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December 13, 2012

What’s My Brand Identity and How Do I Communicate It?

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Businesses sometimes happen before brands do. Business owners are busy serving customers and doing everything that comes with running a business that sometimes, they don’t have time to stop and think about, what is my brand?

You brand is the identity of your company and what your customers and community can expect from the way you interact with them and the service/products you provide. A business is an operation, a brand is a more intangible aspect of this.

What a Brand Is in a Word Cloud

Oftentimes, when a brand identity is not explored upfront, a brand already exists due to the culture of the company, its people and how they deal with day-to-day issues.

But when the brand identity is explored and defined upfront, it adds order to a somewhat chaotic and intangible thing. When your company has this, it possesses the guidelines for how it will handle every situation, every customer, every staff member, every communication and every message – even down to the type of font you use on your website and the colors of your company.

When you have those brand guidelines, you are able to always revert to them and ask, is this upholding our brand? And if the answer is no, you know what to do.

But how do you figure out what your brand is? And how do you let people know about it?

It all starts with research. Here, we take more traditional marketing tactics and transition them to the Web marketing space. In this post, I’ll share with you ways you can use research to discover what your brand is and how to communicate that through content, your website, visuals and interactions with the community.

Research: Talk to Your Community

You may think you know your company better than anyone. And while you may know your business inside and out, this doesn’t mean you understand your brand.

It’s not that you don’t know, it’s just that you cannot possibly be everywhere at once. So how you think your company interacts and delivers might be based solely on your interaction alone.

The best way to get outsider perspective and understand how your community feels about your company today is to ask them.

You’ll first need a sample of your community. The disclaimer on this is that there are companies out there who do nothing but quantitative and qualitative market research and take a very scientific approach so that the data is not skewed. If you’re performing your own brand research, you’ll need to be discerning with your sample.

While this quick-and-dirty approach to research may not give you extremely accurate results statistically, the information you uncover is invaluable. So try to be as objective as possible when choosing your audience.

First, identify all your possible audiences. In this example, it might be:

  • Current customers
  • Past customers
  • Vendors
  • Internal staff
  • Prospective customers
  • Colleagues in your industry
  • People in your social communities online (which could be a mix of all of those but their behavior and expectations might be different than offline community).

You may want to segment these audiences by location, department or whatever other segmentation makes sense. You might choose to pick people at random exclusively, or you might choose to add in a few people that are representative of those who’ve had a stellar experience with your company, and those who’ve had a horrible experience as well. You want to understand all points of view about your brand.

Then you have to define the questions you want to ask. Also use discretion when you are choosing the questions you are going to ask your community. You want them to support the primary questions you are trying to uncover about your brand, and you also want them to be as objective as possible (no loaded questions that might sway their answers one way or another).

Here, you are looking for things like:

  • Perceived value of your products, services and company.
  • What people know and believe about your company today.

In the end, it may be completely different than what you believe they think.

Here’s a couple ways you can gather data:

  • Online surveys: Use a simple survey via Survey Monkey to only ask the most relevant questions. People typically don’t want to answer a long, drawn-out survey, so make it as simple as you can for them.
  • Phone surveys: Get some people on the phone to ask your community the questions. You might you get more responses this way. Again, make it brief as you can; respect their time.
  • Focus groups: Sometimes it’s more efficient to get everyone in a room together and hold a focus group. But this only works if you are looking for feedback from a sample of people in one particular area (this could work for staff interviews).

Research: Market Competitors

You’ve probably heard of the SWOT analysis? It’s a traditional marketing diagram that helps you get a picture of the competitive landscape and where you fit in. In the diagram, you explore the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of a business.

You can use the SWOT to get a picture of your market competitors – those companies that you believe to be your competition in your space (prior to keyword research, because your online competitors and market competitors tend to vary).

In this research, you can begin to note what your differentiators are from your competition. During this exercise, you’ll also want to note things your competitors are doing with their branding like:

  • What colors what imagery
  • How they are talking to their community
  • What caliber of content they are providing in their marketing efforts

Especially if you’re in the business of creating content, take note at what sort of content they are offering their community to position themselves as thought leaders and capture the attention of their prospective customers.

Research: Online Competitors

Your online competitors are any competitors that are competing for attention online with you. It begins with the keywords and topics you are writing about. Assuming you already have a keyword set for your website, your online competitors start with that.

Who is showing up in the results for the queries you are competing for?

Look at those companies that are ranked for the keywords you are trying to target (Using tools to discover who is ranking is best so the results aren’t skewed by the many factors that change Google’s results.)

Apply the same exercise to that primary competition using the SWOT and noting similarities, weaknesses, colors, imagery, messaging and where your brand differentiates. Your competitors can and will change on the Web for any given keyword, so keep that in mind before you do this.

Probably the most revealing part of this exploration is what you can learn from looking at your online competitors and the quality of their site. You might identify quick wins for your site in the search results over your competitors.

