One of the most important elements of building an ecommerce business is developing a longstanding and likable brand with your audience. However, many people outside of advertising and marketing still hold the notion that a brand is little more than a logo. A brand is in fact so much more.
Over the years, branding is one topic I have found most people avoid when starting their business. After talking to hundreds of ecommerce entrepreneurs, it was a common and reoccurring theme. Most understood the importance of building a brand, but beyond a logo, many didn’t know what exactly a brand was and they had absolutely no idea where to begin to craft one.
Seth Godin nailed it when he said:
Branding is problematic. Branding is ill-defined, usually vacuous, often expensive and totally unpredictable.
Even when I first started in marketing and ecommerce I had very little idea what a brand was and how to build it. Searching online provided only vague and very general articles on the elements and process of branding. Nothing felt tangible, practical or noteworthy.
Why I Wrote This Branding Guide
The act of branding can be expensive but doesn’t have to be. If you try to work with a branding agency, or even a freelancer, it can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $50,000+. The problem is, most new ecommerce businesses and entrepreneurs that are bootstrapping their business can’t even come close to justifying that cost, nor should they try to.
I wanted to demystify the elements and process of building a brand so that all entrepreneurs could understand what it is, and how to do it themselves.
A Better Brand
Several years ago I was very fortunate to be able to work with a brilliant brand strategist on a branding project for a fast growing tech company. It was a six-month project that gave me ample time to understand his unique approach to building a brand from the ground up. I took everything I learned from him, combined with my experience and the best gold nuggets available online. Over many months I distilled everything, sifted the gold, and developed my own unique brand building process.
What follows in this guide is a simple, easy to apply, brand building strategy that anyone, including you, can follow to develop your own, better brand.
What’s Covered in This Branding Guide
- Brand Persona (Personality)
- Brand Visual Assets (Looks)
- Customer Experiences
- Customer Expectations
- Word of Mouth
- Brand Pillars (Attributes)
- Brand Promise
- Mission Statement
- Who’s Your Customer
- Building Your Brand Pillars (Attributes)
- Creating a Mood Board
- Identifying a Color Pallet
- Designing Your Logo
- Selecting Your Typography
- Establishing Your Tone of Voice
- Choosing a Photography Style
If you follow this guide, in the end you’ll have a much better understanding of branding, a simplified brand persona for your business, a logo, a selected color pallet, fonts for both headers and body text, your product photography style, and tone of voice. In short, you’ll have a complete and cohesive brand for your new ecommerce business.
Why Is a Brand Important?
Crafting a killer brand can have a massive impact on your business. It unites everyone working on the project and gives the business a common goal and focus, beyond selling product.
If your ecommerce business has many competitors, a brand can help you stand out from the rest and provide a competitive advantage. Remember, people buy from people they like. They also buy from brands they like. With all else being the same a customer will always purchase from the brand they like most and most closely relate to.
Ultimately, every business has a brand and every new business will have a brand. Crafting your brand upfront gives you the chance to better define and communicate your message and story.
What Exactly Is a Brand?
Before we get into building your brand, there’s a bit of background we need to get out of the way. Asking the question “What is a brand?” may seem like a silly question but most people don’t fully know or understand exactly what a brand is. I would argue that most marketers don’t even know.
For most people a brand is usually boiled down to the most iconic representation of a business, the logo. While the logo does tend to act as a centerpiece for most brands, a logo is one very small part of the overall brand.
First, it’s actually really important to note what a company/corporation is. According to Wikipedia a corporation is defined as the following:
Despite not being human beings, corporations, as far as the law is concerned, are legal persons, and have many of the same rights and responsibilities as natural people do. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state.
That’s right. In the eyes of the law, a company is essentially a person, minus the right to vote.
Seth Godin in a blog post titled simply define: Brand, stated the following:
A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.
So if a brand is in fact expectations, memories, stories and relationships, how can we better craft and control these to help ensure customers see our brand in a positive light?
As mentioned in the intro, every business has a brand, the question is, is that brand how you actually want to be seen? Crafting your brand (branding) allows you to better control your message and more effectively tell your story to help shape customer’s expectations, memories, stories and relationships.
