Building a brand that’s authentic, consistent, and rooted in a distinct personality separates you from the competition and allows your customers to connect with you on a more meaningful level.

Building a brand can feel daunting. In fact, many small businesses feel like it’s something that only the “big guys” can afford. But branding is something that every company can do if you follow a few basic rules.

What is branding?

A brand is a whole ecosystem of how you communicate with the outside world. In a nutshell, your brand is a promise to people about the way you will do business. This promise affects how you build your website, how you create your business card, even how you answer messages and reviews—because the style, colors, and words you choose should reflect the emotions your customers will have when they use your product.

How to build a brand

Building a brand can be a simple process as long as you break down the creative elements into a few simple steps. Don’t worry if you find yourself revisiting steps, it’s a natural part of developing a brand identity. You may make a decision only to realize later on that it’s not compatible with other design elements of your business.

Just lay the groundwork and revisit different elements of your brand whenever it seems necessary. Now let’s start the brand-building process.

1. Analyze your target audience and competitors

Any part of planning out your business should involve some level of market research, and your branding is no different.  You need to know answers to questions like, who’s your target audience? Why is your product or service better than the competition? What do you do that no one else can do?

Trying to answer these questions helps you think about what will resonate with your potential customers and how current businesses in the market represent themselves. This can immediately inform the direction of your branding efforts. It will either help eliminate options that are already taken or that don’t connect with customers. Or it will highlight imagery, tone, copy, and graphics that resonate best with your ideal customer. In either case, it simply better prepares you to think critically about the visual and communication aspects of your brand.

2. Define your brand

Your products and services won’t be for everyone. Your brand should reflect that by being specific. By having a clear focus and personality that your target audience can identify with. You’ve likely already gone through some of this when defining your value proposition and mission statement. But in case you haven’t or need to hone in a bit further, here are a few ways to do that.

Word association

How would you define your business? Is it welcoming and personable? Educational and informative? Maybe a little silly and mischievous?

Try to hone in on the personality of your brand in just 3-5 words. This helps you condense every element of your brand down to its simplest form. If you’re not sure where to start, try to define your audience first and see if those same words fit the image of your brand. In the end, this can help define your voice and tone for both visuals and copy.

What is your value proposition?

If you haven’t done this already, you need to define why your business is valuable. What makes it different from competitors? What problem does it solve for your customers?

You need to know the benefits you provide and how your offerings are better than what is currently out there. If you don’t, or can’t explain it in just a few sentences, you’ll have a very difficult time pulling customers away from your competitors.

Sell your brand with a tweet

Now it’s time to try and put those last two pieces together. You have an idea of what your business personality is and what value you bring to the table. Now, try to take those elements and convey them in just 280 characters.

You’ll need to be able to do this consistently, but don’t worry if you struggle at first. It takes time to refine your communications, but practicing this from the start, will make social and online copywriting much easier. It will also give you brief explanations of your brand that you can expand upon in ads, emails, long-form writing, etc.

3. Choose your name

Hopefully, your competitive analysis and brand-defining exercises have given you some ideas already for what you’d like to name your business. Now as we’ve said before, branding is far more than your name and logo, but your name does carry some weight. In many ways, it’s the word or phrase that brings your other brand elements together, but it’s not what gives your brand a personality.

All that being said, you want to choose a name that is unique and not currently taken. You want something that will be easy to remember and broad enough to grow with your business. Now, actually coming up with a name can be difficult so here are a few ways to do it.

Combine two words

Facebook, Snapchat, Skillshare are just a few examples of descriptive words put together. These brand names are snappy, help explain the product (once you understand it), and are difficult to replicate. Try using a few of the words that you set in your earlier brand exercise to see if they work together.

Claim a common word

Apple, Uber, Basecamp, Slack are simple and somewhat common words that have taken on a new meaning. Some brands, like Basecamp, are a bit more descriptive or metaphorical. While the rest have evolved to represent their product or service offerings. Slack has even turned into a verb that is used by customers when referencing the sending of an instant message.

Again, work off your initial list of descriptors to see what may work here. You can also look at current general solutions that can be claimed as a modern business name.

Acronyms or abbreviations

Can’t land on a simple one-word business name? It may be time to develop an acronym. CVS, AT&T, HBO, etc are all well-known brands that never utilize their full name, but they’re just as memorable. You can also look to alter words by removing vowels to get the same effect. Tumblr, Scribd, and Flickr are just a few examples that come to mind.

Make sure your name is not taken

It’s important that you verify the availability of your name as you sort through potential options. It can be a real heartbreaker to find the perfect business name, only to realize it has already been trademarked. Check out this article on choosing brand names for ideas and processes to help you verify if a name is taken or not.

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4. Select brand colors and typography

With a name in place, you now need to visually anchor your brand. This is often the most emotional component for customers and plays into purchasing psychology.

Choosing colors

Your colors should convey a feeling. While this is subjective in many ways, there are reasons why specific industries often gravitate toward similar color combos. Fast food, for example, will often utilize a combination of yellow and red to emphasize excitement, warmth, and play into your hunger. 

