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How to Brand Yourself When It Counts

Gina Edwards Updated on February 29, 2020


Let’s play a game.

I say Apple, you say… iPhone.

I say Target, you think… big red bull’s eye.

I say IHOP… you realize you’re hungry for pancakes.

We could keep playing with loads of other well-known companies, but the outcome is likely to stay the same –– brands you know immediately provoke words, imagery, or even emotions to pop up within you.

This is no mistake. Marketing departments in companies across the world work tirelessly to ensure that when you hear or see their name, the right things come to mind.

It’s a little thing called branding, or “[t]he process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product in the consumer’s mind, mainly through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme […] aim[ing] to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers,” as puts it.

Think everything from the logo and slogan, to ads, marketing materials, website, and (virtual) store layout. The brand soaks into all facets of a business.

Once upon a time, mostly only big companies cared about brands.

Brands helped companies quickly represent their products and services to potential and current clients in promotional materials –– a topic left to hefty marketing teams and ad agencies to hash out.

While we used to let branding be the conversation fodder for greasy marketing types and Mad Men, brands have become ubiquitous in today’s world. Their expanding and multidirectional functions (thanks to the internet) have moved from broad to narrowcasting, giving branding a life of its own.

Nowadays, brands aren’t just for bigwig corporations. Branding has trickled down the food chain to small businesses, individual professionals, and even internet celebrity pets (you think Boo and Lil Bub don’t have brands? Puh-lease.)

This also goes for the online business world. In the new age of information overload and limitless opportunities, a well-constructed and targeted brand can make the difference between shining stars like Facebook and forgotten failures like Friendster.

Brands indeed do several important things for the companies they represent, including differentiating them from the competition, building market trust, and making them memorable.

They’re the business equivalent of “I’m not like other girls/guys.”

With precision language and sleek presentation, brands serve as the dating profiles of companies everywhere, showing you what they want you to see about them, exactly how they want you to see them.

They intimately connect to that special someone –– the potential client –– demonstrating their perfect fit, thanks to convenience / service / price / cool factor / accessibility / trustworthiness / quality, etc.

Yet it’s not all flash and sparkle.

Especially today, companies know that the hard sell doesn’t work; imagine an ultimatum proposal on a first date. They need to dig in for the long haul of relationship-building, which goes beyond the initial impression.

Good branding provides just that, something to connect with and trust, like a friend you can call in a pinch.

Mystery Insurance X: The Insurance Place is going to have a much harder time getting people to come on board than Allstate: Are You in Good Hands?

The rich tones of the Allstate narrator’s voice make us feel safe. I don’t even need car or home insurance, but that guy’s voice is so reassuring that I might just sign up anyways.

Such trust isn’t always achieved so honestly, though.

Brands are the mind ninjas of the marketing world. Seriously.

Whether they use sneaky tactics or just happen to be good at marketing psychology, brands and the manager masterminds behind them avoid being forgotten like a phone number in the age of Siri. They want to latch onto your medial temporal lobe and Never. Let. Go.

Why do you think Apple gives people free stickers with their products? Or free versions of software have the logos tucked everywhere? Or websites want you to check “allow” for notifications?

Reminders of them linger.

In fact, brands are a little like your crazy ex. Whether it’s the box of stuff they left behind at your place, the Facebook-tagged photos, or sordid late-night calls, you’re probably gonna be stuck thinking about them for a while, whether you want to or not.

It’s the quality that makes games like this so fun and simultaneously concerning. You realize the subconscious effect brands have had on you.

And love it or hate it, branding works. It helps potential clients know you, trust you, and remember you.

Overall, well-done branding tends to be a win for most businesses.

Must mean it’s time to do some digging in on your brand or get to creating one, right?

Well… probably. But not necessarily.

In the online business world, brands are indeed incredibly important, but most online entrepreneurs don’t exactly have the bandwidth to hire a Don Draper to handle them. It might make some business owners wonder if spending time on a PPC campaign might have a better ROI in the end.

Turns out that at key times, the right branding can make all the difference in growing a following, launching new products, or developing your business, while the wrong brand can prove to be a waste of time or worse, a detriment.

It’s about finding the sweet spot, and branding your business when it counts the most.

The ins and outs of doing so are not always incredibly clear or straightforward. So, we’ll spend some time demystifying the mystery of when to brand yourself in order to maximize your effort with results.

Since online business owners rely so heavily on brand awareness to draw in potential customers (they don’t have the chance possibility that someone will just wander into their brick-and-mortar store one day), branding’s importance increases that much more.

