In 2003, Matthew Kinsman was traveling around the world and found himself in Hong Kong. He needed a job, but breaking into the job market was tough.

“I had a lot of requests for freelance work,” Kinsman says, “so I decided to set up a branding and marketing business in Hong Kong.”

Thirteen years later, Kinsman is a veteran of the industry and a thought leader advocating in Forbes for an agile approach.

The agile strategy is all about brand flexibility. It accounts for current trends in consumer preferences, with an eye toward adapting your brand to the rapidly changing market. In terms of branding and marketing, this strategy prioritizes quick decision-making through a parallel (as opposed to linear) process (more on that later).

Kinsman’s experiences with his agency, Base Creative, present an intriguing case study for small businesses. At the outset, Base Creative was a small agency competing in a crowded field. The challenge was to build the agency’s brand while simultaneously helping international clients build and market their own brand. Now, Base Creative is one of Asia’s leading agencies, with a portfolio that includes Walmart, Cisco, and Hermes.

This article presents insights I gleaned from an interview with Mr. Kinsman. Hopefully, it will help your small business get an excellent start on branding in today’s crowded, competitive, and evolving marketplace.

The difference between marketing and branding

According to Kinsman, “Branding is the body, and the marketing is the clothes.”

The clothes won’t look good unless there’s a healthy body to display them. In the same way, marketing won’t be effective unless you have a well-defined brand. Your brand is the meat; it’s what you offer to consumers through marketing.

Getting started with branding

Kinsman says, “One strategy that has helped our business is to benchmark a company that is in the position we want to reach—ideally a global company—and then set our sights on overtaking them, planning to be their direct competitor. Try to match them in every aspect. It’s easier than it seems.”

Kinsman benchmarks a global company because he’s in a global niche—international branding. Identify your niche and a single company in it to compete with. “I see competition as good and healthy,” says Kinsman. “It keeps you fit and progressing.”

Rapid prototyping

Kinsman recommends rapid prototyping, “a series of brainstorming sessions in which the key components of a brand, such as brand strategy, brand identity, key selling messages, etc., are prototyped in real-time, reducing the ‘brand strategy’ timeline to weeks rather than months.”

Unlike a traditional linear process, in which prototyping starts with research and moves on to strategy and then creative development, rapid prototyping is a parallel process that involves all decision-makers at the same time. Kinsman calls this “multidisciplinary collaboration.”

Do research while also determining your look, your strategy, and your messages. You’ll find that visuals, strategy, research, and messages can influence each other in surprising ways as you and your team work on them at the same time.

Spend quality time nailing down how you want to represent your brand visually. According to Kinsman, the visual aspect is very important because it lets people see right away the quality and end result of what you do. For Base Creative’s website, “Google Analytics shows that the visuals are approximately four times more popular than the text equivalents.” In any niche, quality visual representation can impress a potential customer.

To create visuals for your website, you don’t have to be a designer with Photoshop experience. Tools such as Canva, Pablo, Easel.ly, and Over are easy to use and specifically designed for this purpose. Sites such as Dollar Photo Club, Pexels, Death to the Stock Photo, and Free Images offer copyright-free photos.

For branding, Kinsman says that written content explains the process and the success of what you’re portraying visually, and what you have to offer.

According to Kinsman, rapid prototyping starts with building several brand models. It’s a matter of “creating and releasing to the market beta versions of the brand strategy.” You then assess the viability of these models in real-time.

Brand activation

Once you’ve gone through prototyping, it’s time to activate your chosen brand model. Kinsman says, “Brand activation is the process of introducing the brand to customers in an experiential way—so that they experience it first-hand.”

One way to create a brand experience is by throwing an event. This can take the form of a concert, a seminar, a banquet, a fundraiser for a worthy cause—anything you deem the most effective for introducing your brand to the world.

For ideas on getting the word out about your event, consider Square’s checklist on how to market events. Among other methods, email marketing, social media, and physical signage will all help ensure you get a good turnout.

Brand activation continues past the event. According to Kinsman, the experiential approach “requires looking at every point where a customer meets the brand, and then designing a way for them to experience the brand in a meaningful way.”

This can include crafting videos that tell your story and show what you do. Or, try product demos at community events such as festivals and fairs. If you offer an online service, host webinars, have contests on social media, design a virtual tour of your facility.

