A Comprehensive Guide to Building a Strong Business Identity
One foot in front of the other…
All brands begin as an idea or a solution, but in order to become a brand, they have to go beyond these things. To realize brand, organizations have to take actionable steps toward making those ideas and solutions visible to the right people. Brand strategy is that turning point; when done well, it drives meaning and momentum in the creation of a brand that stands out and matters to its audience.
It doesn’t happen overnight, though. Brand strategy is a journey to knowing your brand more deeply than you ever thought possible. We take the journey seriously, and we make it seriously fun.
What is brand strategy?
Let’s begin with the basics. Simply put, strategy is a plan that’s devised to meet certain criteria and business objectives. By planning how a brand will help you achieve your goals, we create clarity and confidence not just in a company’s decision making, but in the development and execution of its new brand.
The phases of our work show you what’s true about your brand, what’s valuable, what’s neither, and what’s going to ultimately change the course of your trajectory.
Get the full lay of the land around our brand strategy process:
“Research & Evaluation answers who we are today, where opportunities lie, and lays a foundation to set out on what’s next for the brand … Our third phase, Direction, manifests as the intended course for the work that’s yet to be created … The linear workflow of Brand Strategy allows us to apply the deep work from Research & Evaluation and see what’s been building all along the way.” - Our Blueprint For Brand Success
What does a brand strategist do?
Brand strategy is both an art and a science, so a brand strategist is both a bard and a researcher, a person who sees the bigger picture and also the smallest nuances within that picture. We are the consistent voice that guides and directs brands to their fullest potential. Though our backgrounds are varied, we have one thing in common: a desire to make the unknown known and the ability to distill something big and complex down to its core.
Oh, it's very simple. My secret had been I know what to ignore.Nobel Prize Winner Francis Crick on the secret to winning
At Focus Lab, a brand strategist’s work entails a lot of upfront research and evaluation of our clients’ brand and business, audiences, and competitors. We take in enormous amounts of information via documents, interviews, and project meetings, then refine that information into focused recommendations. Based on that work, we develop the strategic direction for client brands, identifying and envisioning their position for the future and helping them manifest it into being. There are no sure bets in this work, and we cannot predict the future, which means we are also accustomed to helping clients navigate the fears of uncertainty and risk that come with change.
Hear more about how our brand strategists are part-sherpa, part-safety net:
“I’ll shout it from the rooftops any day that strategy is the exercise that helps you see yourself.” - Fireside Podcast with Brand Strategist Haley Bridges
Now that we know what brand strategy is, let’s talk about what it isn’t.
It’s not business strategy — brand and business are connected but not synonymous.
It’s not product strategy — our work doesn’t involve product roadmaps, launches, or product-market fit strategies. For us, product is a part of your brand, not the brand itself, so we focus on the larger offering you bring to your industry and audience.
And it’s not marketing — branding and marketing exist in similar spaces, and both promote what your company does to your audience. In our view, a brand is what marketing speaks into the world and must come before anything else.
Learn more about the relationship between brand and marketing:
“Without branding, marketing is unfocused and inconsistent; without marketing, the message of a brand is never heard.” - Great Branding Sets You Up for Great Marketing
Where does brand strategy start?
We’ve established the value of brand strategy, but how does it all work? There are dozens of tools and techniques used in the practice, but their success relies on understanding three crucial components first: you, your audience, and your competitors. Having a solid grasp of these pieces is critical to building brand loyalty, resonance, and consistency later.
What if you could:
- Unify your company stakeholders through a singular focus?
- Know exactly what competitor traps and trends to stay away from?
- Unlock the potential for your brand to be not only respected but loved by customers?
When we intimately understand your brand, target audience, and competitive landscape, we can achieve all of these things and more. But to get there, we have to go beneath the surface, beyond simply answering who your target audience is, or taking a quick look at your competitors. This work takes collaboration, a commitment to uncovering what’s true and important, and the courage to do something different.
The great reward of knowing gives brands the motivation and permission to act boldly.
Know Thy Self, Know Thy Enemy
What do we mean by enemy? We’re glad you asked.
