Brand Essence: Your Brand’s North Star

So you need to develop a brand. Maybe you just launched a business and you’re starting from scratch—maybe your decades-old organization has a brand that no longer feels authentic or isn’t resonating with your audience. Maybe you want to hone your personal brand.

A brand is a weird, nebulous concept that can be daunting to cultivate. Most of us recognize the importance of brands—or at least certain brands’ importance to us—but when it comes to the process of brand development, we prefer to leave the wizardry and wordsmithing up to someone else.

Fair enough. But I think much of the mystique (or intimidation) stems from the fact that there are no clear, universally accepted and/or sequential steps for brand development. How do you start if you don’t know where to start? I say, start with your brand essence.

Functionally, a brand essence can be used as “ground zero” for brand development. In other words, it serves as the foundation upon which all other brand elements are built (e.g. logo, tagline, brand personality, brand voice, etc.).

So what is a brand essence?

Think of a brand essence as the “soul” of a brand, one to three words describing its fundamental nature or raison d’être. Branding expert Kirk Phillips offers my favorite definition:

“[A brand essence is] the single intangible attribute that differentiates the brand from competitive brands as perceived by the audience.”

There are two important points to highlight here: first, the brand essence—like virtually all branding elements—is emotive and human. It is intangible and therefore felt by the audience. Second, brevity matters. Distilling your brand’s “soul” into a couple of words requires it to be authentic and succinct, which is much easier to work with when you start building out the larger brand (more on that below). Here are some of the most widely recognized examples of brand essence:

  • Volvo – Safety
  • Apple – Think Different
  • Nike – Authentic Athletic Performance
  • Hallmark – Caring Shared
  • Walt Disney World – Magical

How does the brand essence contribute to an organization’s overall brand?

Companies with strong brands actually use their brand essence as a decision making tool, not just in their marketing efforts but across the organization. Take Volvo’s brand essence, which is simply “safety.” It’s not a tagline. It isn’t explicitly articulated to the public, but it is felt by consumers. For Volvo, safety is their north star. It guides everything they do, from the way the company builds cars to the copy and imagery it uses in advertising.

How do I determine what my brand essence is?

A great brand essence strikes a balance between authentic (demonstrated, perceived) and aspirational (ambitious) qualities. As such, the most effective way to identify your organization’s brand essence is to seek the input of people both inside and outside your business, including team members, customers and/or clients and industry peers. The most efficient way to do this, of course, is to gather stakeholders from each of these groups for a brainstorm. (Check out these steps to a successful brainstorming session.)

Once you have your team assembled, get the creative juices flowing with a couple of exercises. Ask people to write their answers down individually and share with the group in order to hear from as many perspectives as possible. Some common questions used in brand essence brainstorms are:

  • If [organization] was a car, what make/model/year would it be, and why?
  • How does [organization] describe itself? How do [organization’s] clients/customers describe [organization]?
  • How does [organization] makes clients/customers feel?
  • What does [organization] offer to the world?

Conversation will surely flow from these exercises, but don’t be discouraged if there are no “Eureka!” moments during the brainstorm itself. It may take weeks or even months of thinking and spit-balling for your team to land on a brand essence concept that feels right—and that’s okay! The important thing is to choose a brand essence that everyone can get behind (even if it’s an agonizing process).

I’m closing in on a brand essence. How do I know if it’s ‘good’?

Branding expert Kirk Phillips developed an awesome set of criteria, The 9 Criteria for Brand Essence™, to determine if a brand essence is strong. For example, is the brand essence unique? Is it experiential? Is it scalable? I highly recommend measuring your brand essence against Phillips’ criteria before making the final call.

Above all, good branding feels intuitive. Paradoxically, branding is rarely a breezy, uncomplicated process: it requires a disciplined balance between creativity and logic. But as with any tough challenge, branding can be tackled one step at a time (starting, of course, with the brand essence). 

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