There’s no way around it: building and maintaining a brand takes time and energy. It takes critical thinking and a strategic mindset, asking big questions and making tough decisions. It may require collaboration with other people for their input and approval. And it means staying flexible and open-minded as the world around your brand changes, as does your audience’s needs and interests.
But there’s good news: as a freelancer, you decide for yourself how you want your brand to look, feel and act. You don’t need to attend a series of workshops, have long debates about concepts or emotions, or convince anybody what color palette makes the most sense.
But just because you call all the shots doesn’t mean it’s easy! To build your own brand from scratch, let’s break it down a bit further. In this post, we’ll answer the following questions:
- What is a brand?
- Why build a brand as a freelancer?
- What makes a strong brand identity?
- How to build a brand from scratch?
What is a brand?
One of the reasons this topic can be so intimidating is the language involved. It’s easy to get lost in a soup of terminology related to brand building, and if you ask two people to define “brand” you will hear two different answers. In the world of freelancers and small business owners, a brand refers to:
- All of the visual and non-visual assets that express who you are (including but not limited to your name, logo and color palette)
- The set of emotions, ideas, stories and symbols associated with you and your products
- What others say about you when you’re not in the room
As you can see, a brand is a lot more than a name and logo.
Why build a brand?
The effort of brand building is done to shape the way you are perceived by others. You could very well ignore your brand and focus only on your products and services — and many businesses take this route — but you leave yourself vulnerable to your competition, to being easily forgotten, and to others having more control over your reputation than yourself. Simply put, good branding reduces confusion about who you are.
A brand creates shortcuts in the minds of consumers, as well as marketers. For a business owner, having a clear brand makes it easier to design a marketing strategy and decide what tactics to employ, as well as determine which partners and vendors to work with, and what kind of employees to hire. For consumers exposed to endless choices, brands help us make faster buying decisions. When we see a brand we recognize and have a good feeling about, it’s easier to choose that brand over one we aren’t familiar with and are less confident in. The world’s strongest brands do exactly that – they signal trust. These brands show the world what they stand for, and build emotional bonds with their audiences (know any Tesla or Apple lovers?).
What makes a strong brand identity?
How will you know if your brand identity is strong? Below are some of the most important attributes to consider when building a brand:
- Authenticity. You’re true to yourself and your values, and are proud of what makes you unique.
- Clarity. It’s easy to understand your product, and your personality.
- Consistency. The same voice appears everywhere, whether visual or verbal.
- Relevance. You have something of value and interest to a particular audience.
- Distinction. You stand out from the competition.
- Memorability. Your brand has a creative or emotional appeal that leaves an impression and lingers in the minds of your customers, before and after the moment of purchase.
How to build a brand identity from scratch
Building a brand is an iterative process that you’ll return to again and again as your business grows and things change. Below are the key steps of a process you may return to over time:
- Do some self discovery.
- Research your audience.
- Study the competition.
- Write a purpose statement.
- Articulate your brand essence.
- Choose a name.
- Design a visual identity.
- Bring your brand to life.
Depending on your situation and resources, some of these steps will seem more straightforward than others. You’re bringing something entirely new into the world, and the more love and energy you put into it, the stronger your brand will be.
1. Do some self discovery.
If you don’t define yourself, others will. And that starts with looking inward and getting clear with yourself about why you’re doing whatever you’re doing in the first place. If you’ve been in business for a while, think back to your earliest days, and your dreams of starting your own business. Next, sit in the present moment and focus on why you’re here.
Some good questions to consider:
- What inspired you to start your business?
- Why should anyone care?
- What sets you apart from others?
- What are your beliefs that inform the way you do things?
- What are your core values?
- Is there a social or environmental cause that drives your brand?
Jot the answers down in a notebook or in a file somewhere because they’ll come into use later. For a huge dose of motivation and inspiration, listen to Start With Why, an 18-minute TED Talk by Simon Sinek that is widely known in the field of marketing and advertising.
2. Research your audience.
This is one of our favorite parts of the process of defining a strong brand. It’s a great way to stay balanced and focused on who really matters: your customers. It’s easy to get lost in the conceptual world of who you are and why you exist, and many brands fall into this trap.
Some ways to do audience research:
- Talk to people. If you have friends or family members who have a need for your product, set up an informal interview with them. Prepare a list of questions in advance but keep it short and informal. (Pay attention to any attitudes or beliefs that aren’t explicitly stated, since people don’t always say what they’re feeling.)
- Google for relevant news and articles. Stay updated on the latest issues impacting your audience, to paint a fuller picture of who they are and what they’re experiencing. Even if you think you already know everything, it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse in our fast-paced world.
- Dig for consumer and industry research reports. Management consultancies like McKinsey, Accenture and Deloitte constantly churn out free research on just about every industry and consumer type imaginable. Think tanks like Pew Research, and Google Consumer Insights are also great resources.
- Find online reviews and comments. Read comments on your competitor’s social accounts or websites, and review sites like Amazon if relevant.
