Julie Cottineau has helped guide the likes of Richard Branson and Tyra Banks, and here’s her advice for you.
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Developing your brand can be a challenging exercise for even the most experienced entrepreneur, and it’s tempting to rush through or completely outsource. I’ve done both, more than once, and neither led to a result that I felt truly reflected me or my business.
One of the lessons I’ve learned when it comes to branding is that you cannot — and I repeat, cannot — try to build a website, design logos or choose fonts and colors before you’ve invested the necessary time in your messaging. The reason being is that your visual brand is a direct reflection, or should be a direct reflection, of your messaging. What do you want to communicate? What kind of vibe can your prospects expect if they are to work with you? We have to get very clear on these answers.
Julie Cottineau, founder of Brand Twist and author of TWIST: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands, counts Tyra Banks and Richard Branson among her client base. She and I recently spoke about the three proven steps to building a strong brand, along with how each of them has helped me focus my own objectives.
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Step 1: Define who you want to serve and what keeps them up at night
“The ultimate owner of your brand is your customer,” reminds Cottineau. “But most entrepreneurs don’t spend enough time defining their core target. Don’t think about them as a group — like women 25-54, or all people who need accounting software. Create target avatars and a specific and intimate profile of your ideal target. Think about what motivates them personally and professionally and what keeps them up at night. Choose a picture from a magazine to further bring them to life. Doing this will allow you to create brand messaging that avoids tired jargon, and really connects to real people.”
I recently did this exercise with Julie for my own brand, and I realized I’d never quite defined my target audience in as much detail and color before. It turned out all of my avatars already had a successful business, were well-traveled and had previous entrepreneurial initiatives that were linked to solving a humanitarian issue. They also shared a common interest in the wonders of the universe, protecting our planet and extending kindness to all humans.
Although these avatars are fictional representations, they embody the traits of all my closest friends and people I love dearly. Of course, it would make sense I would want these same types of people as clients, but I had been more focused on defining my audience by definitions like funding rounds, growth stages and how high profile they were.
Step 2: Make sure you know what you’re eally promising
“Great brands stand for something bigger than what they sell,” Cottineau encourages. “Many entrepreneurs spend too much time promoting the features of their products or services and not enough time thinking about how their brands will ultimately make people feel. Keep asking yourself, ‘What does this product or service allow my target to feel?’ ‘What do I help them accomplish that they’ve never been able to do before?’”
I’d never quite thought about my brand in that way, but many of my clients did. because their testimonials consistently reflected how empowered they felt after working with me. I had never thought about my brand as being “empowering” or that it would make clients feel inspired. I’m a high-performer and by nature tend to be very results-oriented, so a lot of my brand language reflects that. One thing is for sure: I am absolutely not my ideal client. What makes our brand unique really comes down to how we make our clients feel.
Step 3: Look far and wide for inspiration
When asked to characterize what brand twisting comes down to, Cottineau explains it as “looking outside of your category at successful brands for inspiration and then applying those best practices by twisting them with your brand and business to create concrete ideas and approaches that help you stand out.” She also recommends everyone “keep an open mind and analyze what other brands are doing and what specifically resonates with you.”
This motivated me to think about the experiences I was having around me, from why I frequented certain businesses to product packing that inspired me to be more creative. It made me stop and think about the why — why I chose to click on a particular email, why I like to dine at my favorite restaurants. Once you identify your brand crushes, so to speak, the idea is to blend aspects of what they do well or that you admire into your own brand strategy.
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I’ve personally started thinking less about colors or catchy copy and more about the experience that I not only want to deliver for my clients but seek out when collaborating, because we all go that extra mile when we’re part of a team that’s making a difference. If we love what we do and who we do it with, work becomes something so much more, which is what we all deserve.