“Look at companies you’ve lost clients to. Simply asking prospects what made them choose someone else can give you insight on whether a brand directly or indirectly competes with yours.” - How To Identify Your Competitive Landscape
You can also expect brand strategy to:
- Identify your strongest areas of differentiation
- Clarify the value of your product or offering
- Help you improve and streamline your communications
At Focus Lab, we ask a lot of questions to help us understand your brand’s purpose and unique personality. We’ve also developed our own exercises that quickly acquaint us with your brand.
Learn more about our proven pre-project process
“No matter how you’re working through your organization’s brand exercise, the details garnered before a project begins should give insight into the company's past, present, and future — and how it perceives itself to be different to its target audience and within the competitive landscape.” - About the Focus Lab Brand Kickoff
What’s at risk if you don’t undergo brand strategy before developing your visual and verbal identity?
- No objective method for decision making
- No clear alignment between your brand and your goals or ROI
- No way to rationalize change or rally your internal culture
Past Focus Lab partner Tango knew that brand was going to be the difference-maker for its initial launch and ambitious growth plans. Though Tango’s product was well-defined and memorable, brand strategy ultimately uncovered the story of its differentiated experience: empowering its users to continuously improve themselves, their teams, and their greater organization.
Our seasoned advice: Don’t risk your potential by rushing.“Rebranding is much larger than a simple design exercise … Design is simply one small portion of the larger recipe in a rebrand. And let’s not forget the amount of time needed in research and strategy to inform that design. That same strategy work also informs the communications work, resulting in how the brand speaks.” - Rushing Your Rebrand is Risky Business
Shape the Building that Shapes Your Brand
When you’re house hunting, having a specific structural foundation is probably not high on your wishlist. But when something needs to be added or updated in our home, we look to its foundation to know what can change, and how. It’s the same for the foundation we lay in brand strategy, otherwise known as brand architecture.
Brand architecture is the structure that defines the different levels within your brand house. It’s the hierarchy that explains the relationship between your different products, services, and other aspects of your company’s unique portfolio. Moreover, it’s a compass for updating that portfolio in the future.
Top goals for brand architecture
Clarity: Will the brand relationships be clear to our audiences?
Achievability: Will the guidelines be manageable for our internal teams?
Scalability: Will we be able to grow in our intended business direction?
Brand architecture is not built around the most popular brand in a company’s portfolio, nor does it try to rank the brands’ success. What’s best for your brand will depend on your objectives, audiences, and trajectory, and the first fork in the road will be deciding between a Branded House or a House of Brands.
Does a single, all-encompassing brand identity make the most sense because of the size of your marketing team and the similarities between your brand audiences? If so, you might take the Branded House approach.
Or is flexibility more important because you have an aggressive M&A strategy, or want to create separation between the parent brand and products? If this is the case for your brand portfolio, you will appreciate the House of Brands approach.
For Focus Lab’s past partner Luminate, it was important that their brand present its offerings as a unified experience to external audiences and galvanize its newly-formed internal culture, post M&A. Goals like these became the guidepost for its Branded House architecture.
Luminate CEO Rob Jonas highlighted the importance of intentional architecture in our Debrief, “This brand architecture piece was fundamentally missing for fairly obvious reasons with three companies being combined together. ... There was just so much complexity around the naming and the architecture that we had to get clear and and support our objectives going forward.”
Understanding your business objectives, audiences, and similar concerns at the outset allows us to identify the brand architecture that best serves your brand strategy. From there, we can tackle the impacts on naming conventions, logo systems, and lanes of messaging with the traction and stamina we need to handle them well.
Dive deep into the classifications of brand architecture with our complete guide
“When achieved, brand architecture allows each brand its own function within the brand family, creating an outward affinity that can deliver a larger story to audiences … making it easy for them to continue choosing you over your competition.” - A Guide to Brand Architecture
Preparation meets opportunity with brand strategy
Most people will tell you that they need to trust a brand in order to buy from them. Naturally, many brands take this to mean that if they appear trustworthy, their appeal to customers is guaranteed. But brand is not a math equation, and trust is simply the cost of entry to being competitive at all. If you ask your competitors, “Do you prefer to be seen as trustworthy?” not a single one will say no.
The more important question then is, can you be more than trusted?
