How to do that branding thing

In the previous post in this series, we discussed what content marketing is, how it works, why it’s different than blogging, and how important branding is for effective content marketing. If you missed it, that’s a good place to start before you read this post.

Branding your business is an important step. The brand you develop for your company creates emotional resonance, which basically means your audience feels something when they see your logo or read your marketing messages.

Most small businesses struggle with marketing because they never succeed in making that emotional connection with their consumer base. Rather than building relationships, they’re just broadcasting adverts to crowds of people who respond only with indifference or annoyance. You don’t want to be that kind of advertiser.

When your brand is strong, you can make powerfully meaningful connections with your audience with just a few well-chosen words or images. You can convey oceans of meaning in just a couple of seconds, and when you talk, people listen. Wouldn’t you like your business to have that kind of reach and influence?

What actually is branding, though?

We all know that Burberry, Nike, and Airbus are brands, but few of us have given much thought to what it means to be a brand.

Your brand is more than just your name and logo, although those things are so recognisable as part of branding that we naturally associate them with brand identity. In fact, logos and brand names are some of the least important factors when it comes to branding your business. Here’s an easier way to think of the relationship between branding and logos:

In social settings, your friends recognise you by your face, but they know you by your personality. While your facial features and expressions can tell strangers a little bit about you, when someone feels they’ve gotten to know you, it’s because they’ve become familiar with your personality. A brand is like a business’ personality. A logo is its face.

Logos, names, and taglines don’t mean much of anything until your brand gives them meaning. Branding, then, is the process of developing the character, reputation, and personality of your business, then finding ways to convey that information to the world.

Finding your brand

The process of developing your brand happens gradually, much like the process of discovering your inner self. That doesn’t necessarily mean you must start meditating, but it does mean you should be prepared for a long process. Even if your business is just one person, developing a brand is still a vital function. Keeping your brand separate from your personal life helps tremendously when it comes time to grow your business, and it allows you to closely involve your audience in your company’s identity. We’ll do market research in the next step. For now, let’s work on your business’ internal values.

What are your core values?

Putting your company’s personality into words is harder than you think. Here are some questions to help you better understand who you are as a business. You might not have an answer for all of them, and that’s okay. Use these prompts as a tool to help guide your thinking.

  1. Why was this business founded in the first place?
  2. What are your top 5 business priorities?
  3. What does success look like for this company?
  4. What kind of people thrive at this company, and what do they care about passionately?
  5. Aside from making a profit, what are your business goals?

Spend some time on your definition of success and your top 5 priorities, as these will be vitally important later when you’re working on your brand.

The ultimate goal here is to dig deep and determine your company’s core values and goals. If you’ve got a general feeling but you can’t put it into words, you’re not there yet. Keep going until you could tell a complete stranger what your company stands for in 2 minutes or less.

What does your audience care about?

You started by figuring out what your company stands for. Now, your next task is to determine why anyone in your audience might care. Great brands are built at that intersection of What We Do, Why We Do It, and Why People Care.

The Why People Care circle carries the most weight. Brands are meaningless without an audience, and nobody wants to patronise a business that spends all its time and energy focusing on its own profits and goals. They want something from you, and if you’d like to earn their business, you should provide what they’re looking for.

Hint: the things people are looking for go far, far beyond your products and services.

Some of the things your customers might want from you include respect, community, a sense of importance, or deeper understanding. Keep that in mind while you’re doing market research. When your brand serves those deeper wants and needs, your customers become loyal followers and even evangelists that spread your marketing far and wide.

Let’s do market research!

Market research is a long, intense process. Do more than you think you need, and take more notes than you think you need. This is more of an art than a science, so don’t get frustrated if you have trouble making connections at first. That’s why it’s important to pull data from many, many different places, and to come back to it on multiple days – you’ll get a better sense of audience data when you can see the trends within a bigger picture.

While there are some excellent paid tools available for audience research, it’s possible to do a great job using only free resources. Here’s what you’re going to use to complete your research:

  • Your own analytics, comments, and reviews
  • Your competitors
  • Online forums and groups
  • Amazon
  • Blogs in your niche
  • Magazines
  • Social media
  • Your brain

Yes, you’re going to use all of these things, not just select from the list. Here’s why:

People behave differently depending on setting and circumstance, and that includes their browsing and purchase behaviours across different media. Look in too few places for data, and your results will be skewed.

As you get into your research, you’re looking for trends that come up frequently across multiple platforms, because those widespread trends indicate something important about your audience as a whole. You’re likely to come across compelling information on one platform that leads you to believe you’ve discovered one of your audience’s priorities, but if you can’t verify it in any other places, it’s probably not wise to act on that information just yet.

