Our team crafts websites. But before we can create a website for a client, we need to know your brand. The easiest way to help new hires, internal teams, and outside agencies get up to speed on your business is by developing a clear brand strategy.
We know – there are so many strategies everybody says you need. Go-to-market strategies, business growth strategies, strategies for differentiation, acquisition, and retention… and that’s not to mention the umbrella of digital marketing strategies.
But your brand strategy should actually exist behind all of those ones I just mentioned, and many more. It unites everyone in every role at your company around a known set of principles and goals. Plus:
- Brand strategy impacts website traffic
- It impacts your website’s conversion rate
- It impacts your credibility and reputation
- Brand identity impacts loyalty and retention
After reading this article, you’ll be able to develop a brand strategy for your business, including clear brand identity guidelines for anyone who handles your digital design and copy.
What is brand strategy?
A brand strategy explains who you are as a business, why you exist, how you want to be perceived, and how your content will drive brand recognition.
You might be thinking, “I could just write that down in a couple of sentences, why do I need an entire strategy?”
For starters, this information rarely comes from one person. The bigger the company, the more stakeholders will have a say in these and other aspects of your branding.
There’s also the customer side – audience research should inform the branding choices you make. If you’re trying to market your business based only on your own interests and ideas, you have a bigger problem on your hands!
A good brand strategy comes out of a few hours of branding work, and presents clear statements on your company’s purpose, differentiator, and customer needs and expectations.
- Brand Strategy vs. Brand Identity Guidelines
- What should a brand strategy include?
- 1. The Research and Discovery Process
- 2. The Strategy Session
- 3. How to Create Brand Identity Guidelines
Brand Strategy vs. Brand Identity Guidelines
You might have even heard the terms ‘brand strategy’ and ‘brand identity’ used interchangeably. But they’re totally different, and you need them both.
Brand strategy identifies who you are and your goals. Brand identity guidelines (or style guides, or brand playbooks – they have many names!) are the steps you’ll take to achieve those goals. They’re a part of your brand strategy, and explain how to apply your branding to design and copy.
Beyond that, your brand identity is the foundation that should drive every single creative decision in your marketing efforts. It translates everything from your strategic brand statements into concise creative guidelines for every piece of client- or public-facing content your business produces.
The answers to every marketing question can be found in your brand identity guidelines:
- Which colours need to be used in your web design?
- What types of content should you be publishing?
- Which copy is best for your website’s CTA buttons?
- Should you use emojis in your email subject lines?
- Which social media platforms should you use?
- How should you be targeting paid search ads?
I’ve been lucky to work with brands of all sizes on developing their brand identity guides, and I can’t stress enough how important it is that every organization has one — and uses it.
What should a brand strategy include?
Don’t worry, I’m not saying you have to produce some hefty tome that makes everybody groan and roll their eyes. A brand strategy should be a few simple, clear pages that clearly state:
- Your purpose
- Your values
- Your positioning statement
- Your personality
- Your audience
- Your brand identity guidelines
How to create your brand strategy
To create an effective brand strategy and produce brand identity guidelines, follow these three steps:
- Research and Discovery: Kick off the process with serious brand discovery homework, which can include branding exercises, interviews, and audience research
- Strategy Session: Hold a meeting or multiple meetings to figure out your brand, answer key questions, and document it
- Creative Guidelines: Establish brand identity guidelines for how your business will be presented through design and copy
Ready to dive in?
1. The Research and Discovery Process
Before you lay down your brand strategy, you have some important information gathering to do. This is what our agency calls the ‘research and discovery phase’.
Every organization will have its own way of doing brand research and discovery activities. The way you conduct yours can totally depend on the size of your business, the location and availability of key stakeholders, and of course, time and resources.
Even if some of the information is already available, it’s good to go through the process every five or so years. You might discover new information, or unearth outdated ideas and documentation that no longer represents where your team and business are at today.
It’s also extremely helpful to get everyone on the same page by sharing insights about the company, hearing others’ viewpoints, and working together to narrow everything down into key points.
Here are the steps we recommend for your own research and discovery phase.
You can’t wing it with a brand strategy session. Remember all those critical aspects of your business that are impacted by branding? That’s why we recommend doing a couple of hours of homework before the session.
Help everyone get prepared for your big brand strategy meeting by sending out an outline ahead of time. This way, nobody gets caught off guard and draws a blank when asked for their input.
Questions you might want to include:
- What is your brand’s purpose? Why do you exist?
- What are your short- and long-term business goals?
