The Brand Canvas – How To Create and Communicate A Compelling Brand

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Why does Apple’s brand mean so much to so many people? How is it that they seem to sell their products almost effortlessly while other manufacturers are constantly clamoring for our attention and we give them no heed?

When it comes to innovation, invention is only half of the equation. With every great invention you also have to sell your solution to your customers and communicate it’s benefits in ways they will appreciate and be attracted to. For some companies the sales process seems to happen naturally while for others, it’s a constant struggle. Too often the difference comes down to one thing: branding. By the end of this article you’ll have the knowledge and tools you need in order to make your brand truly great.

But what is a brand in the first place?

In this article I’ll explain the concept of a brand as well as give you a simple framework I created called The Brand Canvas that you can use to quickly create your own brand concept. By the end of this article you will have a complete view of what a brand for your new idea should be.

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The Essence of A Great Brand

Over the years I’ve heard a number of explanations for what a brand is. Everything from “it’s a logo” to “it’s our style guide.” This is merely scratching the surface of a brand. To truly understand what a brand is we have to strike at the root. That root lies in the minds of consumers.

“A brand is the unique story that consumers recall when they think of you.” – Laura Busche

That’s it. a brand is a story that consumers think of when they think of you. For great brands that story is one in which the consumer is the hero who is transformed from their normal self into someone they have always aspired to become.

brand-bridge

As an example of this let’s think through some of the great brands of our time and what makes them great.

One of the best examples of product branding I’ve ever seen was when the Apple Watch came out. Smart watches were nothing new. Samsung and Motorola had offered them for years. But like with most Apple products their take on the watch was going to be different. They wanted to make a statement about why they made it. That statement came in the form of multiple news outlets reporting that the purpose of the Apple Watch was to help rid you of the distraction of constantly looking at your phone. The story they told was quoted in Wired:

Along the way, the Apple team landed upon the Watch’s raison d’être. It came down to this: Your phone is ruining your life…Our phones have become invasive. But what if you could engineer a reverse state of being? What if you could make a device that you wouldn’t—couldn’t—use for hours at a time? What if you could create a device that could filter out all the bullshit and instead only serve you truly important information? You could change modern life. And so after three-plus decades of building devices that grab and hold our attention—the longer the better—Apple has decided that the way forward is to fight back. – Wired

And that’s all it was – one simple story about how your ideal life was possible and all you needed to get there was an Apple Watch. Sounds easy right? Well it’s definitely not easy otherwise Motorola and Samsung would have done it before Apple but with some guidance and a clear process you’ll be well on the path to telling a compelling story about your brand.

The Three Main Components of A Brand

With every brand there are three main ingredients:

  1. The Story
  2. The Symbols
  3. The Strategy

Great Brands Tell A Story

As with the Apple Watch example, great brands tell a story about how the product or service can help your customer realize their potential self. That story becomes the foundation of your brand to everyone you interact with.

Regarding the Apple Watch specifically I wrote a post about it when it came out titled “Apple Watch: Innovation that Starts With Why.” In that post I tell the story of why Apple built the watch and share Simon Sinek’s framework called the “Golden Circle.” In that framework Sinek explains that people don’t buy what you make, they buy why you made it. Specifically, they buy the story they internalize in their minds as to who your company is and how they fit into that story. The closer your story fits the customers desired experience, the better they’ll perceive your brand and the more likely they’ll be to invest in it.

Great Brands Communicate Visually with Symbols

Most people think of branding as merely logos or typography but as discussed above the truth is that brands are the story embedded in people’s minds when they think of your business or product. So that begs the question, what exactly are the logos and typography? Well if a brand is a story then the logos and typography (and color palette and imagery) are merely symbols used to tell that story.

Great Brands Communicate Strategically

It used to be that there were a limited number of channels businesses could utilize to tell their story. You were either on TV, in print or on some banner or billboard somewhere. Typically it was a matter of random luck if your message was seen by the target audience.

These days with apps, social media and web search the number of channels you can use to tell your story is practically limitless. In addition, the ability to become laser focused on only telling your story to those who might care has dramatically improved. Because of the ability to hyper-target your audience, great brands use only those channels that will strategically position them in front of people that might care.

Great Brands Test and Evolve Over Time

One of the best marketing and branding books I’ve ever read is Lean Branding by Laura Busche. One of the most important messages from her book is that great brands are more like chameleons than dinosaurs. A chameleon knows how to adapt to its ever-changing surroundings while dinosaurs went extinct.

