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Branding Lessons You Can Learn From 2017’s Smartest Companies


Quote from Steve Jobs about branding

Even in 2017, there’s still a tendency for people to associate “brand” with visuals – your company’s logo, colour scheme, ad images and so on.

But that’s ignoring so much about what makes the best brands stand out. In fact, when we look at how today’s savviest businesses operate, we can see that design is just one element of a whole suite of branding strategies.

In this post, we’ll look at 8 valuable lessons you can learn from 2017’s savviest businesses, and how you can apply them to building your own brand.

Branding Lessons from 2017's Smartest Companies

Branding vs Marketing

A quick aside: This may seem redundant, but many people still confuse the terms branding and marketing, using them interchangeably. Understanding the difference is essential before we get into these recent branding examples and why they work.

To put it in the most succinct possible way: branding is who you are, marketing is how you reach people.

The cause for the confusion is that there can be a fair degree of overlap – so if you’d like to learn about the fine differences, feel free to take a look at this excellent post from James Heaton at Tronvig Group:

Learn about the difference between marketing and branding


8 Branding Ideas to Apply in 2017

So what can you learn from 2017’s most brand-savvy businesses? Here’s the 8 major lessons you can take from their efforts:

1. Demonstrate clear values

2. Create valuable content

3. Don’t be afraid of controversy

4. Cater to your audience’s other interests

5. Hurry up and embrace video

6. Be opportunistic

7. Make your audience a part of your brand

8. Innovate with your identity


Without further ado, let’s dive in…


1. Demonstrate clear values


Like we’ve said, branding is about so much more than just the visual: it’s about ideas.

Having a clearly demonstrated ethos will help in establishing your company’s values in the eyes of customers which can, in turn, generate strong and lasting brand loyalty.

Take meal delivery service, Blue Apron, as a current example of a brand with a clear mission statement:

Our food system—the way in which food is grown and distributed—is complicated, and
 making good choices for your family can be difficult.

We are changing that: By partnering with farmers to raise the highest-quality ingredients, by creating a distribution system that delivers ingredients at a better value and by investing in the things that matter most—our environment and our communities. This will be a decades-long effort, but with each Blue Apron home chef, together we can build a better food system.

The company’s fully stated vision is lengthy, but what’s more crucial than this (and this is where many brands fail) is that they follow through on it in every other area of their business.

The Blue Apron homepage advertises these values proudly, stating up front that “Food is better when you start from scratch” and providing a quick overview of the business model of sustainably sourcing ingredients. Their blog follows suit, with articles like this taking a position on best practices in the food industry:

Example of an article from the Blue Apron blog

Which brings us nicely to…


2. Create worthwhile content


The power of effective content marketing is beyond question at this point. Unfortunately, there’s still a tendency for businesses to learn the wrong lessons from those who’ve done it successfully.

Many look at the runaway success of something like Buffer’s digital strategy and draw one conclusion: let’s produce huge amounts of content!

Anyone who’s ever published a painstakingly crafted blog article only to be met with a handful of page views will know that’s not the case. The key is in creating content that your target audience will have a tangible use for:

Example of content on 'The Orange Dot' blog from Headspace

The creators of the guided meditation app, Headspace, recognise this. Their blog, ‘The Orange Dot’ covers not just meditation, but also advice on managing the relationship and mental health issues that might lead someone to use their app in the first place – a perfect compliment to their core business.

Last year, Content Marketing Institute found that the biggest factor in B2B marketers’ increased success in 2016 was the creation of higher quality, more efficient content.

As the content marketing sphere becomes more and more crowded (having a blog is really a bare minimum for most businesses these days), the need for innovative, valuable content is at its greatest.


3. Don’t be afraid of controversy


Now, before you all run off to compose obscenity-laden email campaigns, hear us out.