- Who are your biggest competitors?
- What makes you better or different from them?
- In an ideal situation, where will the business be in 3-5 years?
- What is your company’s personality?
- How do your website and other digital assets support the business and its goals?
- Who is your audience – where are they from, what problem do they have that brings them to you, and what do they need from you?
- How do you want your business to be perceived?
Figuring out your company’s personality requires creative exploration, and it’s okay if that’s not your area of expertise. This can actually be fun!
Pick out one or more branding exercises to do at the strategy session:
If anyone important to your company’s growth can’t make the strategy session, do your best to have a phone or video chat with them ahead of time and gather their opinions on all of the questions on your list. You can also send them the intended branding exercises, and ask for their input.
Take notes, and share their insights at the appropriate times during your meeting.
Big businesses often have access to dizzying amounts of customer data. But you can do audience research without expensive sales and marketing tools.
- Assess your Google Analytics data
- Study Google Search Console reports
- Use SEO tools to see how you rank and for what sorts of searches – and run the same checks on competitor sites
- Ask anyone on your team who does sales, IT, or customer support to share insights on the most frequently asked questions
- Check the kinds of comments and questions you get on social media, via website forms, and in reviews
- Install a free heatmap tool like Hotjar on your website for at least a few weeks before the session
- Install a chatbot or pop-up tool on your website to ask what your site could do better
For every website we build at Forge and Smith, we do as much of this exact same research as possible. We can then present clients with baseline audience insights, keyword rankings and research, and competitor research.
We use this information to inform every decision we’ll make while designing a website – but you can use it for so much more!
2. The Strategy Session
This meeting can be a doozy, so set aside plenty of time – or plan to have a follow-up meeting to finalize what you learn.
- Use the questions you’ve prepared to have discussions
- Work through any branding exercises you chose to help characterize your business
- Present the insights from any absent team members
- Share insights from your audience research
- Create documentation
Here are the statements you want to clearly make at the end of your session, and how to get there (including links to simple templates or examples).
- Your purpose
- Your values
- Your audience
- Your positioning statement
- Your personality
A. Your Purpose
“Why does your company exist, beyond making money?”
Sometimes referred to as a mission statement and a company’s ‘North Star’, this one often comes from your founding story. Many businesses are created to solve a market gap, or to disrupt an existing industry. You might also have an internal ‘why’ statement, and a public-facing corporate mission statement.
These statements should be concise (one sentence), inspirational, and directly related to your business goals.
B. Your Values
“What do we stand for, as a business?”
Values are different from a mission statement because they impact how you want to be perceived, who you hire, and they drive your purpose. They might be a little longer than your mission statement, but they’re usually still a brief list.
As much as 71% of customers prefer to buy from companies with similar values to their own. That’s why we encourage our clients to focus time and effort into their ‘About’ content to drive B2B website conversions.
Values might also cover your company’s stance on inclusion, accessibility, or issues ranging from political and environmental topics to civil rights.
C. Your Audience
“Who do we do this for, and what do they need from us?”
You’ve done your audience research at this point – if not, skip back to the Audience Research section and get to it! That stage will have generated a whole lot of data. You need to sum it up in a way that your team can use.
The purpose of understanding your audience is so you can choose the images they want or expect to see, put them in the right mood, and talk to them the right way.
The most important thing to understand about defining your audience is that you absolutely have to do it. To quote myself (because why not) from our UX design tips for what makes a great website, “While most businesses have two or three website audiences, it’s just not possible to plan content that appeals to all of them equally.”
You can have different website pages that target secondary and tertiary audiences, but most of your content, like blog posts and social media, has to have a focal point.
The majority of agencies will recommend creating user personas. We don’t.
Why User Personas Don’t Work
“Personas are a waste of time, in my opinion,” says Forge and Smith founder and lead strategist Shawn Johnston.
“Your audience is made up of primary and secondary groups, and those groups have specific needs for your content or conversion points. Audiences for marketing purposes should be based on need or action. Calling one of them Mary or George is just silly b.s.”
The danger of creating individual personas is that your team gets totally hung up on writing and designing for those people – at the exclusion of hundreds or even thousands of other unique people who need your product.
Yes, you might see demographic and interest commonalities among your customers. But more importantly, you will also see tons of unique humans who are united around a small number of goals, pain points, needs, or actions they want to take.
“The only useful personas are the ones that draw through lines between the needs of human beings and how your offer addresses them,” says our Sr. Digital Strategist, Braeden Matson-Jones.