The data you find is probably not going to be clear, and you’re likely to have some trouble sorting out what’s important and what’s irrelevant. That’s okay. The more research you do, the better you’ll get at figuring out what information matters. If this is your first time collecting data to develop a brand, be willing to be imperfect and you’ll still get a great start.

Analysing your existing data

Every business is unique, and so is every audience. Some of the best data you can get about your consumer base is from – you guessed it – your consumers.
At the very least, your website should already be connected to Google Analytics or something similar. If you’re not collecting data through an analytics service, you should set that up now before doing anything else.

The more you look at your analytics, the better you’ll get at figuring out what all those numbers and charts mean. Try not to get too hung up on a single datum like your bounce rate or overall traffic numbers. Those things matter, but only when considered as part of the big picture. Don’t make assumptions on the basis of too little information.

Using your analytics as a guide, try to answer these questions:

  • What pages and information on your website seems to be the most popular?
  • What pages and information keep people engaged with your website the longest?
  • Which pages seem to turn people off? (These will be the pages that people look at for a short time or just before leaving your site.)
  • Which pages inspire action such as social sharing, commenting, form completion, or other engagements?
  • What time of day do people interact with your site the most?
  • Where does the majority of your traffic come from right now?
  • What data do you have about your current audience demographics?

Spend some time going through each page of your chosen analytics service to see what useful information you can glean. Make note of anything interesting. You might not have much traffic yet, and that’s okay. You’ll validate all of this information with further research.

There’s even more great information with SERP checker tools like ahrefs, SEMrush, and Google Search Console that can show you where your site ranks in Google. You can find the search terms that are sending people to your website, the keywords that are most popular in your niche, and other important data related to online behaviour.

After you’ve thoroughly examined your analytics, move on to your community. Anywhere that your audience has a chance to interact with you, both publicly and privately, is a source of very valuable information. Read through past Facebook messages, customer service emails, online reviews, social media posts, blog comments, etc. to look for trends.

Does the same question come up again and again? Are there repeated complaints or compliments? Some companies spend thousands of dollars trying to figure out what their customers want, but if you keep the lines of communication open and pay attention, they’ll tell you.

Finding and analysing other communities

Competitive analysis helps you discover more of the real people in your potential audience. For the sake of your analysis, try to find competing businesses which closely match your niche, and err on the side of specificity: if you can’t find any businesses in your same niche, look for businesses serving smaller segments of your audience rather than broader topics.

Keep notes however you like to stay organised. You might want to use a spreadsheet to track relevant information, or you might keep notes in a physical notebook. The most important thing is that you track your findings in such a way that you can find that information later.

Start with a list of 10 to 20 companies and blogs that most likely serve your potential customers. You can find your competitors through Amazon searches, on Pinterest, and by searching your most important keywords in Google.

Tools like ahrefs and SEMrush can be used to research competing websites just like you did for your own. There are websites that allow a certain amount of free searches within a 30 day period, but considering the value of these tools, it’s worthwhile to just subscribe to a quality service. Obviously, you don’t have access to the same volume of information for your competitors as you do for your own site.

There’s still lots of public-facing information to be found though. Go through competitor reviews, social media comments and posts, blog comments, forums, and anywhere else you can find their customer community. Note any common questions, complaints, or comments. You might get a feel for consumer needs that are being underserved, and you’ll probably notice trends in the language people use and the beliefs your audience shares.

On competitor social media pages and groups, take a closer look at the other pages and interests their most active followers talk about. These are important clues that help you connect to those people on a deeper level, because you’re able to treat them like complete people instead of a generic demographic. Blogs in your niche offer a wealth of market information, too, so examine those communities closely.

Your secret SEO weapon – forums

Forums are especially valuable if you know how to find them and distill the useful information from all the noise. While you’re searching for forums, you’ll probably find more useful competitors and blogs to analyse, so add those names to your list as they come up. Here’s how to use Google to find relevant forums:

Narrow your results to show only forums by putting inurl:forum before your keyword in the search bar. If you want to find forums about marketing for small businesses, for example, you’d search inurl:forum small business marketing to find places where people are discussing marketing for small businesses.

Repeat your search with all the relevant terms you’d want your website to rank for, and you’re in great shape. Forums are incredible for SEO. Here’s why:

People don’t usually go to a forum as soon as they have a question. Normally, a person will Google a question first. If they don’t find the answer, they’ll try several variations of their search, then they’ll look for informational websites about the broader topic, and then they’ll ask their question in a forum as a last resort. If you’re seeing questions come up repeatedly in forums, you know there’s a search opportunity there.