The reason being a chameleon is so important for a brand is because consumers idea of their best possible self is always changing. Brands need to adapt to those changes to ensure their story stays fresh and resonant with consumers. To do that entrepreneurs and brand managers must constantly test their messages with their target consumer and either validate or invalidate that the story is resonating. If the story isn’t resonating it’s time to update your story (and likely your business as well).

In the end of Laura’s book she includes a number of test plans you can implement to test your brand story with consumers. By doing those tests constantly you can be sure your brand stays fresh and never goes out of style.

How to Create A Compelling Brand – Introducing The Brand Canvas

Great companies with great brands all tend to use a similar set of tools to define and communicate their brands with. The list below is an effort to list and categorize those tools within the Story – Symbols – Strategy framework.

  1. Story
    1. Name – What you want people to call your brand
    2. Positioning statement – How you want people to view your brand in comparison to competitors or substitutes
    3. Promise – Your brand’s short and sweet bumper sticker promise of what you will deliver to your target customer
    4. Personality – The 6 descriptive words that best describe the personality of your brand.
    5. Personas – A snapshot of who your typical target customer is. Note that there is a difference between customer profiles (detailed descriptions of actual customers) and personas (detailed descriptions of fictitious customers you create who represent a segment of real customers)
    6. Storyboard – A summary of the compelling story your brand should tell it’s target customer
  2. Symbols
    1. Logo – The main symbol your organization uses to communicate it’s brand story
    2. Color Palette – A set of colors that convey a set of emotions regarding your brand
    3. Typography – A set of typefaces that also convey a set of emotions regarding your brand
    4. Imagery – A consistent set of rules around what type of imagery will be used in conjunction with your brand
  3. Strategy –  The strategies you will use to communicate your brand story to your target customers. Every great brand has an intentionally designed approach to communicating with its target customers throughout the stages of that customer’s experience. This is where marketing channels become essential. For reference on all the channels available I like to refer to The Marketing Map.
    1. Awareness – The channels and methods you will use to help your target customers become aware of your brand in the first place.
    2. Sale – The channels and methods you will use to help your brand stand out during the sales experience.
    3. Delivery – The channels and methods you will use to help your brand stand out during the delivery experience.
    4. Post-Delivery or Use – The channels and methods you will use to help your brand stand out during the post-sale or use experience.

So with this list in mind I created the following canvas:

Lean-Branding-Canvas-New

Below is a canvas with descriptions for each box:

Lean-Branding-Canvas-New-descriptions

How To Create A Brand

With the Innovator’s Branding Canvas, creating a great brand is a simple and straightforward process. The first step is to create and document your initial brand idea.

Step 1: Come up with a name

Coming up with a name for your brand can be a difficult process without sources of inspiration. Laura’s book does a great job of helping ease you into a name by identifying sources of inspiration and walking you through a 5 step process:

  1. List names of your competitors
  2. List a word or words that encompass the most important thing your brand is here to change? (verbs, nouns, adjectives or combinations)
  3. Word or word combinations that could best convey what your product does
  4. Of those which is the most original or recognizable?
  5. Of those which can be trademarked?

Below is a worksheet that walks you through this process.

Name Worksheet

As an example I created a completed name worksheet for SolarCity. Note this is just for illustration purposes, I realize many of their competitors listed were not around back in 2006 when SolarCity started.

Name Worksheet - SolarCity

To find out if something can be trademarked, do a quick search on the US Patent and Trademark Office for the name you came up with.

Step 2: Create a Positioning Statement

Once you’ve got a name the next step is to figure out a positioning statement, otherwise known as an elevator pitch about your business. This is merely a fill-in-the-blank exercise:

For (target customers)

Who are dissatisfied with (current alternatives),

Our product/service is a (new product category)

That provides (key problem solving capability), Unlike (alternative)

We have assembled (key whole product features).

For SolarCity the positioning statement could be as follows:

For homeowners with high energy bills, SolarCity is the leading solar power provider in the US. Unlike fossil fuel our power is both affordable and sustainable.

 Step 3: Create a Brand Promise

Every great brand needs a promise that fits on a bumper sticker. For Disneyland it’s “Where Dreams Come True.” For Southwest it’s “From the Heart.” While Walmart’s is “Save Money. Live Better.”

The brand promise should be the concentrated version of your overall value proposition. For SolarCity it looks like they’ve gone through some iterations of their brand promise but early designs show a the phrase “Power Forever” underneath their logo.

