How To Build a Brand Strategy (on a Shoestring Budget)
Having a solid brand strategy is a must-have for any small business looking to stand out in its industry. It differentiates your company from the competition and builds a foundation for the rest of your customer-facing marketing content.
But, as a small business owner, it can be difficult to know where to start the process. With a wealth of information out there on branding, brand strategy, marketing, visual design, etc., it's no wonder that so many small businesses forgo any formal brand strategy and focus on marketing efforts like social media, email marketing, and paid ads instead.
While I'm a firm believer in working with a professional designer in any capacity for your brand strategy and design, I understand not every business has the budget for it, especially when starting out. An average budget for branding & marketing is approximately 11.72% according to a recent Forbes study, so figuring out the best way to invest wisely can seem daunting. Fortunately, you don’t have to spend much money to develop a solid brand strategy with beauty AND brains. It just takes time, careful thought, and a minimal investment in design services as needed. In this post, I'm breaking down how to define your brand identity, story, style guide, assets, and social media — all while spending little to no money.
Step 1: Define your brand identity
Brand identity is how you present your business to customers. If your brand was a person, its identity would consist of its personality and appearance. Specifically, brand identity includes signature visuals and language that influence the rest of your marketing. Before you establish a brand identity, you'll need to gather some essential research & data:
Conduct in-depth research on your audience’s interests, problems and motivations. If you're new to business, research two markets - your dream client and your competitors audience. Go through social media, blog posts and websites like Quora to see the various questions, reactions, language and visuals choices these audience bases are attracted to.
Once you've established your audience personas, develop a competitor analysis. You'll want to find 3-5 competitors who sell similar products or services and are at a level at the same level or just above you. Find out exactly what they're offering and not offering. How do they communicate with their audience. What stances or ideas do they take on certain topics around your industry. In what areas are they excelling or falling short? Create in-depth competitive analysis on each of the brands.
Once you understand your customers motivations and pain points, and understand your competitors and what they're offering, you'll want to establish a differentiation strategy. This strategy should map out where there is a saturation of information, products or solutions in your industry, and highlight where there might be gaps in the market. Those gaps are where your business will want to capitalize on the market. Think about ways you can tailor, niche or expand on a product or service, making it more enticing or personalized to your customers specific needs. Maybe it has to do with communication, brand personality and they way your brand shows up in your industry in comparison to your competitors. Find the "you-sized" gap in the market, and double down on that.
Step 2: Determine your brand language
A brand’s linguistic elements consist of its voice, tone, and messaging framework. They’ll guide the language you use in your communications with customers. Many brands often use voice and tone interchangeably, but they're actually referring to two different concepts. Voice is your communications’ character, purpose, and language. Meanwhile, tone is a subset of voice that adjusts the voice to an audience or situation. A messaging framework is a document that establishes the kinds of messages you want to express in your communications and keeps those messages consistent. A basic version of this document can include:
An audit of your current messaging that evaluates the voice you use now and how you’ve communicated your brand’s value in the past
A value proposition that summarizes the main value you provide your customers that other brands can’t, such as better productivity or a unique concept
A voice and tone guide that explains your brand voice in a sentence or two and explains what tones to use in different situations
Brand pillars that consist of your company’s and product’s main selling points summed up in ready-to-use talking points
Your brand identity’s visual and linguistic elements should end up evoking similar thoughts and emotions.
Step 3: Define your brand story
Your brand story explains your brand’s values, goals, and strategies to achieve those goals. As its name implies, it presents these ideas as a story to help your customers relate to your brand. Ask yourself these questions to build a compelling brand story:
What is my origin story? Why did I decided to create this business in the first place?
What problem does my brand aim to solve with its product or service?
Why does my company want to tackle this issue? Is there anything personal at stake?
What goals or vision do you have in the future to keep working toward your solution?
Put your answers together into a story of where your brand came from and where it plans to go. You can draft it in a Google Doc and save it as a PDF when you need to share it externally.
Step 4: Determine your brand visuals
Your brand identity’s visual elements include your logo, typography, and colors. It can also include any imagery that will represent your organization, such as company photos or stock pictures.
While many people will use free logo makers like Canva or inexpensive design solutions like Fivrr, it's important to know that these platform do not enable you to make a proprietary logo or brand visual, meaning it could infringe on a copyright law at some point. This is where I would tap in a brand designer to help you create visuals that resonate with your brand strategy. While a custom option is always available, for new businesses just starting out, I would go the route of a semi-custom brand strategy instead. Based off of a data-driven design concept, a semi-custom brand strategy will be custom tailored to fit your business by a professional designer using software, design tricks and inside information that will make sure your brand visuals are custom to you and your business, without risking infringing on any laws. To help you design and launch your brand, check out my semi-custom VIP Design Intensives. In 1 week (or less), we can build you a semi-custom brand strategy & website that captivates, connects and coverts the right audience, WITHOUT the big $$$ investment, long timeline or overwhelm. Learn more here >>
Considering your brand strategy, you'll want to start designing a mood board to capture the essence of your brand strategy.
