Branding 101: How to Build a Strong Brand in the Digital Age

Some companies seem to have the magic touch.

On the other hand, many startups struggle for years to gain traction in their market. Why do some companies capture the attention of an audience while others get dismissed?

That’s right—it all comes down to building a phenomenal brand.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about what it actually means to build a brand in the first place. Branding is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the marketing industry. The only problem? Nobody can seem to define what a brand is.

Let’s clear up the misconceptions:

Branding is an emotional feeling about a company that makes them seem like the better choice against their competition.

OK, I know what you’re probably thinking. 

That sounds really vague.”

How can we turn momentary sentiment into something tangible? That’s what I set out to learn when I interviewed senior marketing and brand expert Bernie Schroeder.

He’s the author of Brands and Bullshit: Excel at the Former and Avoid the Latter and has a marketing background that includes launching strategies for major companies like Apple, Amazon, Yahoo! and Adobe.

I invited Bernie to speak on the Everyone Hates Marketers podcast to discuss:

  • Why branding matters in business
  • The mistakes companies make with branding
  • What happens when you ignore branding
  • How to build a brand that attracts customers

How to Build a Brand: The No-Bullshit Guide

Here’s Why You Should Care About Branding

Companies who ONLY focus on marketing tactics without a branding strategy become a commodity in the marketplace. Without a branding-building system in place, you’re unable to differentiate yourself from every other business that offers a similar product or service.

This means any new company can pop up, copy your business model and do it at a lower price than you.

Do you see where we’re going with this? If you listen to my podcast, you already know that I like to challenge my guests to break their methodology down so you can walk away from each interview with a practical step-by-step.

What follows is the specific approach Bernie Schroeder uses to build a brand identity—whether you want to leverage the benefits for a brand you already have or you’re starting from the very beginning.

Let’s dive into his step-by-step guide.

 

Step 1: Find out How Your Company is Perceived

The first step in branding according to Bernie Schroeder is to figure out how your company is perceived in the marketplace.

Where should you look in order to learn this? Go to your customers. Bernie recommends getting a list of the top 100 customers and reaching out to some of them.

Here’s why: 

Whether you’re working for an agency client or you’re an entrepreneur running your own business, you need to take a step back from what you THINK you already know about your customers’ perspective.

We’re too close to our own business to see it the way our customers do.

Talking to your customers is important. While they don’t always know what they want, they can tell you what they don’t want. In addition to that, customers can tell you what problems they’re suffering from and describe how it affects their own personal situation.

This circles back to the #1 rule of good marketing: Treat people like humans.

Business is about solving problems for your customers. [problems that are a real pain point] According to a study ran by CBInsights, 42% of businesses fail because there’s no market need for what they’re selling.

How to Build a Brand: The No-Bullshit Guide

Put it this way—talk to your customers. Research the customer journey from their perspective (without leading them into what you think it looks like).

Bernie Schroeder explains that when you speak to customers you must ask them simple questions. Your questions should be 5 words or less because if you ask questions that are too long they become leading.

But the more simple the question? The more you can dig a bit deeper into each question and get the customer to slowly open up. Ask open-ended questions like you’re a journalist, not a salesperson. We’re not trying to SELL anything at this stage; we’re just trying to understand the customer on a deep level.

For example:

  • What brands are you considering?
  • Why are you considering that brand?
  • Why do you buy from us?
  • What items are you considering buying?
  • What made you purchase this from us?
  • Did anything nearly stop you from purchasing it?

It really is that simple.

Step 2: Identify Your Competitors

How do you know who you’re competing against? Let me explain. 

Distinguish between your direct competitors and indirect competitors. Your direct competitors are companies who sell or market the same products/services as your business. The easier way to understand this to think of famous brand rivalries.

Take a look:

  • Netflix vs. Hulu
  • Spotify vs. Apple Music
  • Skype vs. Zoom
  • Nike vs. Adidas
  • Marvel Comics vs. DC Comics
  • FedEx vs. UPS

Odds are that you know of some your direct competitors off the top of your head.

How to Build a Brand: The No-Bullshit Guide

Adidas is a direct competitor to brands like Nike, Puma, and Reebok.

 

Bernie Schroeder offers more examples:

Identify direct competitors in your research by searching online. Go to websites where people interact to solve problems, like Quora and Reddit. Consult your own network and ask what competitors come to their mind.

