Although branding is almost as old as humankind, the use of the word “brand” itself has rather specific origins — in ranching of all things.
Cattle theft was a major problem in early America. Once an animal was stolen, there was no simple way to prove it belonged to you. So ranchers came up with an idea — devise a unique symbol, and use a brand (a hot piece of metal or wood) with that symbol at the end to burn the symbol into the hide of their cattle.
Brutal, I know. But it worked.
Stealing a cow was much harder if the rancher could point to a mark and prove that the cow belonged to them. And the funny thing is, those symbols started to become associated with the ranchers themselves.
When people would see a particular rancher’s brand, they might already know that those cows were well treated, given more food in winter months, had a friendly demeanor, or were more likely to produce excess milk.
People could then tell, before ever inspecting the animal itself, that a particular brand was associated with quality.
The brand on the cows, the symbol, isn’t what branding really was — that was just a touchpoint, something to put the brand itself in your mind.
The brand was the reputation of the ranchers themselves.
People saw a mark, and their minds filled with ideas, adjectives, and phrases. And that’s exactly what branding is — it’s your reputation as it exists in the mind of your customer. Seth Godin gives a great summary of this definition here.
If you’re a small business or a freelancer, your brand might only exist in a handful of minds. If you’re a little larger, it exists in many people’s minds — and you don’t have a lot of control over what they think.
You can make suggestions with tools like advertising and marketing, you can influence it through customer service and product quality, but you don’t have direct control over what people think.
Branding for an agency
At Blue Steele Solutions, while we spend our days helping other businesses figure out their branding (using tools like our brand persona template), we spend almost as much time considering our own. As an agency, you’ve got to do things a bit differently.
For you, standing out is incredibly important — you might already have a strong personal brand, but you’re building your business’ brand from scratch. You have to be almost neo-unique — there are just too many other options out there. Design agencies are everywhere, and they’ve all got design chops.
The last decade has also produced some new predators in the waters of design — low-cost options that crowdsource logo design (or utilize underpaid designers in foreign countries to provide “unlimited” redesigns).
As an agency, you can’t just have a beautiful design. You can’t just have catchy copy. And you’re not going to beat those sharks on price.
You need something more, and you need to get it right the first time.
We’re talking about a lot more here than just the design of your logo and your website (you’re a designer — you’ve probably got that bit down already). We’re talking about building your brand as a whole — this includes your brand’s tone, your interactions with customers, your prices, your reviews, your business model, your offerings, your services — everything.
The visual designs are a small (but crucial) component of your brand, but you need more than that to be successful at branding.
Successful brands have to set themselves apart — they need to be leaders and innovators. They have to be unique enough to compete with everyone else out there, something we’ve worked very hard to do.
We haven’t survived on a beautiful logo alone; we’ve found other areas where we can set ourselves apart and make our agency stand out. That reputation, along with the authenticity we try to bring to everything we do, matters. Once you’ve created a brand identity, you can start to focus on these areas.
Before you get too far down the wrong path, however, here are a few “selling points” your agency should avoid.
Your uniqueness shouldn’t come from price
Throw that idea out the window and into the trash where it belongs.
You can’t compete on price — you just can’t. Not unless you’re going to outsource your designs and water down the entire industry. B2C businesses can often get away with this — a new process, a superior product, a more efficient supply chain — these all help to beat the competition and allow prices to drop.
However, that kind of thing just doesn’t exist for design agencies. When you’re building your brand and thinking about what sets you apart, you need to compete somewhere besides price.
Jeff Bezos once said, “Your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” You really don’t want them to say, “cheap designs,” when your back is turned.
Here’s another place where it’s very hard to compete:
Now, I’m not saying you can’t create amazing, high-quality designs. I’m sure you can. You have a few things working against you, however, such as taste.
You can’t account for taste. You and I can sit down and agree that a design is amazing, beautiful, clean, phenomenal, and exactly what the client needs.
Then the client can take a look and demolish your hard work if they just don’t like it.
Unfortunately, in the design space, being known for high-quality design doesn’t really set your brand apart, mostly because people’s opinions of that design is going to range widely.
Another barrier is that there are a lot of quality agencies out there, many of them with multiple experienced, talented designers. They know what they’re doing, and they’re raking in the clients and putting together some truly incredible designs.
Quality is something your brand needs just to survive in this space, which makes it a very tough area to choose to set yourself apart (not impossible, just tough).
All bad news so far, right? Well, here’s the good part. There is something you can do to set your brand apart, and it’s incredibly simple.
You can’t beat ‘em on price, you probably won’t beat ‘em on quality, but you can beat ‘em on customer service.
Give your clients the easiest, most straightforward, hassle-free experience possible and you’ll build a solid brand that can last a lifetime.
You can build an endearing brand and compete strongly simply through customer service. This takes a particular personality in some cases — you have to be willing to be a people person (even if you’re not). You have to put on a smile every day and deal with problems gracefully (even if you don’t want to).
But it’s important because many, many other brands won’t do it.
This is where you can really shine, and it’s an integral piece of building your brand — you’ve probably experienced the phenomenon yourself.
Go back to a time when you had an amazing customer service experience. Remember what it was like to have someone really go above and beyond?
Think about how it made you feel, and then think about the brand itself.
That’s branding. The idea in your mind, the picture of this company that made the effort to make you happy, that’s their brand. It’s a feeling — not a logo somewhere.
We don’t connect with a brand over quality or a low price — we connect with a brand through emotions.
And whatever the thing was they did, the thing that made you love them, that really went beyond the call of duty, that thing was probably quite simple. And even if it took some work, it didn’t take a specialist to do it.
Here’s a great example
A guy who’s building a Spaceport in Australia was selling some branded clothing, and I wanted a hat.
When he shipped the hat, he took a cellphone video of himself putting it in the box before it shipped and sent it to me. He said a few nice words, and that was it.
The video was maybe 15 seconds long; it was such a simple thing, but I will never forget it.
Anybody could do it, but few actually do. He did, and now his brand has taken up firm residence in my mind.
Focus on customer service. Give your clients the best possible experience. Go above and beyond to make their lives good. Grin through the pain when they want to change your beautiful designs. Give them every digital file they could ever need for the life of their print piece and instructions on how to use them. Help them find an incredible printer and offer to handle the entire printing experience. Work with a website developer to create the beautiful design you made them and handle that entire interaction.
Don’t be a problem for them — make their lives easier. “Don’t just be a designer — be a solution to the client’s problem. ” And your brand will grow into something you never imagined possible.