A “brand” is traditionally thought of as those outward-facing symbols that define a company. A name, logo, and catchy slogan all make up the concept of a brand, the goal of which is to act as a shorthand for the company as a whole and burrow deep into your head (and heart).
Yet a sleek-looking logo and memorable catchphrase are rarely enough to capture and retain consumers by themselves. There must be an emotional connection to your company’s brand, whether you’re selling cookies or financial-consulting services. Successful companies with repeat customers often tap into one emotion in particular: trust.
Real trust comes from offering a clear value proposition, articulating it clearly, and delivering on it consistently at every touchpoint of a consumer’s journey. To understand how companies of all sizes engender trust — and ultimately loyalty — we talked to Mary Forrest, Chief Creative Officer at The Crux Group. Forrest has led brand strategy and campaign development and execution for PepsiCo, Westfield, News Corporation, Tina Brown Live Media, Weight Watchers, Dick’s Sporting Goods, SoBe Lifewater, and Myspace. She’s built interactive campaigns and user experiences for such clients as Viacom/MTV Networks, Mattel, eBay, Walmart, Target, and American Eagle Outfitters. Forrest is a regular attendee, frequent panelist, and occasional moderator at pop culture events such as Comic-Con, WonderCon, and Star Wars Celebration. She also plays the violin.
Forrest has worked with some of the largest brands in the world and, last year, launched her own small boutique creative agency. Here, she offers branding advice for companies large and small.
1) Find Your Company’s Mission
According to Forrest, the mission is your company’s “what.” What do you do? The first step is answering that question in one sentence. Finding a way to succinctly sum this up is an important part of building strategic messaging for any brand, regardless of company size.
The other equally valuable aspect of core brand messaging is the “why.” It seems simple, but Forrest sometimes works on this question for weeks or months with her clients. People are often stumped when they’re asked: “Why do you do what you do?” As Simon Sinek discusses in his famous TED talk, identifying and expressing a brand’s what and why get everyone on the same page. They know what to do, how to do it, and how their roles fit into the larger picture. Most of all, the why helps company founders stay focused — especially new founders who may find themselves considering dozens of opportunities and potentially veering off course.
2) Align Your Brand to Reflect and Enhance Your Mission
Once you’ve determined and articulated your what and why, you can decide how to convey your offerings and purpose to your consumers. Some companies may offer products that require packaging, which may or may not feature your visual branding and messaging. Some may have customer service and a myriad of employees; here you have the opportunity to include your branding on the employees’ uniforms as well as the rhetoric they may use (peppy, formal or casual tones each convey a different message about your brand).
When you encounter good branding, it’s a bit like watching professional ballet. The dancers’ movements are so harmonious that the performance may seem effortless. Powerful, memorable brands engender a similar feeling. They seem almost simple and intuitive. Companies like Apple and Nike are recognized internationally and are often credited as two of the best executed brands. According to Steve Jobs’s biography, Apple’s founder had come up with the Apple logo while on a fruitarian diet and thought an apple would be “fun, spirited, and not intimidating.”
This leads to deeper decisions. How will you brand your products? How will you brand your uniforms? What kind of rhetoric will employees use? Peppy, formal, or casual each convey a different message about your brand.
Whatever you come up with, your brand messaging will need to be consistent and permeate every facet of your business, from your internal motivation and appearance to your website and public social media presence.
3) Decide if Social Media is Right For Your Company
You may want to stop at this point. Maybe you’re an architect or you own a bustling pizza shop and don’t have time for anything beyond a beautiful logo and a meaningful purpose. But chances are, you can still benefit from social media because of its ability to engage potential users and engage potential consumers with content even when you’re asleep.
A general rule of thumb is that highly visual products and services do better on Instagram, whereas B2B enterprise services may be more appropriate for Twitter where conversations with other business owners are desirable. “Regardless of platform, the most important rule is that you must develop your following authentically,” says Forrest. Meaning: people need to be following you for the right reasons.
If they are following you because they want to win a sweepstakes, the only thing you can know about them is that they want to win your sweepstakes. But if they follow you because they agree with you, are entertained by you, share your values, or are open to being influenced by you, then you have an audience that you can call to act.
“Sort of like how Patton could call upon soldiers to fight,” says Forrest. “Chances are, he couldn’t have relied on his troops to put their lives on the line if they were only there trying to win tickets to Coachella, but because they believed in him, trusted him, shared his cause, shared his values, he could call upon them to work towards a common goal.” Bottom line: don’t buy followers. Don’t use clickbait. Don’t post pictures of puppies unless pictures of puppies make sense for your brand. In which case — puppies. Lots of puppies. All the puppies.
4) Determining the Social Focus
Sometimes, a founder’s story can be as important to a brand as the story of the brand itself. This can be a useful and powerful way of developing the brand’s persona. But there is also a risk — depending on the brand’s long-term strategy — that a founder’s presence in the development of the brand’s persona can be an impediment to evolution down the road. If customers believe that the founders are the brand, it’s likely they will be less excited about a future version of the brand where the founder is not part of the picture.
“As a leader, if you tie your own persona too tightly to the brand’s, you risk limiting your own freedom to move on to other work without risking damaging the brand,” says Forrest. You’ll also take on the responsibility of being a living, breathing personification of the brand, which means if you make a misstep in real life, the brand can take a hit, too. Even if it’s just a one-off dumb Tweet that unintentionally offends someone.
It takes some work and some soul-searching to see the ways in which the brand and the founder intersect and diverge. For instance, a founder can market to millennials without being a millennial herself. That’s where the separation of founder and brand is valuable.
5) Ask Yourself More Questions
There are a few factors that guide the Crux team’s approach to growing social media followers. In a few cases, having followers is actually the most important thing. That’s a very different situation from growing a customer base or building an engaged and active community. In some cases, the audience is the product. In some cases, a follower who never engages or won’t ever buy what you’re selling has no discernible value. So it’s a good idea to work with people you trust, build audiences conscientiously, manage expectations, and be realistic.
If an agency promises you a million clicks or a million followers, be circumspect about the value and authenticity of those numbers. The science of virality is nascent, and many brands learned costly lessons in the early days of social by hoping to capitalize on the meme culture without knowing how to create content that was actually meme-worthy. But if you do get a hit and you’re suddenly swimming in new followers and views, you’d better know what to do with them.
That’s part of the mantra at Crux. Mary and her team are always asking, “And then what?” They push clients to be strategically prepared for what’s next. One of the most important disciplines to apply in this phase of a company is to be brutally honest about expectations and success metrics. You may think you want a campaign to deliver sales when you might benefit more from generating awareness. It’s unique for each brand, and there are a lot of factors to consider. The two moving lines of time and revenue don’t create the same graph for every company.
“After you hit that first goal, what then?” says Forrest. “If you haven’t thought about it, or if you don’t know the answer, the best possible approach is to take a breath and get your team aligned to that broader vision and our mission.”