Building a brand from the ground up that stands out is no easy task. What should it look like? How should it make people feel? Will it resonate with my target audience?
These are questions that inevitably come up when you start thinking about how to connect the dots between what you’re selling and who you’re trying to reach. You can check our guide on how to start a business to get started.
Whether you’ve got nothing but a business idea or want to pivot your existing brand, here’s what you need to know about building a strong brand identity for your business.
Learn more: How to Start a Business (With No Experience)
What exactly is a brand?
A brand isn’t just a recognizable name and logo that distinguishes you in a crowded market.
Your brand is how people perceive you wherever they interact with your business—both the impressions you can control and the ones you can't.
When you think about it, people have personal brands, too. We each have a name, a face, a style, a way of communicating, and with these traits, we make different impressions on different people.
Likewise, businesses have names, products, logos, colors, fonts, voices, and reputations that make up what they are and affect how they’re perceived.
You can’t build a brand without being consistent and maintaining that consistency as you extend your brand to every part of your business. But it all starts with establishing what that consistency is going to look like and the feeling you want it to evoke.
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How to build a brand
Building your own brand essentially boils down to seven steps:
- Research your target audience and your competitors.
- Pick your focus and personality.
- Choose your business name.
- Write your slogan.
- Choose the look of your brand (colors and font).
- Design your logo.
- Apply your branding across your business.
While you might revisit some steps as you pivot your brand, it’s important that you consider each aspect as you shape your brand identity.
Let’s start by laying the groundwork to inform the way you go about building your brand.
How do you create a successful brand?
In this video, you’ll learn the six steps to building a meaningful, recognizable brand for your online business.
1. Research your target audience and your competitors
Before you start making any decisions about your brand, you need to understand the current market, i.e., who your potential customers and current competitors are.
There are many ways to do this:
- Google your product or service category and analyze the direct and indirect competitors that come up.
- Check subreddits that relate to your customers and eavesdrop on their conversations and product recommendations.
- Talk to people who are part of your target market and ask them what brands they buy from in your space.
- Look at the relevant social media accounts or pages your target audience follows and are receptive to.
- Go shopping online or offline and get a feel for how your customers would browse and buy products.
As you go about your research, make a note of:
- Who your “lowest hanging fruit” customers are—the ones you could most easily sell to.
- Who your top-of-mind competitors are—the brands that are established and known in the market.
- How your customers speak and what they talk about—the interests they have and the language they express them in.
It’s important to have a handle on this before moving forward, as it will inform what your brand should focus on and how it can position itself apart from competitors.
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2. Pick your focus and personality
Your brand can’t be everything to everyone, especially at the start.
It’s important to find your focus and let that inform all the other parts of your brand as you build it.
Here are some questions and branding exercises to get you thinking about the focus and tone of your brand.
What’s your positioning statement?
A positioning statement is one or two lines that stake your claim in the market. This isn’t necessarily something you put on your website or business card—it’s just to help you answer the right questions about your brand and aids in creating your brand’s tagline.
Your positioning statement should go something like...
We offer [PRODUCT/SERVICE] for [TARGET MARKET] to [VALUE PROPOSITION].
Unlike [THE ALTERNATIVE], we [KEY DIFFERENTIATOR].
For example: We offer water bottles for hikers to stay hydrated, while reducing their carbon footprint. Unlike other water bottle brands, we plant a tree for every bottle you buy.
Your unique value proposition is the one thing you’re competing on. Find it, go in on it, and make it a part of your brand's messaging.
Alternatively, if the company you want to start has a cause at its core (e.g., if you’re starting a social enterprise), you can also write this out as a mission statement that makes a clear promise to your customers or to the world.
What words would you associate with your brand?
One way to look at brand building is to imagine your brand as a person. What would he or she be like? What kind of personality would your customers be attracted to?
This will help inform your voice on social media and the tone of all your creative, both visual and written.
A fun and useful branding exercise is pitching three to five adjectives that describe the type of brand that might resonate with your audience. I compiled this list of traits to help you get started.
What metaphors or concepts describe your brand?
Thinking about your brand as a metaphor, or personifying it, can help you identify the individual qualities you want it to have.
This can be a vehicle, an animal, a celebrity, a sports team, anything—as long as it has a prominent reputation in your mind that summons the sort of vibe you want your brand to give off.
For example, if I wanted to create a brand targeting entrepreneurs, I might choose to use the raccoon as a starting point: They’re scrappy survivors who will do anything to thrive.
If your brand was an animal, what animal would it be and why is it like that animal to you?
3. Choose your business name
“A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. But Nike by another name would be seen on fewer feet.”
