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