Step 4: Define Your Brand’s Personality

Great brands also communicate in a unique and compelling personality. Typically the brand personality is an extension of the founder’s personality. For example, Southwest’s brand personality is warm-hearted, playful, fun and loving – all attributes of the famous co-founder Herb Kelleher.

To determine your brand’s personality it’s helpful to identify those words that you want people to use to describe your brand. To help with this, I’ve included a list of personality traits below:

Personality Traits

As an example, after reviewing SolarCity’s marketing materials it seems that a few words from the list help describe their brand personality including clean, efficient, happy, modern, practical and responsible.

Step 5: Create Your Customer’s Persona

As mentioned in the beginning of this post, a brand is nothing more than the story someone tells themselves whenever they think of your company or product. To truly understand and craft a great brand you need to have a solid understanding of who your target customers are. These are represented as personas.

Below is a customer persona template:

Customer Persona Template

As an example I created a persona for a SolarCity customer:

Customer Persona Example - SolarCity

Now that you know who your typical customer is, the next step is to craft a story about how your brand will help them achieve their aspirations.

Step 6: Create a Brand Storyboard

The brand storyboard is the heart and soul of your brand concept. To create one all you do is contrast the customers current state of living with the future state your brand promises to deliver. Below is a template of how to create a brand storyboard:

Brand storyboard template

Using SolarCity again as an example I created a storyboard below:

Brand storyboard SolarCity

Step 7: Decide Your Brand’s Typography

The next step involves choosing the typography that will best convey the values of your brand. For most business people, typography is an afterthought – a nicety. For most designers, typography is a fundamental component of design that has a major influence on the emotional perception of the brand. Because of the importance of typography, getting it right is half the battle of coming up with compelling brand symbols.

For a crash course on typography and how to decide what type combinations are right for your brand, check out Tim Brown’s (Head of Typography at Adobe) free guide “Combining Typefaces” which can be found at this link.

In continuing the example of SolarCity I found they use a typeface called Apercu as their main font in their materials, including the logo.

Step 8: Decide Your Brand’s Color Palette

Like typography, choosing the right color palette has a substantial impact on the emotional response to your brand. When choosing colors three things are important to keep in mind:

  1. Consider using colors that already have associations to your product, service or industry
  2. Choose colors that help convey your brand personality
  3. Choose colors that comply with modern color theory

Regarding the first point, for SolarCity their two colors happen to be yellow and green. Yellow is a color that is universally associated with the sun while green has become well associated with energy efficiency and environmental stewardship.

When trying to tie colors to your brand personality it can be helpful to use a color association map template such as below.

Brand-color-personality-association-map

The idea is that each color already has an association in people’s minds (this is a U.S.-centric association map, if you’re in China the associations are vastly different) and you want to use those associations to help your brand’s personality vividly stand out. To do so simply take the words from the brand personality traits in step 4 and list them on the right side of the map above.

Using SolarCity as an example, I’ve filled one out below:

Brand-color-personality-association-map-solarcity

With the above framework SolarCity could have used a number of color combinations to convey their brand. These include green and blue or green and black but because of the already strong associations people have with yellow and green they made a conscious choice to pick those two colors.

Color theory is an important area to consider as well so that you choose colors that are in harmony with eachother. In SolarCity’s case, yellow and green are analogous colors that tend to go well together in general.

For a brief overview of color theory, check out this article which summarizes the concepts well.

Step 9: Create Your Brand’s Logo

Once you’ve got a compelling story with a typeface that represents your brand along with a strong color palette, designing a compelling logo becomes a fairly straightforward process.

210x55-solarcity-logoIn SolarCity’s case, the logo consists of a custom-drawn symbol for the sun along with the name SolarCity written out in their typeface Apercu.

It used to be that having a logo designed was an expensive process in custom design. Fortunately now with services like 99Designs and Fiverr, having a logo created is a simple process. If you are going through one of those services to have your logo created, it will be helpful to share the Story and Strategy portion of your brand canvas. That way they can help in finding the right combination of typefaces, colors, imagery and ultimately logo design.

Brand Strategy

The third part of the canvas is your brand strategy. The brand strategy answers the question “How will your brand get noticed and stay relevant to your target customers?”