Breaking Down the Elements of a Brand
If we’re going to develop a brand we need to break down the major elements of a brand further. We briefly touched on the fact that all businesses have a brand, and in the eyes of the law, a business is practically seen as a person. Much like a person, a brand is made up of two major components: personality and looks.
What Does a Brand Consist Of?
A brand consists of both controllable and uncontrollable elements. Let’s break them both down below.
Controllable Brand Elements
Controllable brand elements are the things you have some level of control over and the opportunity to craft. This guide will teach you how to develop these controllable elements.
1. Brand Persona (Personality)
A brand persona is a set of human characteristics that are attributed to a brand name and is the personality in which you deliver your customer experiences. A brand persona is something to which the consumer can relate, and an effective brand will increase its brand equity by having a consistent set of traits. Keep in mind that customers are more likely to purchase a brand if the brand’s persona is similar to their own or in which they aspire to be.
You brand persona can be reflected in every touch-point with your visitors and customer including everything from your policies (strict, lenient, friendly), the tone you use to communicate with customers in emails (Richard, vs. Hello Sir vs. Hi Richard vs. Hey Richard!), and even though your advertisement’s image and copy.
When you define the persona of your brand, you can much more effectively communicate it and relate to your core customers through all your marketing touch-points.
2. Brand Visual Assets (Looks)
A brands visual assets are the things that are front facing and can include everything from the look and feel of your website, the color pallet you use, your logo, your ad designs and even your packaging and unboxing experience.
Humans are a very visual species so your visual assets are really important. The fact that most people sum a brand up by it’s logo supports that notion. Your brands visual assets help to create a style and mood while also reflecting the brand persona and providing an overall visual representation of your brand.
Uncontrollable Brand Elements
Uncontrollable brand elements are things that add or subtract from your brand that are out of your immediate and direct control. Although through your controllable brand assets above, you can positively or negatively influence the uncontrollable brand elements below:
1. Customer Experiences
Customer experiences are the interactions, touch points and ultimately the feeling customers develop towards a brand. It is the sum of what they see, hear and feel through all their interactions and touch points. To some extent, you’re probably thinking that you can control your customer’s experience, and much of the time you can. However, the experiences your customers have with your brand ultimately belongs to the visitor/customer and each of them have their own methodology for evaluating each of the touch points. So while you have some control over your customer/visitor experiences, you don’t ultimately control the final experience in the end.
2. Customer Expectations
Each customer has their own expectations not just for your brand, but for business and purchasing online in general. Unfortunately you have little control over these expectations. For example, some customers might be Amazon Prime members and have been conditioned to think that shipping should always be free and orders should arrive the next day that they even expect it with much smaller businesses. If this is something your business can’t deliver on, you may fall short of your customer’s preconceived expectations.
3. Word of Mouth
What your visitors and customers end up saying about you online and to others is out of your direct control. Word of mouth and what people say about your brand online can significantly contribute or detract from your brand.
Breaking Down a Brand Persona
There are several essential elements that make up a brand persona including brand pillars, brand promise, and brand mission.
Again, you can think of these elements in a human context to make them easier to understand.
For example, brand pillars are your personality attributes. They’re words someone might use to describe you if they were telling a friend about you.
Your brand promise is what you work towards delivering to your customers and is just like the goals you work towards everyday to help others around you, like being a better husband, father or friend.
Finally your brand mission is your ultimate and overarching direction and to some extent represents the legacy you want to leave.
Let’s take a look at each one in more detail below:
1. Brand Pillars (Attributes)
Brand pillars are a few key words or attributes (usually 3-4) that embody what your brand is about and serve as a starting point for developing your brand persona. Later, these words are used as a check against most activities of the brand. For example, when creating your website, an advertisement or even a conversation with your customer, you do a check against your brand pillars. Does your design/website/ad/conversation represent the essence behind those words?
You brand pillars act as a simple tool for keeping your brand consistent through all of your activities and serves as the foundation for your brand.
2. Brand Promise
A brand promise is a promise statement to your customers that outlines the distinctive benefits that customers can expect with every interaction with your brand.
Below are two examples of well known companies’ brand promise along with an example of them delivering on their brand promise:
Coca-Cola: “To inspire moments of optimism and uplift.”
