You might assume that branding requires engaging an expensive design agency to get started. However, you can get started on the branding process without necessarily hiring a designer or branding expert right away.
All great brands start much deeper than what you eventually see translated into logos or graphics.
At the core of remarkable brands, there is a deep understanding of the purpose and strategic direction of the organization. This inner awareness is critical. If you skip it you could end up with a brand that falls flat, doesn’t feel authentic, or entirely misses the mark with your audience.
Bobby Martin, co-founder of Original Champions of Design and a guest in the +Acumen Master Class on Branding for Social Change, describes what truly lies at the heart of branding:
“A brand is a feeling, an emotional connection. It’s something that is much bigger than just a logo. A logo is the visual articulation of a brand. A brand to us is a promise. A consistent promise that a company or an organization delivers over time. It’s something that you want to believe in and participate in. It’s something that has to be crafted and well-delivered by that company to the consumer or the audience.”
While you will eventually need a designer to help execute your brand’s visual elements, having clarity of purpose, values, and differentiation will considerably influence your overall brand identity.
There are three foundational branding areas you can start to investigate on your own:
What is your organization’s purpose? Why do you exist?
What are your core values? How will your organization behave?
What will you do differently? How will you stand apart?
#1 - Know Your Purpose
“It is critical to understand the essence of your brand before bringing it to life.” - Debbie Millman
As Debbie Millman shares in her five-step process for branding, the first step you should undertake is understanding your brand’s strategic reason for being. In other words, knowing why your organization is needed to make a difference in the world right now.
The most common tools used to express purpose are organizational mission and vision statements. For social impact ventures, memorable brands are often strongly connected to these statements.
Vision statements articulate what an ideal world looks like in your context, and mission statements clearly state why and how your company plans to make a difference. (Read this article from The Brandling for more perspective on how mission, vision, and values work together.)
The Conscious Brand Index, created by Mezzanine, defines a conscious brand as, “one that actively and intentionally nurtures positive values, relationships and experiences with all stakeholders. It values people and purpose over profit.”
They determined six pillars that make up a conscious brand, all of which relate to the self-awareness of an organization and its strategic goals.
Two of the six Conscious Brand index pillars have to do with a dedication to purpose:
Higher purpose - “Harnessing a shared purpose connects, unifies and mobilizes others around a common goal, which is the foundation for creating real change.”
Purpose-driven strategy - “A purpose-driven strategy can be described as ‘one that refers to its purpose to drive, integrate and evaluate everything the organization does in order to ensure it creates its desired future.’”
Julie Channing, Chief Marketing Officer of the shoe brand Allbirds explains how dedication to purpose has informed their branding:
“Purpose has informed everything we've done since day one. We really believe we're here to make better things in a better way. That’s one of the ways we simplify the idea behind the brand, but it's also really important that people understand we have a strong belief that comfort, great design, and sustainability can live harmoniously in a pair of shoes.”
Honing in on your organizational purpose is something that only your team can truly articulate. Even when working with brand strategists and designers, they will rely on you for these insights.
The more thought you give to your purpose early on, the more prepared you’ll be to co-create a remarkable brand when the time comes to hire a branding professional.
#2 - Know What You Value
“The notion of a brand has now extended to how we live, what we choose to surround ourselves by, and the way in which we want the world to be.” - Debbie Millman
The foundations of building a brand start with knowing who you are and what you value. When you are clear on this, you can communicate with your audience and customers with authenticity and consistency.
Your social venture’s values influence behavior, culture, and decision-making. Recruiting Social’s Core Values Guide summarizes, “in a business context, core values are the highest values that guide a firm’s actions, unite its employees, and define its brand.”
Together with vision and mission statements, core values serve as an internal pulse check when faced with uncertainty or difficult decisions. Externally, when customers see an organization acting in alignment with values similar to their own, they are more likely to feel trust, connection, and eventually become a supporter or customer.
Here are three examples you can use as inspiration for developing organizational core values:
Once you have narrowed down the list to five to ten core values, take it one step further and define what each of those values means to you in real life.
For example, does valuing ‘community’ mean you value a few deep relationships, or you value connection amongst thousands? To solidify the meaning even further, you can write down an example to demonstrate each value in action.
Core values give people a way to feel connected to the brand. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said, “If people believe they share values with a company, they will stay loyal to the brand.”
The core values that drive your work are what makes your brand ‘uniquely you.’ When your organization is living your values, you’ll be delivering a more memorable experience and building trust.
#3 - Know What You Do Differently
“This is a very complicated world; it’s a very noisy world. And we’re not going to get the chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us.” -Steve Jobs
Understanding how you stand apart in the marketplace requires looking at what your organization does exceptionally well and, often, better than alternative options available. Don’t be afraid to infuse your personality and story as you communicate how and why you do things differently.
Discovering how you stand apart is answering the question:
What do I want to be known for?
Your product or service has multiple features and benefits for your users, but what is the single most interesting, helpful, unique, surprising, etc., thing for which you want to be known and remembered?
The answer should bring you to the one sentence that you want people to say about you around the coffee table to a friend or in line at the grocery store to a stranger. When you emphasize what you do differently from the rest you ensure that your brand remains noticeable and relevant.
In the +Acumen Master Class on Branding for Social Change, Brian Collins describes branding as, “a promise that’s kept consistently over time.”
He breaks the idea down into three main ‘P’s’ and together they demonstrate how your brand uniquely delivers value to stand out from the rest.
A promise = a promise is the story that you invite people to believe. It is the perceived value of what you offer.
Kept = keep indicates performance. It is the action you take to back up and prove out the story you promised. It is the real value created for your customers.
Over time = over time indicates your ability to push through time, or think into the future and anticipate where the world is going so you can stay salient and relevant.
While standing out evokes the idea of creativity and innovation, it doesn’t mean compromising on consistency. Brands that achieve cohesive messaging and design can stand out precisely for their consistency and reliability. In turn, this predictability builds brand trust and loyalty.
When it is Time to Bring in the Experts
Even if you are going the do-it-yourself route, at a certain point you will need to recruit experts to help you execute the brand vision professionally.
A designer can help you express your brand vision by crafting brand elements, like a professional logo, visual graphics, typography, color scheme. A brand strategist can also help to implement these design elements throughout your messaging channels cohesively and consistently.
If funds are tight, first invest time and effort into articulating your brand purpose, values, and point(s) of differentiation. Then, when the funds are available, you’ll be that much better prepared to invest in expertise to help you bring your brand to life through professional design and strategy.
As Anne Miltenburg of The Brandling points out, branding and marketing are not overhead; they leverage an organization’s other investments by attracting more customers, supporters, and talent, all of which grow impact and revenues.
Whether you are conscious of it or not, through your actions and messaging, your venture will develop a brand image organically. Therefore, it’s worth taking some time early on to craft your brand intentionally.
To get started, read our outline of Five Steps to Create a Social Impact Brand.