We’ve written about branding before, with a series of posts (Expanding Branding and The Minimum Viable Brand in particular) geared towards smaller orgs or start-ups who are outgrowing their initial grassroots marketing efforts.

But since we published those, we’ve had a series of conversations that got us thinking that there are a set of common, practical, actionable steps that should be followed before beginning the process of a company’s rebrand or repositioning.

So without further ado — here’s our take on how to give branding and brand-building marketing the ol’ college try for the organization on the rise!

Step 1. Take Stock

If you’re considering your branding or marketing strategy, you’ve likely hit somewhat of a plateau that your scrappy initial marketing efforts can’t get you past.

That’s okay, and this is a perfect moment in time to clarify what’s been working or not working to date — as a company, with your sales, and in your early growth marketing or digital advertising efforts.

There’s no specific format for this step per se, and the details aren’t overly important. Rather, this first step is focused on taking a birds-eye view of what’s been working smoothly and where you’ve been hitting some speed bumps.

2. Adopt a Brand-Building Mindset

Hopefully by this point, you’ve moved slightly out of fire-fighting mode, and you can start to think bigger-picture and longer-term.

Branding is often conflated with the representation of it expressed through a corporate identity, but a successful brand that moves the needle goes quite a bit deeper than that. It’s about playing the long game, with a wider lens than just marketing and sales.

In the wise words of Debbie Millman: “Branding is deliberate differentiation” (Designing Brand Identity), and adopting that phrase that as your north star will help pull you out of the day-to-day and reframe branding as a collection of strategies and tactics that are designed to grow the stature of your company.

There are four key questions that branding is concerned with (also taken from Designing Brand Identity):

  • Who are you?

While an agency can bring quite a bit of strategic, creative, and production firepower to help answer questions 2–4, we’re ultimately here to facilitate and express your vision for the company. That first question is all on you.

3. Read the Hits

Before engaging an agency, it’s worth taking the time to read a few key books, take some notes, and let the concepts and lessons simmer. While it feels a little bit like homework, this step will greatly accelerate your own thinking, contextualize your hunches or gambles, and allow any agency partner to more effectively and efficiently help you from day one.

The Practical Books

The Fun Books

4. Start Exercising the Positioning Muscles

If you’ve hit this point in your company’s evolution, it’s clear that you have an intuitive sense of the pain points or desires of your customers, as well as how your product or service serves them.

This is a great starting point — but that intuition by itself is likely not enough to take you to where you’re trying to go next.

April Dunford’s Obviously Awesome is the biggest bang-for-buck you can buy to get a solid grasp of the inward-facing/product-facing aspects of your brand and company. We mention it again here because it contains a small-but-mighty set of exercises and activities that will help you clarify your product, positioning, and audience from your own perspective.

5. Get the Branding Party Started

By this point, you should have a clearer idea of who you are, where your positioning could be oriented towards, and what makes you tick. In short, we now have a clearer sense of who you are as a company.

But that’s only one of the four key questions:

  • Who are you?

That question — “who are you?” — is simultaneously the most fundamental question to get a handle on first, but it’s the least important one in terms of defining, creating, and evaluating strategic, creative, branding, or marketing work.

The reason is simple, but quite human: if you’re at a cocktail party and all you do is talk about yourself, people get bored. But if you talk about shared interests, people are engaged.

Customers buy from your company because they have a need that needs fulfilling, and your company simply happens to be the most appropriate option that helps them fulfill that need at that particular moment in time.

In order to take up mental shelf space in your customer’s mind, everything you do in marketing, branding, and sales benefits from leading with the one true thing that matters to them the most, not by leading with all of the things that could be said — even if they’re all true.

The vast majority of marketing campaigns, corporate identities, and ads out there that barely even register are the ones that suffer from “too-much-itis”, where virtually everything that could be said is said.

The job of an external agency is to help get you outside of your head, and match what’s true to your company, product, or service to what would actually appeal to customers from branding, marketing, and advertising perspectives.

That’s All

So that’s it!

Embarking on a rebrand as a result of company growth or a shift in product/service offerings to continue growth is an important step, and one that wouldn’t be happening if you weren’t as successful as you are.

It's also the best time to re-evaluate and get crystal clear on who you are, what you do, why you do it, and who you’re doing it for.

Some holes may appear, but that’s okay. All early-stage companies are held together by duct tape, a prayer, and a little bit of runway. But what got you to here, won’t get you to there. Far from being a nerve-wracking step — this is actually quite an exciting stage, as it means things are working.

All we need to do is get them working differently for the next step along the way.

Stuart Thursby is the Founder & Creative Director of Stack Creative, based in Toronto, Canada.

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Founder & Creative Director, Stack Creative in Toronto. Find us online at www.stackcreative.co.