7 ways to build your brand identity

Ambitious brands need to do more than just get noticed - they need to get famous.

To do this we need to create an emotional connection that will jolt our potential customers to reassess why they choose the brands they do - after all, it's not what you buy, it's what you buy into.

Challenger brands do this by challenging an existing belief, or by challenging how the product or category is experienced, but there are other potential sources of identity for brands too.

So where do you start? Here are seven common sources of identity to draw on when building a brand.

1. Challenge an assumption. (Or there’s a better world)

The classic challenger brand approach. Challengers are, by definition, challenging the status quo within a category. And often, this challenge manifests itself in a strong belief that the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Chipotle, now one of the world's largest restaurant chains with 1700+ locations, believe in food with a conscience. They believe in responsible farming - giving their farmed animals the space to roam free and be free from synthetic hormones and harmful antibiotics.  They reject the use of genetically modified foods and in 2015 removed all traces of GMO ingredients from their food.

Conventional wisdom within the fast-food industry has traditionally been about offering value and convenience. A focus that had McDonalds and the other established brands within the category follow the same well-trodden path with it's established production practices and set standards of quality.

By taking a strong stand against the existing system, and instead offering fast-food that was about quality, fairness and responsible farming, Chipotle clearly communicated a set of beliefs and identity that would draw people towards it, building a strong emotional connection with customers who shared that view of a better world.

Today, these values are articulated through their ‘Food with integrity’ commitment, ensuring all their food meets certain ethical and environmental standards. A clear north star that shapes Chipotle's offer, guides how they behave and sets them apart from their competition - who are now playing catch up with their own sustainability programmes.

One way to see this particular challenge is to ask ourselves: What is the accepted view that we reject? What do we have to prove wrong in order to succeed?

2. Challenge the experience. (Or there’s a better way)

Another rich source of identity for challenger brands is in challenging, not a belief, but the existing experience of the category.

Andy Katz-Mayfield was shopping for razors one day when he realised just how expensive, inaccessible, poorly packaged and over-designed the market-leading razors were. With business partner Jeff Raider, he co-founded Harry's Shave, a shaving company that set out to challenge that frustrating experience head on.

The idea was to produce simply designed, affordable razors with an emphasis on quality and convenience for the customer.

Today, Harry's brand offer has evolved to include a neighbourhood barber shop in New York providing a more immersive 'Harry's shave experience', as well as a 'Shave Plan' service, delivering shaving supplies directly to customers. But this brand's identity was born out of a frustration with the existing purchasing experience, and a determination to make it better - as their tag-line says, 'Harry's - a better way to shave'.

3. Provenance (Or where are you from huh?)

Peroni advertisement featuring another iconic Italian design, the Vespa.

Peroni advertisement featuring another iconic Italian design, the Vespa.

A strong sense of place is a common inspiration for many beer and spirits brands, and companies that value the provenance of a product.

To take this beyond simply provenance however, the key is to draw not just from the geography itself, but from the cultural signifiers and attitudes of the region. How can you draw inspiration from those elements in shaping your own brand’s identity?

Examples of brands that do this include Peroni (Italian style and design), Dorset Cereals (the English countryside and 'being natural'), Havaianas (Brazilian attitudes of vibrancy and flair).

This is a fertile source of identity for many food and drinks brands, and an obvious place to start when defining your identity - but a Challenger brand would certainly want to push further and offer a more polarising point of view on place and provenance, and in doing so create more scope for conversation.

4. History (Or the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there)

Hendrick's Gin, authentic to 1886 or 1999?

Hendrick's Gin, authentic to 1886 or 1999?

Not so useful for challenger brands. If you're a challenger, history is unlikely to be your strongest subject.

The past can however, help inspire a new brand identity if borrowed from, rather than used to base the brand upon. The expert in this area is Steven Grasse, founder of Hendrick's Gin and Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum who's made a habit of creating new brands that appear to originate from specific eras in history.

Hendrick's Gin, launched in 1999, appears to be authentically born in Victorian-era England, with visual cues such as the apothecary style bottle shape, dark brown glass, 'est. 1886' on the label, and illustrations and iconography synonymous with the era.