Example of Coca-Cola delivering on this brand promise: Click here
Virgin: “To be genuine, fun, contemporary, and different in everything we do at a reasonable price.”
Example of Virgin delivering on this brand promise: Click here
3. Mission Statement
A mission statement is a statement of the purpose of your brand, it’s your reason for existing beyond making a profit. The mission statement helps to guide the actions of your company and brand, spell out its overall goal, provide a path, and guide decision-making. It provides “the framework or context within which the company’s strategies are formulated.” It’s like a goal for what the company wants to do for the world.
How to Craft Your Brand Persona
Now that you understand the major elements of a brand persona, it’s time to create yours.
This brand development process can be completed on your own or in a group. I would recommend that you find at least one partner (spouse, partner, friend) that understands your vision to have someone to discuss and bounce ideas off of. If you have a team of three or more people that will be involved in the branding process, it’s a good idea to appoint one person to lead the strategy session. Not only will they lead the session but they should also act as a devil’s advocate in the process. There is a tendency when branding to get too creative and far-fetched sometimes. It’s the job of the leader to question these notions and keep the team grounded.
Before beginning you should have one to two hours together with your team for your strategy session. It’s a good idea to also have everyone put their smartphones on silent and place them in the middle of the table to avoid distractions. It can really suck the energy from the rest of the group to have even one person disengaged and always checking their phone.
Who’s Your Customer
Before you develop your brand persona, you should assess your current business (if you are already established), and who your target customer is. After all, your brand should ideally cater to them.
There are two key things to consider:
- What do you, can you or will do better than anyone else in the market?
- Who is your main customer?
For the second question, you’ll want to build a basic customer profile of this person. To build a customer profile, you need to assess who your existing and/or potential customers are. If you feel strongly that there are several types of core customers, you may decide to build multiple customer profiles.
A customer profile is simply an outline of character traits for each major core customer group.
As the online space becomes more and more crowded, it’s becoming increasingly important to have an ultra targeted brand. You shouldn’t dive into building your brand without identifying who your buyers are or will likely be. Knowing and understanding your buyers is imperative to crafting a brand that will match your audience.
To understand core customer groups, it has become a standard to create buyer (or customer) profiles. Buyer profiles are fictional, generalized characters that help paint a picture of your ideal customer and your target market. They usually encompass not only demographic information like age, location and income, but also psychographic information like interests, reasons for buying, and concerns.
Your Buyer Personas Will Evolve and Change
When you’re first starting out and creating personas for a brand new business, much of you customer personas will likely be based on personal thoughts, feelings and hunches. However, as your business progresses and you make sales, you will start learning a lot more about your core customers. It’s important to know that your buyer personas will change as business goes on and you learn more about your customers and what motivates them.
Defining Your Buyer Persona Details
So where do you start when it comes to defining your customer personas? There’s a lot of possible information you could research, however, a great place to start is by looking at what information you can practically use. Facebook is one of the fastest growing ad networks and it’s also one of the easiest to use. Most importantly, it also has a lot of targeting options that go hand in hand with your customer persona. This makes Facebook Ad’s a great place to start for determining buyer profile demographics and psychographics to define.
Here are some of the major elements you may want to consider defining for each of your personas:
- Location – Where do people from this persona live?
- Excluding Location – Where do people from this persona not live?
- Age – What is the average age range of this persona?
- Gender – What is the dominate gender of this persona?
- Interests – What are the interests of people in this persona?
- Education Level – What is the education level of this persona?
- Job Title – What field of work do your customer work in and what types of job titles do they carry?
- Income Level – What is the income range of this buyer persona?
- Relationship Status – What is the relationship status of this buyer persona?
- Language – What languages do people in this persona speak?
- Favorite Websites – Why type of websites do people in this persona frequent?
- Buying Motivation – What is this persona’s reasons for buying your product?
- Buying Concerns – What is this persona’s concerns when buying your product?
Keep in mind that you don’t need to answer all of these questions about each of your buyer profiles and you may opt to answer different questions altogether. However, the purpose should always be to understand your customers more, to be able to communicate more effectively, and to be able to target your ads more precisely.
Even just discussing your core customer and answering these questions as a group can help everyone better understand the customer profile you’re targeting so that everyone’s on the same page.