“Otherwise, you’re just doing an age-old marketing exercise that doesn’t have tangible ROI in the real world. Humans are unique and complex, not summaries in a slide-deck to be exploited.”
This same thinking is why search intent is now such a key part of SEO. You’re not targeting content or ads around two or three words, you’re targeting it around what the person who’s doing the search hopes to accomplish.
What To Do Instead
Define your audience by what unites them around your brand, not just a cluster of random traits. All you need to do is write one or two sentences that define the common need, want, or actions that unite your audience.
But also include a bullet list of your audience’s most common demographic data. Just because we don’t believe in personas, doesn’t mean we ignore valuable data!
Knowing more specifics about your audience is highly useful for messaging and targeting that’s based on references, beliefs, ideas, or memes that your audience is likely to know.
- Marketing on TikTok because your product is geared toward 16- to 25-year-olds
- Deciding between using an ‘80s or ’00s movie reference to capture a customer pain point for social media
- Avoiding trendy new words on your website that wouldn’t make sense to a senior audience
The distinction here is that you’re not saying “this IS who my audience is”; you’re saying “my audience skews this way” and using that information to test ads, messaging, and campaigns.
The most valuable demographics data might include picking a few from this list:
- Gender (including diverse options)
- Level of tech savvy
- Relationship status
- Interests and behaviours
- Social media (where is your audience — you need to be there, too)
- Preferred content mediums
- Beliefs or values
D. Your Positioning Statement
“Why should you choose us?”
Brand positioning is about how you want to be perceived, and how you want to be compared to other products or services. You need to have done your audience and competitor research to create a strong positioning statement.
It should communicate what your product or service is, what it does, and why someone would want it more than similar products. It can be a couple of sentences, but like everything else on the list it should be concise.
Zendesk has 12 examples of great positioning statements, plus a template. I like this brand positioning article from Dash, because it also includes two examples of bad positioning statements.
E. Your Personality
If you met your business at a dinner party, who would they be? There is no specific question to answer with a brand personality statement. Instead, it’s more like a list of “this, not that”.
I do highly recommend Brand Deck, because it leaves you with a specific set of traits that your team has agreed upon, and you can pick the top five for your statement (but keep the other ones on hand for deeper creative conversations).
3. How to Create Brand Identity Guidelines
Remember that the purpose of your brand identity guidelines should be to help anyone quickly get familiar with your brand strategy, and understand how it translates to creative work.
For example, if part of your brand personality was ‘strong, but not aggressive’ – what the heck does that mean for someone choosing a stock photo?
Brand identity guidelines might take up the majority of space in the overall brand strategy you’ve developed, because design elements are bigger than brand statements. If you include samples of logos, typography, and photography, it does add a lot of pages – but the document is still super easy to digest.
A. Legal Guidelines
Anything legally required by your business, or boards and agencies that govern your business or industry, needs to be clearly stated up front. This is applicable to both design and copy.
It might include:
- Describing legal usage rights of your logo, and logos of any partners, sponsors, or other parties included in your digital assets
- Noting or link to any legal requirements from governing boards or agencies
- Notes on which types of stock photos your company will use (such as common vs. licensed for commercial use)
- Notes on how to indicate the source on various content mediums for copyrighted material (such as photos or GIFs)
- Any required legal language that must appear next to or under your content
- Be sure to include a list of approved sources, if your business is strict on where stats can be sourced
These are just a few examples to get you thinking of what might be applicable to your business. How much information you need in the legal section, if any at all, will depend on your industry.
B. Design Guidelines
When it comes to capturing the essence of your brand, looks definitely matter. How your business is perceived is heavily influenced by images, colours — study up on colour psychology! — and typography.
Media is usually what stops a user from casually browsing and earns that precious click.
Using the personality traits identified in your branding exercises, you should be able to build out a complete design section for your brand identity guidelines. It can be helpful to repeat the personality traits at the top of this section, for quick reference by designers and writers.
These are common pieces you might include in the visual identity section of your guidelines:
- Logo and usage
- Brand colours
- Photography, illustration, and stock
Logo and Usage
This one is pretty obvious – you want to share your logo in its various forms, and guidelines for its usage.
- Include all versions of your logo if you have different ones for various uses (such as full, simplified for smaller spaces, versions for use on light vs. dark backgrounds, social media banner sizes, and square social media profile sizes)
- Describe any legal restrictions on manipulating the logo beyond approved formats, such as changing the dimensions or colours
In this section, you want to describe the exact colours associated with your business. It’s helpful to recap why those colours are chosen for your brand personality, and what they’re meant to represent or what emotional reaction they should evoke.