What’s in a name? Depending on the kind of business you want to start, you can make the case that your name matters very little or it matters a lot.
As we’ve said before, a brand is so much more than a name. The personality, actions, and reputation of your brand are really what give the name meaning in the market.
But as a small business owner, your company’s name is probably one of the first big commitments you have to make. It’ll impact your logo, your domain, your marketing, and your trademark registration, if you decide to go that route (it’s harder to trademark generic brand names that literally describe what you sell).
Ideally, you want a store name that’s hard to imitate and even harder to confuse with existing players in the market. If you have any plans to expand the product lines you offer down the road, consider keeping your business name broad so that it’s easier to pivot, rather than choosing a brand name based on your product category.
You can use our business name generator to brainstorm some names, or try one (or a combination) of the following approaches:
- Make up a word, like Pepsi.
- Reframe an unrelated word,likeApple for computers.
- Use a suggestive word or metaphor, likeBuffer.
- Describe it literally (caution: easy to imitate),like The Shoe Company.
- Alter a word by removing letters, adding letters, or using Latin endings, likeTumblr (Tumbler) or Activia.
- Create an acronym from a longer name,like HBO (Home Box Office).
- Combine two words: Pinterest (pin + interest) or Snapple (snappy + apple)
Since your brand name will also affect the domain/URL of your website, be sure to shop around to see what’s available before deciding on a domain name. Check out our guide to choosing a good business name or use our tools to get some domain name ideas.
It's also a good idea to run your name by a focus group of close people, if for no other reason than to make sure it doesn’t have an unintended meaning or is too similar to something else that you might’ve missed.
4. Write a slogan
A catchy slogan is a nice-to-have asset—something brief and descriptive you can use as a tagline in your social media bios, website header, custom business cards, and anywhere else where you’ve got very few words to make a big impact.
Keep in mind that you can always change your slogan as you find new angles for marketing—Pepsi has gone through over 30 slogans in the past few decades.
A good slogan is short, catchy, and makes a strong impression. Here are some ways to approach writing a slogan of your own:
- Stake your claim. Death Wish Coffee: “The World’s Strongest Coffee”
- Make it a Metaphor. Redbull: “Redbull gives you wings.”
- Adopt your customers’ attitude. Nike: “Just do it.”
- Leverage labels. Cards Against Humanity: “A party game for horrible people.”
- Write a rhyme. Folgers Coffee: “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.”
- Describe it literally. Aritzia: “Women’s fashion boutique.”
Try our Slogan Maker to brainstorm some ideas, or play off of your positioning statement to generate potential one-liners to describe your business.
5. Choose the look of your brand (colors and font)
Once you’ve got a name down, you’ll need to think about how you’ll visually represent your brand, namely your colors and typography. This will come in handy when you start to make your own website.
Choosing your colors
Colors don’t just define the look of your brand, they also convey the feeling you want to communicate and help you make it consistent across everything you do. You'll want to choose colors that differentiate you from direct competitors to avoid confusing consumers.
Color psychology isn’t an exact science, but it does help to inform the choices you make, especially when it comes to the color you pick for your logo.
This infographic offers a nice overview of the emotions and associations that different colors generally evoke.
It’s important to consider how legible white and black text will be over your color palette and how colored text might look over white and black backgrounds. Try using a tool like Coolors to brainstorm colors that work together. Grab the hex codes to keep handy, and sift through different shades to find the ones you like.
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Choosing your fonts
At this point, it’s also good to look at fonts you might want to use on your website.
Pick two fonts at most to avoid confusing visitors: one for headings and one for body text (this doesn’t include the font you might use in your logo).
You can use Font Pair to browse from a wide selection of fonts that go well together.
For inspiration, use Stylify.me on your favorite websites to see their visual style at a glance.
6. Design your logo
A company logo design is probably one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about building a brand. And for good reason: it’s the face of your company after all and could potentially be everywhere that your brand exists.
Ideally, you’ll want a logo that’s unique, identifiable, and scalable to work at all sizes (something often overlooked).
Consider all the places where your brand’s logo needs to exist, from your website to your Facebook page’s profile picture to even the little “favicons” you see in your current browser tab.
If you have a text logo as your Instagram avatar, for example, it’ll be almost impossible to read. To make your life easier, create a square version of your logo with has an icon element that remains recognizable even at smaller sizes.
Notice how the Walmart logo has both the “sparks” icon and the wordmark, which can be used separately.
The following are some of the different logo types you can choose to help you communicate with designers and find a style that makes sense for your brand. Keep the colors and fonts you chose in mind to make sure they work together with your logo to convey your brand.
Abstract: Google Chrome
An abstract logo has some meaning, but really, it’s just a shape and colors that you can’t easily tie back to anything in the real world.