Now, finding the right shade of green, or the right shade of red or just the right combination of yellow and grey can do wonders in anchoring an unassailable position in your customer’s mind. It’s important to build a system of brand colors that include core driver colors in combination with bold accents. 

You’ll also need to consider the legibility of white and black text over your color choices, as well as variations that follow ADA compliance. If you can, try to have several different shades within your pallet that you can work within different branding situations to make this much easier.

Choosing fonts

Typography is a subtle but highly influential way to convey your brand message. A modern sans-serif type tells the world you’re innovative and ready to find unexpected solutions. A traditional serif type tells the world you’re dependable and trustworthy. You can even experiment with a combination of serif and sans-serif type styles to create a totally unique brand expression. Find websites, print ads, and brochures of companies with a brand similar to yours and look at the fonts they selected.

Also keep in mind that for web and advertising use, you’ll likely want different font variations that can be used for headers and body copy. This will help immediately differentiate the copy for the user without being overwhelmed by the sheer number of words.

5. Write your slogan

Your tagline or slogan is very similar to your value proposition. It’s a brief and descriptive tagline that will often be placed alongside your logo, within ads, in social bios and anywhere else it seems relevant. A good slogan should be short (one sentence max) and memorable. If you can, it should also convey a light call to action for your customers.

Now, your slogan can change over time as your business grows. You may find that your value proposition simply changes or matures, or that your original take doesn’t actually reflect your brand. So, don’t get too hung up on this, and feel free to keep iterating and testing slogan copy.

6. Collect brand images

Photography can truly capture the imagination—and wallets—of potential customers. Well-chosen photographs with a consistent theme make a big difference in how your brand is perceived. Just think about Nike and how powerfully their brand photography conveys their brand message. 

Browse a few photography sites like Getty or iStock and start building a collection of photographs that represent your brand. Plugin the keywords that you identified in your word association exercise and see what pops up. You can use this imagery in promotional materials, on your website, and it should give you ideas when you design all of your branding materials.

Just be sure your photo use is consistent and reflects the messaging of your brand. Additionally, it may be wise to eventually hire a photographer or take photos yourself to create unique imagery that is exclusive to your business at some point in time.

We’re finally getting to design the logo. This is often the first thing that comes to mind, but should really be handled somewhere in the middle of the design process. It’s just too easy to come up with a really nice looking visual, that literally means nothing to the core message of your brand.

And now you have font and color options, as well as reference images that can help guide the look of your logo. As you start designing it, make sure that you consider where your logo will be present and how easy it will be to scale to different sizes. You may need to develop different components or variations that take elements of your core logo but adjust for unique sizing or use cases. You’ll likely end up with a logo that incorporates your business name alongside some sort of icon.

Look for ways to simplify

Starbucks, for example, has slowly stripped their logo down to a simple emblem. They still use the original business name font and logo on specific items but have worked to strip away the excess elements as they’ve gained more brand recognition.

So, just like your tagline, don’t be afraid to revisit and adjust your logo over time. If you need some inspiration, along with a simple way to create your logo, check out Canva’s logo maker.

8. Identify what branding assets you need

You’ve hopefully been thinking about this throughout the brand creation process but it’s time to solidify what brand assets you need for your business. This goes beyond the basics of defining core elements and actually helps you list out specific visuals that you will need to adapt your brand into. This includes things like:

  • Webpages
  • Social media posts
  • Digital ads
  • Video assets
  • Business cards
  • Apparel
  • Print ads
  • Email headers
  • Window decals

And that’s just to name a few general categories. You don’t need an exhaustive list to start, and honestly, it may make more sense to break them out into individual projects that you can prioritize based on the needs of your business. More than likely, you’ll want to look at adapting your branding to your website first and then go from there.

9. Establish brand guidelines

The last thing you’ll want to do is make your branding official by establishing brand guidelines. This will cover the basics of your brand, as well as how it should be treated when displayed across different mediums. More than likely, you won’t have every possibility covered at first, but this will give you a source of truth to reference when new visuals need to be created.

It may be best to work with a design firm or potentially hire a designer to help set your guidelines in stone. But if you want to give building one yourself a shot, it’s worth checking out the guidelines from other companies.

Go out and build your brand

There it is! The components of a successful brand including your brand voice, your brand photography, your brand colors, and your brand type styles—all wrapped up into a smart and utterly compelling brand system.

Easy? No. Fun? Yes. Worthwhile? Absolutely.  If you take a look at any of the rockin’-the-world companies like Apple and Starbucks and Nike you’re bound to find a well-thought-out and strategic brand system in place. Just keep these basic brand tenets in mind and you’ll have the foundation in place for a business that can truly stand the test of time.

*Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2013 and updated for 2021.

AvatarSara Conte

Sara Conte is co-founder of Brand Genie, the creator of an affordable, automated brand builder for small businesses. Brand Genie automatically matches small businesses with a recommended brand personality through 12 easy questions. Small businesses can then quickly build a cohesive and well-designed Brand Kit, including a logo, business card, and website.