Sailor Jerry is very American, but it’s the America that existed 50 years ago. We call it the old-school American rebel. The bottle is ugly because, it’s authentic. It’s not designed to win awards - it’s designed to be authentic to the era it was supposed to have come from.
— Steven Grasse

Rather than, solely be a brand based on this era however, Victorian cues are combined with a desire to be unusual. An identity that is described internally as combining the history and adventure of Jules Verne with the eccentricity and humour of Monty Python.

Another of Grasse's successful creations is Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum, which again, although launched in 1999, draws inspiration from another era altogether, 1940s America and the heroes (and anti-heroes) of that period.

The bottle's cork showing the birth and death dates of the artist Sailor Jerry.

What era of history could you draw inspiration from on your brand?

5. Heritage (Or what can we re-interpret for today)

Burberry trenches on the runway in Milan, 2009. Photograph: Paolo Bona

Burberry trenches on the runway in Milan, 2009. Photograph: Paolo Bona

The key here is to properly understand why we began, what we used to believe in, and what our strengths and advantages once were. By researching these attributes and re-interpreting them for the new world, mature brands can once again find their unique voice and develop an identity that carries with it a truth and authenticity in the customer’s mind.

In 2005 luxury clothing brand Burberry had an image problem. A product range that included dog cover-ups and leashes, baseball caps and quilts meant Burberry had lost the focus on the brand. Being so ubiquitous meant the famous plaid cheque was being seen in the wrong places and on the wrong people for a supposed luxury brand - an association with football hooliganism became an unwanted by-product of this iconic brand's now wide ranging product diversification.

CEO Angela Ahrendts, seeing the damage the lack of focus was doing to the brand’s image, decided to refocus on the brand’s historical core; the trench coat. The product offering was slashed, with a particular focus on selling and innovating around the iconic trench coat. The plaid cheque was removed from the outside of many garments only to be shown on the inside, and social media and video would show the craft of how the famous coats were made.

The decision to focus on our heritage opened up a wealth of creativity. Creatives all started dreaming up ways to reinforce the idea that everything we did—from our runway shows to our stores—should start with the ethos of the trench.
— Angela Ahrendts (writing in Havard Business Review)

Looking for an inherent product or brand truth from the past can provide a rich source for a unique place to stand today.

6. The Founder/s (Or for those with big egos)

If you’re happy to be the focal point of the brand you can build a brand based on yourself and your own personality.

Ben & Jerry’s is a classic example of a personal brand, drawing largely on the characters of the two founding childhood friends as a primary source of inspiration. From the obvious; brand name and photos of the pair on packaging, to the less explicit; their personal values of environmental protection and sustainability that inform the company’s corporate identity.

A recent example would be Jimmy’s Iced Coffee, where again, the founder is very much positioned front and centre of the brand. From appearing as lead in their 'Keep Your Chin Up' rap video to having his personal Twitter account also be the official company's - here founder and brand are inseparable.

Founder Jimmy Cregan. Not a business man. He is a business, man.

Founder Jimmy Cregan. Not a business man. He is a business, man.

7. Superfans (Or if you're far too modest) 

Another approach is to take the limelight off yourself and the brand – why not champion your fans instead?

In many cases, we will have early adopters or users who already use and rave about a product or service before a brand is fully formed. They will have their own perceptions of the our offer and what it’s strengths are. Focusing on existing fans' adoption of a product or service is often known as community-based branding.

Sugru, the world’s first mouldable glue, are one such brand who’ve used this tactic effectively, using their brand as a platform to share some of the most powerful examples of how real life customers are using the product in creative and inspiring ways.

One of the many uses for Sugru demonstrated on their website.

One of the many uses for Sugru demonstrated on their website.

We set up the brand in such a way that we wanted to put the users front and centre and it was all about their testimonials and their stories. Those are the powerful stories; that’s what people are going to buy into.
— Jane ni Dhulchaointigh

It can be an effective and cheap way to market yourself, but you need to be open to your brand being interpreted by others in ways you may not necessarily like.

So there we have it. Seven sources from which to build your own brand’s identity. Where are you going to stand? What are you going to stand for?

OpinionJude BlissIdentity