5 ways to start building a successful brand today

By Dennis Field • About a read

I’ve been designing logos and creating brands for companies for nearly a decade. In fact, much of the early work we did at Greenline Creative was focussed primarily on brand development and website creation for companies who were just breaking ground. This was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, so I’m extremely happy to share with you some of the principles that we followed to create engaging brands.

They are the same principles that I learned while doing sub-brand work for companies like the NFL, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Select Comfort, and Target. But enough about me – let’s get started.

Rule 1: Your Brand Is Not Your Logo

When you set out to establish the brand for your startup, don’t confuse the two. A logo is just one piece of your entire brand. It definitely plays a key role in identifying who you are and cementing that brand image in someone’s head, but it’s not your brand. The easiest example of how this works is Nike. When you think about Nike, you immediately think of the “swish”.

However, that’s not how Nike makes you feel, is it? When you really explore its brand, it’s about evoking and finding that powerful thing inside you that makes you want to get off the couch, compete, and move a bit more than you did yesterday. One part of your brand is the identifier (the logo); the other (the brand) is how it makes you feel inside. If you need another example of this, take a look at the automotive industry. All these cars do the same thing, but every brand makes you feel a certain way about yourself. A Lincoln makes you feel like you’re riding and arriving in style; a Jeep makes you feel like you’ll take the road less traveled to get there.

"One part of your brand is the identifier (the logo); the other (the brand) is how it makes you feel inside."

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So when you think about building a brand for your business, ask yourself how you want people to feel when they engage with your offering. Even a digital product can evoke an experience or feeling. Think Slack vs. Hipchat. Two different brands that offer the same thing. Often, the brand is what sets you apart from your competition.

Rule 2: Give It a Life

One of the first things I ask any business that comes to me for branding is to describe their brand to me as descriptively as they can. If it’s a personal brand, I ask them questions about themselves, like, “Where do you shop? What type of car do you drive? Do you use a PC or an Apple?” Those questions provide me with clear, descriptive words that I can build a brand around.

For example, “modern” and “distressed” are two different feelings, and I need to know what type of personality this brand will have. So when you think about creating your brand, treat it like a real human being. Give it a name, give it some hobbies. That way you’ll have clear visuals to work with. Also, keep in mind that you can explore various options. Maybe one option of your brand is modern, maybe another is vintage ‘60s? Each of those personalities will feel totally different when explored. Test what aligns best with your audience. Can you surprise them with something they’ve never seen before?

Rule 3: Tell a Meaningful Story

This is the simplest thing, but it is often overlooked. The result is usually a cliched logo mark and very shallow branding that does not go beyond a nice color pallet and fancy typography. However, I think it’s the most important thing you should focus on with your brand. From day one, you should be aiming to tell a story. Does Burt’s Bees ring a bell to you? This is a real story of a man who loved honey and built a business around it, but the sales and fan following are the result of the story that people are drawn to. There’s plenty of honey-based products on the market, but there is only one Burt.

"Brand connection always starts with a great story."

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You may be asking yourself, “But I don’t have a story like Burt’s, what should I do?” The answer is simple. Make it up. That’s the beauty of storytelling. You can create stories that connect with your audience. They don’t have to be real – they just have to connect. Connection always starts with a good story. Plenty of brands that you use or buy every day consist of made-up stories. It’s been working for them! So take some time to think about your story. What’s the story of your brand? What elements make up that story? Can you find any visuals to go with the story that can be used as supporting graphics across your brand or even your logo?

Rule 4: The Best Brands Scale

Another key rule to keep in mind with your brand is to think about how it scales. From the messaging to the logo, everything has to scale. Your visuals and typography should work digitally and in print. Creating a mark with elements that can be used for different applications is also a nice thing. Try to avoid complex design visuals, like gradients, and things that are costly to recreate or don't recreate well in different applications. The logos that work and the brands that have stood the test of time have succeeded because they were built that way. They were designed to be timeless. They work well in one color and are recognizable as small as a pin or as large as a billboard. What makes these brands and logos so great is that they were built way beyond the digital age, and they still work! So as you develop your logo and brand, it’s important to think about what applications it needs to work in today and in the future. That is hard to predict, so when in doubt, avoid trends, keep it simple, but make it scalable so it doesn’t get boring.

Rule 5: Polish Makes Perfect

Nothing says “cheap startup” like a logo that your friend made in Photoshop. The best advice that I can give you is to invest in your brand. Customers DO judge a book by its cover. Even if your product is not the best or as fully thought out as your competition’s, you don't have to worry if your brand is good. Truthfully, your brand is what people will buy into (early on), and it often becomes the most valuable piece of your company later on.

You will have flops (we all do), but if your brand is solid and respected, you'll pass the first gate to customer adoption: trust. You’ll be able to bounce back from the flops pretty quickly. When in doubt, think of your brand as an ATM. Would you put your money in an old ATM that just doesn’t look trusting? Probably not. Unless you really, really needed to, but chances are you could drive down the road another mile and find a more trusting ATM to give your money to. The same is true for your business. It only takes seconds for someone to judge your brand and product. If they don’t think it’s professional, they’ll move on to the next option. It’s as simple as that.

"Think of your brand as an ATM. Would you place your money into an old ATM that doesn’t look trusting? Probably not. Build a trusting brand."

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I’m not saying that you need the best logo at this stage or that the brand will solve all the challenges of making a business successful, but it sure helps. Moreover, it’s one of the easiest things you can do that will have an immediate positive impact, even if you haven’t built your product yet.

Final Thoughts:

These are five quick tips that you should consider when you start building your brand. It’s important to note that this is really just the start. There’s so much more you’ll begin to discover if you start dissecting great brands and identifying what makes them successful. So dive in, have fun, and test things! If it doesn’t work, create a new story. Once you lock in on the brand and logo that resonate early, everything else will just build off of it.

If you have any questions, feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or let’s book some time to chat about it.

Until next time.

Dennis

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Author

5 ways to start building a successful brand today

Dennis Field

I’m a designer and educator who works @invisionapp. I’m also writing a book that helps other designers reach their goals. You can find me on Twitter @dennis_field.