Being controversial really just means provoking discussion – and what that looks like for you and your business will depend on many things. (You definitely wouldn’t find us using the below tactic in our own brand-building efforts, for example…)

Secret Hitler is the latest endeavor from the creators of Cards Against Humanity. It’s a board game based around ‘the rise of fascism in a democracy’ – and the creators chose to draw a provocative parallel with a certain current political administration:

Now, here’s the main reasons this approach works so well for Secret Hitler:

  • By taking a viewpoint they correctly guessed would be shared by their target audience, they galvanised support for their brand and product
  • They identified and took advantage of a connection between the concept of their product and a trending news topic
  • Most importantly, this mischievous little marketing stunt aligns perfectly with who they want to be as a brand

So no, definitely don’t court controversy just for the sake of exposure. Do, however, think about whether your brand has anything bold to say about what’s going on in the world or your industry right now.

If you do it as well as Secret Hitler, you might end up forming your entire brand identity with a single act.


4. Cater to your audience’s other interests


How does this relate to sales/targets/revenue/etc.?” You’ve probably heard this more than once, whenever someone thinks you’ve strayed from your ultimate business goals.

Most people would probably class producing content around products and services that you don’t provide as a waste of resource.

This is what ezCater CMO David Meiselman refers to as “adjacent content marketing” – and when done properly, it can be a powerful tool in reinforcing your brand:

Example of content on the Anthropologie blog

Take the above example of the Anthropologie blog, which publishes numerous articles around music, travel and food recipes, despite being a clothing retailer.

Yet it works, because Anthropologie has a clearly defined idea of who their customers are and can cater to their wider interests and lifestyle – not just their demand for clothing.


5. Hurry up and embrace video


This year, video is expected to account for 74% of all online traffic. [One of many staggering statistics in this great infographic from HighQ].

Think of the massive opportunity this potential for increased reach and attention presents to new brands. Way back in 2012, Dollar Shave Club essentially made their name off the back of a single, genius video ad. and yet many are still slow on the uptake.

Patagonia are one company who’ve done this very well recently, reinforcing their brand by producing a series of short films like the one above to further emphasise their stance on environmental issues.


6. Be opportunistic


18 Million.

With just two words on Twitter, American fast-food chain Wendy’s have reached over 3 million people and counting at the time of writing, and made them think about their chicken nuggets.

It’s a great example of the overlap between branding and marketing we nodded at earlier. People tend to think of brand as something fixed: established at the outset of your business and then spread via marketing.

The truth is, branding is fluid and can be shaped by your marketing efforts. Wendy’s are a huge, decades-old company – but with a tiny, offhand reply to a tweet they’ve added another wrinkle to their brand identity (and enjoyed a mass of free exposure to boot!).


7. Make your audience a part of your brand


User generated content is a fantastic branding tool. Not only does it help you fill that dreaded content vacuum, but it helps greatly in building consumer trust. (See this great post on the topic of social proof from Barry Feldman for more on this.)

Some businesses have succeeded in making ‘UGC’ a core part of their brand. Take the below example of Japanese retailer MUJI, and their social media contest to promote their range of pens:

Not only did MUJI encourage their audience to submit entries for this contest, they also allowed their audience to be the judges, ensuring maximum participation.

Because of this, community engagement is now a key part of the MUJI pen brand. Spotlighting audience submissions also blends very nicely with their product campaign of encouraging and inspiring artistic creativity.


8. Innovate with your identity


Design might well be just one part of your overall branding approach, but that doesn’t mean it’s a part you can forget.

Lucidpress has a great, in-depth summary of 7 key elements of brand identity design, the most important of which we’ll summarise here:

  • A memorable logo which communicates the emotional appeal of your brand
  • An attractive colour pallette – limited, and chosen with an understanding of colour psychology
  • Professional typography – a single primary typeface that compliments your logo and colours
  • On-brand supporting graphics

It can also help to see how others have recently achieved impactful branding design – Branding, Packaging & Opinion maintain an ongoing list of the year’s best brand identities which you should definitely check out.


What’s your current branding approach?

The main aim of good branding is to create a compelling identity for your business that distinguishes you from your competitors. We’re trying to do this ourselves by creating valuable content that will hopefully see our followers returning for more advice.

We’d love to learn from your own brand strategies too. What’s your own approach to brand building? Is there anything in particular that has worked well for your business recently? Thanks.

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