Building Your Brand Pillars (Attributes)
As mentioned previously, brand pillars are a few, usually 3-4 key words (attributes) that embody what your brand is about and serve as a foundation for your brand. Building out these brand pillars is the most important part of building your brand.
Review Customer Profile: Begin the strategy session by reviewing with the team your customer profile so that everyone is starting with the right mindset of thinking about your core customer. Remember, you are building your brand to appeal to this type of person.
1. Worksheet A (Brand Attributes)
To begin, hand out Worksheet A to all group participants.
2. Set A Timer
Set a timer for ten minutes and ask everyone to write their name on the worksheet and to circle up to ten words that they feel best represent the brand you’re trying to build and the personality you want to convey to visitors and customers.
Consider these questions. How do you want to see your brand? More importantly, how do you want your target customers to see your your brand?
3. List Everyone’s Brand Attributes
Upon completion of the exercise you will need to take all the selected words from everyone and list them out in a word processor by person.
With all participant’s selected brand attributes, you will need to distill this information down. To begin, you’ll want to group the words into similar categories.
For example, from the list above, you might want to group the following together as they all carry a similar underlying sentiment:
It wont always be possible to fit all the words neatly under several groups, but the idea is that you start to group similar thoughts and sentiments of the words.
Here’s an example of the attributes from above grouped:
5. Group Discussion & Distillation
Now that you have all (or most) of your chosen words grouped, it’s time for everyone to discuss each grouping and distill each grouping into one word that everyone feels works best and articulates the brand you’re trying to craft.
Your final goal should be to settle on 3-4 words that truly represent the brand you want to build. There is no formal process to this, as it becomes a matter of debate. In larger groups, your group mediator should act as a devil’s advocate here making sure to challenge other group members on their stance.
As an example, I decided on the following four brand pillars:
The 3-4 words you select now become your brand pillars and serve as a very important foundation for the rest of your brand, so choose carefully.
6. How To Use Brand Pillars
Making use of your brand pillars is simple. These 3-4 words should become a part of your brand as much as your company name and logo. As you move forward with your business, whether you’re creating an ad, choosing a hero image for your website or a new promotion, or even selecting your shipping packaging, you’ll want to do a check against your brand pillars.
It’s as simple as asking yourself: “Does this image, packaging, or ad, embody our brand pillars?”.
For example, if we use the brand pillars I selected from above (Cultured, Bold, Independent, Genuine), which image would you use?
It may not be a perfect match to all of your brand pillars every single time, flexibility is allowed, however, your brand pillars help keep you on the right track, keeping each of your business decisions, as well as your brand, grounded and consistent.
How to Develop Your Brand’s Visual Assets
Once you have defined your brand pillars and persona, it makes it much easier to develop your customer facing assets. Your visual assets can include any or all of the following:
- Tone of Voice
- Color Palette
- Fonts & Typography
- Photo Style
Creating a Mood Board
The first thing you’ll want to do is to build out a mood board. A mood board is essentially a collage of images and elements that visually represent the brand you’re trying to craft. Your mood board can contain anything including, but not limited to, photography, website screenshots, packaging examples, font styles and color swatches.
One of the easiest ways to create your mood board is to use Pinterest and create a new board for this project. From here, you can start searching for and pinning items to that board to begin building it out. I would suggest you add somewhere between 5-15 elements to your mood board.
This can be done together, as a group or separate, then brought all together to finalize just one mood board that everyone agrees on.
Some other tools you may want to consider for building your mood board are:
Here’s a quick mood board I put together with a bit of hipster flavor:
Now that you have a finalized mood board, you can and will use this as well as your brand pillars for reference as you move forward to build the rest of your visual assets.
Identifying a Color Pallet
The color pallet you choose for your brand is important because it not only helps identify your brand, but it also sets the tone for your brand visually. Ideally, you want to choose between three to five colors, as that will give you some options to work with.
There are two ways that I’ll show you to help select your brand’s color pallet.
1. Extracting Color Pallets From Images
The first is the easiest way. Using a service like Adobe Kuler (Free), you can upload your mood board. The Adobe Kuler tool will then automatically select the predominant colors from the images and present you with a color pallet of five colors.
