What is the brand DNA?
The Brand DNA is the collection of values and characteristics of a brand. These elements are condensed into the brand core. Brands like people take action, express ideas, and even feel. But brands – unlike people – are a construct, and therefore their traits need to be formalized. The Brand DNA is what distinguishes any brand from its competitors. It is how they behave, act, and interact with others. A brand’s DNA is why customers choose a deep connection with one brand over others.
The brand DNA is the essence or soul of The brand. The core values, beliefs, and principles guide the business decisions. The brand DNA is the foundation for success, even more so for premium and emotionally connected brands. For example, luxury brands tend to consider and foster their heritage while they focus on their current priorities and future ambitions. They should consider questions such as: What do you want to achieve in the long term? How does your brand contribute to society? Do you care about customers’ needs?
Successful brands often focus more on creating a compelling brand DNA than competing with peer brands. Their brand positioning is based on who they are and what they stand for, not with whom they compete. Salient brands are great at creating an enduring image, but, this means that they should be careful about what they do, how they market themselves, and what products they sell.
A Framework for Developing your Brand DNA
Without being clearly defined, effectively managed, and communicated, a brand may not be able to realize its potential fully. The Brand DNA helps the various internal and external people work in the same direction.
A solid brand has many different components:
- It’s evident in its identity – this can be as simple as a logo or an entire visual identity.
- It’s also apparent in its messaging – how does your brand communicate itself through everything it says, does, and looks like?
- It’s consistent across channels – if your brand is only seen online, it’s crucial that your website, social media accounts, and emails look similar. Your branding should match the physical space if it’s only seen in-store.
- It’ll have a voice – this is the tone and personality of your brand. Is it friendly, serious, fun, quirk?
These helpful pieces give everyone – from critical stakeholders to existing and potential clients – an authentic sense of your brand, and this is why formalizing the Brand DNA is a critical success factor. In addition, they can be referred to internally when planning everything from social marketing use and content marketing web design, and broader strategy execution:
1. Brand Purpose
How does your company intend to serve its purpose? Your mission statement communicates your vision for your brand. Mission statements rarely describe the current state of affairs of a company. Instead, they usually address an overall goal that a company strives towards. These can be as general or as specific as you want and are included to give readers a sense of the overarching aims that drive you.
2. Brand Story
How did you come about to be the brand that it is today? Most successful businesses are often the realization of a dream, and they are often the result of a lot of passion and hard work from their creators. In addition, the early days of any company are usually when its actual values and qualities are established. Explaining your own story in an inspirational but genuine way allows readers a glimpse into your business history and an insight into the core values and passions that have made it what it was. (N.B. More on the topic in our article on Brand Roots).
3. Brand Values
Every business has some purpose or mission statement. Your values section is your chance for your employees to get behind these ideas. It’s essential to ensure that everyone who interacts with your business knows your passions.
One important thing to remember is to be realistic with your value of things. If you are too optimistic about your product or service or too broad with your values, you will be open to ridicule. Your business must focus on the values it can justify with its actions and those fundamental to your functioning.
4. Tone of Voice
The tone of voice guidelines explains how companies communicate with the world. There are subtle differences in the way even seemingly similar companies speak, which gives a distinctly different sense of the company’s brand personality.
Tropicana and Innocent are both large-scale fruit drink manufacturers. Their core products are similar, but their tones of voice are entirely different. Note how both introduce the same story below.
“Hello, we’re Innocent…and we’ve been created to help people do themselves some good while tasting delicious too.” We began innocently in 1999 after selling smoothies at a music festival. We put up a large sign asking people if they think we should give up our job to make smoothies.
“65 years since we started, some things have not changed.” “We still make delicious Premium Orange Juice the best way we know. 100% not from Concentrate.”
Innocent are looking for ways to present itself as a straightforward, open, and understated company by using words such as “good” and “big” to show this.
They also use their story section to present themselves as an organization that values quality and freshness. They use the words “best” and “premium” and the phrases “Seed to Squeeze” and “100% Not From Concentrate” to show the point of emphasis in their tone of voice.
When writing your tone of speech guidelines, think about the message you want your communication to convey. Do you want to appear professional, friendly, expertly competent, confident, or reserved? The brand’s manner of speaking can say a lot about your brand’s attitude and values and how potential customers perceive them. If you are confused, it can result in a disjointed customer experience.
5. Look and Feel
Design elements represent your brand, which should be consistent across everything it produces. This helps create a tangible sense of how you present yourself as a business. Design guidelines should include instructions on using fonts and colors, how the company’s logo should be displayed, and any other visual elements used in company materials.
In addition to this, explain each design choice you make. Perhaps you use sharp edges to represent technicality, intricately written texts to convey class, and simple visuals to give a feeling of openness; whatever your reason for doing so, make sure that design elements aren’t a coincidence but a way to tell your reader something.
Five essential steps in developing a Brand DNA
1. Find and define your unique voice.
Every resilient brand has these three core KPIs: It is compelling, credible, and different. If any of the following three is missing, your connection to your audience may suffer. It has a well-defined brand story, personality, voice, and tone. This is clear to everyone at every Starbucks, from the corporate level to retail locations to online – and because their brand guidelines have been so defined, the customer seldom feels a breakdown experience. Even when that happens, Starbucks has a backup system: The Starbucks Satisfaction guarantee. These truths converge to create an image in the customer s mind, making it entirely reasonable for them to spend more on a coffee and sandwich than they would elsewhere. These ideas, these general feelings surrounding our understandings of Starbucks, are not accidental; they are all deliberate and stated clearly in the brand guide. You should write a brand guide that is just as thorough and detailed as any other.
