Building a brand that will stand the test of time is no easy feat — that may be the understatement of the century. But just because a company has been around for years does not mean it has a healthy brand. And just because a company is currently reaping the benefits of tapping into the cultural zeitgeist also doesn’t mean they’ll be around for years to come.
The good news is there are a few common mistakes made by brands that can be rectified with the right mix of self-reflection, a willingness to evolve, and a commitment to investing in long-term results instead of chasing short term gains.
At first glance, the following mistakes may seem obvious, but whether you’re a start-up hustling to get your business off the ground, or an established brand that hasn’t objectively evaluated your brand strategy in years, they provide a helpful gut check to determine whether it’s time to invest more deeply in brand development.
Mistake #1: They don’t stand for anything
This is one of the most common, and dangerous, mistakes a brand can make. It is the reason frameworks like Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle gained such popularity – because people began to recognize that truly iconic brands from Nike to Apple to Patagonia, are successful not because they make great products, but because they are born with a clear understanding of why they exist and what they stand for, and they live that out every day.
We know that today’s consumers, particularly younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z, are increasingly driven by their values, and seek out brands that share those same beliefs. In fact, 63% of consumers prefer to purchase from purpose-driven brands and 89% of customers stay loyal to brands that share their values. The simple fact is that most of us view the brands we support as a badge of identity. What we wear and eat and watch says something about who we are as individuals, and we experience cognitive dissonance when we support a brand that doesn’t align with our values, morals, and perspective on the world.
Thus, when a brand builds their business around why they exist and what they believe in, it attracts individuals who not only become repeat customers, but who also have a higher propensity to act as brand evangelists. They feel compelled to share their affinity for your brand because it reinforces the image of themselves they’re trying to convey to the rest of the world. For example, if I believe in environmental causes, I want you to know that I also support Patagonia, because their higher purpose of protecting our planet is so well-established.
Defining what your brand stands for is one of the most difficult but necessary tasks an organization can undertake, and it’s never too late to go through this exercise. Even if you haven’t clearly articulated it in the past, there’s likely a strong, underlying sense of your brand’s core belief and purpose that just needs to be uncovered and packaged in a way that feels authentic.
Sometimes it’s difficult to achieve this from the inside – we all have a hard time objectively evaluating an organization that is so wrapped up in our own identity, but this is where partnering with a branding company can offer the distance needed to help you think about your brand in a way you had never considered before, yet still rings true to its heart and soul.
Mistake #2: They just sell products
It’s true that if you don’t have a great product, you’re dead in the water. But there are simply too many brands in today’s society for the product alone to guarantee success. Even if today you have a product or a set of features that is unrivaled in the category, it’s only a matter of time before another brand matches and/or exceeds your capabilities. What’s much more difficult to replicate is the power of a strong brand, because it’s unique to your business.
This is not to say that features and benefits have no place in your brand’s story or your marketing strategy, but they cannot be the elements you build your brand around. Instead, think about what would happen if you focus on the feeling you sell – for Apple, it’s creativity and expression, for Airbnb it’s a sense of belonging – whatever it is, when you tap into your customer’s emotions, it triggers a much deeper connection than the functional appeal of a new set of product features.
When we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can further understand the opportunity that exists when a brand rises above its functional benefits. At the bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs like food and clothing, and safety needs like employment and health. Hundreds and even thousands of brands operate in these categories, so if we’re purely competing from a functional standpoint, there’s nothing to set us apart from our competitors.
But what happens when you start to climb up the pyramid? When you position your brand as a catalyst for feelings of love, belonging, or self-esteem, that’s something worth remembering. Great brands position themselves not by what they sell, but by what their products can do for their customers, on an emotional and philosophical level. And the greatest brands offer their customers a way to achieve their full potential — the highest level of Maslow’s pyramid: self-actualization.
Mistake #3: They don’t know who their customer is
One of the common claims we hear from clients when we ask them about their customer is ‘our brand is for everyone.’ This is a major red flag. Even the most mass-market brands you can think of still must go through the exercise of defining their core audience(s). Naturally, many businesses have ambitions of growing their customer base over time, but if you try to do this too quickly and appeal to all types of consumers, you end up watering down your brand and coming across as flat and generic.
