If you’re not sure what the point of brand development is, an e-comm founder can tell you.
For e-commerce, 2020 was a big year — and 2021 was even bigger.
E-comm revenues have exploded since the pandemic started — and that’s mostly benefited the biggest names in the space.
In 2020, Amazon alone brought in the majority of e-comm revenues, the New York Times reported, and the ten biggest brands brought in 68% of e-comm revenues.
That left the smaller players in search of a strong brand to differentiate their offering, reach their target audience and compete against the biggest corporations.
But when and how should you invest in brand building, exactly? We spoke to three brand marketers to find out.
Meet the brand experts
- Jared Rosenberg, a brand development expert and marketing consultant at Formity
- Raquel Bowles, a growth and brand marketer whose specialty is branding small, early-stage startups
- Jamie Molnar, a product and brand marketer who’s worked with IBM, CNN, and the Weather Channel
A brand marketing glossary
Branding is a confusing subject. Sometimes people use the words brand and company, or brand and logo, interchangeably. That’s fine in a casual conversation — but we want to be more precise here.
Let’s define our terms, starting with brand development, the main subject of this guide, and then often confused or associated terms.
What it means: Brand development is the process of building branding and brand guidelines, using tools like audience research and competitive analysis. Ideally, brand development happens early in a brand’s life. The process also gets revisited during brand refreshes and rebrands. (More on those down below.) .
Example of it in action: You can see the results of brand development in the brand guidelines some companies — like Nike Pro Services — publish to educate stakeholders, employees and the press.
These guidelines often focus on visual identity, but they also reveal some of the research and thought involved in the brand development strategy — including the symbolism embedded in logos and brand colors.
Manual Creative created brand guidelines for Nike Pro Services that incorporate some interesting visual symbolism — the triangle pattern “represents the concept of reaching a pinnacle.”
What it means: Your brand is how your customers perceive your products and your company as a whole. You can influence it — through branding and brand management — but it’s also impacted by factors beyond your control, like press, customer experience and customer reviews.
Example: Apple’s brand centers on emotions like wonder, freedom and delight, according to a Wired analysis — and Forbes named it the most valuable brand in the world in 2021 (and not for the first time), valuing its brand equity $241.2 billion.
What it means: Branding is public-facing decisions you make to shape your brand identity. It’s the messaging, look and feel that your audience experiences when interacting with owned brand touchpoints, from your first impressions on your website to your packaging.
Example: Apple has proactively associated itself with feelings like wonder, freedom, delight from the start.
In 1984, Apple introduced its first personal computer with a Super Bowl ad that positioned the Macintosh as a tool for free thinkers.
This branding has endured. Nearly four decades later, Apple has positioned its iPhone as a way for users to liberate themselves from the annoyance of constant tracking.
This ad — which has 27 million views on YouTube! — resonates in part because it’s so clearly in line with Apple's brand promise, striking a chord with decades of prior Apple messaging.
What it means: Brand marketing is a marketing specialty focused on a mix of brand development, management and communication initiatives. This is the internal work that results in effective branding. The key to brand marketing is consistency. It should be an ongoing process. “You always want somebody working as a brand marketer,” Molnar said.
“You always want somebody working as a brand marketer."
Example: Brand marketing helped false lashes company Doe Lashes grow to an eight-figure brand in a saturated market during a global pandemic. Which you’d think would reduce the demand for false lashes.
As he built Doe Lashes, founder Jason Wong was laser-focused on brand marketing — crafting brand guidelines with a brand marketer, targeting a “hero audience,” and launching a TikTok — according to a Twitter thread.
What it means: A brand’s positioning differentiates it from all the other companies that offer similar products or services. Brand positioning flows out of competitive analysis; often, competitive analysis and brand positioning deliverables get bundled together, according to Rosenberg.
Example: Potato milk DUG differentiated itself from other alternative milk brands with a “daring and urban personality,” Transform Magazine reported.
It was entering a saturated market of oat milks, soy milks, rice milks — even pea milks. Those vegan milks often claim to be healthy alternatives to dairy milks, with the same taste and feel. (See: Oatly’s “Wow No Cow” Super Bowl ad.)
So DUG tried a new differentiator: daring customers to try milk made out of potatoes, not claiming that it’s just like cow milk — and some coffee shops are leaning into the messaging, too.
What it means: A brand refresh is a routine, relatively small update to a brand’s logo, messaging, and positioning. It's part of most successful brands' marketing plans. “All of that is a living, breathing thing,” Rosenberg said. “It should change as things update over time.” Brands often invest in a refresh when they’re introducing a new product, expanding their mission statement or company goals or approaching a new audience.
