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What’s in a Brand: A Step-by-Step Guide to Defining a Winning Online Identity

“There are currently over 8,000 books available on Amazon about branding,” shares branding strategist David Brier. “That many opinions means something is being overlooked or people are collectively not understanding.” To clear up the confusion, we spoke to Brier, founder of Rising Above the Noise and Leonard Kim of Influence Tree to break down the concept of a brand for you, along with Ben Matthews, Adobe Spark’s Director of Design. You’re in good hands with these three. Kim is recognized by Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur as a Top Marketing Influencer and Brier is ranked #3 worldwide on Klout for branding, among other accolades. Meanwhile Matthews, as head of design at Adobe Spark has helped shape Adobe’s new content creation and branding experience, which seeks to demystify content marketing and branding.

Here the industry vets go beyond color, type, and logo to discuss the self-discovery and outward exploration required to create a brand that stands out. Read on to learn how to find your brand’s zen and define its purpose and pillars in order to either rebuild a vague brand into something powerful or develop one from scratch for your business, cause, or personal empire.

The term brand: defined

“Branding is the art of differentiation,” Brier says. “Branding is the way that consumers identify and experience a product, service, or person, from the look, taste, feel, and sound—a brand is all of those multifaceted parts.” Consider Starbucks. Starbucks demonstrates that a brand is so much more than their mermaid logo and the color palette, explains Brier. Every Starbucks has similar decor and music—that’s part of the brand. The taste and smell of the coffee is consistent around the world—that’s part of the brand. The setup of the menu and the barista uniforms are always the same—that’s part of the brand. The cup you carry on your way out, the continuity in each experience—that’s the Starbucks brand. The beauty of branding is with it comes trust and loyalty. People love Starbucks. They know what to expect and they know what they’ll get. You associate an entire experience with the idea of Starbucks, that’s what you’d like your brand to do for you.

So say you’re not Starbucks and you’re starting from scratch. It might seem overwhelming to create a brand identity from nothing. But the benefits of a clear point of view are well worth the self-discovery and market research required to find and fill your space in the world.

Why you need a strong brand

A brand isn’t just a thing companies have. A brand gives customers a reason to choose you. A brand, explains Brier, provides customers differentiation between you and the other guys. “The art of differentiation is why we choose cars, shoes, whatever we buy,” shares Brier. “Take two identical bottles of water from two different brands. They’re basically the same product. Unable to find a real difference in the two, the customer will finally default to price. People need something to differentiate in order to make a choice. But say your water has minerals, or a special source, or Ph magic, then you’re giving people a reason to choose you.” Your brand differentiates you from your competitors.

You know you need to give people a reason to choose you, but how do you identify what makes you special and how you can convey that?

Market research

Before you dive into building a brand, understand the industry you’re entering and where you belong in it. This requires market research and some internal exploration. You may want to disrupt the existing industry with something completely new and different or you may want to identify how you can position your relatively similar product as unique. When it comes to starting this, don’t be scared! We’ll provide a roadmap. But first, look at what savvy market research did for the Dyson vacuum company and how they turned the industry on its head.

Before Dyson, the vacuum industry was boring, states Brier. There wasn’t a hole in the market, there were plenty of vacuums that worked just fine, but people weren’t excited about buying a vacuum. Then, Dyson came along with new intelligent design (a clear body where you saw the action taking place), new turbine technology, and introduced colors that had never been used before (like Jobs did with the iMacs). Even if you had a vacuum, you wanted a Dyson. That’s what a great idea can do when executed well. Ready to find your space in your target market?

Start with external competitive and visual audits

A competitive audit analyzes the market to discover where the product or service you offer will fit in. Brier recommends you ask yourself:

  • Is anyone already solving the problem I aim to solve with my product or service? If they are—are they solving it well or poorly?
  • How crowded is the space? Define your top competitors.
  • How can I differentiate my product or service?