Whether you are an Amazon FBA seller, e-commerce platform, niche marketer, or any other online business owner, understanding the nuances of branding can make all the difference to the future success of your business.

When Branding Is Worth It

So, by this point you should hopefully be sold on the fact that when it comes to your business, branding matters.

Now, the question is: when does it matter most?

We’ll look at three instances when you should focus your energies on your brand.

1) Growing an Audience

As we discussed above, while it might seem like building a brand has a lot to do with your business, it actually has much more to do with something else: your connection to your client.

As speaker Simon Sinek put it, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”

That means that if you want more people to get in touch with your brand –– and by extension, your business –– it isn’t enough to just create great products. You have to tell a story that resonates with your ideal client, so as to build a connection that goes far beyond the transaction, and more towards the core of why people buy in the first place.

Often, this “why” of the brand lives in the company’s mission statement and can carry a lot of weight in swaying a potential client towards you.

Take Slack, for example.

On the surface, Slack might seem like another chat client vying for your precious internet tab or hard drive megabyte space.

But Slack’s mission statement brings way more people to the yard, not for what it is, but what it’s trying to do for professionals’ lives.

Slack wants to “…make your working life simpler, more pleasant, and more productive.”

Notice how they don’t focus on their product, features, or other elements that could junk up their message.

In building their brand around these ideals, Slack positions itself as not just another productivity tool but a friend who wants to help you out. It’s a buddy that knows how busy you are and wants to lighten the load a bit. Who wouldn’t want that?

And they don’t just do lip service to the idea. Slack integrates their brand mission into the service itself. As it is loading your messages, little inspirational messages pop up, pumping you up with motivational quotes or reminding you to get enough sleep, among other things.

Outside of their principal product, they have also launched a podcast called Work in Progress that discusses “the meaning and identity we find in work” –– this furthers Slack’s brand of being people who don’t just care about selling a product but actually invest themselves in the core of what matters to people: doing great work.

As Slack continues taking email users away from their inbox and changing how people communicate with their teams online, it puts its brand at the forefront. By current measures, it seems to be working.

In this case, branding hooked people in with an evocative message that went beyond the norm. It wasn’t about the product or the process, but the mission behind the work that got more people involved, and ultimately, signing up and using.

You might follow a similar process with your brand as you grow your potential clients.

What is the story your brand is telling?

2) Building Out Your Product Selection

Congratulations –– you’ve got clients who are buying what you’re selling. Huzzah!

Only thing is, you want to sell more but aren’t sure how to move those existing customers over and draw in new ones for a completely new product or offer.

Maybe you’re known for your highly rated online courses about becoming an entrepreneur.

People love your teaching style, your personality, and the content of the course, and you want to pivot your knowledge and skills into something else –– maybe an e-book. Yet, no one really knows you as a writer, and they may question if it’s worth the risk to buy something written by you.

That’s where your brand comes in.

Like we discussed above with Slack, your brand should represent why you do what you do. People should know that you = awesome. It goes beyond a particular product or service that you offer and more intimately addresses outcomes and benefits from engaging with your company.

While you might be known for a particular product, especially at the outset, a brand fills in the gaps as you extend or transition into something else. People will feel comfortable following you to the ends of the earth (or at least, to a new product or service) with the knowledge that your brand is going with them.

It’s an unspoken (or perhaps explicitly stated) promise that the same quality, convenience, service, etc. will continue, even if it comes in a different form.

Let’s look to a major branding bigwig for some inspiration on this front: Oprah.

As you already know, Oprah’s career really took off when she became a talk show host, and people fell in love with her. (This was even long before the “You get a car! And you get a car!” days.)

Now, Oprah could have continued riding out her talk show brand, but instead, she created an empire.

She emblazoned her name on book club stickers, products, sponsorships, and eventually her own magazine and TV channel, under the umbrella of her company, Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards –– oh Oprah, you’re a crafty one!).

Wherever Oprah goes, her brand follows. A lot of people don’t continue buying Oprah stuff because of what it is; they buy it because it’s a piece of Oprah.

True, you might never be Oprah (I mean, no one can), but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t steal her brand secrets for your own use.

How might you make your brand powerful enough to make people follow you anywhere?

3) Turning Your Small Business into a Company

We might use the terms “small business” and “company” interchangeably when talking entrepreneurial pursuits, but there is an unmistakable difference in the perception of these two words.

While “small business” might make you think of a side hustle, a mom-and-pop shop, or a lemonade stand, “company” evokes imagery of the corporate life, suits and ties, and Wall Street. It’s the difference between little leagues and the big leagues, if baseball analogies are your thing.