Example: The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity for lots of companies to invest in a little brand refresh. In the earliest days of the pandemic, 94% of companies reevaluated their brand strategies — tech giants like Uber among them.
Uber pivoted its messaging and encouraged riders not to use its product with a “Stop Moving” campaign. Marketing executives at Uber felt that the message was particularly important coming from Uber, since its brand was so closely associated with movement, AdWeek reported.
The campaign didn’t mean a whole rebrand for Uber, which remains a ride-sharing and delivery company. Instead, it refreshed the brand and made it seem more caring and in touch with reality. It even made our list of the 30 best pandemic ads.
What it means: A rebrand involves changing a company’s core identity: think name, colors, and logo. “The only time you should really seek to reinvent your brand from the bottom up is if you have to create a new image,” because “the existing image wasn’t a good one.” Rosenberg explained. “A rebrand is painful,” Molnar said — but worth it if you’re trying to start fresh after a crisis, or radically change your offerings.
Example: In 2021, Facebook rebranded away from its identity as a social networking company and toward an identity as a metaverse company: Meta.
This branding ties together all of its apps and services — Facebook included.
While Meta’s official communications framed the rebrand as a forward-thinking reprioritization, marketers saw it as a response to controversies surrounding Facebook.
That would make sense Rosenberg said. Rebrands like Meta’s involve very costly changes to name, identity, and logo — not to mention major brand awareness losses — so most companies avoid rebranding unless they absolutely have to.
What happens when brand development is delayed
Our panel of experts agree that brand development should begin immediately after a brand has a product — if not as soon as the brand has a product strategy.
But many companies delay the brand development process, instead opting for DIY visual assets and no brand guidelines.
Putting off brand development is like putting off going to the doctor, Rosenberg said. You’re fine for a little while, but “eventually, you might develop a really bad condition,” he added.
That “bad condition” can look like stalling revenues or slowing expansion. It’s not always a dramatic failure, though, and it’s usually a solvable problem.
Take, for example, one of Bowles’ recent clients, scholarship application and tracking platform Scholar’s App. When Scholar’s App first launched, they targeted high school counselors, and “they did very well,” Bowles said. But the company needed to reach a larger audience to generate more revenue.
Bowles conducted audience research and realized it wasn’t just interesting to high school students and counselors. It had two more potential audiences: parents and scholarship providers.
Her next step: talking with the founders about how they wanted the brand to be perceived by potential customers, and what phrasing and color palettes would attract those consumers.
Today, Scholar’s App has four landing pages — one each for students, parents, counselors, and scholarship donors.
Like Scholar’s App, many companies that initially skip the brand development stage won’t need a full rebrand — instead they need a positioning statement and guidelines about visuals and voice to help them reach their target audience.
“If you do these types of things in the very beginning, you get timelessness,” Bowles said, “so you’re not spending a lot of money in the future on new designs and colors.”
“If you do these types of things in the very beginning, you get timelessness."
6 signs it’s time to (re)invest in brand development
If you recognize yourself in these scenarios, it may be time to hire a brand marketer to work on brand development — even if you’ve already stood up brand guidelines.
1. Your brand’s messaging is all over the place.
This can look like a sudden departure from a brand’s normal style.
For example, remember when Pabst Blue Ribbon tweeted… this?
It wasn’t the first time the company posted slightly off-color content on its social media (as Adweek pointed out, PBR’s Instagram account often features rats and beer together).
But it was a bridge too far for Pabst. The company deleted the tweet and apologized, blaming a rogue employee and claiming that the tweet did not “reflect the values of Pabst and our associates.”
While even the best brand marketers can’t go back in time, they can help companies set high-level messaging guidelines to avoid this type of snafu going forward.
They can also prevent less crisis-level messaging inconsistencies, like sporadic social media use, an erratic tone or inconsistent brand colors.
Competitive and audience research can help brand marketers identify who’s buying a product and what exactly appeals to those people, Bowles said. That way, social media managers have a clearer sense of the line between fun and vulgarity.
2. You spent $20,000 on a logo — and nothing’s changed.
New founders often “want to have a shiny logo to put a business card out,” Bowles said — and skip straight over brand development.
After they pay a lot of money for a logo they love, though, they often realize that their target audience doesn’t respond to it.
“Most of the time, you’re not your market,” Bowles said.
“Most of the time, you’re not your market."
And subbing your personal taste for audience research can get expensive.
A smarter investment, our sources said: conducting a full brand development process, including audience and competitive research, before investing in content marketing or paid ads or even creating a new logo.