A visual audit analyzes what your competitors look like, explains Brier. A well-done visual audit gives you the opportunity to be different in a relevant, meaningful way while still being sensitive to the pain point you’re eliminating. Ask yourself: How do my competitors look and feel? What’s their voice?
Often, players in a given industry have similar voices, looks, and feels, which gives you a chance to shine.

Apple nailed this differentiation with their iPod debut. They were the third MP3 player on the scene (not the first!), but they took over with their great slogan ‘1,000 songs in your pocket,’ great design, and catchy iPod name.

Create audience personas

The most important market and external research you can do is figure out exactly who your target consumer is, says Kim, and then create audience personas for them. An audience persona is best created from existing data, but if you don’t have a data set to use, envision the kind of person who would buy your product. Here are some of Kim’s questions for nailing down your audience personas:

  • How old are they?
  • Are they male or female?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • What kind of car do they drive?
  • What grocery store do they shop at?
  • What do they eat for lunch?
  • What kind of lifestyle do they have?
  • Do they like reading or do they prefer drinking or are they more into outdoor activities?
  • What social media platforms do they use?
  • Are they single or in relationships?

Create four different audience personas for your business and give each a name and picture. These personas will help you determine what kind of elements to incorporate into your brand to stand out from the crowd and appeal to your audience. Understanding your audience personas will help you determine the language and tone, color palette, design aesthetic, and packaging that will draw those personas in.

Turn it inward for an internal audit

Once you’ve gathered information on the market and audience personas, it’s time to turn the questioning inward. Ben Matthews, Director of Design at Adobe Spark, recommends a light framework to stay focused on your brand’s mission while researching your developing identity. When you’re in a state of discovery it’s easy to lose track of your brand’s core identity in favor of the latest shiny design aesthetic or marketing trend. To stay true to your mission, outline the following:

  • Write down the aspirational vision of your business or brand.
  • From your vision, extract your mission—the outcomes you hope to achieve.
  • From your vision, define your values.
  • What values are important to communicate to yourself and/or your employees?
  • How do you want to communicate these internal values to potential customers?

“When you create your core values as a brand,” states Matthews, “it ensures consistency. Expectations are set with the business and customer which builds trust and awareness of what is offered from the brand.”

Now that you’re clear on what your brand stands for, your internal audit will be that much stronger. To begin the process, Kim recommends asking yourself:

  • What other brands out there do I want to be like and how can I incorporate what they do well?
    What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does the world currently see me and how do I want to be seen?
  • What makes my brand unique?
  • What can I do to draw in attention?

Now you know what your external competitors are doing and what your internal framework is like, and you have the foundations of a great brand.

Is a personal brand any different?

You’re a building a business brand, but your business is you. Is the process any different? Use the same processes outlined above for creating your personal brand, shares Kim. “But instead of asking yourself how you want to be seen by the world, work on eliminating your flaws and highlighting your personality and what makes you unique.”

Personal branding goes back to the bottom line of all branding, shares Brier…How do you differentiate? “Internet personality Gary Vaynerchuk would not be noticeable if he did not drop f-bombs all the time. Some personalities are driven by fashion, or a contrarian viewpoint—they appeal to the rebel, some personalities are really smart and safe. The entire Food Network is built on personal brands. As opposed to your product being an incredible lotion it is now a person. Ask yourself, am I rebellious, stoic, etc. and then build your brand identity around that.”

People buy into others that they like, and they determine who they like through similar interests, explains Kim. “If the person who is reading your content is saying “me too”, then you have a strong and powerful brand that relates to others.” You can establish how to portray that public persona through the road maps above.

Next Steps: Explore prompts to fuel your exploration

A post shared by Adobe Spark (@adobespark) on

You’ve identified the product or service you’ll provide, where it fits in the existing industry, and who it appeals to. The next step is to give your brand personality through visual elements and outward-facing copy. Next up, explore how to find your visual voice in order to stand out.

More branding help:
5 Creative Ideas for Logos You Can Create Now
3 Easy Steps to Picking Your Brand Colors
How to Create Branded Content with Adobe Spark

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash


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