Building A Brand: The Upfront Framework

How often have you heard (or said) one of these phrases:

  • “I want a great brand.”

  • “I want a website that gets customers excited.”

  • “I want to make a product that really means something to my customers.”

They sound so simple when said out load. But what do these phrases actually mean?

Building a brand, a well-loved product or service that is highly differentiated and respected by customers, is no easy feat. We often think of the tangible end products of a brand: the product or service itself, the website, and the marketing and advertising. But to arrive at these final end products requires a well-thought out, systemic process that weighs customer wants and needs, competitive landscapes and buttoned-up foundations defining the underpinnings of your brand. Without taking these steps first, you’ll end up throwing spaghetti against a wall. Your brand may stick…but if very likely won’t.

The Brand Building Framework

A well-structured brand-building framework looks something like the diagram below.

Brand Building Framework

Its starts at the very beginning, taking time to learn about customers and prospective customers (and possibly non-customers) while also taking time to assessing the competitive and industry landscape as a whole.

With a solid grasp of the general marketing and customer environment, you can then go into intelligently defining what your brand stands for. This stage helps clearly define the customer you’re targeting, the core benefits you intend to bring to the market, and the product or service attributes that will let you live up to meeting these needs.

With a brand definition in place, you can then jump into making your brand come to life. Developing a website and marketing or advertising materials becomes, much much easier when you have a solid framework guiding your images, your copy, and your overall brand messaging.

Knowing Your Customer & Market

Knowing everything there is to know about the customer and market can take a variety of steps. Outlined below are just a few ways this can be tackled. While you’ll likely never do each and every project below, picking and choosing a few will help build confidence that you have a strong grasp of the market environment.

Executive Interviews

  • What It Entails: Four or five 1:1 interview with senior executives, product developers, merchandisers or product buyers, and anyone else with a strong history with the product or category.

  • Why Do It: No one can offer a better foundation for learning about a customer and a category like the people who live and breath it every day. Taking time to interview an organization’s key personnel offers a much-needed starting point for any researcher to understand the environment they’re working in.

    Additionally, it helps isolate early on in the process opportunities for what to focus on, patterns that are worth exploring more, and places where personnel are misaligned or disagree and where future research can help bring clarity.

Secret Shopper Visits

  • What It Entails: Isolate four-to-five competitors or brands/retailers you admire, and go through the entire purchase experience, from visiting a retailer on-site or visiting the website to selecting a product, completing the purchase, and bringing it home or waiting for it to be delivered (For big ticket item purchases, you can do everything except actually purchase the product).

  • Why Do It: Do you know who’s doing things really well? Or who’s doing things really poorly? Do you rely on partners to do a job well but aren’t sure if they’re doing it properly? Secret shopper visits allow you to answer these questions and determine where you have opportunities to surpass the competition…and where you need to catch up.

Competitive Audits

  • What It Entails: Select four-to-five competitors or tangential players in the marketplace and examine their imagery, copy, positioning, and stated value propositions.

  • Why Do It: Competitive audits help you visualize the industry landscape, seeing how competitors or related products talks about themselves and describe their features and benefits. It’s a key process for pinpointing areas that your product or service can own, and saturated areas that should be avoided. Additionally, for smaller market players, it lets you piggy back off the marketing and strategy work of the big guys. They already spent money doing tons and tons of research. Auditing them lets you see where they netted out.

1:1 Customer or Prospective Customer Interviews

  • What It Entails: Eight-to-ten 30-minute interviews with customers about their experiences with your product or service, motivations for purchasing your product or service, barriers to purchase, trade-offs they made during the decision-making process, their standard purchasing process. Additionally, questions can be posed about why they like (or don’t like) your product or service, how they see you against the competition, and what additional products or services they’d like to see.

  • Why Do It: You may think you know why customers purchase your product. But, you’ll never know until you ask. Leveraging 1:1 qualitative interviews helps you delve deeply into what customers are really looking for, and how you can truly resonate with them. It also offers a great way to explore new marketing or product opportunities. By asking customers what they think about new ideas, rather than spending time on the initiatives upfront, you’ll get a better gauge on whether or not they’re worth your time and money.

Customer Surveys

  • What It Entails: Developing and fielding an in-depth (e.g. 20-minutes or more) survey that probes on industry, category or product perceptions, interests in particular topics or hobbies, as well as a variety of demographic and psychographic factors.

  • Why Do It: Armed with the insights of (usually) several hundred respondents, you’ll have an extremely broad understanding of your customer targets, understanding their likes and dislikes, why they do or don’t engage with your product or service, and what they look like in terms of general interests and beliefs. You’ll begin to see a clear profile of who your target customer is and what they look like, a necessary profile if you’re to develop a product or service that fits into their lives.

Customer Segmentation

  • What It Entails: Segmentation research takes the raw data from your customer survey and performs something called cluster analysis, a statistical method that looks for discrete groups that comprise your customer population as a whole.

  • Why Do It: You’ll be armed with a rich understanding of each unique group within your target customer population, and how they vary by relative size, demographics, psychographics, and category engagement. You’ll be able to isolate your ideal customer persona(s) and you’ll have the nuanced data needed to develop brand positioning and messaging that aligns seamlessly to these groups.

Defining Your Brand

Once you know all there is to know about your customers and the broader competitive and industry landscape, you’ll be able to define how your brand fits into it all.

Customer Definition: While research offers an understand of who the target customer is, you still need to sit down and define it. Defining your customer means stating in crystal clear details the following details:

  • What they look like demographically or psychographically

  • What specific needs they have

  • What challenges or barriers they face to engaging with your category or product

Positioning Statement: A positioning statement expressly defines who your target customer is, what they are looking for, the unique benefit you offer, and why you are unique from your competition. A general template looks like this:

For (target customer) who (stated customer need or want), (product or brand name) is (product or industry category) that (unique brand benefit or value proposition), because only (product or brand name) gives you (key product differentiator).

Positioning statements can be two or three sentences in length. But those two or three sentences are your North Star, identifying the unique niche your brand fills and laying the groundwork for the product development and category engagement activities that will help you fulfill that niche.

Brand Pillars: Your brand pillars are the key value propositions you will offer your customers to back-up your positioning statement. Depending on your category, these can look like“Save Time,” “Save Money,” “Gain Peace of Mind,” or “Have Fun.”

Each pillar has supporting elements which define how your brand will actually meet each and every pillar. For instance, if you’re a winter coat company and a Brand Pillar is “Always Keeps You Warm,” your supporting tenants could be “Materials Tested Under Arctic Temperatures” or “Waterproof Materials, Always“

One notable thing about pillars and tenants is that they don’t have to exist today. In fact, they often don’t!

Your pillars, like your positioning statement, can be aspirational. They tell you what your brand needs to look like to fulfill its stated purpose, and they lets you identify the clear holes you need to fill to make that happen. With those holes isolated, you have a clear path for how to prioritize product development and brand activities that will help you retain and acquire new customers.

Picking Your Brand-Building Journey

This sure does sound like a lot of steps. And it is. To have a high level of confidence that you’re building a brand that fulfills customer needs and is clearly differentiated from competitors takes a lot of upfront work.

If you’re open to working with a bit of uncertainty, then you can elect to not do every piece of upfront customer research and industry/competitive landscape review. At the very least, spend time on executive interviews, talking 1:1 to customers, and performing a competitive audit. These three elements form the keystone of any subsequent research work, and will give you the basics you need to move into brand development work.