Look for trends in forum questions and answers, taking special note of the language people use and anything frequently repeated, including wrong answers. Some industries have lots of active forums, while others don’t inspire as much discussion. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find a vein of gold here, but do some serious digging before you quit.

Using social media for market research

By now, you’ve already been through your competitors’ Facebook pages. The next place to look for your audience is in public Facebook groups. Use Facebook’s search feature to find groups that are active and highly relevant to your niche. Some groups aren’t active at all, and others are packed with members that post, share, and interact on a regular basis. More active groups are better – they offer more information and more accurately represent the kind of people who are likely to engage with your brand.

Researching these groups is very similar to the research you’ve already done. Pay close attention to what people share into the group, identify parallel interests, and be careful not to let your research drift too far into topics that don’t closely relate to your business.

Researching on Amazon

An often overlooked resource, Amazon is one of the best ways to identify influencers in your industry and learn about your customers’ needs. Who are the most popular authors on your topic? Dig into their communities just like you did with competitors, groups, and forums.

3 and 4 star reviews are another goldmine – 1 star reviews are often left by people who are angry and not necessarily fair in their feedback, and 5 star reviews can be just as one-sided. The 3 and 4 star comments are most likely to have a balanced perspective, and the reviewers comment on both the strengths and weaknesses of the product. Read reviews for competing products and popular books in your niche and note trends.

How to find demographic data from magazines

There are magazines for just about every special interest, from men’s hairstyles to exotic saltwater fish.

Use magazine subscription sites and web searches to find publications relevant to your industry, then go to their websites and scroll to the very bottom of the page. You’re looking for something along the lines of “advertise with us,” “media,” or “press kit.” You’re not here so that you can advertise in the magazine; you’re here to find the press kit or media pack. It will usually be a PDF download.

The press kit has all the information you’d want if you were going to advertise to that magazine’s audience….which, technically you are. You’ll find data on circulation numbers, both in print and online, and some information about the magazine’s social following. This information is useful for you, though it’s not the most useful thing in this package.

The audience profile is what’s really going to blow you away. You can see standard demographic information like reader age, income, gender, and location, plus quite a lot of good information about interests, habits, and behaviours. Compare a few relevant press kits with your analytics, and you’ll start to get an accurate picture of the kind of people who love your industry. Plus, you might decide that advertising in those magazines makes sense for you in the future, so note the titles you find most promising.

Turning all that data into a brand

Now that you’ve collected loads of information and taken note of trends, go back to the three big questions:

  1. What do you do?
  2. Why do you do it?
  3. Why do people care?

It’s likely you’ve also noticed some branding nuances and trends in your research that you’d like to incorporate into your own brand, and you’ve probably identified weaknesses in your competitors that you want to avoid. Knowing what you’d like to become and actually getting there are completely different things.

Be patient with yourself throughout the branding process and understand that your business’s identity is going to evolve and grow over time. That said…

Beware of drift

There’s an important difference between a brand that evolves and a brand that drifts. Evolution is intentional. You’re growing towards something. Drift is accidental. You gradually move away from your overall intentions.

Keep the central idea and goals of your brand in focus at all times, and consciously move towards policies and practices that better serve those goals.

Get branded

As brands are mostly emotional, it’s often difficult to put them into words. We’re going to work on that now. With all that research in mind, what do you want your audience to know about you? What do you stand for? How are you different from (and better than) all of your competitors?

Decide the core ideas that you want your brand to convey to people and write them down. Keep it simple – you should be able to sum up your priorities in a minute or less, understanding that the nuances will develop gradually. Use the 3 questions to guide your thinking, and don’t get too frustrated if you have trouble. This isn’t an easy process.

Once you figure out what you want your brand to mean to people, you’ll use that message as a guiding principle in everything you do. People pick up on your branding based on what you say, how you say it, and what you do and refrain from doing. This is the kind of information you use to make your brand book and style guide.

Your brand book helps you stay consistent and avoid drift, guides your marketing efforts, and helps put those intangible concepts into words so that everyone you work with is on the same page. Here’s a handy post that talks about creating your brand book.

With your research completed and your goals defined, you’re ready to start designing your brand’s nuances like logos, taglines, colour choices, voice, and strategy.

In the next post in this series, we’ll explore the voice and face of your brand in greater detail. You’ll learn how to translate the brand ideals you developed into powerful messaging that resonates with your audience, plus how to use your branded content marketing strategy to magnify your marketing efforts and attract the kind of people who are likely to become raving fans.

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