People buy based on dozens of factors. Some of these are straightforward — people buy for convenience, for the customer service, on impulse, because it makes them happy. Other factors, like brand loyalty or predictability, are more complex. This is exactly why one of your brand’s largest opportunities is in targeting the right audience, so the experience you offer is a response to their specific needs. The brands that do this demonstrate greater resonance and relevance. They live out values. They’re the ones the world admires.
Your brand’s ownable opportunities will come to light throughout the brand strategy process. When we seize on these opportunities and develop them, we showcase what makes you truly authentic and compelling instead of relying on manufactured truths or trends.
One Process, Many Paths
You may call them personality traits. We call them attributes. Attributes are perceivable characteristics that a brand aims to project to its external audiences. A great attribute feels genuine and aspirational and describes more than just your product or one piece of your offering. When done right, attributes capture a brand’s total personality, helping them feel relatable and building strong connections with their customers.
With the number of competing tech solutions launching every week, innovation is expected. To edge out the competition, a company’s greatest advantage will be brand, and one of the most important elements of brand is personality.
The best brands in the world lead with story. Brand archetypes provide a dozen story frameworks that establish clear guidance for making emotional connections. Created by psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes are familiar, universal characters whose associated behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses resonate for us on a deep level — everything a good story offers.
A focused brand is relatable, lovable, and reliable. These forged connections are the meaningful things we as consumers search for and are comforted by — today and maybe forever.
In our positioning work, we aim to find and label a point of differentiation and a point of view. This is done through either refining differentiation that already exists within your business and brand or defining it anew based on our work in brand strategy. We analyze your points of difference in light of competitors, illuminate what makes you stand out in the eyes of your customers, and develop the key pillars of your brand position.
“You are more than your product. You are a purveyor of purpose and your positioning will solidify your connection to the people you serve. And we can help you navigate those murky waters and filter out all but what is essential to you and to your customers.” - A Position on Positioning
In our strategy work with Braze, we saw that the opportunity to be authentic coalesced with the opportunity for brand, experience, and story to reflect its powerful new name. The results are a visual and verbal identity that brought the idea of transformation to life in full, living color.
The Power of Being Purposefully Different
Years ago, a surge of trends hit the B2B tech industry. Blue color palettes, funky hand-drawn illustrations, and brands who were there to “disrupt” or “democratize” were all part of the wave. How did so many brands launch with such similar positions? One of the reasons, we believe, is because they began making their decisions based on external information and influences rather than an internal vision.
Now, we’re not advising you to ignore everything that’s happening in the world. We are saying that we must think critically about what your brand means and what it wants to do, and that is not a question the world can answer for you.
When we lose sight of our why, we forfeit the opportunity to be seen – literally. Without our why guiding our choices, we risk looking like everyone else and sounding like everyone else; in essence, we become invisible.
When it comes to deciding which opportunities are worth the risk, every company has to answer this question: How different do you want to be? In brand strategy, we eventually come to the edge of your comfort zone and ask you to say yes to all of the opportunities on your brand’s horizon.
We ask our clients to:
- Embrace the new.
- Pursue the unexpected.
- Take a risk that others aren’t capable of taking.
- Make your competitors uncomfortable.
- Remember that conformity is safe, but it’s also shortsighted.
This is the beauty and courage of brand strategy. It gives you a path forward and prepares you for the journey ahead.
This practice – and our entire approach – is the result of working with amazing client partners who have trusted us all of these years. And it’s ready and available to any company who wants to unlock their potential.
All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
Read More Opinions
“As Facebook has grown and continues to acquire other organizations, its new parent brand name will create more distance between the Facebook billions of people are familiar with and its sibling brands. From a brand architecture perspective, a separate parent company allows each sibling brand to stand on its own…”
“Consider Nike. In 1971, the swoosh meant nothing to no one. Plenty of people saw it and thought, “So what?” Now, 50 years later, we can see how time has imbued that simple mark with years of brand-building associations. Brand questions like these aren’t solved in minutes by asking a friend what they like.”
“All companies exist to make money. It’d be naïve to say otherwise. But, like it or not, the days of “we make shit, we sell shit, and everything else is bullshit” are long gone. Companies are powered by their employees and fueled by their customers …”
“What is most overlooked is how branding is the glue that connects all of these pieces of innovation capital, and how it increases the value of the tangible and intangible assets around it beyond the sum of their parts.”