To answer this question we’ll break down a brand’s strategy into the following four key areas:

  1. Awareness – how you plan for your brand to get noticed
  2. Sale – how you plan to communicate your brand in the sales process
  3. Delivery – how you plan to communicate your brand in the delivery process
  4. Post-Delivery – how you plan to communicate your brand and remain relevant with your target customers

To continue our list from above on how to create a great brand, we’ll go through each of these in order of the canvas:

Step 10: Create an Plan to Gain Awareness

With all the distractions of daily life for your customer, getting your brand noticed by them will not be easy. The good news though is that there are a lot of options and methods for achieving awareness everything from going door-to-door, which SolarCity does, to online ads or traditional advertising.

While there are a lot of options it’s important to note that some channels will be more efficient than others. For example SolarCity may determine that going door-to-door is not as efficient as putting up a kiosk inside The Home Depot. The only way to find out is do two things:

  1. Consider using comparable channels as what your competitors or similar products use.
  2. Experiment quickly and often with alternative channels and track channel performance with metrics such as cost per impression or cost per lead.

Several years ago I stumbled across something called the Marketing Map. It’s a brilliant effort at documenting and categorizing the myriad of marketing options available to businesses today. A picture of it is below. To learn more about it visit www.marketing-map.co.uk.

Marketing Map

Reviewing the marketing map can help spark ideas of how to create awareness of your brand.

Step 11: Plan How Your Brand Will Be Communicated At Time of Sale

When it comes time to actually make the sale you’ll want to have a crystal clear plan of how your brand will be communicated at that point. Whether your product is in a box on a shelf or a service like SolarCity’s with an in-home consultation or a B2B brand that communicates primarily through presentations, each sales process needs a defined plan for how to communicate with your customers.

In the case of SolarCity, their in-home sales process lent itself to having the salesperson wear branded shirts and carry with them branded brochures and an electronic agreement that is signed with an iPad. The whole experience is designed to communicate their brand as effectively as possible during the time of sale.

Step 12: Plan How Your Brand Will Be Communicated During Delivery

The time of delivery is an essential moment for making a lasting brand impression. Delivery in this sense is defined as the moment when your your solution is delivered to your customer. For SolarCity the time of delivery is the installation. For a smartphone app the time of delivery is the installation and setup process.

In SolarCity’s case their brand strategy at the time of delivery is to have technicians and trucks that are brightly colored and designed with SolarCity branding so neighbors and others can see who is providing the service.

Step 13: Plan How Your Brand Will Be Communicated During Use or Post-Delivery

Usage or post-delivery are the ongoing moments when your customers will use or enjoy the benefits of your product or service. For example with SolarCity this stage represents the ongoing use of the solar system. Their strategy for branding those moments is to give customers a branded SolarCity app as well as a monthly bill.

Bring it All Together in A Canvas

At the end of this process you’ll have a brand canvas that defines the story, symbols and strategy of your brand.

It’s important to note that the concept you’ve put on the canvas is mostly a set of unvalidated brand assumptions. Remember that it’s your customers who decide what your brand really is, not you. To that point the second step of the process of creating a great brand is to do validation and iteration. In the next post I’ll share exactly how to do that in a few easy steps.

Since we’ve been using SolarCity as an example I went ahead and filled out a Brand Canvas example based on what I could tell about their brand.

Lean-Brand-Canvas-SolarCity1

Conclusion

Don’t let the idea of branding overwhelm you. Big and expensive marketing consulting firms will try to scare you into thinking they’re the only ones qualified to create a brand. The reality is any entrepreneur who knows the story they’re trying to tell can create a brand in a few simple steps. Like all communications, it’s the story, not the features, that sell.

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3 Responses to "The Brand Canvas – How To Create and Communicate A Compelling Brand"
  1. Scott Valentine says:

    Great post. Very thorough and a great place to get entrepreneurs started down the path to creating a relevant brand that resonates with their Tribe.

    However, I disagree with the order of the strategy. Positioning and personality need to be established and vetted before the naming. The name should represent those ideals.

  2. jakenielson says:

    Scott, great point about the order and vetting. When I wrote this post I started with the idea that I would introduce the canvas as well as a process to validate the brand concept. As I got into writing it it became so long that I needed to break it up into multiple posts. ThIs post really only covers the initial creation of a brand hypothesis and doesn’t explain how to validate or update a brand to ensure its resonating with customers. I am working that second post to lay out that process. When I have that ready I’ll post it and be sure to update this post with a link to it.

  3. Joseph says:

    Jake,

    You are doing great work. I agree with you that it need to be validated and the canvas look great. We are waiting eagerly for the implementation process. This is the greatest struggle now.

    Keep the good work.

    Regards,

    Joseph

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