labs looked at more than 1 million online reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and found that restaurants received significantly better ratings on days with nice weather and worse reviews on any day with rain. “The best reviews are written on sunny days between 70 and 100 degrees,” researcher Saeideh Bakhshi concluded. Emotions and mood have a substantial impact on how customers view the world in general as well as their experiences and their interaction with product and services. 

Building feedback loops into your marketing process

All this mind-reading may sound daunting, particularly to young, scrappy companies who do not have robust marketing budgets - let alone market research budgets. But understanding and influencing consumer behavior is at the core of a marketer’s job. There are many cost-effective ways to ensure that your marketing organization is getting the customer feedback necessary to leverage human psychology into its brand strategy. Here are the easiest to implement:

Conduct frequent qualitative customer research

It’s incredibly important to get out of the office and talk to your customers early and often. Ideally, these interviews are conducted face-to-face, either in person or via video conferencing. You can glean more about customers by interacting with them personally; their body language says a lot. In the earliest stages of a company, qualitative research will likely provide more insight and value than quantitative research (i.e., surveys) simply because you don’t have the sample size to make quantitative research statistically significant. 

Customer research doesn’t have to be overwhelming and unwieldy. In fact, I’ve found that after about 10 customer interviews, themes start to emerge. By talking to less than a dozen customers, you can start to get a real sense of their needs, frustrations, and preferences. 


A word of caution: As a general rule, people are not very good at predicting what they want and/ or need. So, in order to understand a person’s pain points and needs, it’s important to pose questions in indirect ways. Try to frame questions to counteract a person’s inherent bias. One way to do so is to use neutral language. Neutral questions or statements do not carry a hidden agenda. They include open-ended phrases like "tell me about", "describe a time when you" and "explain when you…," and invite people to think deeply about their answers.  

Read customer service “tickets” and emails 

There’s an immense amount of customer feedback coming into your organization on a daily basis already - from customer emails and service tickets to comments on Twitter and Instagram. You can surface a lot of consumer insights by simply dedicating 15-20 minutes each day to reading this feedback. It’s not always fun or uplifting but the insights are incredibly helpful as they provide visibility into customers’ preferences and successes as well as their pain points and frustrations. Customer feedback is, in the truest sense, the voice of the customer. 

Institute and frequently review NPS surveys 

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a short survey that gauges customer satisfaction with your product or service. The standard NPS question is “How likely are you to refer a friend to <Company Name>?” and is sent immediately after interacting with the product or service. I’m a big fan of Delighted as a quick and easy tool for implementing NPS surveys. 

One thing I always suggest is adding a comment field to the survey. While the raw NPS score is helpful, the verbatims and commentary from the open text field are a great way to learn why customers love or hate your brand or product - not just that they do. It helps put context around a score of 1 (bad) or 10 (great).  I recommend looking at the raw NPS score every week to monitor any dramatic changes - up or down - and reserving 30 minutes or so each week to read through the verbatims and open text fields. You may start to see themes around product or brand issues, bugs, or more, which can inform your future product and marketing strategy. 

Human psychology influences how customers make decisions about your business, how they interact with your brand, how they talk about you on social media, and how they decide to stay or go. By understanding this psychology and carving out room to listen to your customers, you can better predict and influence your customers’ behavior. This human-centric approach to marketing demystifies the irrational and supercharges your marketing decisions. 

As always, I'm available to chat about human-centered branding or anything marketing related. I can be reached at jamie@fuelcapital.com

Further Learning:

  1. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

  2. How Brands Can Use Psychology to Improve Marketing Techniques