3. You have a great product, but you can only take it so far.
At the very start, some products sell themselves through word of mouth. Friends and family buy a new product, and they can sustain a business for a while, but “it kind of dies out after that,” Bowles said.
To generate revenue from strangers, you first need to figure out what they want and where to find them.
That means developing all the core tenets of brand messaging, a visual identity, and a social media strategy. It can even mean making some adjustments to your product to make it more attractive to your target audience, Molnar said.
“All of that is part of … deciding who you want to be when you grow up as a brand,” Molnar said — and grow into a broader clientele.
4. Your ads have lower-than-expected engagement rates.
When you’re not hitting paid performance benchmarks, it could be due to a technical glitch or an iOS update.
But “any of those marketing KPIs that are falling short could [also] be attributed to a … lacking brand experience,” Rosenberg said.
It may be that the audience you’re targeting doesn’t match the brand you’ve developed.
A brand refresh, updated brand guidelines, or some more audience research could help you find a new angle that better speaks to your target audience.
5. You think your audience is urban millennial males.
Urban millennial males “is not really a target audience,” Rosenberg said. “That’s a couple of demographic descriptions.”
Urban millennial males “is not really a target audience. That’s a couple of demographic descriptions.”
A target audience is a description of the needs and circumstances that will lead a customer to your brand — not how they fill out the census.
It might be moderately useful to understand your customer demographics — especially if your product or service is local or only for a certain demographic. (Think dating platform Tinder, which is really only for single or polyamorous people.)
From a branding perspective, though, it’s more helpful to understand what they need, and why.
For example, in the summer of 2021, a cultural shift happened, and It Girls of Instagram and Brooklyn were suddenly all eating tinned fish — to the point that it became known as “hot-girl-food.”
But anchovy companies didn’t start targeting supermodels and ignoring the rest of the population. If they had, they would have missed out on the f people who were attracted to the health benefits of tinned fish, or just wanted to make Alison Roman’s viral shallot pasta.
Instead, tinned fish brands saw that people were searching for more shelf-stable foods during the pandemic and positioned tinned fish as the coolest, healthiest one.
They marketed to the need, not the persona.
Customer personas need to be more complex than a simple set of demographic descriptions to effectively market a product, Rosenberg said.
6. You think your audience is everyone.
On the other end of the spectrum, some companies think their product is for absolutely anyone, and they want to market to everyone. That just isn’t possible — not everyone has the need or desire your brand can address. “We have to come up with that muse or that brand persona of who we are actually targeting this product to,” Molnar said.
Not even toilet paper companies market to everyone, even though everyone arguably needs toilet paper.
DTC toilet paper brand Reel, for example, positions itself as “life changing paper,” for people who are concerned about the environment and want to make social change.
Researching and targeting a specific audience with particular needs is the best way to develop a brand position and identity — and a base of loyal customers, as opposed to fair-weather fans. And that takes a thorough brand development approach.
How to develop a brand, in 7 steps
A strong brand is a gold mine. It can lead to increased customer trust, employee pride, and more social proof. Here’s how our panel of experts recommend approaching brand development.
1. Evaluate the competition.
Before you get started building your own brand, it’s important to “see what else is out there,” Rosenberg said.
That means getting a brand marketer to do a competitive analysis, mapping all of a company’s direct and indirect competitors.
This helps brands find and tackle problems competitors aren’t adequately solving — differentiating themselves in the process.
2. Research your target market.
Our panel of experts all highlighted the importance of understanding your brand’s customers.
It’s hard to know if the product or service you’ve built is sellable, Molnar said, unless you understand who you’re selling it to.
“I could have all the colors in the world and a beautiful logo,” Bowles added, “[but] I can’t take the brand any farther than that.”
Not without a deep understanding of a customer’s challenges and how your brand’s offering solves them.
Figuring that out takes market research.
Conduct buyer interviews to find out what influencers your customers follow, what brands they already like, and how they make choices.
Free tools like Google Analytics and Quantcast can also help you get a sense of who your customers are, Rosenberg said — and you can also solicit direct feedback via tools like SurveyMonkey.
3. Define your brand’s core messaging.
Your messaging — or the way you speak to your audience — is wildly important. A Motista study suggests that marketers underestimate the value of creating an emotional connection with their customers. Emotional connection is even more important than customer satisfaction, and can lead to a 306% higher customer lifetime value (LTV).
Core messaging has four main components:
- Mission and vision: Why do you exist, and how do you see the world changing thanks to your brand? “The mission statement should be a little bit lofty,” Molnar said. It shouldn’t be solved in your first three years in business.
