What does your brand stand for? Which values matter most to you? What do you care about, and why do you do what you do? These may seem like odd questions in a consumer-driven market. But if you aren’t sure, your customers won’t be sure either. All of the marketing strategy in the world cannot make up for a lack of identity.

Thinking about your brand’s DNA is a productive way to tackle questions of identity. Carol Chapman and Suzanne Tulien define this term in their book, Brand DNA: Uncover Your Organization’s Genetic Code for Competitive Advantage, as “the core characteristics and levers of competitive advantage unique to your brand… a genetic code that guides the growth, development, and overall evolution of your brand.” Your brand DNA, then, is about more than knowing who you are. It’s about using that identity to distinguish yourself from competition, and in the process gaining and keeping customers who are loyal to the vision your brand embodies.

Brand DNA: A Core Concept

We’ll talk strategy in a moment, but before we do, I want to introduce a core concept that Chapman and Tulien put forth for you to keep in mind as you move forward: “No brand is universal.” Your brand won’t be for everyone. And it shouldn’t be! Defining your brand’s DNA is not about appealing to all audiences. It’s about understanding what is authentic about your brand and finding ways to make that apparent to your customers. Chapman and Tulien put it this way: “when you try to be all things to all people, you spend a lot of time spinning your wheels, and the result is a dilution rather than an increase in the value of your brand.”

Defining Your Brand DNA

So, what questions should you seek to answer to define your brand’s DNA? Heidi Cohen offers a comprehensive list in her post, 7 Steps to Define Your Brand. Here are a few of her ideas:

  • What do you offer, and how does your good or service benefit your customer?
    • Cohen advises: “Go beyond your the physical product or service. Does your product offer status or security?” Does it offer a unique look? An answer to a difficult problem? A way to fulfill a craving? Know what you offer your customers so that you can market with purpose and authenticity.

  • “What are your organization and products about? How do customers distinguish yours from other options?”
    • In other words, what is your company’s story? How does the way you got started or the hopes you have for the future shape what you want customers to see?

  • “What are your core principles, goals, and values?”
    • When your customers think of your brand, what do you want them to know about what is important to you? Make this clear through choices from production decisions to materials to policies which impact employees and customers.

    • In their book, Chapman and Tulien offer these examples of guiding values: environmental consciousness; “purity; simplicity; harmony.” Of course there are plenty more–which matter to you?

  • What is your brand’s personality?
    • Chapman and Tulien spend a lot of time on this question, too, but frame it as your brand’s style. They offer answers that provide a broad spectrum of of possibilities: “chic/elegant; avant-garde; personable/friendly; progressive; approachable; savvy/confident; well-informed; persistent.” We can all think of brands that embody one of these styles. What do you want your brand to say?

Beyond these questions, discovering your brand DNA will be aided by many of the principles of sound marketing we’ve touched on before: refining your understanding of your target market, crafting a company mission, and establishing subject matter expertise all serve to increase employee and customer awareness of your brand DNA.

Once you’ve worked out your vision, your customers will have a greater sense of the people behind your brand, and a greater connection to the goods or services that you offer. Their loyalty will follow.

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