Take a look at the principles of Google’s leaked quality rating manual to get a feel of what quality means to Google. You can also take a peek at a list of questions Google provided that are representative of what Google may be looking for when rating sites:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Here at Bruce Clay, Inc., we apply the methodology of “least imperfect” when we optimize a website. Since there are more than 200 ranking signals in the Google algorithm that allow it assess your site as the most relevant for the query, no one website can get them all right. But you can aim to be better over your competition.

So this is your opportunity to spy on how they’ve optimized their site, their link profile, the quality of their content, the user experience and so on (with the right tools). And then ask, how can we do better on our site?

You can also dig into your reputation online – what people are saying about your company and your competitors online in social communities, in forums, in reviews. Google gives tips on monitoring your brand online and using the “Me on the Web” feature in Dashboard.

Research: Brand Role Models

What companies in any industry do you admire? What CEOs? What professionals? What are those companies in your space specifically that you feel are doing a really great job? Write those down. These are your brand role models.

These are the brands you aspire to be. Maybe not just like them, but there will be attributes you love and want to emulate. Think about not just where your brand is now, but what you want it to be three, five, 10 years down the road.

Look at these brand role models and explore what they’re doing great. Also look at what they aren’t doing so great and where you differentiate from them. Because there are always differentiators, and this is where your brand shines.

Research: Key Messages, Colors, Visuals, Values

What words some to mind when you think about your company, its people, the way it interacts with the community, the products and services? Write all of these down. In fact, you’ll want to have these written down before you see the research that been performed with your community so your perspective isn’t skewed.

These are the things you believe your company stands for – your brand values. Every company has them; it’s what the company was founded on and the things it’s become. And although it might be a while since anyone thought about what the company stands for, dig deep. It’s there. (And it’s not just to exist profitability!)

Now look at the visual and communicative elements of your company — are they streamlined or is there a mishmash of disjointed representations of your company online and offline?

  • What language (tone, key messaging)?
  • What colors?
  • What images?
  • What fonts?
  • What logos?

Now look at each element in that list I just mentioned:

  • Do you feel strongly about them as part of your brand identity?
  • What can go and what should stay?

Keep in mind that while you may not think about the font you use on your site as part of your brand, it is – every element of how you communicate is a part of your brand. In fact, there are whole communities that thrive around typography and the various attributes a font communicates, what scenarios it’s appropriate in and so on.

If you’re not sure what visuals represent your brand, start gathering those. Using both online and offline sources, collect any words, messages, videos and pictures that are an abstract representation of your brand — those things that give you a certain feeling that you believe is representative of your brand.

You can use a physical wall in your office space and dedicate it to all the stuff you’ve gathered or you can use something like the secret boards in Pinterest, where you can invite others in your company to pin it as they come across items.

Gather: Common Themes

Once you’ve gathered all the data about your company and your competitors through your various means of research, start exploring common themes:

  • What are some of the messages you see being communicated time and time again from the various groups?
  • What common themes were discovered in the online and market research?

Gather all of that information and document it. The negative stuff you uncover should be turned into an opportunity to look inside at your internal processes and find ways to improve. Your community has that perception for a reason. Explore the causes and create an initiative to address that with.

The positive feedback may serve as a foundation for key messages about your brand identity. If people continuously see your company as warm and friendly, then that must be one of the things your brand stands for.

Then, compare the common themes to your original perceptions of the company – any discrepancies? Any validations?

Whatever the common themes are, group the findings together so you have a point of discussion about where the brand is today, and where you want to take it tomorrow.

Communicate: Brand Identity

Once you are done with your research, you should have a report that is representative of your brand identity. This gives you the basis for what you do company-wide, from the way your customer service department talks to people on the phone or in social communities online and offline, to the types of people you hire, to the key messages about your brand that you subtly weave into your content to the images you use.

As I mentioned in the previous section, you will also have a basis for what might need to be fixed and what’s working really well. All of the elements of the brand – down to the type of font you use and the uses of your logo or across mediums – should be documented.

Then comes the streamlining and planning. Looking at all the messages your company disseminates day-to-day both online and offline (messages being the visuals, the personality, the interactions you have) and ask, are these representing our brand? If not, the work begins.

Your content strategy online should be driven by your brand. Starting with the website and the baseline content you create for that, to the ongoing content creations strategy for your business. Every blog post, ebook, video, logo and Meta tag on a Web page should uphold your brand.

The branding of a company should be based on research, and the implementation of it should be top down. In order for a brand identity to shine through, the key is in the consistency. Set rules for when you will absolutely always default to the brand to make key (and sometimes difficult) decisions easier.

Ultimately, your brand identity will seep into every nook and cranny of your company – whether it’s good or bad. So when you’re ready to start exploring your brand, know that at the end of it all, you might not just have a new logo, you may have an entire cultural shift.





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