You can slightly adjust the presented colours by using the Color Mood menu, and selecting one of the preset moods: Colorful, Bright, Muted, Deep, Dark or Custom.
2. Community Created Color Pallets
You can also opt for choosing or being inspired by a color pallets created by others. There are many services that allow people to make custom color pallets that are then voted on by the community.
Two of my favorites are Color Lovers and Adobe Kuler. Start by spending some time scanning through the highest voted and most popular color pallets:
Here are several additional resources for picking great color pallets for your brand:
- Brand Colors: Colors used by famous brands.
- Coolors: Super fast color schemes generator.
- 0 to 255: A simple tool that helps you find variations of any color.
- PLTTS: Color pallet community.
Designing Your Logo
Finally. It’s time to create what many people consider to be the centrepiece for a brand: your logo.
Before we go creating a logo, let’s first understand what makes a good logo. A good logo is distinctive, appropriate, practical, graphic and simple in form, and it conveys your brand’s intended message. There are four basic principles to creating a great logo for your brand:
You’ll also want to keep the following questions in mind as you’re creating your logo:
- Is your logo still effective if it is displayed in one color?
- Is your logo still effective if it is displayed with colors inverted (i.e. light logo on dark background)?
- Is your logo still effective if it is displayed at the size of a coin?
- Is your logo still effective if it is displayed as large as a billboard?
A good trick to creating a versatile logo is to design in black and white and add color later. By doing this, you’ll be more focused on the core elements of shape and simplicity.
Designing Your Logo
Again, during the logo design process, you want to keep in mind your brand’s pillars, you may also want to take a look at your finalized mood board again as well.
I have a secondary worksheet to complete, specifically to help you better plan your logo design.
Worksheet B – (Logo Communication)
The purpose of Worksheet B is just to get everyone on the same page as to the elements you want your logo to convey. This will not become part of your final brand; rather it’s just meant to get everyone on the same page and to think more critically about what you want your logo to convey.
1. Handout Worksheet B
2. Complete Worksheet B
Each participant in the branding strategy session should complete Worksheet B by making a check on the scale for each attribute, with the middle circle being neutral. There is also a line beside each attribute if participants want to give an example of another brands’ logo to better illustrate their stance.
3. Group Review
As a group, you will want to go through each attribute listed in the worksheet one by one and discuss each in detail. Going around in a circle, ask each participant what they rated each one on the scale and why.
There are no right or wrong answers since they are all personal opinions. It is the job of the moderator to lead the discussion and have the group all come to an agreement.
You’ll want to come up with a final worksheet with everyone’s agreed stance for each attribute and possible examples for each.
Note: There should be general agreement on each criteria but all opinions don’t have to be exactly the same. The purpose of this worksheet is to bring everyone together on the general tone you want the logo to convey.
4. Create Your Logo
Now that you have a better idea of the attributes you want your logo to convey as well as keeping in mind your brand pillars, it’s time to create your logo.
There’s lots of different ways at different levels of cost to create a logo for your new brand. Traditionally you would go to a designer and pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars for several logo concepts and revisions. If your budget supports this, this is definitely a great way to go, however, for most of you bootstrapping your new business, a designer won’t be a viable option.
In my opinion, your best option is to use one of the more advanced logo generators on the market. A logo generator can help you create your brand’s logo cost effectively. In another blog post, I put ten online logo generators to the test and the one that came out of top was TailorBrands.
TailorBrands is a revolutionary branding platform that allows you to easily design a logo for your brand with very little effort. Using advanced machine learning and powerful algorithms, Tailor Brands will analyze your brand’s name, values and industry and will create a series of unique, beautiful logos within minutes that you can choose from. The automated process requires no technical skills and most importantly, the logos look great.
By just entering a few details about your brand and selecting a few preferences, TailorBrands will generate six different logos for you. From there you can select and further edit and refine them, until you find one that fits your brand perfectly.
Selecting Your Typography
Next up is your brand’s typography (fonts). Essentially, you’ll want to choose two fonts, maybe three.
The first font you’ll want to choose is your body text. Your body text makes up 95% of the text on your site, so you’ll want to choose a really clean, simple and easy to read font.