The best advice we can give is to start narrow and let your brand organically go over time. If you begin with a sharp picture of exactly who your key customer is, it allows you to create more personalized experiences and messaging. Your customers end up feeling like ‘this brand is made for someone like me,’ and when that type of strong bond is created, they will naturally do the work of spreading your message to their circle of influence.
There are few things more valuable for a brand than intimately understanding the customer for which they’re creating products and services. When you take the time to listen, have conversations, and understand their lives not just as a consumer, but as a human being, you gain incredible insight into what motivates them, what their goals and frustrations are, and how you can position your brand to play an integral role in their life.
Creating customer personas is one common way brands go about identifying their key audiences, but in order for these to provide value, they must be based on a deep sense of understanding that comes through quantitative and qualitative data analysis. Many brands don’t have the in-house resources to manage this level of research, but partnering with a branding agency is a powerful way to hone in on your customer segments and make sure that you’re focusing your efforts on the audiences that will make the biggest impact to your business.
Mistake #4: They aren’t relevant in today’s culture
The idea of brands ‘tapping into culture’ may seem like a relatively new phenomenon but it’s actually been around for decades in various forms. These days, we see many brands finding their place in culture via social media, activism, and entertainment, but it’s still common for brands to shy away from commenting on topics that feel outside their core business realm.
We’re not suggesting that every brand needs to be as vocal as Ben & Jerry’s or as irreverent as MoonPie, but you open up massive opportunities for driving awareness, relevance, and loyalty when you look for opportunities to weave your brand into cultural conversations. That being said, identifying what role your brand should play in culture and what topics to share a perspective on, is a process that demands thoughtful consideration and planning.
Once a brand identifies what it is that they stand for, it’s much easier to determine which topics and elements of culture they have a “right” to participate in. It’s a right that must be earned, and can easily be taken away by a discerning audience who is quick to point out when brands come across as inauthentic or opportunistic. But this shouldn’t discourage brands from finding their cultural voice.
Those brands that successfully find their place in culture, not because they’re jumping in a trend, but because they’re reacting to or creating conversation around something that relates to why they exist, can further differentiate themselves from competitors who choose to stay quiet. In doing so, you create more opportunities for customers to think about your brand than its narrow set of specific use occasions, and you further solidify shared values.
Mistake #5: They aren’t thinking about the entire customer experience
When you think about branding, it’s easy to focus on elements like the visual identity (logo, typeface, color palette, etc.), or even a broader view of marketing and communications, but people often stop short of thinking about how their brand shows up across the entire experience. There are so many avenues for people to interact with your brand from in-store to website to social media to packaging, and each one of these must contribute to a cohesive, consistent expression of your brand.
You can dedicate all your resources to improving your website, but if the rest of the brand experience isn’t a favorable one, you’ll likely lose customers. When embarking on any type of brand development project, we encourage clients to think about how their brand comes to life across five areas: customer experience, product development and innovation, company culture, social responsibility, and marketing and communications. When each of these channels is working together to produce a high-quality, authentic, and memorable experience, that’s when you can start to unlock new levels of success.
It takes a vigilant and dedicated team to ensure all of these areas are up to brand standards year after year, and it’s a responsibility that cannot be solely owned by the Marketing department, but rather it must be a commitment on behalf of all parts of the organization, embraced as much by leadership as by entry-level employees. It can be difficult to wrangle so many different stakeholders, which is why it can be helpful to have an external partner who leads the process and maintains a sense of fairness and objectivity.
Building a successful brand can be an expensive undertaking, but it’s nowhere near the cost of building a bad one. No matter where you are on your brand development journey, it’s helpful to keep the following principles in mind, and periodically evaluate your brand to make sure you haven’t lost sight of them:
- Know what you stand for and be able to clearly articulate it to employees, partners, and customers
- Elevate your brand beyond the products you sell – features and benefits are not a sustainable competitive advantage
- Spend time getting to know your customers and be specific about who represents your sweet spot
- Identify the places and spaces in which it makes sense to weave your brand into culture
- Ensure you’re delivering a cohesive, consistent brand experience across all elements of your business