Nail Your Brand Strategy with this Simple Framework

A clearly defined brand strategy that is understood throughout your entire organization is key to long term success.
Article Business Strategy

Whether you are a small nonprofit doing good work behind the scenes or a global leader in the social purpose space, your ability to make a difference begins with a solid brand strategy.

Over the years, we’ve worked with countless organizations to develop and apply their brand strategy. We’ve seen 100-slide brand strategy presentations. Organizations have told us that their brand strategy was “already done” then sent us documents detailing the kind of car or which celebrity personality most closely aligns with their brand. We’re the first to acknowledge that “Brand Strategy” can be glamorized, unhelpful, and just plain overdone.

But without a brand strategy to guide your efforts, you may find that your organization feels overwhelmed with no apparent purpose, process, direction, or clear idea about what sets you apart from others in your space. This lack of clarity makes decisions around core organizational functions such as marketing, communications, hiring, fundraising, and budgeting an educational guess at best—and a shot in the dark at worse.

At Cosmic, we’ve developed a simple yet effective framework for developing a brand strategy that you can use as a starting point for your organization. To use this framework for your organization, schedule uninterrupted working sessions with your leadership team to plan, collaborate, and finalize clear decisions around the following integral elements of your brand strategy.

Let’s dive in!

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The Four Cornerstones

1. Brand Purpose - (Your Why)

At the core of your brand strategy is your brand purpose, or your Why. Often, we find organizations framing their message around what they do, who they do it for, or how they are different. And all of these elements are important. But many organizations skip the most important component of their brand strategy: why your organization exists in the first place.

Ask yourself, “What are we fighting for? What status quo are we aiming to change or challenge? What do we believe in? Why were we initially inspired to do this work, and what are we hoping to achieve at the end of the day?”

The answer to the questions above will begin to take shape as a statement that many refer to as a “mission statement” or “vision statement.” You can call this whatever you want, but make sure that it answers the “Why” question in a concise and compelling way.

As an example, consider our brand purpose—our Why—at Cosmic:

Our mission is to help brands with a social purpose play at the same level as their profit-driven competitors.

We believe design and technology should be first class citizens in the fight for social progress, and leverage our expertise to help brands with a social purpose further their impact.

Until there is clarity around your brand purpose, you cannot begin to define the other core components of your brand strategy.

2. Positioning (Your What)

A solid brand strategy requires a strong and clear brand positioning. After all, your organization can’t be all things to all people. Without a defined brand positioning, you’ll find it difficult—or even impossible—to clearly and concisely answer basic questions about your organization's benefits and goals.

Determining your brand positioning is largely an exercise in bravery. It requires a willingness to put a stake in the ground that defines who you are and, more importantly, who you are not.

A simple way to test your brand positioning is to see if you can fill in the blanks for the following formulas:

Our organization does what for who.

Or, alternately …

Our organization helps who with what.

If that feels impossibly oversimplified, then your current positioning is likely unfocused or simply undecided. You are likely used to telling your organization’s story from an emotionally driven viewpoint, and may find expressing your focus in this way to be difficult and unfamiliar—and that’s ok. This is largely about trimming the fat from your story and getting down to the core elements of your organization’s focus.

When working with our client, Greenpower, to develop their brand strategy, we helped them think about their brand positioning by using this simple formula. Here’s where we started:

“Greenpower does grassroots and group-action advocacy for Community Choice Energy Programs in California.”

This is admittedly not the most compelling way to tell Greenpower’s story, but it does effectively distill their core purpose down to a clear, concise focus. From there, we crafted a more compelling brand positioning statement:

“Greenpower is growing a community-based movement to transition away from fossil fuels to locally produced and controlled renewable energy.”

Once you have a clear answer within the constraints of this formula, you’re free to find more compelling ways to express your positioning statement. Be careful to avoid getting caught in the common trap of finding fancy or flowery ways of expressing your positioning and watering down your focus in the process.

3. Differentiation - (Your How)

Differentiation, simply put, is the combination of attributes that sets your organization apart from others in your space. Your organization’s differentiators are ideas, processes, and approaches that you do differently than anyone else.

Often, when compared to other organizations in your space, you’ll find some points of commonality. But there are likely a few things that you do—or ways that you do them—that are unique to you.

People are drawn to brands that are unique. Don’t be afraid to be bold and lean heavily on your points of differentiation. It’s what people will remember you by, but only if you can express them clearly.

Defining fewer, stronger differentiators is a better strategy than listing many weaker ones, so try to keep this between 3-5 key points.

4. Target Audience - (Your Who)

Whereas your differentiation defines how you are different, your target audience defines who you serve. Many organizations have an intuitive idea of who their target audience is but haven’t done the work to define their target audience in enough detail to be truly useful for their larger brand strategy.

First, consider that you likely have more than one audience. Many organizations have a clear primary audience, with one or more secondary audiences. Others may have two equally essential audiences they serve or partner with, such as donors and beneficiaries.