- Value proposition: This is the reason customers buy your product. It’s how you solve their problem or remove their pain points.
- Brand persona: This is your brand’s personality, and different elements will resonate with different segments of your audience. Think of it like being at a cocktail party — you might have an intellectual discussion about politics with one person and crack jokes with another, depending on their interests.
- Tag lines: These are the succinct but impactful phrases that convey your brand message, utility, value, and personality.
4. Create your visual identity.
A true visual identity goes beyond logo and colors so it can grow with your brand. It should be easy to apply as you develop a blog, bring on freelancers to handle your social media channels, or start running paid search and display ads.
Visual identity includes color and typeface hierarchies, pattern exploration, and rules for implementing everything in the real world, our panel of experts said.
Cosmetics brand Aesop does this well, Rosenberg noted.
The company’s brick and mortar locations each have a different theme, but those themes still align with basic brand principles and visual identity. No matter where you are in the world, you’ll know you’re at an Aesop store.
Crafting a visual identity is complicated, and requires a fair bit of psychological analysis. “If you’ve got a brand that wants to go after a certain clientele, we’ve got to use colors that demonstrate that we’re more of an upscale brand,” Bowles said.
Think, for instance, of how few luxury brands use colors like purple or teal in their visual identities, or how most DTC companies have the exact same aesthetic.
5. Determine how to reach your target audience.
Part of audience research should involve figuring out which marketing channels will actually reach your audience. While “some can be reached only on LinkedIn, some are on every social media channel, some don’t read emails, they’re on YouTube all day,” Bowles said.
Some can be reached only on LinkedIn, some are on every social media channel, some don’t read emails, they’re on YouTube all day.
How do you know whether your customers are on YouTube or LinkedIn or somewhere else entirely?
You can use audience research tools like SparkToro, or you can take a more analog approach like Maven CEO Gagan Biyani recommended to MarketerHire.
Biyani does “bottom-up” channel selection — interviewing existing customers to find out how they heard about his product and what convinced them to make their first purchase before deciding where to invest. If existing customers tend to use search engines to find products like his, he’ll invest in SEO or paid search.
6. Launch (or relaunch) the brand.
You could align your launch messaging with an event (like Thanksgiving) or something within the cultural zeitgeist (like the cigarette boom of 2020), Molnar said.
Why not use a trend that’s already getting press as a news peg for your brand launch?
Think of Burger King’s recent rebrand, which visually leaned into the 70s aesthetic that came back in 2021.
Messaging-wise, the company intended it to be “playfully irreverent” according to Dezeen — which was perhaps most fully realized when the company’s United Kingdom Twitter account sent a tweet heard round the world just two months after the rebrand launched.
Burger King was trying to launch a scholarship to help women achieve leadership roles in the restaurant industry, but in a cheeky way that spoke to women’s rights and reclaimed an old, disrespectful saying.
The company also took out a full page ad in the New York Times to explain what they were doing — but the one-line tweet got much more (unwanted) attention. Burger King promptly apologized and deleted the tweet.
But Molnar still thinks of the scholarship messaging as a success for the Burger King brand relaunch. If the company was trying to use the scholarship to make their brand culturally relevant, they did that!
“Every woman I know is like, ‘Oh my god, did you hear what Burger King said?’” Molnar said. “The fact is, me and my friends were talking about Burger King, and I thought it was brilliant.”
7. Manage the brand.
Your work isn’t done once you launch your site and marketing strategy. Stick to the brand guidelines you just created!
According to Inc., 95% of companies claim to have formal brand guidelines, but only 25% of brands actually stick to them. That’s our experts’ experience, too.
Constant testing, iterating and refreshing is a crucial part of building an effective brand strategy. If you thought your audience would appreciate bold messaging, but your performance metrics and earned mentions say otherwise, scale it back, Rosenberg said.
Brand development makes for a timeless brand
In June 2021, MarketerHire saw demand for brand marketers double MoM . Why? In a year when iOS updates rocked paid social media and email marketing, and as e-commerce grew more crowded, companies realized that it could be wise to invest in brand development.
Brand marketing hires fell back into the “other” slice of the hiring pie in December 2021, but social media managers made up a rising proportion of hires — and they rely on brand guidelines to do their job effectively.
We see smart startups investing in brand development in 2022. tSure, it takes time, but as our panel of experts said, it’s an investment in your future.
The sooner you do it, the sooner you can move on to managing your marketing channels with consistency and confidence.
To get started with brand development, hire a brand marketer through MarketerHire.
An earlier version of this story was written by Jared Rosenberg and published in November 2020.