Or go back to your customers. What other companies were they considering using before coming to you?

Remember:

Don’t forget your indirect competitors. These are businesses that sell a different product or service from you. However, they’re fulfilling the same need for your customer. In other words, your indirection competitors are solving the same problems as you.

How to Build a Brand: The No-Bullshit Guide

For instance:

We’ve already established Nike and Adidas are direct competitors. Puma and Reebok are two other direct competitors. On the other hand, Nike’s indirect competitors are brands like be Converse and Sketchers. They sell sneakers but they aren’t athletic shoes.  

You get the idea. Simply put, you’re examining how your products stack up against the other brands in your industry.

Step 3: Analyze Current Trend Reports

 

The next step in creating a phenomenal brand according to Bernie Schroeder is to take a look at trend reports.

But what’s a trend report? In short, a trend report lays out patterns that analysts have identified by looking at a collection of information and data. These patterns are typically used to predict future events a.k.a. upcoming trends.

You may wonder how the average small business owner can get access to those types of resources. According to Bernie Schroeder, anyone can find trend reports.

How? We have Google.

This part is easy. Search by industry to check if any analysts or other researchers have put data out on trends. You can also set up Google Alerts to look up keywords for you over time. Bernie Schroeder also recommends Trend Hunter for aggregated data.

A word of caution: It’s necessary to stay on top of trends but don’t get caught up in “information overload”.

There’s a fine line between market research and content addiction.

 

Step 4: Determine Your Positioning

But before we go into that, let’s discuss what market positioning really means.

Positioning is about identifying what sets you apart. Bernie Schroeder explains that the next step in building a brand is to make sense of the data you’ve gathered by analyzing it. Then you can determine your valuable market position.

How do we make sense of this data?

He simplifies the data to what he calls a competitive landscape. What it means is this:

There’s a marketplace grid with two axis with the two most significant things to customers in that market. One item on the vertical axis and one important item for customers.

(You’ll know what the two most significant things are to your customers because you talked to them and looked at trend reports.)

The key is to estimate where your company currently fits on that axis. Once you’ve identified where you are on the axis you can decide where to take your marketing strategy. This is based on whether you want to move on the axis or continue moving forward with your current positioning.

How to Build a Brand: The No-Bullshit Guide

Let’s look at a real-life example.

Remember when Amazon was simply a bookstore? Well, Bernie Schroeder worked with Amazon at agency back in 1995. This was in the early days of Amazon before they dominated the online marketplace.

People weren’t used to buying things on the internet.

When he talked to their customers, he discovered the two most important things to them were trust and the ease of use. They needed to make Amazon easy to buy from and they needed to earn their trust to deliver.

The moral of this story?  

It turns out they used the vast selection of books to make Amazon stand out in the marketplace. This was about TRUST. Making Amazon look like the world’s largest bookstore gave them credibility. It made them appear trustworthy to new customers.

The rest is history.

 

Step 5: Evaluate Your Visual Materials

Finally, this is the part where you decide on your visual assets. Visuals are what many entrepreneurs get stuck on when it comes to branding. Somewhere along the way, we decided visuals defined your brand identity…

It’s actually the final step.

As Bernie Schroeder mentioned in the show, you complete a communications analysis of everything your company uses as visual assets. This is your website, business cards, logo, video, etc.

He talks about literally laying out the physical assets on the floor. By now you’ll be able to realize whether or not your current communication materials are positioning you in the right category. And if your branding isn’t communicating right for you?

Start over.  

Create a refresh of the brand from scratch. Go back to square one with customer research and developing a stronger positioning. Once you’ve reset, then you recreate all of your communication materials so they’re in line with your strategic goals.

Key Takeaways

  • Marketing strategy, branding, communication, and customer experience are essentially all the same thing.
  • Good marketing starts with a good strategy. If you skip any step in the process you’re using tactics, not a marketing system. The strategy develops into a brand people can trust.
  • There are no hacks. Marketing is building relationships and trust. Building those connections with people takes time.
  • Visual assets play a key role in branding but it’s mostly about finding your unique positioning.

Resources

How to stand out: 9 bullshit-free lessons from world-class tech marketers

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Insights from Seth Godin, Rand Fishkin, David Darmanin and 6 other world-class tech marketers.

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I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).

I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.

I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.

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