What’s most important when developing your target audience is to think through more than just who they are. For each audience, you must be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is their demographic makeup? (age, socioeconomic status, location, education level, interests etc.)
  • Where can you find or reach them?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their needs, wants, or pain points?
  • What are the obstacles, barriers, or fears stopping them from working with you?
  • How do you serve them?
  • What promise does your organization make to them?
  • How do you speak to them?
  • What are you asking them to do?

Once you’ve outlined clear answers to these simple questions, you may find that your target audience is comprised of more nuanced subsets than you initially realized. Determine if you have primary or secondary audiences. Strike a healthy balance of segmenting your audiences when necessary, but try to stick to no more than 3-5 audiences total or you’ll find your message will be spread too thin.

Moving forward, ensure that you speak to your audiences by leading with how you can help them. Be sure to communicate to them in a way that is most effective based on your deeper understanding of their situation and motivations.

Beyond the Foundation

Having a solid foundation based on The Four Cornerstones will give you a great start on building your brand strategy. But if you stop here, you’ll miss out on additional vital elements of an effective brand strategy, leaving you with some unfortunate gaps.

Values - (Your Principles)

Your brand values are the principles that guide your decisions both at a meta-level and on a day-to-day basis. While other elements of your brand strategy may require more frequent iteration to account for the growth of your organization, your values should be firmly set and adhered to.

When developing your values, be sure to avoid broad, cliche concepts that any organization could claim. These are the pillars of your organizational culture, and you want the values to be specific, and representative of your brand.

When helping The Renewal Workshop create their brand strategy, we distilled their brand values into these 3 core principles:

Self-determination: We are dedicated to carrying out our vision. We set our own course in how we consider people, the environment, the brand, and the business. We hold strong to who we are and what we are trying to accomplish. We are confident in our beliefs, own our ideas and vision, and lead in our own style.

Sensibility: We look for simple solutions to complex problems. We value common sense. We believe in the wisdom of nature, looking to evolve, adapt, and learn continually from our changing environment.

Systems Thinking: Systems expertise is part of our DNA. We use processes and systems as tools to free ourselves from inefficiency and solve big problems. Good systems do not restrict innovation and collaboration, they allow it.

Each of these values uniquely applies to their philosophy, and as a group they define a clear and distinct culture.

Voice - (Your Expression)

It may sound strange to think about your brand as having a voice, but without a clear voice, your brand will sound bland, vague, and unremarkable.

The world’s most memorable organizations have spent a lot of time, effort, and marketing dollars developing their voice and have a distinct way of expressing their message, offerings, and ideas. When people say an organization’s messaging seems “off brand” they’re often talking about a change in voice.

Your brand voice is less about what you say than it is how you say it. Consider your voice as the combination of your tone, personality, and expression of your message. Is your voice concerned, stuffy, and long-winded? Or bold, conversational, and direct? There’s no universal right or wrong voice, but there is a right voice for your brand and a wrong voice for your brand.

A helpful approach to developing your brand voice is to take a high-level message or idea and express it in a few different ways. Do this for a few of your core messages targeted towards different audiences, and you will begin to find patterns of what feels right for your brand and what feels “off-brand.”

Your voice should support your Four Cornerstones and remain consistent across all interactions with your organization. Don’t sound formal on your website and ultra-casual in person. People will sense this disconnect and you will come across as insincere or dissonant.

Promise - (Your Guarantee)

Your brand promise is the commitment you make to your audience that you will deliver—no matter what. Your promise should reinforce your positioning and can be thought of as a pledge to your purpose, your audience, and your values.

If you are able to distill down to a single promise, that’s great. But don’t feel like you must have just one promise. Often it makes sense to have a few specific promises that reflect different aspects of your organization.

When working to develop your promise, strive to frame it as another way to position and differentiate your brand. Don’t be afraid to be bold with your promise(s), but be sure that it/they can be kept under all circumstances.

Working with The Renewal Workshop, we identified a few key brand promises that guide their business practices and commitment to their customers:

We promise to …

1. Optimize the resources invested in every garment we receive

2. Honor the quality and brand integrity of the original garment

3. Support our communities and the planet through conscious and progressive business practices

If you find yourself struggling to define your brand promise, revisit your purpose, differentiators, and values. They contain the ingredients you need to craft your brand promise.

How to Put Your Brand Strategy into Practice

Once you’ve completed this brand strategy exercise, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You’re a huge step closer to brand consistency and effectiveness.

But if all you do is create a brand strategy without using it to guide your marketing, communications, and actions in the real world, your hard work will be wasted.

Your brand strategy must be shared, embraced, and honored across all levels of your organization. Your marketing team should leverage your brand strategy to guide all current and future marketing efforts. Your internal communications should align with your brand values and remind your team of its purpose. When introducing your organization to people in person or online, you should lead with your brand purpose and follow with your positioning and differentiation. Your brand voice should be clearly present in all of your messaging.

Once you adopt this framework and mindset to your brand, you will begin to experience a clarity of purpose. Your decisions around where to place your focus and efforts and how to make meaningful progress towards your mission will crystalize. You will begin to attract the right audience with a magnetic energy, and your team will form strong bonds aligned by common goals.

To quote Lee Bolman, “A vision without a strategy remains an illusion.” With your brand strategy strongly defined, your vision is one step closer to becoming a reality.

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