- Include a sample palette if possible, with colour hex codes
- Note which colours are used for which purposes (such as backgrounds, accents, or overlays)
- Indicate any restrictions on using variations of shade or tone
- Indicate any guidelines for social media filter usage to enforce a branded profile
One of the coolest things about WordPress websites is that you can lock in typography for every possible copy element. That way anyone creating new website content will always use the right typeface for headlines, buttons, and body copy.
But if you don’t have a WordPress website, or if you have digital assets that can’t be controlled by a template, it’s great to have typography guidelines. This will prevent someone from using a hated font.
- List approved typefaces or families, including weight and size if applicable
- Specify usage if applicable (such as sans serif for headlines, serif for body copy)
Photography, Illustration, and Stock
Images can say as much about your business as colours, because they create huge emotional reactions. This is why it’s important to outline your rules for photos, illustrations, and stock photos or images.
- Recap your brand personality traits, and the tone that photos and illustrations should capture
- Specify important details about photo usage: do you only use company-owned photos; do you have quality guidelines; do you use photos of people outside the company such as customers and if so, how are permissions collected; what kind of representation do you want in photos
- For some industries, you might need to include location (such as only using photos depicting your city or region)
- Include any different photo guidelines for social media (such as if you only use edited/branded photos or if raw/candid photos are also an option)
- Be sure to document anything you absolutely don’t want to see in photos – this can matter a lot in certain industries
- Indicate any preferences for illustration styles, and any that you don’t want used
- Include any notes on what you want used and don’t want used for icons
There are lots of helpful resources for the design section of your brand identity guidelines, like this guide from Canva. You can also create internal design checklists with marketing templates like the ones shared by Venngage and made specifically for remote teams.
A new web designer on the team should be able to easily use this section to source appropriate stock photography, or style a new page for your website.
C. Copy Guidelines
Design and copy are a one-two punch! If images and video stop a potential customer from scrolling, copy is what reels them in. You often have a limited space to convey both your message and why the user should care about your brand, so getting your copy on point is a big deal.
It all comes down to consistency among your voice, tone, and style.
Just like how your website, social media, email, and other digital content should feel similar to walking into a physical location of your business, your digital copy should all feel like a real conversation you’d have with a customer.
Voice and tone in writing is how you convey personality and mood. They are majorly different between industries, companies, and audiences. A lifestyle brand isn’t going to write the same way as a law firm or construction company. But two different construction companies will have different personalities based on their purpose, team, and customers.
Unfortunately, voice and tone is often overlooked in brand guidelines in favour of design specifications. But the words you use directly impact how your business is perceived. They can help evoke authenticity, build trust, and move a person closer to conversion – or totally put people off. You need to have a plan for your copy!
Here’s what to include in your voice, tone, and style guidelines.
Voice is all about personality, and the language you choose. It should reflect the way your customers speak, so that your words feel familiar.
Think of the voice a visitor to your website will hear in their head as they read your copy. Is this person professional or chill? Polished or fun? Which famous character would narrate your company’s content?
Voice should match your company’s purpose. And if you did branding exercises at the start of your guidelines, you’ll have all the direction you need.
Tone is the mood of your content. You absolutely have to consider your audience’s needs to establish your tone.
If your website’s visitors are likely to be experiencing stress or personal trauma, overly chipper messaging might seem insensitive. A somber and institutional vibe probably wouldn’t sell outdoor adventure products to young people.
Style is where you lay down the law about language. It’s establishing a set of rules around the vocabulary used in your content.
Should your brand use technical language, plain English, slang, pop culture references, or emojis? Do you adhere to a specific rule set for grammar and punctuation, like the Canadian Press or Associated Press standards?
Also decide if you should have slightly different copy guidelines for social media and emails, or if that messaging should exactly match your website.
A quick Internet search will turn up plenty of examples and templates for writers, to help you solidify your copy guidelines. A simple list is fine. Your guidelines should make it easy for anyone from your CEO to a new copywriter to be able to write a public-facing message on behalf of your business.
We hope you feel excited about doing branding work for your business! Developing a brand strategy and brand identity guidelines is no simple task. But once it’s done, you shouldn’t have to go through the process again for many years.
The powerful documentation that comes out of branding work can save tons of future time, hassle, and even PR nightmares. That’s why it’s such an important investment for your business – and why we started providing brand strategy guidance for any clients with undocumented (or non-existent) brand guidelines prior to embarking on a website redesign.