Branding and marketing on social media

Every brand needs a social media presence, but what’s the best way to go about it?

According to Kinsman, “The key strategy to success on social media is creating quality rather than quantity—focusing on what people are genuinely going to find interesting.” Through the quality approach, people will associate your brand with value.

Kinsman emphasizes the role millennials play in “forcing brands to be more honest, relevant, and good Earth citizens.” Your brand’s image on social media must be honest and relevant, showing you care about quality. “If you have fewer posts but of a higher quality, it’s much more likely one of those posts will go viral and reach an exponentially larger group than you would reach if you had focused on quantity,” he says.

In other words, if there’s any one way to control whether a post goes viral, quality is it. But there are some other steps you can take toward a viral marketing campaign:

  • Prepare to grow: Make sure your web hosting account is ready for increased traffic and your merchant account is ready for an increase in sales.
  • Prioritize getting contact info: Your viral post may be there purely to inform, but if you can get email addresses you can get conversions.
  • Include a free offer: This is a good way to get contact info.
  • Offer incentives for referring friends: People who are interested in the free offer may have friends who are interested as well.
  • Use multiple media formats: If you’ve got the makings of a quality post, consider adapting it to video, podcast, press release, and so on.
  • Make it a contest: Offer a particularly valuable prize to the top three people who refer the most friends.

The quality post will have a headline that encapsulates its quality, its value to the reader. Its content will inform or entertain, and include an “I never knew that” moment. As a small business pioneer, you’re well-equipped to deliver these moments, because you have the inside scoop on your business. Don’t hold out.

Differentiating your brand

When the field is crowded and you have some big competitors, it can be incredibly hard to stand out. Kinsman is no stranger to working in a crowded niche. Interestingly, he has this to say on the subject:

“A large part of the competition all brands face is not from companies of a similar caliber, but from all the clutter in the marketplace. Low-end offerings, spam, junk. People are bombarded with advertising messages wherever they go—sorting through that is a time-consuming job. That’s why differentiating your brand is essential.”

The path to differentiation isn’t mystical. “Continually review your customer sales process—from the first meeting to the close of the job,” says Kinsman. “Review every point and commit to constant improvement of it.”

This type of rigorous, critical quality-control allows your brand to be agile. Agility stems from recognizing your demographics’ ever-evolving culture and buying preferences, and adapting.

“This doesn’t mean that a brand is infinitely malleable, or it would lose all meaning,” says Kinsman. “Identify and preserve the core principles of the brand—the unalterable brand promise that the customer can rely on over time—while leaving all other facets in constant evolution.”

Identifying and adapting to your audience

Because of technology, your brand can have a kind of conversation with consumers. According to Kinsman, “Most new brands conduct extensive consumer research before launch, but don’t assume those findings will remain valid forever—three months is the data half-life for many industries.”

Kinsman recommends social listening as a means of identifying your brand’s “unique buying tribe” (UBT). A UBT is a group whose buying preferences are based on a set of shared values, such as sustainability. Your brand’s response to the UBT’s values constitutes your side of the conversation.

Kinsman says, “Data mining and other analytical tools can keep your knowledge of your consumers up to date, facilitating rapid response when their needs and wishes change.”

You can use programs such as Net Promoter’s Satmetrix to integrate customer data into your business decisions. The Satmetrix API focuses on an iterative process of analyzing the customer experience perpetually. It can serve as a predictor of growth, letting you know which aspects of your strategy you need to adjust.

Changing times

“We live in uniquely uncertain times,” says Kinsman. The market is complex and volatile, subject to sudden change.

“Having a strategy to steer your brand through uncertainties is more vital than ever,” he says. “Business plans can become unusable all of a sudden, with no withdrawal or immunity from the complex interactions.”

The agile strategy to branding and marketing is Kinsman’s answer to uncertainty. It makes sense. When sudden obstacles arise, you’ve got to jive with them, or risk getting thrown off the track.

View our Business Branding Guide today!
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Daniel Matthews
Daniel Matthews

Daniel Matthews is a freelance writer and musician from Boise, ID. A long-time writer and lover of creativity, he focuses on the human aspects of business and technology, and he has a particular interest in the philosophy behind ethical business practices.