Choosing a narrative – solidifying an evolving brand identity

The best brands are a collective of thoughts, feelings and concepts in the public imagination, says brand identity expert Tom Spencer. 

Tom Spencer 150 BWBrands often ask me for advice on the best way to shape their brand identity in order to create a direct relationship with their customers. It’s an interesting question and I often respond by suggesting they go back to basics and focus on the customer or the client’s experience, which is delicate code for ‘it’s not about you, it’s about them’.

I have mentored many brands over the years. Those that try to define their brand in relation to how they would like it to be — rather than letting their audience help to define and shape that identity — often end up with a brand identity that is insipid and underwhelming.

A logo and a tagline are easy to obtain; a strong and long-lasting brand identity requires significant marketing know-how, or at least the willingness to learn the fundamentals. The best brands, at their essence, are a collective of thoughts, feelings and concepts in the public imagination.

A successful brand exists almost independently of the people behind the product. It communicates so effectively with its audience and possesses such a clearly defined set of values and characteristics that it takes on a persona of its own.

So how do you start building a two-way brand relationship that cuts through? Here are a few starting points:

Define your challenger narrative

I understand that it’s tempting to perceive your challenger narrative as unique and wholly original, but the reality is there is more than one challenger narrative and yours is likely to intersect with at least one, if not a few, of the more common tropes.

Challenger narratives can range from the classic underdog model – the David versus Goliath – to the democratiser of a stuffy or buttoned down industry. In fact, your challenger narrative will adapt and evolve as your business grows, so it’s important not to become overly wedded to the notion of only one distinct and pure challenger narrative.

Know your stuff

Research and comprehend the main category insights that influence your customer-buying process. This is fundamental to a successful business, but I am constantly surprised by just how many brand managers cannot elucidate clearly what the main category insights are that affect the buying habits of their customers. These are different for each business, and could include everything from seasonality to search terms. If you’re not interested in learning more about your customer base – what truly motivates them and defines their spending habits – then your business will stagnate.

Get emotional

Many marketers talk about creating an emotional connection with their customers, but very little thought goes into expounding exactly what that entails. However, articulating clearly and succinctly the kind of emotional connection consumers have with your brand is a fundamental component of any brand toolkit.

Ask yourself: how does your customer feel about your brand? Do they feel informed? Protected? Entertained? Why are these emotions important and how do they engender brand loyalty?

Stay on track

Finally, every 12 to 18 months, draft up a simple one-page plan that tracks the customer journey alongside your own marketing activity plan. Do they line up? Don’t forget to prioritise any areas of your brand identity that need further shaping. Inarticulate and poorly executed business branding is a costly problem, and one that could effectively spell the end of your nascent business or brand. The stakes are really that high.

That is why I admire companies that invest in their brand identity, it shows a thoughtfulness and readiness that is absolutely vital in today’s world, which is awash with more products, choices and services than ever.

But remember, long term investments in your brand identity always start with what you deliver – the product or service. Short term thinking is focused on comms, but you cannot underestimate the compounding nature of consistent investment in your product. Look to brands like Patagonia for the playbook on this.

When you invest in your brand you’re repaid tenfold. A strong brand identity rolled out across multiple marketing channels generates ongoing leads and customer loyalty. But if you can’t articulate your brand identity, and if you’re not prepared to regularly update and reassess your brand’s fundamentals and market positioning, then you are all but destined to fail. It’s the harsh reality of keeping pace with brand identity in today’s rapidly evolving business world.

Tom Spencer is cofounder of Cooperate

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Image credit:Finan Akbar