The benefit of an abstract logo is that it has no innate meaning—you can make this up yourself and bring it to life in your customers’ minds.
Mascot logos are often represented by the face of a character. They may humanize your business by creating a brand personality, but be aware that they are an antiquated style now and only recommended in certain contexts (e.g., you’re deliberately going for a retro look).
Emblem logos are often circular and combine text with an emblem for a bold and regal look. If the design is too complicated, however, they can lose their impact when you shrink them down. But done right, they can play a big influence on brand building and make for a memorable style of logo.
Lettermark logos turn the initials of your full business name into a logo. If you have a business name idea with 3 or more words, this might be a style you’d want to consider, especially if the initialism is catchy.
An icon logo is your brand represented as a visual metaphor. Unlike an abstract logo, an icon logo suggests something about the product (Twitter’s bird is suggestive of the frequent short “tweets” on the platform).
As an unestablished brand, you should stay away from using an icon logo by itself. However, if you’re not sure about the kind of logo you want, pairing an icon logo with a wordmark is usually a safe bet.
Wordmark logos turn your brand name, colors, and font into a visual identity. The problem with wordmarks is that they’re often hard to create in a scalable square design and easily lose their legibility when shrunk.
However, you can fix this problem by simply getting an accompanying icon logo or turning the first letter of the wordmark into a separate-but-connected logo, like what Facebook does with its F.
Because of the limitations that exist for each logo type, many logos are a combination of styles.
As a new small business experimenting with a logo, you don't need to choose an icon over a wordmark when you feel they’re both essential to represent your brand as a combination logo let’s you get the best of both. This makes it easier to satisfy the condition of creating a scalable logo while still putting your brand name front and center. McDonald’s, for example, can use its iconic golden arches wherever its full wordmark doesn’t fit.
Check out Seek Logo for even more logo inspiration, or use our Hatchful logo maker to start generating some ideas. There’s also our comprehensive guide on how to design a logo, where we walk you through the process step by step.
7. Apply your branding across your business
Applying your branding across your business gives it a cohesive brand story. A brand story represents who your business is and what it stands for. It sets the stage for every interaction customers have with your brand, in-store and online.
In Shopify’s research on what wins buyer and customer trust, we found that buyers shopping on an online store for the first time often look for a business’s mission and purpose to see if they share any values with the business (e.g., sustainability). They will turn to its About Us page to learn more about who they’re buying from and, for more socially conscious customers, how the business is run. If your business has a brand story, share it, because it can help the shopper feel reassured yours is a legitimate business.
Your positioning statement can get you started, but to craft a brand story ask yourself a few questions:
- What motivated me to start my business?
- Why does the company exist?
- How do we contribute to the world?
- What is the story behind my business the customer should know?
Not every business is mission driven, but if yours has a mission or values, share your brand story and tell customers why the business was started. Look at the businesses TOMS and Coca-Cola, the first a mission-driven brand, the second not so much.
TOMS, a footwear and accessories company, is “in business to improve lives.” TOMS first charitable program, One for One, where it donates shoes to children in need, and more recently is making donations to the COVID-19 Global Giving Fund, among other charitable initiatives. When a shopper purchases a product from TOMS, they can come away feeling good because they believe in the cause their purchase is contributing toward.
Coca-Cola, a globally recognized soft drink business, isn’t grounded in a strong social good or environmental mission, but it appeals to its target market through branding that focuses on bringing together friends to experience fun, happiness, and connection. A customer of a Coca-Cola product can walk away feeling as if they are more socially connected with friends or loved ones if they enjoy the product with those friends.
For new business owners, there’s a lot to learn from Coca-Cola. It offers up excellent examples of brand marketing through timeless designs, fonts, images, and colors that are instantly recognizable.
Whether you choose to build a brand story around a mission or not, the important thing is giving the customer a story that they tell themselves about your brand.
Evolve your brand as you grow
Building a brand doesn’t stop with creating a logo or slogan, or even with your brand launch. Your brand needs to exist and remain consistent wherever your customers interact with you, from the theme you choose for your website, the marketing materials you produce, all the way to how you package and ship your products.
You’ll continue to shape and evolve your brand as you expose more customers to it and learn more about who your customers are and how to speak to them.
It’s important to appreciate that you will never have 100% control over how people perceive your brand.
You can tug customers in the right direction, make a great first impression, and manage your reputation, but you can’t control the individual perceptions that exist in each person’s mind (say, if they had a bad customer service experience).
All you can do is put your best foot forward at every turn and try to resonate with your core audience. But hopefully, at this point, you have the tools, knowledge, and resources to start.
Illustration by Pete Ryan