2. Know Thyself
While it may seem counterintuitive, your brand’s personality is essential for determining who your best customers are. Remember your best friend from the fifth paragraph of this piece? Your chemistry with her comes partially from you and partially from her. You need to know what you bring to the relationship table before you can reach out and “make new friends” (i.e., customers). Once you do, you can find those with whom you can create the tightest bonds. Most of us start the other way: marketing research, audience personas, and questions like: What are my audience’s wants and needs? What are their pain points? How can we, as a business, address those wants and needs in a way that will be best heard and understood? All essential things to know. But the last question should transcend pragmatism. Attracting customers is rarely as simple as communicating how Product X can solve Problem Y. As Dale Carnegie once wrote, “People are not creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” And research shows that gut feelings drive even the most seemingly rational decisions we make. So, even if you know your audience’s demographics and psychographics, you still have to figure out who YOU are. Is yours a company like Patagonia known for eco-consciousness and social responsibility? Or are you more like Levi’s, a brand that has so embraced its authentic and rugged personality that since 1853 it continues to expand its customer loyalists — from coal miners and hippies to (most recently) trendy hipsters? Knowing who you are will help you evolve and attract valuable customers in any era or context. The Levi’s brand keeps it relevant from era to period, generation to generation. The better you know your brand personality, the better you’ll be able to speak with a unique and authentic brand voice. And that makes you better equipped to communicate consistently and honestly with your customers across all media — to build trust and maintain a genuine human connection. As Bill Bernbach said, “You can say the right thing about a product, and nobody will listen. You’ve got to say it so that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen.” To do that, you need to know yourself and your customers.
3. Know when and how to break your own rules
A good brand can’t succeed if the people working on its behalf don’t follow the rules. Consistency is critical for delivering a solid and reliable customer experience. This is not to say that creative detours can’t be worked into a brand. It’s just that those detours must work toward the greater mission. You can be as crazy, out there, and creative as you want to be as long as you measure that creativity against your brand’s identity. Your brand’s personality will begin to self-define those parameters. And a well-crafted, consistently implemented brand identity will infuse itself into customer interactions, sales, etc. At that point, shifts in tone and messaging become a matter of good judgment by those who represent the brand. For example, if a financial institution wants to set itself apart from its competitors by showing a sense of humor, that could be a strong brand move. But if it gets too silly, those messages could potentially damage the institution’s credibility. After all, these are people asking you to entrust them with your financial investments; a person’s life savings in not something to be taken lightly. Truly knowing your brand will strongly indicate how far your boundaries can successfully be pushed.
4. Establish your brand’s voice through content
Many so-called “brand guides” or “brand books” are just design guides. They give rules for logo usage, list the approved fonts, show the full-color palate, etc. But what about content? How are your brand ambassadors — including everyone from executives, social media pros, in-store employees, and the people who answer the phones — supposed to share a singular brand voice if you haven’t given them any direction? Including clear content guidelines in your brand guide is crucial to maintaining consistency and continuity of messaging across all platforms. And messaging — content — is central to customer experience. A good brand guide provides rules about the tone of voice, word choice, specific turns of phrase, the personality of the brand — as well as breakdowns of different audience personas, what their pain points are, what matters most to them, and how your brand can help. This is key for your staff to know. It will set their brains before they speak or write to your customers. And when we say “content,” we’re talking about all branded communications. It’s the interplay of your design rules, copy tone, brand essence, etc. The old “logo = brand” misconception can lead people to believe that maintaining a consistent “look and feel” across media is all you need. This is not correct. It’s all content. From video spots to billboards, articles to white papers, case studies to infographics; social media posts to mobile ads; a well-defined and easy-to-use brand guide is the blueprint that keeps everyone on the same page and working toward the same goals.
5. Play the long game
A solid digital marketing effort is essential to any excellent brand campaign. And one of the big promises of digital has always been its ability to measure and optimize. Analytic tools can help you do just that: measuring and optimizing your performance across the web and, over time, providing crucial data to help you see where your marketing efforts are working and where changes are needed. However, this should not be reduced to clicks. Even in 2017, many organizations used clicks as their most reliable tracking metric. And yes, a click shows an interest in your product or service. But the lure of big engagement numbers can turn a strategic branding effort into a wag-the-dog situation.
However, with a strong brand guide in place, it’s much easier and more intuitive to decide which topics suit your business and which should be passed over. It gives you a place from which to ask and answer questions like: Is this something we should be talking about? Do we have any authority to have an opinion on this topic? And if so, at a gut/DNA level, how do we feel about it, and what do we want to say? If your marketing efforts get too focused on getting clicks, your branding can become watered down and unfocused. In the long run, this can affect how customers perceive your brand. It’s better to turn away from some (perceived) opportunities if they aren’t in line with your brand and instead focus on efforts that matter to your customers. The human element of marketing must never be ignored or its importance underestimated. Because, in the end, it’s not the brand that has the voice. It’s the human beings who communicate on behalf of the brand. And remember, communication is a two-way street. Just as important are the customers on the other end who hear that voice, react to it, and add or take away from what you put out there.
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