Here’s some guidance for choosing these visual elements:
Fonts: Choose fonts for your website and designs that capture your brand’s mood. Serif fonts tend to look professional and classic, while sans-serif fonts often feel more casual and modern. Check out this post to learn more about how to pick the right fonts for your brand.
Colors: Your brand’s main colors affect the emotions your customers will associate with it. Consider colors that would represent the feelings, emotions and essence of your brand strategy.
Logo: To create a logo, you'll want to combine the font and color decisions you just made into your logo’s design.
Icons: To go the extra step, you can also create and use custom icons across your site, like Hubspot’s free icon maker.
Imagery Direction: Your brand visuals should include a clear set of images that convey your brand overall. This can include custom imagery, stock imagery, or a combination of both.
Step 6: Create brand assets and a style guide
After you establish your brand strategy, identity, story, and visuals, you’ll need to compile all this information into a streamlined style guide. While your brand identity and story define your brand, your style guide and assets will show how to put it into action. They’ll make your branding consistently distinct and repeatable for your organization. Here's what you should include:
Assemble your brand assets
Your brand assets consist of your customer-facing brand resources, such as images and files. It’ll become easier to stay on brand when you have all of them saved in the same folder. Take the folder you used for your brand identity’s visual components and expand it into a full assets folder. Some examples of brand assets to include in your folder include:
Logos in multiple approved sizes, formats, and colors
Go-to images such as company photos or on-brand stock photos from a platform like Unsplash
Font and typeface files for your brand identity and website’s fonts
Images of mascots or characters you use in branding materials
Slogans, taglines, and other frequently shared messages
Templates for presentations, reports, and other public-facing documents
Build your brand style guide
Think of your brand style guide as the rules to follow to keep your marketing and communications on-brand. It will also provide instructions on how to use your brand assets. Consider including the below guidelines in your style guide with examples of each guideline in use:
Your logo and guidelines for use, such as the correct sizes, proportions, spacing, and colors
Brand colors in PANTONE, CMYK, RGB code, and HEX code
Typography guidelines, including font names, uses, and sizes
Image guidelines for subjects, sizes, and proportions
A one-paragraph overview of your brand story
Your tone and voice guide from your messaging framework
Want a quick and easy way to store all of this information for quick reference? Grab a copy of my FREE Asana Company Guidebook that you can download and save as a cloud-based hub for all of your brand essentials. Snag your copy here >> If you have a content marketing strategy, you might also benefit from creating a content style guide to go with your brand style guide. A content style guide defines the linguistic and conceptual standards you set for your content. It can include guidelines for voice and tone, grammar, vocabulary, content goals, and other editorial objectives.
Step 7: Brand your social media presence
Establishing your small business’s social media branding will help you post consistent content and come up with content ideas. It’ll become easier and faster to get content ready when you narrow down the kinds of posts and language to use. This process involves taking the branding elements you’ve established so far and packaging them for each of your social media platforms. Every network has unique best practices for content, format, and scheduling, so you’ll need to note how to apply your branding to each one. A social media style guide refines your brand for social media and offers a quick reference for anyone who manages your posts. At Buffer, we include these components in our style guide:
A quick overview of the rest of the style guide. This summary will help anyone understand your social media brand at a glance.
Your brand’s voice and tone in a sentence or two. If you want to use a different tone for each platform, note that here.
Grammar and language rules. Do you use the Oxford comma? What kind of inclusive language do you try to use?
Post format for each platform. Do you use a lead-in and link on separate line breaks? How long do you keep paragraphs in longer-form content for platforms like Instagram?
Emoji and hashtag usage per platform. Consider where and how you want to use emojis and hashtags on each platform, such as before or after a line. You may want to avoid emojis and hashtags as a whole on certain platforms.
Image and video usage. Will you use original, stock, or user-generated images and videos? Do you have any templates to use for your multimedia?
Each of these elements is small on its own, but they add up to a distinct brand when you follow all of their rules together.
Consider using a social media scheduling and management tool like Plann to help you keep your social media posts on-brand. The platform lets you customize a post for each network so you can nail your platform-specific styles. Get started for free today, or upgrade to add multiple accounts, get post ideas, streamline your social media process and more. Learn more about Plann here >>
Still feel stuck? Let's connect.
The small business branding process can get confusing when you’re doing it for the first time. With so many abstract concepts to handle, it can get tricky to stay on track. If you need help understanding what to do with your brand, or want help building a custom or semi-custom brand strategy, book a complimentary 30-minute Discovery Call with me and let's talk about how we can partner up to build, expand and level up your small business. Book a call today >>