- Run a poll on social media. Ask questions on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn and see what your network has to say.
3. Study the competition.
It’s important to know what your top 3-5 competitors are doing and saying, for a few reasons. This helps maintain relevance with customers, if there’s a certain language or terminology that’s used by other brands in your industry. But it also helps identify opportunities to stand out. You don’t want to use the same color palette as your main competitors or this will cause confusion. And you certainly can’t use the same taglines or slogans, or this could lead to bigger problems.
Competitor research should include:
- Key visuals – types of imagery, illustrations, photography
- Audiences they seem to focus on
- Slogans and key messages
- Mission statements
- Personality, voice and tone
Tips for competitive research:
- If possible, use their products yourself. Nothing’s better than 1st hand research! You can even call them and see how they describe themselves on a call.
- Visit their websites and social profiles. Pay attention to any bold or repeated messages and visuals.
- Keep a file for your findings. The format doesn’t matter; some people use spreadsheets but slides are helpful to capture screenshots of visual assets like logos, websites and marketing content.
4. Narrow your focus.
Now it’s time for some deeper thinking and decision making. Using all the research you’ve done up to this point, it’s time to define who you are on a single page. We can’t express how useful it is to get stuff out of your head and onto a page, even if you’re the only person who will be looking at it. Having everything on a single page may seem like an unnecessary step – or an extremely daunting one – but it’s guaranteed to make life easier in more ways than one.
There are a few tools used by brands to simplify their focus. You don’t need to use all of them, and they won’t appear anywhere. This is not your tagline; it’s an internal statement of clarity for you to point to anytime you need to remember who you are, what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
- Purpose/Mission Statement – Why do you exist, and what do you do? Some brands split this into two separate statements. What’s important is you keep it short and simple.
- Key Message – Some call this a tagline or a slogan. It could appear on a business card or other marketing materials as a quick, pithy way to express your brand.
- Values – What are your guiding principles? What mattress
- Personality – What’s your voice and tone?
5. Choose a name.
This is one of the more difficult parts of the whole thing, believe it or not. You could always just use your name as your business name, coupled with a description of your services (e.g. Betsy Jacobs Marketing). However, creating a new name is a huge branding opportunity, as names can tell a whole story by themselves, when chosen well.
For example, when you think about Nickelodeon, how does it make you feel? The name itself is full of character and spunk, and fun to say; perfect for a children’s entertainment network. Plus, the origin has meaning, too. The word nickelodeon was originally used to describe small movie theatres in the early 1900’s which charged a nickel per show. And, the ancient Greek term for theatre is odeion.
Tips for choosing a name:
- Make a list of words or ideas related to your brand. The sky’s the limit.
- Look up the Latin word for things associated with your brand
- Think about myths or fables that inspire you or tell a story that resonates
- Explore the larger world of your brand for ideas. Health, music, science, finance, law.
- Use a thesaurus and a dictionary
- Check to make sure you can own it!
6. Design a visual identity.
This is the look and feel of your brand and so it obviously plays a huge role in creating distinction. Your visual identity includes:
- Logo – This symbol represents your brand, so it will likely appear everywhere you have a presence. This includes your website and favicon (the little icon in your browser tab), social media profiles, email signatures, business cards and merchandise like hats and mugs. Good logos are unique, legible at small sizes, and must work in both black and white and color.
- Color – Color conveys emotion, so the colors you select should match the overall feeling you wish to express as a brand. This is a great opportunity to stand out from the competition, too. You’ll want a few colors to make up a brand palette, to play around while retaining a sense of unity.
- Typography – Using consistent fonts builds trust and credibility. Choose your fonts wisely as each contains a world of character on its own. When in doubt, Helvetica is a classic choice and works just as well on screens as print.
- Imagery – Consider whether you’ll use photography, illustration, animation, or a mix of all three. These assets should reinforce your brand’s personality, and so must be carefully selected.
7. Bring your brand to life.
Once you’ve defined your strategy and crafted an identity, your branding should appear in some form across every customer touchpoint, from your website through your marketing, and even how you speak to customers in chat or email.
- Register your business name
- Buy the domain for your business name. If it’s not available, get something close to it.
- Reserve your name on major social media channels. Even if you don’t end up using them, you still want to own the handle before someone else claims it..
- Build a website showcasing your products, services and story, and get your site to rank in Google.
- Set your annual and quarterly marketing goals. Be as specific as possible, keeping your audience in mind. What do you want them to do or think? How will you track this? Over what time period?
- Based on your audience and goals, build a social media strategy. Stay organized with a content calendar to plan your monthly posts.
- Develop a set of design templates so you appear consistent across all channels. There are many social media marketing apps you can use on your own, without hiring a professional.
- Take advantage of all the free skills training for freelancers to take control of their own brands.
Building a brand from scratch doesn’t need to be a massive undertaking, and you don’t need to do it all alone. Use the resources we provided in this post, and be sure to check out our other articles on the Lili blog. And if after all of this, you need tips on reducing stress while growing your business, we’ve got you covered there, too!