The second font you’ll want to choose is a header font. This font will be used for headers, titles and sub-titles. This should also be clean, simple and easy to read, however, because this text is used much less than body text, it doesn’t need to be as clean and simple.
Finally, you may wish to also choose another font that can be used in certain occasions, like promotional banners. This font can be a little more fancy since the text will only be used occasionally and usually only in very short sentences like “50% Off!”.
As an example, can you spot the three main fonts (Header, Body and Promotional) below?
For more information and tips on how to pair fonts, check out the blog post The Only Font Pairing Guide You Need from Heidi over at Design For Founders.
Establishing Your Tone of Voice
Finally, you want to make sure the things you say fall in line with the the rest of your branding. This applies to everything from the headlines in an ad, to your product descriptions, to the way blog posts are structured or the sentiment of a tweet.
A brand voice is just as important as the brand style. Your brand should sound and look a certain way and you’ll want to keep it consistent.
Outline the type of acceptable language that will be used. Should the tone be formal, or more conversational? You might include particular words and phrases that should always appear, or which words should be avoided. How should your emails start (i.e. Hi, Hey, Hello,) and how should they end (i.e. Cheers, Thanks, Best,).
Using a consistent and distinct tone can help clients and customers identify with a brand, and creates an association with what the brand stands for. When creating guidelines for text and tone, think about your brand pillars, again your pillars will keep you brand consistent and grounded.
Choosing a Photography Style
Photography is a reflection of your brand. Specific styles evoke certain responses, and if you’re really good, people can recognize a brand based off of a photo.
As an example, what brand do you think the image below belongs to? 9 out of 10 people tend to get it right. Click the image to find out.
When developing the brand for your ecommerce business, you’ll want to choose several image styles. The first is general images and photography styles that you’ll use or homepage hero images and any other images for design. In my opinion, the best way to do this is to build a small portfolio of example images that you believe best represents your brand (again keeping in mind your brand pillars). Should your photos be monochrome, color, bright, dark, high contrast, still, lively?
The second photo style you’ll need to decide on is for your product photos. The most common product photo style for ecommerce businesses is to feature the product isolated on a pure white background.
Although this is the most popular style because it keeps your images clean and the focus on the product, it also requires the most work to edit. Keep in mind, if you want your product photos to have a pure white background, you’ll need to enlist the help of a service like Pixc.
Maybe an easier alternative to a pure white background is taking a photo on a solid background under consistent light. This prevents you from having to edit each image to remove the background. Keep in mind you’ll want to choose a pretty neutral color like Prospector Co. has done below.
Another alternative is to use different background for each image. This works especially well if you have a smaller collection of products, and if each product has it’s own brand that can be accentuated with a complimentary background. Below is an example from Beardbrand:
Finally, your third choice for product photos is to set the scene and show your products in their natural environment. This works better for some products than others. For example, Ikea is notorious for setting the scene and showing you how their products can be used and incorporated into your own home.
Creating a Brand Bible
A brand bible, sometimes called a brand deck is essentially a document that brings together all of your established brand standards.
Normally, for large companies, a brand bible can be dozens of pages long and goes into way more detail than you’ll need. However, a simplified one page brand bible of your defined brand gives you an easy guide to refer to for all activities in the future.
Usually when I’m done a branding project, I’ll put all the major elements onto one page that I can then go back a refer to when creating all other material. It serves as a consistent reminder of my brand pillars, typography, color palette and tone of voice.
Here’s a list of some things you may want to include in your brand bible:
- Overview of Brand
- Brand Pillars
- Logo Examples
- Color Palette
- Image/Photography Style
- Writing Style and Tone of Voice
And here’s a simple example I put together for my brand, Finch Goods Co.:
If you’ve read up until this point, you should have a much better understanding of what a brand is, what branding is, and how to strategically approach the process. If you’ve actually followed along and completed each of the steps, congratulations, you have built your brand from the ground up.
Remember, every interaction with your visitors and customers brings the opportunity to improve your brand in their eyes. Referring back to your brand pillars can help you keep your brand consistent and help you respond appropriately in every situation you’ll back.
Finally, branding is hardly a one time action or process, it’s constant and ongoing. Make sure you revisit your brand every six months or so to make sure it still reflects your audience and the message you want to portray.