Brand Theory vs Strategy: How to Avoid Bumps in the Road

I was on my way to a friend’s farmhouse — one I’d had trouble finding once before — when the cement turned to gravel and the gravel turned to a faint trail through unkempt weeds. Every part of me wanted to turn around, but I had made it so far and the GPS showed it was just around the corner. I pushed forward, bouncing over rocks and flattening the grass beneath. It’s a wonder I didn’t blow a tire or get stuck in the muck. I finally made it to the back entrance of the neighborhood, only to discover a padlocked gate. With a dirt-covered car, tear-stained cheeks and shaking palms, I made my way back and finally found the party an hour before it ended.

Does your entrepreneurial journey feel a little like that? Are you trekking down bumpy roads, not sure you’ll ever reach your destination? Are you making tiny progress through the muck, but know there has to be a faster & smoother route? Do you feel lost and confused, unsure of what instinct to listen to?

Perhaps your business isn’t that bad off, but you might still be taking the long route.

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One of the biggest setbacks and detours to success happens when you focus on the "fun" stuff and fail to take the strategic route. You spend hours crafting the perfect logo & website, create compelling copy, and have beautiful headshots taken — yay! You complete a worksheet about your ideal clients’ favorite ice cream flavors and TV shows — you know, so you can serve them better — then you’re open for business!

Things may take off at first, helping you believe you’re on the right path. But down the line, when you’re struggling to find paying clients and are more stressed than ever, you realize you should’ve made a better plan!

While a strong logo, copy and photos are critical elements of your brand, they’re useless if they aren’t reaching the right people. Heck, you might not even be selling the right product or service!

That’s why you need a strong brand strategy. Before I go any further, let’s define what brand strategy is… and what it’s not.

What is brand strategy?

Like so many others, I used to think brand strategy was all about picking the perfect style and colors based off of my clients’ likes and desires. I’d simply ask them what they wanted their brand to represent and who they wanted to reach, rather than digging in to the core of their values & strengths, building an in-depth client profile, pre-validating their ideas and strategizing their unique positioning.

What is not brand strategy:

  • Theorizing who you want to work with and stalking their Instagram accounts for inspiration
  • Browsing your competitors’ websites to see what you should or shouldn’t be doing
  • Saving beautiful color palettes and logos to Pinterest so your designer can create something similar
  • Creating an ideal client profile based on who you think you want to work with… naming her Sarah and printing a photo from Google of what you think imaginary Sarah looks like (and of course making a list of Sarah’s favorite foods, songs and stores)
  • Choosing three key words of what you’d like your brand to represent

Sound familiar? Me too! (Sorry to all my clients from 2015 and earlier… I thought this was what branding was all about. I was wrong).

Building a theoretic brand based on what you like and think you want is dangerous. Not in the “OMG you’re going to die” kind of way… but rather, “you’re going to take the bumpy dirt road and learn things the hard way.” A brand without a solid foundation will most likely change… your clients, your products & services, your business values and even your business lifestyle. You could end up repelling the very people your services should be reaching. Then all that “fun” work you did will go to waste, leaving your budget empty and your energy drained.

The good news is, there is a shortcut. No, I’m not pitching a “get rich quick” scheme… this shortcut actually takes longer to get off the ground. But once you’ve invested in the prep work, you’ll reach your destination faster and easier. Isn’t that what we all want?

Here’s what strategic branding is about:

  • Digging into your past, passions and personality to determine the best path for you (which in turn will serve your clients best)
  • Pre-validating your idea with real people, and shaping your products/services around them
  • Choosing a style & colors that attract said pre-validated client
  • Conducting market research based on actual people rather than phantom avatars
  • Using your research & results to determine your company’s core values
  • Creating a long-term growth plan and working backwards to determine your starting point

As a brand designer, I’m taking a stand against sitting back and designing someone’s brand based on theory and guessing. If you’re not ready to build a strategic brand, that’s ok… but don’t waste your time & money on expensive graphics, websites and copy. Sometimes it takes playing around with various products, services and clients to help you find your unique path (though that’s definitely the “long” route).

Not sure what path your branding is headed down? Take the quiz to determine what your next steps are.