As it turns out, whether an enterprise is considered a small business or a company may very well have to do with how they are branding themselves.

You might feel like whatever you’ve got going can easily fall into one category or another. Maybe you’re just starting out, and every sale feels like a victory, or maybe you’re decades deep into running the show.

Whatever the case may be, taking a closer look at how branding alters perception is key to figuring out if you’ve in fact positioned your business/company correctly in the market.

In this instance especially, it makes sense to look at the bigwigs. After all, most successful big companies started as small businesses at one point.

When you first start out running your business, it might seem like the ROI for branding just isn’t worth it. But given the overwhelming evidence touting branded content’s ability to attract eyeballs and gain trust –– even with those pesky millennials –– it’s hard to ignore the direction everyone’s going.

Take sharing economy darling Airbnb for example.

While Airbnb could have just remained yet another tool for vagabond travelers looking for cheap places to stay, in 2014 it underwent a complete rebranding to better align with what the founders considered their core mission, which was using technology to bring people together.

This changed the way people saw Airbnb. Its rebranding reinforced its intention to not only provide unique and cost-effective housing options for travel but also to truly disrupt and redefine the accommodations industry with their model.

You only need look as far as the home away from home changes that major hotels are now making to see if they have succeeded in this venture.

For Airbnb, rebranding caused a major change in the world’s perception of their power, from being a travel tool to a global force to be reckoned with.

What could rebranding do for your company’s perception out in the world?

When Branding Can Take a Backseat

Yep, brands indeed have a lot of power. Some might argue that they are one of the most important aspects of a business.

However, that isn’t always a case. Sometimes developing your brand shouldn’t actually be the focus at all.

As a general rule, if your business is in the idea or incredibly new startup phase, other priorities should come before the brand, such as market testing your idea and getting your first clients.

Let’s take a quick look at a few more specific times when branding might not make sense, and what you should be focusing on instead.

Again, depending on the type of online business you run, these phases may or may not apply directly to you, but they are good to keep in mind for this or any future businesses you pursue.

1) Still Figuring out Your Niche

Many fledgling online business owners start out in the wild, wild west that is content marketing. They follow many experts’ advice and niche down till it hurts in order to find one little corner of the internet to become the expert master on (and make money from).

Except sometimes that specific little niche is not always evident at the outset. You might start off thinking that a sustainable travel blog is the way to go, only to discover that the space is already overflowing with eco-friendly travelers offering their advice and peddling their wares.

If you develop your brand around too general a topic, only to later find you’ll need to switch gears, you’ve wasted precious time and energy on something that you’ll now have to redo.

Instead, spend some time researching, writing, reading other blogs, and self-reflecting about the best niche you should invest your time in. Having a more well-defined niche will also help you better understand your target client and what their needs are.

Then, once you’ve got that in mind, building a brand will make much more sense.

2) Selling Your First Couple Products

Separate from the content marketing model, you might instead find yourself selling products, as in the Amazon FBA model, or another similar format.

If you are just getting started selling products online, it makes a lot of sense to focus on, well, selling, before you worry too much about building your brand. As you continue to sell products, you may find that you want to develop a full-fledged e-commerce store that ties all of your products together.

Once you have some experience and better understand who your customers are and what they need, you will be able to expand your brand and your store much more easily.

3) You Don’t Know Your Why

Returning to the discussion at the beginning, brands really don’t revolve around what you do or how you do it. They are fueled by the purpose behind your mission.

Also, your mission is not to make money. That’s the byproduct of your mission.

Instead of building your brand immediately, focus on developing the why behind what you are doing. There are plenty of resources, including Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, that provide visioning exercises to help you develop the purpose of your company.

Once your why is clear in your mind, building the brand will be a much easier task.

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When the Time Is Right — Branding O’Clock

No matter what kind of online business you’re running, sooner or later you’ll need to have a brand.

This tool can elevate your company above the competition and help you gain and keep customers in the future through knowledge, trust, and memory.

Depending on what phase your company is in, branding focus may or may not be the right step for you to take. Take a close look at your business and ask yourself how a brand might help you grow an audience, connect and expand your product base, or help you make the leap from small business to company.

On the flip side, if you are just starting out and defining your niche, gaining your first customers, or figuring out your why, focusing on a brand could probably wait for a while.

But when the time is right, building or refocusing your brand might make sure that when someone says your company’s name, people have precisely the reaction you’re looking for.

Photo credit: AShkanov

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