Updated: Oct 22, 2020
Branding is an elusive concept for a strange and equally elusive reason: it doesn’t really exist.
You can’t hold branding in your hand, feel it, or taste it. You can’t ever really own a brand, even yours.
And yet branding is everything. The brands of clothing we like allow us to express our personal style. The electronic devices we choose are heavily influenced by branding. Influencers make thousands every day by having a strong “personal brand.”
Regardless of your industry, your brand exists outside of yourself. It lives in the minds of your audience. Your brand is however your audience thinks about your business.
So to a certain extent, you don’t get to decide. They do.
Coming from a background in the arts, I had to get comfortable with this concept a while ago. I had to learn early in my choreographic career that, no matter how much time, energy, and heart I put into creating a dance piece, it was about whatever the audience thought it was about. I had to be ok with that, and to accept that each member of the audience might walk away with a slightly (or wildly) different interpretation.
Branding is similar: based on the content you put out into the world, your audience creates an impression in their minds of who you are and what your brand is. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely out of your hands. There are plenty of things you can do to shape the impression your brand creates in the minds of your audience.
In fact, you’re already doing them. Every image you choose, word you type, and product or service you sell informs your brand. The visual and personal elements you use to represent your business shape your brand. And even more so than its colors, fonts, and products, your brand is defined by how it makes people feel.
This is why it’s so crucial to start your marketing efforts with a strong brand identity. Before we take a single photo or write a line of copy, we need to know how we want to make people feel. Creating a marketing plan without a strong brand is like getting in the car and deciding to drive towards the mountains without having a clear destination in mind. You’ll probably get there eventually, but you’d save a lot of time, energy, and money along the way if you started with a clear plan.
Since writing is my medium, I apply branding to language. There are two concepts I talk about with my clients on a daily basis: brand messaging and brand voice.
Get ownership over your brand’s messaging and voice and you’ll be at your destination in no time.
Your brand’s voice clarifies how your brand communicates. It’s most helpful to apply this concept to concrete terms, which is why I often create content guidelines for clients.
Content guidelines contain tangible suggestions for bringing a brand voice to life. For example, a guideline for one brand might be, “Incorporate slang to show you talk to everyone like they’re your ride or die.” For a vastly different brand, a guideline might be, “Use soft language and flowing sentences to help clients feel calm and grounded.”
In the first example, the brand voice is youthful, edgy, conversational, and witty. In the second, the brand voice is calm, relaxing, steady, and reliable.
Your brand messaging clarifies the narrative of your brand. It outlines all the things that give your brand personality, helping you to tell the story of your brand.
Brand messaging can also be referred to as brand story or key messaging; it’s all generally the same. When I create brand messaging for clients, they walk away with a mission statement, vision statement, core values, tagline, about paragraph, and content guidelines, plus more if their company or organization needs it.
These pieces of messaging convey what’s important about the brand in its brand voice. To sum it up, brand messaging is what you say and brand voice is how you say it.
Brand messaging is what you say and brand voice is how you say it.
Bringing Your Brand to Life: Impact on Education
I recently did some work with a Boulder-based nonprofit called Impact on Education to clarify their brand voice and messaging.
We had a series of conversations and feedback loops so I could really understand their organization, what they offer, and their role in the community. This org is amazing...they work in Boulder which, despite having a reputation for a very wealthy city, has one of the largest opportunity gaps in the state. They’re incredibly honest about their mission to support the kids facing the greatest obstacles first, and aren’t afraid to name those obstacles as systemic racism, socio-economic inequality, and learning disabilities.
When working on their brand voice and brand messaging, I wanted to encourage them to continue this honest approach, even when faced with white fragility and right to comfort. These are the 5 characteristics we landed on to describe their brand voice:
Welcoming & Accessible
We use warm, inviting language to appeal to everyone. We avoid big words and complex sentence structure for its own sake.
We’re encouraging, inspiring, and comforting to our community and audiences.
We don’t ignore injustices or inequalities, but view them through the lens of “what can we do?”
We’re optimistic, positive, and forward-facing. We phrase things in a positive, “glass half full” light.
We’re confident about what matters and aren’t afraid to state the truth—even if it’s polarizing. We know that our ideal audiences won’t be turned off by these statements, but rather galvanized to increase their support.
Working from this understanding, I was able to create brand messaging for Impact on Education that includes:
Call to action
With these pieces of messaging in hand, it’s now far easier for the org to communicate clearly about what they do and why they do it. They’ve recently presented these to their board of directors and staff so communication is consistent no matter who is speaking.
Once you’ve done the foundational work to clarify your brand, the job of creating content becomes distinctly easier. I personally have notes about my brand printed out and hung on the wall of my studio space so I can easily reference them when creating content. When working with a brand strategist, they’ll likely offer this as part of the package, but don’t be afraid to ask for it if they don’t. These little reminders can help you internalize your brand, making it easier and faster to create content that keeps your story alive.
Before you dig into your brand voice or messaging, make sure you fully understand your audience. Download our free Empathy Map for a great place to start—enter your email address in the footer for access.